An Interview with Brian Castner
The mythology and madness of the Klondike Gold Rush
Brian Castner’s newest book, Stampede, tells the true story of the Klondike Gold Rush. After gold was found in the Yukon in 1896, 100,000 people raced North in pursuit of the glittering promise of riches. Many of them never came home. In Castner’s words, the Klondike Gold Rush is a story about “shipwrecks and avalanches, and people dying of scurvy, and murder and starvation,” a story about “human versus nature on a grand scale.”
In writing Stampede, Castner aimed to go beyond the stereotypical get-rich-quick Gold Rush legend about “lucky prospectors and good-time girls.” “I saw an opportunity to tell not the whitewashed or mythologized version of it,” he says, “but to tell something about the real deprivation and violence and suffering.”
Castner is the author of four nonfiction books, a veteran of the Iraq War, and a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer. He currently works for Amnesty International.
Kiley Bense: In the book, you write about the mythologizing that happened in real time in the press while the Gold Rush was still going on. What was the culpability of the media in spurring on the Gold Rush and spreading what you describe in the book as “a contagion of hopes and misinformation”? Who bears responsibility for all the suffering that unfolded?
Brian Castner: That's the magic question, right? And it's a very timely, 21st-century, 2021 kind of question. At the time, it was called yellow journalism, of course. It was all these sensational newsmen who were competing with headlines, and they created this phenomenon called “Klondicitis,” this disease of the mind, which I think definitely has modern equivalents when it comes to the extreme actions that people are willing to take based upon misinformation.
There were some caveats. Some of those newspaper stories reminded people: you cannot eat gold, and winter's coming, and it’s Alaska, and maybe this isn't such a good idea. But that was on the inside pages. In the headlines, it was nothing but gold, everywhere. The fact that the timing of it came right after the Panic of 1893, which was the worst economic depression that the United States had endured to that point, was also important. If the gold was discovered at a different time, then maybe it wouldn't have created such a reaction.
People made their individual choices to go, but it was very much a mob mentality. I don't use the term “mob” lightly. There was a certain mania, where you see your neighbors go and you're economically desperate too, and so it becomes like a herd activity. But the media definitely had a huge part in promoting it. Why promote it? Well, because it sold a lot of newspapers. The more stories they had about the Klondike, the more newspapers they sold.
KB: The papers want to sell more copies, so they have an incentive to run those sensational headlines. But if people weren't interested in the headlines to begin with, they wouldn't buy the papers. So it is a cycle.
BC: Some of the information was correct, and some of it was wrong in both directions. Some newspapers said that there was $70 million in plain sight, like it was easter eggs. But then another one said there were already 2,000 dead. They called it the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” It made it sound like a horror movie, that there were murderers filling mass graves. That didn't stop anyone from going, or at least it didn't slow them down, much. The only thing that really slowed the rush was the availability of ships. And then eventually, the snow and the mountain passes were the only things that limited the scope of the rush.
KB: Those two examples you just gave are like a mirror of the extremes of the journey itself. Everything about this story is extreme.
BC: Yes. But then, like you said, it was mythologized while it was happening. Spoiler alert: Dawson City, which was the main destination for people [in the Gold Rush], burns down in 1899. And when it was built back, it was built back as a tourist destination immediately, even though the rush is still going on. So it happened very quickly. People who took years to get there showed up at a tourist site rather than the original boomtown.
KB: Do you think that tendency to mythologize so quickly, while something is still happening, is a particularly American instinct? Or is it just a human one?
BC: I think culture is really important; I don't think it's just humanity. And America is full of people who have mythologized every step of its creation. It’s a country that considered itself exceptional and different from the very beginning. But it's especially true that the Klondike rush was susceptible to this mythologizing, because it played into how America wanted to think of itself, these ideas about manifest destiny in the western frontier, and constant expansion and economic opportunity. These are not just 20th- or 21st- century concepts, these were things that were important then too. So the Klondike played into that; it was like an accentuated version of all of those existing American myths. It was ripe for it. A different culture, a different nation of people would have different touchstones that they would immediately mythologize. It happens in other cultures, but around different things.
