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The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush

Author(s):Morse, Kathryn
Reviewer(s):Kanazawa, Mark

Published by EH.NET (December 2004)

Kathryn Morse, The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. xviii + 290 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-295-98329-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Kanazawa, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

My father once told the story of my grandfather’s very first impression of Alaska after departing Seattle in 1897 to seek his fortune in the Klondike. It was a decidedly mixed one. Upon arriving by steamer in Skagway he was thrust into the chaotic scene of miners making frantic preparations for the arduous trek up the Chilkoot Pass. Packhorses were being kicked off the steamer into icy waters and made to swim ashore. Red-faced men struggling under enormous loads were stumbling over boulders and tree roots to make their way northward toward the Pass. Yet at the same time my grandfather was instantly taken with the exquisite beauty of the land: the crisp Alaskan air and the stunning vista of the Chilkat Mountains. Like many others caught up in the Klondike Gold Rush he never found his fortune there, but he ended up spending much of his life in Alaska, bringing my father there when he was very young. My grandfather saw that there was much more to this new land than the immediacy of the frantic hunt for golden riches.

One of the many virtues of Kathryn Morse’s fine new book on the Klondike Gold Rush, The Nature of Gold, is how well it conveys the immediacy of the rush itself while placing it within its larger social, economic, and environmental context. (Some of) the details of the Klondike Gold Rush are known to many through popular iconic images such as the endless stream of miners negotiating the snowbound Chilkoot Pass at the beginning of Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush and in scholarly histories such as Paula Mitchell Marks’ Precious Dust. Morse’s rhetorical strategy is to continually weave the details of the story in with interesting and occasionally brilliant insights into the broader picture, so that the reader never loses sight of the forest for the trees. Not that the details alone do not make a compelling story. Her descriptions of the physical challenges of the journey and mining itself, the ill treatment by miners of pack animals, and the scarring effects of mining activities on the local environment alone are well worth the reading, even if some of the details will not be unfamiliar to those who have read other histories and contemporary accounts.

But Morse is after something far more than mere descriptions, no matter how vividly portrayed, of the trials and tribulations of the Klondike miners and their interaction with their surroundings. Not only do we learn about, for example, how much money miners managed to make, we also learn about their preoccupation with how long it took them to make it. Morse interprets this as a reflection of the wage-earning industrial culture of the era but with a unique twist, since most industrial wage-earners could count on being paid for the work they did, which was not true of the typical Klondike miner. Similarly, we learn not only about the different routes taken by miners to get to the Klondike but also how miners’ socioeconomic status determined which route they could afford to take and consequently, how arduous the journey turned out to be. As a third example, descriptions of the technologies that transported miners to the diggings provide the opportunity for deeper musings into the relationship between miners and their environment. This enables Morse to relate her argument to an existing environmental historiography that emphasizes themes of conquest and alienation while allowing her to go much further, to develop a more satisfying story in which the relationship between human actors and their environment is ambiguous and complex, which is a common theme in recent environmental history.

To put the reader in a contextual frame of mind, Morse sets the stage with an initial chapter that takes place not in Alaska at all but on the national political scene. This strategy serves the dual purpose of reminding us of the fierce political struggles taking place in the 1890’s between bimetallists and “goldbugs” over the choice of monetary standard in which gold figured prominently, and allowing her to make a clever connection between gold and nature, a connection found in the political rhetoric of the time. This paves the way for Morse to develop one of the broad themes of her book: the connection between the Gold Rush itself and the natural environment in which it occurred. This basic theme is developed in four subsequent chapters that describe and contextualize the journey made by miners to the Klondike and the mining they undertook once they arrived. In this narrative, the environmental impact of mining on forests, fisheries, wildlife, pack animals and native peoples plays a prominent role. Yet also emphasized is the effect of the environment on the miners themselves through their physical and mental struggles and the limits on their ability to “tame” nature,” all of which run truer to the ambivalence of the recent environmental history literature than to the traditional themes of conquest and alienation.

Of particular interest are two concluding chapters on topics seemingly removed from the immediacy of the Gold Rush: food and the city of Seattle. These topics, however, turn out to be effective rhetorical devices that allow Morse to explore the larger consequences of the Gold Rush and its connections to the outside world. The chapter on food starts out unpromisingly enough with detailed accounts of the types of foods miners consumed, but quickly uses this as an entr?e (so to speak) into considerably more interesting discussions of the geographic origins of many of the foodstuffs imported to the Klondike, nutrition-related diseases, and the effect of increasing miner demand for food on the livelihoods of native peoples. The chapter on Seattle explores the connected fortunes of the city and the Klondike mining industry, including the strategies of city boosters to ensure its preeminence as gateway to and from the Klondike, and in emphasizing these hinterland connections is reminiscent (albeit on a smaller scale) of William Cronon’s account of the rise of Chicago in Nature’s Metropolis.

This book, while fascinating and worthwhile in its own right, should also provide a useful starting point for others who may want to pursue further study of the Klondike Gold Rush and its environmental consequences. I was struck, for example, by the virtual absence of any mention by Morse of hydraulic mining, which was unquestionably the biggest environmental issue that emerged from the California Gold Rush nearly fifty years earlier and was a well-established mining technology by the 1890’s. At first, I thought this omission was a serious problem for any book that purports to be an environmental history of a gold rush. A better interpretation, however, is that the omission simply underscores the fact that Morse’s book is about the Rush itself and not about the progression to a mature industry, where hydraulic mining would have been important (indeed, evidence suggests that hydraulic mining was in fact being introduced in Alaska during the early 1900’s). One research path would be to examine the environmental problems associated with the mature Klondike mining industries, which, as California demonstrates, can dwarf any environmental problems caused by the original rush.

A related topic of interest concerns the cooperative organizational mechanisms adopted by Klondike miners in order to increase their productivity and reduce the potential for disputes over mining claims and other resources. Fifty years earlier, an important element of the story of the California Gold Rush had been how miners banded together into joint stock companies to take advantage of division of labor and economies of scale, and the seemingly spontaneous creation of extralegal mining camps and mining districts that democratically devised governance rules for staking claims and resolving disputes. None of these organizational possibilities, which I need to emphasize appeared on the scene very quickly in California, are dealt with at any length in this book, and the reader is left to wonder what role, if any, they played. The general impression one gets is that Morse accepts the persistent stereotype of the solitary miner scratching out a meager existence largely on his own. Like all stereotypes, this one contains an element of truth but is by no means the entire story.

None of this should be taken as serious criticism of this excellent, well-researched and well-written book, which is a worthy addition to a growing recent environmental history literature that is vastly adding to our understanding of the true nature of human connection to the environment.

Mark Kanazawa is Professor of Economics at Carleton College, and retains his grandfather’s love of wild places. His forthcoming article, “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California” will appear in the Journal of Economic History.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII