Both before and immediately after I retired from the news biz I worked on a project to transcribe the “Oswego” news columns from the Kendall County Record from they time they started appearing in the late 1860s through 1969. The object was to create a reference tool for family historians and other researchers. Along the line I accumulated close to 10,000 pages of local news.
As I worked through transcribing those bits of local news, I usually didn’t pay much attention to the content. After all, if I was ever to finish the project I couldn’t get too interested, but occasionally, the words I was transcribing off of often poor quality microfilm jumped right off the page and slapped me in the face.
That’s what happened as I was transcribing the “Oswego” news column from the Record’s March 9, 1898 edition.
“The outfit went through Chicago one day last week,” I typed. “And consisted of 539 reindeer and 118 Laps, including the women and children.”
After which I stopped typing to read the piece Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank wrote. It turned out to be a fairly lengthy item gently complaining about what he saw as the latest puzzling government boondoggle.
Noting that the government was attempting to assist needy, hungry miners who were struggling to get to the Klondike gold fields, Rank said that a relief expedition had been planned, and the necessary supplies, livestock (those reindeer) and experts (those Laplanders) had been acquired, and everything was on its way to the Klondike.
And there was indeed a story there, even if somewhat off-kilter, even for a government project. It started out, though, with the best of intentions.
As you may recall, gold was discovered in the late 1890s up in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory, which resulted in a gold rush, not to mention the creation of such entertainment staples of my childhood such as “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” who with his great lead dog King, went sledding along on both radio and TV.
It took a year for word of the gold strike to get back to the Lower 48 States, but when it did the media created a firestorm of gold lust. The result was the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.
Tens of thousands of Americans and Canadians headed to the Yukon, either to Washington State and from there north along the coast to Juneau and then on through Alaska to Skagway to reach the gold fields, or overland through Canada where Edmonton in British Columbia was the jumping off place.
The Klondike region is a desolate, isolated place and soon, down in the Lower 48, tales of starving miners began sharing the front pages of newspapers with tales of striking it rich. Those tales of starving miners caught the eye of politicians in Washington, D.C. Proving that panic-stricken responses to real and imagined crises is not some new 21st Century thing, and at the behest of determined lobbying by Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson, Congress appropriated $200,000 (nearly $6 million in today’s dollars). And Jackson made sure he got the lucrative got the contract to get relief to the ‘starving’ miners. Because Jackson knew how to get those supplies to the Klondike fast—reindeer!
In reality, however, there was no starvation crisis. Figuring that few of the would-be miners knew anything at all about survival in arctic conditions like those along the Klondike River, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (hurrah for Sgt. Preston!) strictly enforced “The One-Ton Rule,” wherein no miner was allowed to cross into Canada unless he had an entire year’s worth of food and supplies. Which is the story behind that iconic photo of miners laboriously climbing the Chilkat Pass with immense packs—each one of those guys had to make numerous trips up and down the near-vertical trail to pack in 2,000 pounds of supplies before the Mounties would let them go on to try their luck along the Klondike River.
So let’s recap: we have a made up crisis (check!), based on sort of a truthful story (check!), strongly promoted by a lobbyist (check!), who stood to personally gain from government money (check!). The more things change, the more they really do stay the same.
It turned out Rev. Jackson was fascinated with reindeer and had been trying for some time to stock Alaska with them. By 1891 he was somehow able to convince the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service—later renamed the U.S. Coast Guard—to import reindeer (also called caribou) to Alaska from Siberia as food and draft animals. At first, the government also imported Siberians to teach the locals how to raise reindeer, but then Jackson figured out that Laplanders were better at the whole reindeer herding thing.
So when Jackson heard the government was going to give someone $200,000 to get food and supplies to miners in the Great White North, it’s likely the very first thing that popped into his head was “Reindeer!” At least he certainly convinced Congress reindeer were the answer to their problems. Not only could reindeer haul sleds laden with supplies, but they could be butchered for food for the miners and any live leftovers could be used to start yet another reindeer herd in Alaska if the Canadians weren’t interested.
So off he went to northern Norway where he procured 539 reindeer, 118 men, women, and children Laplanders to take care of the reindeer, 418 sleds, 510 sets of reindeer harness, and 250 tons of reindeer moss to keep the animals fed on the trip. The Laps and their reindeer were shipped across the Atlantic, arriving in New York harbor on Feb. 27, 1898. They were loaded aboard rail cars and shipped west to Seattle, creating the spectacle related by Rank as their train steamed through Chicago.
But even before the party reached Seattle, word finally made it back south that thanks to the Mounties and private businesses, nobody was starving on the way to the gold fields. As Rank put it in his Record column: “The provisions now are not wanted, as they only interfere with the trade—private enterprise there.”
Jackson, however, decided, with his Congressional appropriation in hand to continue on to Alaska with the reindeer and their Lap herders. Unfortunately, by that time, the expedition was running out of reindeer moss, and since the animals cannot survive on regular grasses, they were beginning to starve to death. Four died in Seattle, and eight more expired on the voyage up the coast to Haines Mission, Alaska, which the expedition reached on March 29.
The Laps drove the reindeer up into the mountains where the animals were able to find some forage but deep snow prevented them from finding enough of it. By the time the expedition was ready to move up the Dawson Trail along the Chilkat River into the mountains where forage was said to be abundant in May, there were only 228 left.
“Of these some were taken to Circle City and there killed for food, and a few of the remaining animals were taken to the Tanana Valley, where they all disappeared in a short time,” according to C.L. Andrews writing in 1919 in the Washington Historical Quarterly.
Of the Lap herders, some had to be sent back down to the Lower 48 because of a lack of food for them.
Some said that Jackson’s real goal had been to start another reindeer herd with the animals imported from Norway, but Andrews slapped that theory down: “These deer were all sled deer for transport purposes and were gelded males.”
Rather, Andrews suggested the real goal was to import more Laplanders, not the reindeer, into Alaska in order to assure the Laps and Norwegians were dominant in the reindeer herding industry Jackson had worked so hard to create. Alas, that didn’t work out, either, since the Laps reached Nome just about the time the gold fever was at its height.
“There, nearly all of them left the government service to engage in the search for gold, and the colonization scheme passed into oblivion,” Andrews reported.
Rank, in his March 9 Record column, was philosophical about the enterprise, which, he suggested was, if not precisely harebrained, at least overkill, indicating he wasn’t entirely against it because at least it wasn’t rich people being, again, enriched by preferred access to government money.
And finally, Rank wrote, gold rushes almost always turn out for the worst anyway, suggesting it would be good policy to resist any sort of government support for them in the future: “Instead of protection, gold-seeking rushes should be discouraged; they are demoralizing, breaking up families, and while one man be the gainer by them, nine will be losers.”
Which was pretty good advice.