KB: You saved the revelation about who really discovered the gold that set off the stampede for the end of the book. Why did you decide to structure the narrative in that way?
BC: Why talk about how Skookum Jim [and not George Carmack] was the actual discoverer of the gold? Why save that to the end? I wish I could have had Skookum Jim be one of the full characters in this book, but there's just not enough material, except in some oral histories collected by historians. I didn't feel like I had enough to fully write everything from his perspective and do it justice.
Knowing the limits of what I had, and knowing how this fight over who actually discovered the gold shaped what happened later, and how George Carmack taking credit for it from the very beginning shaped how people viewed him and viewed the entire endeavor, there was also a certain amount of form follows function. It’s been in the oral histories, and now kind of grudgingly accepted by other historians about who the actual discoverer was. But even if you go on official American and Canadian history websites, they'll say “help us solve the mystery of who discovered the Klondike Gold.”
His name was Lying George. We're very clear what the history is, but it's still treated like a mystery in some places, which I think is funny, and not in a good way. It says something about how we continue to view the history. The fact that it's only been in some academic papers, or in less popular articles, and that it has only been cleared up in the last 10 or 20 years, I think that says something.
KB: Why do you think there's still so much resistance to accepting that version of the story, which seems like it's the true version of the story, when you consider the evidence?
BC: There was a long fight that I didn't go into in the book [about who the discoverer was]. But we have letters that show Robert Henderson (who was the Canadian miner from Nova Scotia) continued to lobby the Canadian government for decades, arguing that he should be recognized as the real discoverer. The letters didn't start this way, but eventually they took on a real racial edge, saying that Canada cannot accept either an indigenous person or an American who was married to an indigenous person as the discoverer.
Carmack is the one who logs the discovery officially with the government. So you have an official government record that says he was the discoverer. From then on, you have to prove otherwise. And then you have the long fight with Henderson and Carmack with the Canadian government of who should be recognized that takes place in the 1920s and 30s. Carmack’s letters, which tell a slightly different story, were only discovered in the 1980s in a used bookstore.
I think that the original story told by Carmack played into American stereotypes. It was not something that was a priority to get right, except for scholars like Julie Cruickshank. Dr. Cruickshank collected oral histories of the Tlingit people and talked to many people for whom it was very clear what had happened. And then if you go into Carmack’s letters, it all gets corroborated. But there weren't a lot of historians working on this. There wasn't momentum to set this right.
KB: Histories often reveal as much about the time that they were written in as they do about the time they're written about. How do you think the pressures and the preoccupations of our present shaped or influenced the work and the research of this book?
BC: Would I have focused as much on indigenous stories and stories of women if we weren't in the current moment? I think that was definitely an influence; I would hope it's a positive influence. I was not trying to catch on a fad; I was trying to do right by the subject matter. I think there's a practical consideration that you want to tell as complete a story as you can, and if you leave out women and indigenous people, then you've left out a significant part of the story. It might be that in a different time, 15 years from now, when the story gets rewritten by a different author, there will be some aspect of it that I've missed, or I did not think was as important, that they will be sure to focus on.
I think it's worth mentioning word choice, too. I have an author's note in front, explaining why I used words in the book that are offensive, words that are offensive to me. This really gets to the heart of your question: there's the history of the time, and then there's the moment that you're in, and those things are in tension. I used the N-word three times in the book. The three times I used the N-word are related to specific names of people or things. I use another word, an epithet for indigenous women, and I used it in the book when people would actually have used it. What I didn't want to do was write a sanitized version that would be more acceptable to today. I wanted to be really honest about how people thought of each other and talked about each other. The racism in the Klondike was so casual that they had a blackface minstrel show that was a fundraiser for the Catholic hospital. It was so common. And even we find it offensive, racist, and horrific, I don't think readers are served by editing those portions to make it more palatable. I'd rather present the whole ugly thing. Without being gratuitous, of course.
