Project Canterbury

A Heroine of the North
Memoirs of Charlotte Selina Bompas (1830-1917)
Wife of the First Bishop of Selkirk (Yukon)

With Extracts from Her Journal and Letters

Compiled by S.A. Archer

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter IX. Second Journey to the Yukon

July 31, 1897.

I WILL take up the thread of my history and go back to July 27, the last day of my long journey by train. I was much disappointed in the scenery of the great American Continent, which is not to be compared to the beautiful C.P.R. We passed through richly cultivated land, acres and acres of maize and corn with thousands of cattle feeding in rich pasturage.

Then, at last, when we reached the grand old Rockies the scenery became beautiful, but during all that time we were running through miles of snow-sheds, so that we missed it. A great part of the C.N.R. runs through the American desert, in which are Salt Lake and Salt Lake City. Nothing but sand with tufts of scanty vegetation. At length, after travelling for four and a half days, always in the train, we reached the Sacramento River, to cross which the whole train is put on a ferry boat and ferried across. We had forty carriages, and it was wonderful to feel oneself suddenly on the water and hear it gurgling under carriage and ferry. I had a kind welcome at the great Occidental Hotel, where the proprietor recognized me at once. He immediately assigned me a charming room with bathroom attached, and much I revelled in a warm bath and some blessed sleep after those jogging railroad days.

The next day was full of business and eight o'clock found me at breakfast in the beautiful large room amidst such profusion of fruit, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, etc. Then I hurried off to despatch my telegram home and afterwards to our Alaskan agents to ascertain as to my berth on board the steamer. The excitement about the Klondyke gold mines has surpassed everything. I was interviewed at the hotel at San Francisco and perpetually questioned about Alaska and the Yukon.

Alas! our quiet tranquil North is invaded, no more peace there. The whole country is to be opened up. The U.S. Government is sending soldiers to Circle City—a railroad is to be begun, regular mails started. We were nearly an hour getting off, for passengers came on board to the very last, although they had the greatest difficulty in getting through the crush of people.

At length the signal was given, the gangway removed amid deafening cheers and frantic waving of hats, the Excelsior, with her load of miners, set out for St. Michael. Even then we were not really off, for two or three wretched stowaways were discovered, and had to be put off in a small boat, which took some little time.

ALASKA. August 26, 1897.

I am encamped in my tent on the shore with my tent door open, facing the bay, and the Union Jack above me. The bay is very gay now with ships of all kinds and small "caiaques," etc. My tent looks pretty and comfortable with my boxes and cases around me serving for furniture and seats for my visitors, of whom I have several each day. This afternoon I am expecting Bishop Rowe.

St. Michael is a dull, uninteresting place, but I have found some employment in helping one of our better-class Indian women nurse her poor old Malamout mother through the last stage of internal cancer. Last Saturday the poor thing died, after much suffering, and this morning we laid her to rest amid her Russian kinsfolk. Bishop Rowe took the service, as the Greek priest did not come in time.

I hope to start to-morrow in the steamship Alice. We shall be terribly crowded, but the weather is somewhat cooler. I have Sir Richard Owen's Life with me to read up the river.

ALASKA. September 6, 1897.

We are fairly off at last, but the boat is most uncomfortably crowded. This steamer can accommodate only forty and we have ninety on board.

The way in which gold is cropping up all over the country is marvellous, and the quickness of the miner's eye to detect it is no less so. Yesterday we stopped at a small camp to take in wood, and some of the miners amused themselves by taking up small pans full of sand out of the river. In a few minutes they had got gold to the amount of 15 cents.

I found here quite a number of friends among the Indians. One of my Mission girls, Ellen, presented herself to me as Mrs. Finny, the wife of one of the traders, and the husband gave me such a good account of his little wife. I was thankful to see her married and doing well.

To-morrow we hope to reach Fort Yukon, to spend a few hours within the Arctic Circle.

September 13, 1897.

I have been made rather anxious by reports among the Indians of the water being very low higher up the river, and that Mr. H. expects that I shall have to spend the winter with him in his small house, as he feels sure the steamer will not get up to Forty Mile.

Rather more than a month since we left St. Michael and I am still far from the end of my long journey. I begin to feel very wayworn and weary, but yet I have such deep cause for thankfulness, for I have been comforted and helped in so many ways. The last day or two rain has set in and we are all rejoicing, hoping that this may raise the river. A white man passed us this morning in a small boat, and cried out: "You cannot get up the river; too little water, in some parts only two and a half feet." And our boat draws four feet!

I have been writing some verses for the miners' paper, The Yukon Press. They all behave very nicely to me and would do anything I asked them.

FORT YUKON. September 14, 1897.

