As many of you know, I have put together an adventure for an Alaskan cruise in May/June 2024. But as always, I will not just do a cruise, I will incorporate a land tour before the cruise. In keeping with my philosophy that travel is always an adventure, I like to ensure that I get the biggest bang for my buck and enjoy the most robust tour of an area that I can arrange in the time that I have available. I don't normally have a theme for my tours as I simply put together sites and sights I want to visit and see. However, this time, it is a little different as I DO have a theme.
On a trip to the Northwest Territories, I picked up a book at the airport on various women who settled the north. I was so fascinated by these women, that I decided to do more research. I had already been heavily researching the north in preparation of next year’s trip to the Yukon and Alaska, so even though I will be continuing to post blogs on Port Stops around the world, over the next twelve months, I will be offering up stories of remarkable women of the north.
At the time of the gold rush, women had very few rights and limited options.
· Married women could not purchase property (that apparently was their husband's purview).
· It was not a criminal act to kidnap a woman until 1909 (unless she was an heiress).
· They could not vote (in Canada, Aboriginal women did not get the vote until 1960).
· Women were paid less for the same work.
· During the gold rush, women often pulled the sleds when dogs or other animals were unavailable.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Life was not great for women. Ladies who went north with their husbands, and whose partners subsequently died, found themselves in extreme circumstances with little choice of what they could do to survive. Some broke societal barriers by becoming successful business owners. I will delight in recounting their ingenuity.
Others went north to earn a living the same way that they had earned a living before going north. Known as the soiled doves or goodtime girls, and unable to stake claims and mine, they worked in saloons, dance halls, peep shows and brothels. They had a rough life but some made the most of tragic circumstances.
Some women sold themselves to the highest bidder in an effort to feed their families.
Women of Yukon and Alaska 1880 - present
I will start with a story of such a lady, who found herself in Dawson City with one child, a missing husband and few prospects.
According to anecdotal stories from Dawson City, Yukon, Mabel Larose, a resident, was married to a man who abandoned her and her infant. Unable to find any type of legitimate work, she was forced by circumstances into prostitution in order to feed and house herself and her son.
At the age of 22, and despairing over her circumstances, she took the extreme step of auctioning herself off to the highest bidder. It is reported that this extraordinary event took place on Christmas Eve in 1889 in the saloon known as the Monte Carlo. She climbed up onto the bar and announced to all that she was willing to act as the wife of the highest bidder for the next six months. However, she reserved the right to decline the top bid IF she did not like the highest bidder.
The terms of the agreement were that the person who bought her had to house and feed her and her son. She would cook, clean and perform all wifely duties as required. Given that the beating of women, particularly spouses and/or prostitutes was quite common, she took the additional step of stating that she would “knife” any man who bought her services and “lifted a hand” to her.
The bidding quickly took off with the two top bidders being the owner and operator of a local house of ill repute (who obviously wanted to work her in his house), and a young miner named Sam.
Reports of the auction indicate that Mabel clearly favoured Sam and when the bidding reached $30,000 on a bid by Sam, she immediately declared him the winner before there could be a counter bid. Incensed, the owner of the house of ill repute called her a “crooked, dirty whore” and then attacked Sam.
Sam, was younger and fitter. He was able to knock the attacker out and promptly threw Mabel over his shoulder and took her home. She stayed with him past the agreed upon 6 months time frame and they were married the following year when confirmation was received that Mabel’s husband had died.
I have researched whether I could find legal records in the Yukon pertaining to Mabel and Sam but the first census in the Yukon took place in 1901 and there are no records of either in that document. I also researched marriage records without success but I will continue the search.
Next up a story a love and betrayal in the Yukon
Tales of Northern Women Continued Love and Betrayal in the Yukon James, a young man from southwestern Ontario, headed west for adventure and ended up working as a clerk in Victoria, BC where he met Mary, an indigenous young woman of Lekwugen ancestry. He reportedly fell head over heels in love with her, and she him. However, society did not look favorably upon such interracial marriages. A couple of years passed and Mary and James persisted in their courtship and in 1894, they were finally permitted to marry when Mary, by this time working as an assistant for a dressmaker, was deemed by the church, to be of “good moral character”. In 1897 both James and Mary left their jobs and headed to the Yukon with their infant son. They spent their life savings on their trip north and bought a staked claim that had not been worked. Both toiled at the claim day after day and surprisingly, after 18 months, they met with success. James embarked on a spending spree that soon attracted the attentions of a beautiful young lady of the evening. She turned her charms on him. He left Mary and their (now), two children, and headed south with his new lady love. Before doing so, he sold the claim and took the rest of the gold they had mined along with the money from the sale of the claim. As an indigenous person, she had absolutely no rights, Mary was penniless. Mary, was left with the two children, no home and no income. In sympathy for her plight, she was given $3 by a "whore named Isobel" on the condition that she did Isobel's laundry for a week. Mary, realizing that she might have found a way to earn a living, quickly contacted other women of the night and made similar deals with them. Within a day, she was able to rent a single room to house her and her children. She took in laundry and sewing. News of her skill with a needle spread and she became a dress maker for many of the ladies of the evening. Six years later, she had saved sufficient funds to return to Vancouver Island with money to set herself up with a home. The report is that she gave her brother money to buy a home (in his name), for her and her children. The property was purchased in his name to prevent any claim by her husband should he ever reappear. She continued to work as a dress maker until her death in 1921. As for James, apparently Mary need not have worried about him finding her and laying marital claim half of her assets. The lady he ran off with robbed him of all his money once they were in the south and he is reported to have subsequently committed suicide. Tales of Northern Women Continued
Florence and Myrtle Brocee were sisters born on a farm in Ontario. In their teens, they left farm life for the brighter, more exciting life on the stage. Singing and dancing their way through various northern states, they eventually made their way to the Yukon for the gold rush and ended up in Dawson City.