KB: I do think that to leave out the ugliness of the language and of the time is to tell an incomplete story. You are doing the reader a disservice, in some ways, if they don't fully understand the mindset of these men who came looking for gold in Alaska, their mindset about indigenous people, and about the land that they were on, and about women. Reading the way that people really spoke helps you to understand that mindset. I struggled with the language as a reader, but I can understand why you included it.
BC: Isn't this the same discussion we're having right now about how to teach slavery in schools? The question is: do you include all the details of how terrible slavery was? It's essentially the same argument. Do you talk about all of the horrible things that happened? Or are you making people uncomfortable? Are you terrifying people? Are you teaching people to hate each other? I would err on the side of trusting the reader and trying to tell it as truthfully as possible and not so censored.
KB: Ultimately, I don't think it does any good in terms of truth-telling to airbrush that ugliness out of American history. I can understand why past historians and past writers would want to tell only the story of the person who was wildly successful, because that was an exciting story to tell. When you include the fact that most people did not get rich, and many died anonymously in the mountains instead, that is not as appealing as a story. But it's much closer to what really happened.
BC: It's also true that there were cases of people who got rich and became incredibly successful and lived the dream, like Clarence and Ethel Berry, who became fabulously wealthy. Berry Petroleum was sold a few years ago for $4.3 billion. That really happened, too.
But even with the Berrys, in most of the histories, the story was, Clarence Berry got rich, and Ethel just happened to be there. I tried to go back and read much more about it, and Clarence gave his wife credit, and he was honest about how much Ethel did at the time. But the way the papers wrote it and the way history books wrote it was that Clarence singlehandedly made himself rich. So I did try to rescue Ethel a little bit from history, because I think she's fascinating, so I was happy to be able to read about both.
KB: I could definitely see how her role could have been erased, because in that era, just like in ours, there’s an erasure of the importance of women's work. In reality, her work was very important to the couple’s success.
BC: If they weren't partners, they would never have gotten so far.
KB: So many of the people in this book set off on what was an extremely dangerous journey for which they were extremely unprepared. It’s hard to understand why so many of them kept going when there was so little chance of reward and so many risks. What was really motivating those people to press on? Was it about greed, or economic desperation? Was it a mob mentality, a mass attack of “Klondicitis”?
BC: I have two completely contradictory thoughts on this. And I tried to lay them out in the afterword, and I'm not sure I fully covered them. On the one hand, it does feel like a madness of crowds; it doesn't make sense. It is incredible hardship for very little gain. And if you're tempted to try to find a modern equivalent, there are anti-vaxxers, or Qanon, or people who get trapped in Ponzi schemes or anything where people have bought into an idea and the cost of breaking that idea is too great psychologically, and so they stay in the cult. So on the one hand, I can say, this doesn't make any sense, and look at all these other examples that don't make sense.
On the other hand, there are people doing this [kind of journey] today, and I don't see them as cultish or crazy. There are people walking across the Sonoran Desert right now, at the southern border of the United States, trying to get into the United States for economic opportunity. And they're passing the bodies of other people as they go. They’ve traveled from Guatemala or El Salvador, and sometimes they've walked the entire way. And now they're going through this horrific desert, to try to get a job for less than minimum wage, because they're being paid under the table. I see this all over the world. I was in Libya two years ago, and Tripoli was full of people from Niger, and Cameroon, and West Africa, and workers trying to get to Italy. They're going to try to cross the Mediterranean on a floating raft, and what's going to happen when they get to Italy? They’re going to get a job, they hope. They know how many hundreds of people have died before them, and they keep going anyway.
So is the Klondike Gold Rush like this human migration happening now, that a lot of people, myself included, have some sympathy for? Or was it like a cultish conspiracy theory that people were sucked into? I don't know. Maybe it's both. ■