Alas! the situation is most serious and I am in great trouble. There is a bar of sand between this and Circle City which it seems impossible to get over! We have been waiting here for two days. Mr. Hawksley tells me that he foresees that I shall have to spend the winter with his family. Still do I hope that this may not be. More letters have come to me from the Bishop urging me to come as quickly as possible. Oh, what can I do? Our Captain is a good man and is going to make one more trial.

November 29, 1897.

After a day or two passed in much anxiety at Fort Yukon, the Captain of the s.s. Alice gave up all attempts at proceeding, and ordered the passengers ashore, allowing us only the option of returning to St. Michael.

It was strange that directly the S.S. Alice left the water began to rise—in one night it rose sixteen inches. Had our Captain waited but three days longer I could have reached my home in safety. As it was, we were stranded here, a motley crowd, with only about five or six small cabins in which to find shelter.

My hope then was that we might get on in the Victoria which was expected. I had two or three weeks of agonizing suspense and anxiety about her non-arrival, fearing to lose this, my only chance, of getting home. She appeared at last to announce the doleful tidings that, hearing of the low state of the water, and being heavily laden, the Captain had discharged the Mission supplies at Fort Hamlyn, contenting himself with only bringing up the invoices! Mortifying though it was to do so, I asked earnestly for a passage on board the Victoria to Forty Mile, but I was actually refused, although she passed it on her way to Klondyke, and the vessel steamed off, seeing Mr. H. and myself rowing up to her at full speed and only a few yards from her.

I must pass over that time of very great distress, through which God mercifully helped me, but it was almost overwhelming.

A letter came at last from my dear husband telling of his having necessary supplies for the winter. It really seemed to have been brought to him almost by a miracle, so that I might have gone up after all, and he greatly laments my not doing so, blaming my want of faith, and is vexed with Mr. H. for having detained me. So I have had to settle down to a winter within the Arctic Circle. Some of my adventures would really rival Nansen's, who, by-the-by, was a schoolfellow of my friend, Mr. Inglestadt, of St. Michael.

I am staying with the Hawksleys, so to speak—that is, I take meals with them, but I have a small compartment curtained off in the schoolroom, which is close to the Mission House and built by Mr. H. since his arrival here last July. They have only two small bedrooms, and as they have four boys of their own, I am thankful not to be in the house itself. It is very, very cold, and I feel lonesome at night, the northern winds whistling round me and dogs howling, with wolves prowling about far too near to be agreeable. There is no room, however, now for more distrust or anxiety when I know that the dear husband and his household are kept from starvation, and he reports them as all well.

Mr. H. and I keep school daily. We have as many as fifty children, and it is very interesting work, only we are terribly handicapped for want of school materials. We have no slates, only a few broken pieces or fragments of slate pencils; no copy-books whatever, only some sheets of whitey-brown paper which I begged from the Company's stores. I have to write our alphabets and spelling and copies on this paper for the standard lesson books for our elder classes; I have to compose thrilling stories and adventures of Rose and Ben. Our schoolroom is used also for the church services, but is far too small for our numbers. For benches we put planks on empty cases, and for seats blocks of wood. In spite of all difficulties, however, the children are getting on and by degrees taming down, for a wilder or more undisciplined set of little ruffians than they were at first it would be hard to find out of the Zoological Gardens.

Letter to J——


I must now tell you a little about the gold mines of Klondyke, which were only struck last year, soon after I left Buxton in July. The news of the finding of gold soon spread like wildfire. Men who were already here rushed up the river with pickaxe and shovel. In a few weeks they made thousands of dollars, then they went out with their loaded bags, boasting of their wealth. The newspapers took it up, and trading companies and shipping agents, etc. A perfect fever seemed to seize everyone who heard of the Klondyke gold mines. It spread all over the States, Canada, and California. It reached Africa and Syria, Australia and Finland, Norway and Denmark. We have men here from all these countries, coming in by every possible means of conveyance, in crowds ever increasing, paying fabulous sums for their passage and outfit and provisions, many of them leaving wife and family and good lucrative positions, seized with the mania for gold, as ignorant as babes of all which this involves, or of the difficulties which lay before them.

