Once known as the richest woman in North America, Kate Carmack, born Shaaw Tláa, played a pivotal role in the rush for Dawson Alaska and the Canadian Klondike gold. Shaaw was from a small, isolated First Nations tribe and in 1886, she was given in marriage to prospector George Carmack, who renamed her Kate. During a dozen years of wandering with her husband as he searched for gold in vain, Shaaw cooked, sewed, and did laundry to support them.George had first married Shaaw Tlaa’s older sister, but when she died not long after their marriage, Shaaw took her place. No official record was made of the marriage, an oversight Shaaw would live to regret.
In January 1893, seven years after their marriage, Shaaw gave birth to the couple’s only child, a girl named Graphie Gracie. The family continued to roam across the Yukon territory, prospecting.
Then on August 17, 1896 on an expedition up the Klondike River, her brother Skookum Jim, accompanied by her nephew and her husband, discovered the gold that set off one of the biggest stampedes in history. The sight was marked by Carmack’s hand-written sign:
“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: I do, this day, locate and claim, by right of discovery, five hundred feet, running upstream from this notice. Located this 17th day of August, 1896. G.W. Carmack.”
Carmack earned the nickname of ‘Lyin George’ after he convinced his brother in law that Indians could not stake claims, which was not true, so all the claims were put in his name. Although the group was digging thousands of dollars of gold out of their claims, they were far from any town, and gold could not heat a cabin or fill a stomach and the winter of 96 was harsh. Until the spring thaw (when the gold could be sluiced and separated from mud and dirt), they had no means of support. So, while her husband and brother spent that fall and winter digging out their gold, Shaaw kept food on the table by doing laundry for other miners.
When spring came, the partners were finally able to collect their washed out gold. Carmack, Skookum Jim and Shaaw had over $100,000 from their winter of mining. (Using an inflation calculator this means that today that 100k would be worth 2,690,444.58) The couple stayed in the Klondike for one more year but the start of what would be a 300 thousand person stampede to the north was beginning, they left the Yukon with their treasure. One of the very few that got their gold out of Canada.
In 1899, they left for California,stopping in Seattle where they were the center of attention wherever they went in response to the sign George insisted on putting on their carriage: “Geo. Carmack, Discoverer of Gold in the Klondike.” In early September the pair caused quite a disturbance when they tossed coins from their hotel roof to an ever-growing crowd. Life away from the rest of her family and the land she knew best was more than hard on Kate and she was increasingly unhappy in Seattle. The local newspaper was quick to print the story. “Mrs. George W. Carmack, the Indian wife of the discoverer of the Klondike, who is probably the richest Indian woman in the world, was fined $3.60 by Judge Cann this morning for drunkenness. The Seattle Times, September, 1899. It was a solitary indiscretion that would come back to haunt her.
Instead of returning to the north together, George left Shaaw and Gracie at his sisters ranch in California and returned to Dawson alone. It was clear he enjoyed his “discoverer” status and within a brief time of his return to Dawson, he stated his intentions in a letter he wrote to his sister. He instructed her to send Shaaw back to her clan in Canada and to inform her that he intended to marry another. Shaaw made a legal appeal for her share of the gold and sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion and adultery. Unfortunately for Shaaw, since no marriage papers had been filed, the court did not recognize its existence. George and Marguerite were married late in 1900.
Carmack died a rich man in Vancouver in 1922 and his new wife inherited his wealth. Shaaw, who subsequently lost her daughter, Graphie, to George as well, returned to her Tagish clan and lived off of a government pension in a cabin that Skookum Jim built for her. In 1920, Shaaw died in Carcross, Alaska during a flu epidemic. She was 63.
T Lee’s thoughts on designing a collection for Shaaw Tláa:
Shaaw’s life was one of lost opportunity, abuse, loss and injustice. She worked tirelessly for the men in her life and it has been estimated that she profited a mere $500.00 from their multi million dollar strike. The Circle of Life Ring illustrates the Tlingit crow clans community and the support that she and her people gave to miners searching for gold. The twelve holes that pierce the shank of the ring signify the years that she gave in service while George prospected in vain, and the 63 partial holes represent prospecting that never produced gold. Her Eagle Earrings were a study in courage using inspiration from other Canadian First Nations art. The Pave Boat Ring uses forms borrowed from a river boat, a pivotal tool to a gold prospector. The 18kt gold ‘boat’ is pave set with yellow sapphires and held upright by two nuggets of pure 24kt gold. Again, 12 marks around the shank indicate 12 years Shaaw spent supporting George and receiving no support in return. The PickAx and Shovel Earrings with rutilated quartz were inspired by tools she saw every day. Shaaw played a huge part in Yukon Gold Rush but like many women of her times, had little recognition for her role.’ T Lee December 2016