The Tr’ondek Hwech’in and their ancestors have used the natural resources of this area for thousands of years, hunting the wandering Fortymile Caribou Herd and fishing for grayling in the Fortymile River and salmon in the Yukon River.
“All year people are busy. In summer people dry fish and get berries. In autumn they hunt moose. In winter they trap, but get caribou and moose while they are trapping.” (Mary McLeod, 1974.)
The land was never glaciated and the deep, narrow valleys of the river and its tributaries were formed by the shallow, swift water that flow in them. Canyon Rapids, this side of the Canadian border, is very dangerous with steep rock walls. The miners had to line their boats or portage around this obstacle.
The confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon rivers is a low marshy delta with semi-continuous permafrost. Early farmers at Forty Mile found that river-bottom sediments and side hills facing the south-west made better fields than the black mud flats.
The covering vegetation was removed as the town grew and prospered and the permafrost receded below the surface. In the 1890s, potatoes, radishes, turnips, cabbages and lettuce were grown with fair success. Most of the miners had garden plots after a winter of scurvy in 1892. Sam Patch had a successful farm near the Canadian border in 1895 and he sold potatoes to the miners for a dollar a pound.
Forty Mile is within the traditional territory of the Hän-speaking Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Stone tools dated from 2300 years ago mark this spot as a grayling and caribou hunting base camp where people prepared food and manufactured and maintained their tools.
Just before gold was discovered in the Fortymile River, Chief Charley’s band lived in the Charley River, Alaska area. Other Hän-speaking bands lived near Eagle, Alaska, across from Fort Reliance and at the mouth of the Klondike River.
In the 1880s, a smallpox epidemic decimated Chief Charley’s band and he and his family were among the survivors who moved to Forty Mile. They adapted well to town life, charging the miners high prices for supplies like meat, firewood, leather and mukluks.
Chief Charley’s people maintained a traditional lifestyle and in 1896 a travelling missionary found seventy Hän camped about three days travel up the Fortymile River, trapping, processing furs and tanning hides.
Newly introduced illness remained a threat however and between 1895 and 1898 thirty-nine people died from a lung-related sickness. There were twenty-nine Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in at Forty Mile in 1904 and by that time many people had moved to the Moosehide settlement on the Yukon River north of Dawson.
There were around 200 prospectors in the north in 1886 and many were gathering fine gold from the naturally thawed gravel bars in the Yukon River drainage.
Howard Franklin and Henry Madison’s discovery of coarse gold on Franklin’s Bar, forty miles up from the mouth of the Fortymile River, started the Yukon’s first gold rush.
Once discovered, gold was found on other gravel bars as well. Frank Buteau took $3,000 in gold from his claim. Jack Raynor sold what he thought was a useless claim for $300 to Richard Poplin who panned out twenty-six and a half ounces of gold in just two hours.
The easy-to-reach gold in the gravel bars was soon exhausted and Franklin staked a claim on a gulch above his gravel bar, thinking the placer gold must have eroded out of the bank.
This was the first time that northern prospectors looked beneath the surface. The frozen ground had to be thawed before a shaft could be dug down to bedrock and the rich layer of placer gravel. Alaska’s 15th largest nugget (56.8 troy ounces) was found in the Fortymile drainage.
Forty Mile was forty miles down the Yukon River from Fort Reliance, the post that “Jack” McQuesten, Al Mayo and Arthur Harper established in 1874. In 1885, Mayo had just moved the post to the Stewart River when news of the Fortymile strike arrived.
There was no warehouse at the Forty Mile site when the first supply boat arrived. Harper set up a counter and sold the entire cargo in forty-eight hours. McQuesten’s Post was the only store and fur trading post in town until 1893 when J. J. Healy established the North American Transportation and Trading Company (NAT&T Co.) downstream at Fort Cudahy.
McQuesten and his partners, affiliated with the Alaska Commercial Company (AC Co.), were accustomed to advancing the miners a “grubstake”: food and supplies for the next mining season. The miners had more affection for McQuesten than Healy who refused to give credit of any kind.
Both companies hired staff and built large warehouses, stores and outbuildings. An ice jam below the town in 1901 caused a flood that pushed the water to the second floor of the AC Co.’s big building, with damages estimated at $80,000. In 1902, two large NAT&T Co. warehouses were destroyed by fire with a loss of about $40,000.
The AC Co. became the Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) in 1901 and operated at Forty Mile until 1915.
It was late in the fall when gold was discovered on the Fortymile River in 1886 and too cold to dig on the gravel bars. About 20 miners camped near the mouth of the Fortymile for the winter.
A scattering of log cabins became a town of about 200 when the Alaska Commercial Company sternwheeler Arctic began delivering regular supplies and equipment in 1889. The vessel was 38 metres long and could carry enough supplies to see a small number of miners through the long winter.
Gold strikes in Alaska (1893) and in the Klondike (1896) lured miners and businessmen away from Forty Mile. After all the excitement, many disappointed miners had another look at the mining district. A Dawson newspaper reported there were 1,000 men up the Fortymile River drainage in 1898 and all the cabins in town were occupied.
After the 1899 gold strike at Nome, the community continued to function but with a greatly diminished population. By 1921 there were only 23 residents. A police detachment and a farm remained at Forty Mile until the Canadian sternwheelers stopped running into Alaska in the early 1940s.
The Yukon Order of Pioneers was formed at Forty Mile in 1894 to aid sick and destitute miners and protect miners’ rights. The motto of this long-lasting fraternal organization was the golden rule for Forty Mile: “Do unto others as you would be done by”.
The Anglican Church Missionary Society sent a woefully unprepared and unstable Deacon J. W. Ellington to Forty Mile in 1886. He had difficulty speaking the Hän language and the miners played practical jokes on him until he fled from the town in 1887.
The new Anglican bishop, William Bompas, and his wife took up residence at Forty Mile in 1892. About twenty miners attended church and took advantage of a small lending library. Bishop Bompas was devoted to missionary work and admitted failure at interpreting the bible to men more interested in travel books.
The Catholic Church sent Father William Judge to Forty Mile in 1894 but he also had difficulty influencing the miners. Anglican minister Richard J. Bowen arrived in 1895 and built St. James Church just before the Klondike Gold Rush took most of the congregation upriver to the new strike.
The Anglicans’ major accomplishment at Forty Mile was the establishment of a First Nation school. Miss Mellett, an Irish missionary, took over the teaching duties from Mr. Benjamin Totty in 1893 and she remained at Forty Mile through the Klondike Gold Rush years.
In 1887, William Ogilvie was Canada’s representative on the International Boundary Commission. He was concerned that the Forty Mile region was occupied by American miners and traders with no official Canadian presence. Ogilvie’s opinion was strengthened by letters from C. H. Henderson, with the NAT&T Company, telling tales of whiskey smuggling and from Rev. William Bompas complaining about the illegal sale of alcohol to the local First Nations.
North-West Mounted Police Inspector Charles Constantine and Staff Sergeant Charles Brown arrived at Forty Mile in 1854 and they were reinforced the next year by eighteen officers and men. The police built Fort Constantine across the Fortymile River from the main settlement and remained there until the discovery of Klondike gold drew the miners away.
The rough justice of the miners’ meetings gave way to Canadian law as interpreted by the police. There was no judge in the region until after the Klondike Gold Rush. When Dawson City became the capitol of the newly formed Yukon Territory in 1898, the detachment at Forty Mile shrank. The men moved from Fort Constantine into town and by the 1930s the region was policed by one officer from his log cabin home.
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