Manitoba History: A Thousand Words: The Yukon Party from Manitoba
The men who posed for a photograph on 8 June 1897 were poised for adventure. Some would return home many years later, or not at all. All would have memories to last a lifetime. They were the first Manitobans bound for the Yukon, joining thousands from around the world in the Klondike Gold Rush. Their plan was simple. They would travel together to the gold fields, break into parties of three or four, stake claims, work them for two years, and hope for the best.
The men hailed from Winnipeg, Selkirk, Neepawa, Meadow Lea, Rat Portage (now Kenora), and Brandon. Most were of English or Scottish descent, and came from good (if not wealthy) families. Archibald J. Bannerman, the 35-year-old descendent of Selkirk settlers, was a financier, real estate broker, and former member of the Winnipeg city council. George McKay was born in 1854 at Fort Ellice, one of eleven children of an HBC Chief Factor. An Anglican clergyman, he took a leave of absence to go to the Klondike. Herbert Tremayne, a Briton in his mid-20s, was married three days before heading off. John D. McMurray, born in 1872, had married a daughter of Samuel L. Bedson (first warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary) and assumed responsibility for her five orphaned siblings. McMurray was also the father of two young children, with a third born three months after his departure. Doctor Horace C. Norquay was born in 1841 at a trading post on Lake Manitoba where his father, future Manitoba premier John Norquay, was a clerk.
On the night before the departure, Horace Norquay played a final game with his football club. Sam Taylor’s parents sent him off with an evening of food, dancing, and music ending with a rousing chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Charles Garbutt, a quartermaster in the Royal Canadian Dragoons, was mustered out with a party of “musical and literary numbers” and a purse containing $180 in gold. Garbutt “hoped to see some of his old friends follow him to the Yukon and promised to send reliable information as to how things were.” 
The afternoon of 1 June saw the party gathered on the CPR platform, preparing to board a special car on the westbound train. Chris Corneil was presented with a compass by friends from his boarding house, and Archie Bannerman’s brother Masons presented him with a jewel. Alexander MacFarlane was especially popular. “A bevy of north end young ladies surrounded him and as the conductor called out “all aboard” he implanted a kiss on the cheek of a relative as he made way toward the car, but his passage was impeded and all the young ladies indicated in a modest manner that they expected equal treatment. McFarlane saw there was no getting out of it … and he tackled the job with a zeal … while his companions gazed on with dejected aspect and countenances which expressed a desire to share in the leave-taking.” 
The group arrived in Victoria within a week. They gathered outside the Dominion Hotel to have their photograph taken by John H. Clarke, a photographer from Selkirk. Then, they boarded a ship bound for Juneau, Alaska, where they planned to buy supplies. L. R. MacKenzie described Juneau in a letter home: “This is a red hot town, everything is wide open day and night, with the accent on the night. They pay no license or taxes or insurance … they have several dance halls and gambling resorts and they are full all night.”  On 14 June, the party left for Dyea, trailhead of the Chilkoot Pass, where they hired natives to pack their gear over to Lake Bennett at a cost of “… $15 per hundred [pounds] or to the top of the summit for $10 per hundred.” 
Mail became sporadic after the party left Dyea, being dependent on the good will of returning strangers. The trip inland was not without adventure, as Horace Norquay would later recall. “We went … to the mouth of the Yukon River where we built our boats. These were just small skiffs. We had great fun building them. Going up the river we had to portage and when Billy Moore was pulling the boat along the shore it got caught in a rock. While we were trying to loosen it, both the boat and I went down the rapid. Just then a big Norwegian who was freighting supplies came along. He threw me a rope that was looped so that I was able to catch on to it by both elbows. Then he jerked me out of the churning water and left me lying on the river bank. There was no first aid. He went right on about his business. I was exhausted.” 
The party reached its destination in late 1897. A letter sent from Dawson by Chris Corneil with a departing miner in mid-February 1898 arrived at Victoria in late March. Despite the rugged conditions, he had enjoyed Christmas dinner of “… a splendid roast of beef made with brown gravy and onions, fried potatoes, butter, bread, cheese, cookies, dried fruit, and last but not least, some good fruit cake, which Archie Bannerman had brought from Winnipeg.”  Temperatures had plunged to -50°F. Supplies were costly: a pad of writing paper was $10 and a glass of booze was $1. But things were looking up. They “saw the sun shining in all his glory, something they had not seen for two months before … A real estate office had just been completed in Dawson for Archie Bannerman. It was made out of an old boat and has a tent roof; sides inside lined with cotton, and lively business was expected … Bannerman stands a chance of making a good thing in a quartz claim which runs across Eldorado Creek. He has a half interest therein and samples shown are the richest ever seen by any of the miners at Dawson … Dan [Coates] is doing well, has two or three claims and will make a “few thousand.” … Corneil has claims on the Eureka, Rosebud and All Gold creeks, and expected to leave Dawson shortly to do development work thereon. Chas. Garbutt has sold a half interest in his claim for $1,000 down and $4,000 on bed rock … All the Winnipeg boys are reported hale and hearty and will go out with some sort of stake sure.”  Not all the men were active miners. Horace Norquay got married in Dawson, practiced medicine there (and employed his friend John McMurray as a clerk), and served on its city council.
Despite these cheerful prospects, many miners had begun to set their sights on “golder” pastures. Dan Coates wrote that “… all the boys in the Klondike are talking about the Lake of the Woods [where gold had been found in 1881], and many of them have expressed their intention of making a stake and leaving for Rat Portage as soon as they can get out … those who are on the ground are of the opinion that the Lake of the Woods is safest and surer than the Klondike.” 
Chris Corneil returned to Winnipeg in 1904, joining several others who realized their prospects were limited or, having accumulated a modest fortune, retired to a more comfortable city life. Archie Bannerman left the Yukon around the same time. Never marrying, he was active in numerous Winnipeg organizations until his death in 1928. In 1908, Horace Norquay accepted a job at the Selkirk Mental Hospital where he stayed for the rest of his career. He died in 1953. In 1902, George McKay accepted a ministry in South Dakota and Wyoming. He retired to the Black Hills and died there in 1949. The 1897 photo of the “Yukon Party” probably belonged to Reverend McKay, as it was purchased in 2004 from a dealer in nearby Spearfish.
Page revised: 11 January 2011Back to top of page