EB Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research

September 1997 No. 23

They Came to Yellowknife

If you look up Yellowknife in a 1935 world atlas, at least one published in the U. S., you'll come up empty-handed. The provincial capital of the North West Territories, an area covering well over a million square miles, does not appear on the map or in the index. Yet the area's been visited often down through the millennia.

First to arrive, as the 4th (Wisconsinian) glacial period receded across the North American continent, were the Hay River and the Slave River. Arising on the eastern slope of British Columbia's Rocky Mountains the Hay River flowed generally north-northeast. The Slave River, coming out of Alberta and Saskatchewan's Athabasca Lake flowed north-northwest. Their paths crossed at a irregularly-shaped,11,000 square mile glacier-gouged depression in the earth's surface and their waters created the eleventh largest lake in the world. Great Slave Lake. And when the depression had filled with their waters, the overflow gouged or followed a path northwestward across the plains and tundra, eventually emerging into the Arctic Ocean at a point about a hundred miles to the east of the Alaskan border. The stage was set for human visitors.

Anthropologists still debate who the first peoples in the region were; precise answers may never be found. The first clearly identified humans, arriving in the early 1800s, were various bands of the Athabascan or Dene (Den-nay), including the Chipewyan, Slavey, Dogrib and Yellowknife. The Dene were separated ethnically from the Inuit, who dwelt mostly in the tundra zone of northernmost Canada, while the Dene occupied the taiga mixed forest and tundra zone just to the south. Semi-nomadic, they followed the caribou migrations throughout the area, living in brush-covered tepees in the summer and in winter erecting equally temporary lodges of poles and spruce branches. With lifestyles similar to that of the Plains tribes down through the North American continent to the south, their religion was somewhat unusual, with a belief not only in guardian spirits but also that the soul was eased into death by the confession of sins. There seems to be no record of a previous Roman Catholic influence on the tribes.

The area around the southern shore of the lake was settled by the Slavey band. So named by the Cree and Chipewyan tribes, who often took members of the band prisoner and made bondsmen of them, they would leave their unflattering name on the area, in the name of a river and as the Great Slave Lake. Those on the northern shore were known as the Yellowknife due to the copper found in the metal of their knife blades, giving their name to the city.

It was a Chipewyan guide, Mattonabe, that brought the first European to the Great Slave area, in 1772. Former Londoner Samuel Hearne, a Royal Navy veteran (where he began as a boy servant at the age of 12, later fighting the French in the Seven Years War) who had gone to work as the mate of the Hudson's Bay Company's whaling sloop Churchill, was later assigned the task of exploring northwestern Canada, seeking copper deposits. It was on his third journey, returning to after finding a disappointingly small amount of copper (one four-pound nugget), that Hearne crossed the Great Slave Lake on its ice. He wasn't in the mood to linger, nearing the completion of a 3500-mile round trip, by now trudging on bloody feet,
the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean by land, the first to see the lake as well as the later-named Mackenzie River system.

Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie himself was the next European to visit the region. A partner of the North West Company, rival to the HBC, Mackenzie had taken charge of Fort Chipewyan, at the Alberta end of Lake Athabasca, in 1788. Wintering over there, he then set out in June of 1789, following the Slave River northward and crossing Great Slave Lake. Local natives informed him of a great river flowing north from the lake. Such hints of a possible Northwest Passage would make explorers salivate for years to come, and lure them on to many adventures, often including death. (Roald Amundsen would be the first to actually sail through the true passage, making a end run across the top of the continent in the years 1903 to 1906). Mackenzie set off up the river, ending up not on the shores of the Pacific Ocean but instead at the Arctic Ocean. He returned to Fort Chipewyan in mid-September. In 1793 he would become the first European to cross North America, north of Mexico. U. S. explorers Lewis and Clark would not match the feat until 1805.

So far the entire region would seem to be a real estate agent's nightmare - a barely tolerable place to visit; but you wouldn't want to live there. The fishing was good, but Europeans were content to leave the area to the Natives. For close to the next hundred years they would stay away in droves. Then, on August 16, 1896, George Washington Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie discovered gold on the Klondike River. Miners on their way to the new diggings passed along Yellowknife Bay on the Great Slave. They discovered traces of gold on Yellowknife Bay, but it was too hard to access and they hardly hesitated before rushing on to the Klondike El Dorado.

The century turned. A World War came and went. Yellowknife slept.

The 1920s came to an end. Yellowknife's population was negligible. Gertrude Stein would have been forced to admit there was no there there either. But by 1940 population had climbed to 1,000 people. In that one decade, Yellowknife boomed - loudly. In the late twenties the float-plane had begun opening the Canadian wilderness to industrialism. Newcomers found an wealth of natural resources. Pitchblende, source of radium and uranium was discovered around 1930. Yellowknife Bay yielded gold in 1934. Beginning in 1936 the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada and other four other corporations began sinking shafts on Great Slave's northern shore. By December of 1938 gold was being brought to the surface in commercial quantities. Two year later the town became a city - administrative head of the Mackenzie District. Then the area's fortunes ebbed. The Second World War began siphoning manpower out of the region. Gold, unnecessary for the production of war's machinery, became a industrial stepchild and by 1944 the mines were closed.

