John Sandlos is a professor in the History Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the co-author (with Arn Keeling) of “Mining Country: A History of Canada’s Mines and Miners,” published by James Lorimer and Co. in 2021.
Among the thousands of people who searched for gold amid the rivers and creeks of the Klondike in the late 1890s, Skookum Jim stands out as one of the most famous, but also perhaps the most enigmatic. The basics of Jim’s life story, and his role in the gold rush, are well-known. He was born among the Tagish people near Bennett Lake in 1854 (perhaps 1855), and his real name was Keish.
By 1885, the first small groups of prospectors had arrived in Dyea, Alaska, and Keish and his nephew Kaa Goox (also knowns as Dawson or Tagish Charlie) found work as packers and guides, ferrying supplies up over the notorious steep and rocky slope of the Chilkoot Pass. It was there that Keish first met a 24-year-old prospector from California, George Carmack, who eventually married Jim’s sister, Shaaw Tlaa (or Kate Carmack).
Keish and George did not immediately start prospecting together. The gold strike at Fortymile in 1887 brought more prospectors and more packing work to the region, so Keish continued in that occupation and soon earned the name Skookum, meaning strong, because of his reputation for carrying heavy loads.
In July 1896, Jim and Charlie met George and Kate at the mouth of Klondike River, and then travelled up a Klondike River tributary named Rabbit Creek (later re-named Bonanza Creek), where one of them (nobody knows who) found the large nugget of gold that sparked the Klondike Rush.