Now comes the sad part of our story. The rush was so sudden, and the summer in these regions of so short duration, that it was hardly possible to make provision for such a multitude. There were only a few steamers fit to go up the river. Moreover, the water of the Yukon last summer was very low, lower than it has ever been known before, so that any heavily laden vessels were liable to stick on the many sandbars. All the vessels were heavily loaded, and, sad to say, not with flour and other necessaries, but with tons, thousands of tons of whisky, which pays better than anything else. And so you may fancy the result of all this. Klondyke, the quiet little Indian camp, only about fifty miles from Buxton, our Mission, is now a large city with a white population of some seven thousand, all with their "claims" of gold diggings. There are streets of well-built houses, a good-sized hospital, a theatre, and about fifteen drinking saloons. The Bishop has three men working there as missionaries. The finds of gold are enormous, one is ever hearing of new discoveries; but the people are starving! The supplies are quite unequal to the population. Things have been selling at famine prices for a long time. One hundred dollars for a bag of flour, two dollars for a candle, etc. One hears piteous tales of men bringing in bags of gold dust, and entreating for a little food for their wives and children and being refused. Then sickness began, for in all this haste there were few sanitary arrangements. There have been several deaths already, and now there has begun a stampede out of Dawson, by which name the great city is known. Men must have food, and they heard that supplies were more plentiful at Circle City and Fort Yukon, so they came away in crowds, and went through fearful risks as they fell in with the ice, and were nearly starved on the way. Every day, almost, some poor miners come down from the starving city, some of them having been days without food. Things have even been so bad that a week or two ago a number of miners threatened to attack the store here and seize all the provisions needed. They assembled with guns and rifles, and actually a few shots were fired. Captain Ray, of the U.S. Army, who was sent out last summer to try and keep order, met the insurgents with his lieutenants, and managed to reduce things to order, but he had to give vouchers for the Government supply of rations to all the destitute.

I spent a few days at the great Klondyke in the fall, and enjoyed my visit very much. I stayed at the Mission with Mr. and Mrs. Bowen, nee Millett. They have a nice little house, so tiny, "three sparrows might dance on the floor," and Mr. Bowen has built a neat little church, all in order. The Toronto W.A. sent a lovely altar cloth, etc., and he has nice, hearty services, at which the church is crowded. From the Mission House I used to watch the crowds of people passing all day long, all busy and intent on making money. The mines proper are some few miles away. The labour involved in working the '' claims '' is not to be told, and many lives are lost and many strong men broken down. Oh! the pitiful stories one hears of treachery and dishonesty. And so many come in quite unprepared for the rigorous climate, and go through so much misery and privation. One poor man here had both hands and feet amputated from frostbite, and another has lost his right hand and left foot. There are three hospitals at Dawson, and several churches, and fine barracks for the Mounted Police, and about fifteen saloons. The shady characters are numerous, and keep the police pretty busy. Last time we heard there were sixty prisoners in gaol.

We, on our little island, keep on much the same as ever. The mining excitement does not affect us. Bishop holds school twice a day, except Tuesdays and Fridays, when I have sewing and music class. I have a singing class for the elder boys and girls, too, twice a week. The Indians do not improve altogether in their intercourse with the white man. They learn extravagant habits, and get too dependent on luxuries, and have raised their prices upon meat and fish and labour.

Think of me in a small two-roomed house on the banks of the Yukon, one room being used by Mrs. Beaumont, a trader's wife, whose husband is away. Rather close quarters, is it not? I have been here two months, but hope to move into the Mission soon. Mr. Hawksley, the priest-in-charge, was in Mackenzie and ordained by Bishop ten years ago. I have still some hope of getting up to Forty Mile by dog sleigh, but fear I might collapse before I reach my journey's end.

[After eight long months, the winter's ice having at length run out of the river. Mrs. Bompas was able to continue her journey to Forty Mile. A gap occurs here in her Journal—we know that the Bishop after a time went to Moosehide and she remained at Forty Mile, where the Rev. W. Hawksley was stationed, after having been some years at Fort Yukon. Mrs. Bompas's health failed and she was forced to try to rejoin her husband.]

April 20, 1899.

I have been most anxious about the Bishop, who has had three attacks of scurvy. It is most depressing and lowering. It comes from deterioration of the blood, and the heart loses power to pump properly. He said when he stood up it felt like standing on hot coals, so he had to lie down. He looked very ill, his face ashen grey, pain in all the limbs, and distressing cough. In spite of all this he would not see a doctor, although we had a very good one here and a number at Dawson. I persuaded him to take a little spruce fir tea, which did him a little good, and I got him a few potatoes at two shillings a pound, as raw potatoes are supposed to be a specific in scurvy. I felt very anxious. It was the first time I had seen him ill since we married. He is all right now, D.G., but the disease is apt to return, so one feels anxious and nervous.

We had one other case of illness this winter in one of our children, a kind of malaria fever, but more like gastric. The dear child was very ill for three weeks, and made a very slow recovery. The Bishop and I generally differ as to diagnosis. He treats in the old style with jalap and calomel, and I with aconite, belladonna and nux, etc. That the patient recovers under the circumstances is truly wonderful; of course, if he does so, it is thanks to my remedies, and if he dies, vice versa!

Project Canterbury