Then the pendulum once more reversed itself, fortunes again flowed. The mid-40s brought a new gold rush, new population. 1953 saw the election of the city's first mayor. In 1967 Yellowknife became the provincial capital. And a few years later, Roger Wallace Warren came to Yellowknife.

Arriving in the mid-70s he soon found employment, working first as a mechanic, then a hard rock miner for nearly a dozen years, for the Royal Oak Mines Inc. A family man, with a wife and two grown daughters, Warren played on the local hockey team, alongside fellow worker Norman Hourie. Things went smoothly until the spring of 1992, when a labor dispute at Royal Oak sent the miners walking off the job. As the strike continued the company hired 150 replacement workers. Then 45 union miners crossed the picket lines and returned to work. The labor climate got uglier than the natural climate ever could. Replacement workers would find their tires slashed. Rioting broke out on the picket lines. There were brawls in city schoolyards.

Then, on September 18th, 1992, at nine o'clock in the morning, an explosion ripped through a mine tunnel 750 feet beneath the earth's surface. Norman Hourie and eight other miners never had a chance. Roger Warren was not in the shaft at the time. An outspoken critic of the replacement workers and the men who crossed the lines, he soon became a prime suspect and eventually confessed to the crime. A police videotape introduced at the trial showed Warren taking detectives into the
mine shaft and demonstrating how he had placed 38 kilograms of explosives beside a rail track, attached a length of fishing line to the homemade bomb and stretched the line across the track, to be tripped by a moving mining car.

Two days after his confession he recanted, pleading mental stress. Medication for an irregular heartbeat had caused sexual impotence. He had thought he was dying from testicular cancer. Voices had urged him to falsely confess so as to end the 17-month strike. An eleven-member Northwest Territories Supreme Court jury deliberated for five days. They would convict Robert Warren of nine counts of second-degree murder and recommended a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 20 years. Two months after his arrest, the labor dispute was settled.

Today in Yellowknife things are beginning a settle back into normalcy, normal for a northern Canadian settlement at least (bears are often sighted within city limits.) There are ten schools, a racquet club, a curling rink, bowling alley, and softball fields. A public library. High-rise office buildings and apartment houses. Automatic Teller Machines. An Arts center and a Heritage Center. Still, you're not apt to forget that the life can be a bit spartan at times. When you sign up for a round at the local golf club, they hand you a piece of artificial turf to carry with you. It's the closest they can come to providing a fairway.


Checking the Eagles Byte chronologies for Items related to natural resources during the period of the Klondike gold rush, we turn up the following events:

Gold is discovered in the Mojave Desert. ** 10,400,000 tons of Great Lakes iron ore is unloaded at ports of the eastern lakes.

Cornwall, England's Botallack Mine (copper) closes.

Aug 10
"Big Bill" Heywood joins Silver City local of Western Federation of Miners.

Aug 12
Gold is discovered in Yukon's Klondike.

Aug 17
Prospector George Washington Carmack and his party discover gold in Alaska's Rabbit Creek.

Aug 18
Carmack registers his claim, setting off a gold rush.

Arizona's Goldfield mines lose the vein. An attempt by geologist Alfred Lewis to open a new level is foiled by flooding. ** 27,000,000 acres are added to the U. S. Forest Reserves. ** Martin Hibbs discovers copper in Oregon's Hell's Canyon of the Snake River, settles near Granite Creek.

Marcus Samuel, English trader in seashells, begins dealing in oil - the beginnings of Shell Oil.

Feb 28
The U. S. Supreme Court rules,. in Holden v. Hardy, that Utah may limit working hours in its mines to eight hours, setting a precedent for future labor negotiations.

Nevada's Comstock Lode is abandoned as economically unfeasible. ** 13,600,000 tons of Great Lakes iron ore is unloaded at ports of the eastern lakes.

Oil trader Marcus Samuel is knighted.

A silver rush develops on Alaska's Copper River. ** A syndicate buys up most of the salt wells in the Warsaw, New York, area. ** Mining engineer Herbert Hoover marries Lou Henry.


If you're at all like me, the finding the origin of the names on a map makes an intriguing way to pass the odd moment or two. Canada has some of the most colorful; take a look at this month's URL

Here you'll find a trivia buffs heaven. It's broken down into ten categories:

Aboriginal Communities; Did you know!?!; Geographical Names - Teachers' Aid; People, Places and Things; Students' Work; Canadian Cities; Explorers; National Parks; Provinces and Territories; What is a pingo?

You'll find the new name for Canyon City (Gitwinksihlkw); the railway stop named for Flintabatty Flonatin; mountains named for Santa's reindeer; the capital city originally called Pile O'Bones; the origin of Kicking Horse Pass. The names of Canada's islands.

Have a ball!

EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (more detailed versions available)

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I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.
If you'd like further information and/or fees, feel free to e-mail me.

David Minor
Copyright 1997 David Minor Eagles Byte