Young, popular, and working at the Monte Carlo saloon, they came in contact with readily available alcohol and numerous men. Unlike Florence who was “reportedly” the more virtuous of the two, Myrtle was prone to excessive drinking and depression. She was known to over imbibe and when impaired, would spend the night with various men.
Today, it is known that depression can lead to alcohol abuse which in turn leads to poor decisions which then leads to more depression. Myrtle was caught in a vicious cycle of self abuse and self loathing. She reportedly told a friend that unless something in her life changed, she would kill herself.
At the age of 19, she developed pneumonia and was unable to work for three weeks. Her illness, lack of income and a rejection by a man she was involved with, left her emotionally vulnerable. On December 9, 1898, knowing that she would have to return to work within a day or two, Myrtle took a .22 calibre pistol Smith and Wesson and shot and killed herself.
The headlines of the only Dawson newspaper reads “She Blew Out Her Brains” and this might have been the end of Myrtle’s story, just another immoral woman who killed herself. But something extraordinary happened. Florence refused to have the narrative of her sister’s passing read as a suicide, or have her reputation sullied with the story that she was a loose woman. Florence hired a lawyer to advocate on behalf of her dead sister.
Calling for an autopsy, Florence had a parade of men appear to say that although they spent the night with Myrtle, she had been virtuous and nothing of a sexual nature had happened. People were originally quite skeptical about that story but as more men appeared to provide the same line of evidence, public opinion began to shift in Myrtle’s favour. Even the notorious gambler Harry Woolrich, with whom Myrtle had briefly lived, stated that he and Myrtle had shared a bed but not any physical relationship. Florence’s lawyer was able to secure the verdict that Myrtle had suffered a bout of temporary insanity due to the pneumonia and therefore her death was not a suicide. She was allowed a Christian burial.
Satisfied that her sister’s reputation had been restored, Florence returned to the Monte Carlo as a solo act. I will give more of her story in the days to come as you will come to learn that Florence had quite the vicious streak.
Tales of Northern Women Continued
Next up, I bring you the story of Belinda Mulrooney who came to be known as the "richest woman in the Klondike."
The daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, she remained at home until she was 21 when she left to open a restaurant in Chicago. She was successful and sold her business for $8,000. Making her way to San Francisco, she successfully owned and operated an ice-cream parlor. Unfortunately, the ice-cream parlor burned down so she secured a job working for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company which ran boats up and down the coast of the US and Canada.
She eventually left the employ of the steamship company in 1897 when it was docked in Juneau, Alaska and took up work in a store. However, tales of the gold rush underway in Dawson City, Yukon, convinced her to go. She would later recount that she believed that she was destined to go there to make her fortune. She hauled mostly non-essential items that she used her savings to buy and carried only enough food for the trip. Her theory was that people already in Dawson City would want the finer things in life, so she carried silk underwear, bolts of cloth and hot water bottles with a view to being the one to supply those specialty items to those who could afford them.
She walked most of the way and was one of the women who climbed the famous Chilkoot Trail. She was 26 in 1897 when she arrived in Dawson City with her goods. She used to tell the tale that upon arrival, she threw her last coin in the Yukon River for luck. But she proved that her business acumen was on point as she quickly sold all her goods at an excellent profit of 600%. She used that money to open a restaurant.
From the profits of that restaurant she opened a hotel and then built and opened a roadhouse at a critical junction between two gold fields. Belinda went from strength to strength and sold her hotel for $24,000 so she could build a new and more impressive hotel and restaurant. On July 27, 1898, she opened the new Fair View Hotel which she had filled with finery such as crystal chandeliers, glass windows, silver and fine china.
Belinda Mulrooney's vision as to what was needed and then provide the ways and means to fill those needs, meant that she was always a step ahead of her competitors. According to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum Records “Appreciating her keen business sense, a local bank chose Mulrooney to run the Gold Run Mining Company, then deeply in the red. She pulled the company into the black in 18 months.” Certainly, a rare honour for a woman at a time when women were not even allowed to vote.
Those who tried to get the better of her soon learned that she never forgot when someone treated her unfairly. For example, she entered into a business agreement with a man named Alex McDonald. They partnered in a venture to salvage the cargo of a ship that had wrecked on a sand bar. The idea was to split the salvage costs and the cargo. However McDonald and his men arrived at the wreck first and they took all the food items and left only the whiskey and gum boots for Belinda and her crew. Belinda got her revenge in the spring when McDonald and his men needed gum boots to keep their feet dry in the wet, mucky spring. Belinda sold them the gum boots for $100 a pair.
Although Belinda was brilliant in business, she made a poor decision in life when she decided to marry a man purporting to be a French Count. They married on October 1st, 1900 and honeymooned in Paris. Charles Eugene Carbonneau was not in fact a Count and may have actually been a barber from Quebec (rumours abound on that front). Within three years, Belinda was in debt and in the process of divorcing her husband. The Dawson City gold rush was also winding down.
Belinda decided that having made a fortune once, she could do so again and moved to Fairbanks, Alaska where her hard work and business skill stood her in good stead. She soon accumulated a second fortune and moved to Yakima in Washington state. There she built a castle and lived there until 1929. With no revenue coming in, her fortune dwindled. She rented out the castle and lived in a small home in Seattle and then a nursing home until her death in 1967.
For future stories on Tales of Northern Women, keep following my blogs. I will be covering women of the Yukon, Alaska and British Columbia.
Belinda Mulrooney on the Chilkoot Pass Trail. Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library, Winter & Pond, PCA 87-682