Nacho Nyak, meaning Big River, is the Northern Tutchone name for the Stewart River. Ancestors of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun hunted, fished and gathered food in a traditional territory that extends into the Northwest Territories. The Na-Cho Nyäk Dun traded for many years with Tlingits from the Pacific coast and are connected through marriage to the Gwich’in of northern Yukon and the Mackenzie people to the east. In 1915, Gwich’in Anglican catechist Julius Kendi met some Na-Cho Nyäk Dun at Fraser Falls where they were drying fish for the winter. They decided to build a church and village about two kilometres below Mayo Landing on the Stewart River. The Old Village was subject to flooding. It was abandoned in 1958 when people moved across the river to Mayo.
During the land claim process which began in 1973, the Na-Cho Nyäk Dun were key players in negotiating the inclusion of self-government agreements and the retention of aboriginal rights on settlement lands. The First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun is actively involved in the Mayo community and belongs to the Northern Tutchone Tribal Council with Selkirk First Nation (Pelly Crossing) and Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation (Carmacks).
Prospectors found gold flakes in the sand and gravel bars of the Stewart River as early as 1882. A New Brunswick prospector, Alexander MacDonald, roamed this area in 1887 and named Mayo Lake and Mayo River. He was honouring Alfred Mayo, a trader who with partner “Jack” McQuesten invested in, or “grubstaked”, many of the early Yukon prospectors. A small community of 32 cabins and a trading post grew at the confluence of the Stewart and Yukon rivers. It was largely abandoned after gold nuggets were found in the Forty Mile drainage in 1886. Other gold rushes came and went, but prospectors returned to this river as they could reliably find enough gold on the Stewart River to carry out another year of prospecting, and so it became known as the “Grubstake River”.
Was it worth it?
During the 1880s, men were recovering as much as $6,000 in gold for a few months work on the Stewart River gravel bars. At that time, the average wage in North America was about $1.50 a day in 1885 dollars or about $35 in 2012 dollars. It has been estimated that $300,000 worth of gold was taken from the bars in 1885-86 for an average of $30 (1885) or $715 (2012) per day per man.
Corridor to the Klondike
Gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek in 1896 and prospectors rushed into the Yukon in 1897 and 1898. Many had heard of the Stewart River from those who came before— some stopped along the way to try their luck prospecting along this river. The fine gold found in this river did not compare with the plentiful nuggets of their dreams and they soon left the Stewart for the Klondike. Some Klondike stampeders were still en route in 1899 having left Edmonton two years before. They believed the stories of an all-Canadian overland trek that would be faster than climbing the Chilkoot Pass or buying passage on a Yukon River sternwheeler from the Bering Sea. About 100 people hiked from Edmonton to the Athabasca River where they built boats to travel the water route across Great Slave Lake and along the Mackenzie River. Then they moved their goods in manageable stages some 500 km over a mountain pass to the upper Stewart River. Only about 75 were successful in reaching Dawson. They found the rich land already staked and many moved on to the newest gold strike in Nome, Alaska.
A Silver Lining
The area’s first gold rush peaked in 1903 but other placer gold deposits kept prospectors busy looking for new prospects. Mayo was established as a sternwheeler landing and a wagon road was built from here to the creeks. In 1903, Jacob Davidson found some remarkable pieces of silver-rich galena on the trail from Mayo to Duncan Creek. The Silver King mine, developed ten years later, was the first in a series of silver mines that became Yukon’s economic mainstay in the mid-1900s. Silver mining grew more important than gold over the next 70 years. Many were employed in the mining and transportation industry. Silver ore bags were a common sight at the Mayo Landing dock where they lay stockpiled awaiting transport by the Stewart River sternwheelers’ barges. In the late 1940s, the largest mining company in the region tired of the sternwheelers’ small capacity and their need to wait for high water on the Stewart River. An all-season road was started. Yukon’s sternwheeler era came to a close when the company found trucking to be a more economical and reliable means of transport.
The Sternwheeler Era
A sternwheeler travelling up river could burn two cords of wood an hour. The average sternwheeler burned about 8,000 cords per season. Hundreds of people were employed at wood camps strung along the rivers, cutting and stacking cordwood for the sternwheelers.