The Nature of Gold

An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush

Kathryn Morse
Foreword by William Cronon

  • Published: 2003. Paperback 2010
  • Subject Listing: History / Western History; Environmental Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 304 pp., 52 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
  • Contents

In 1896, a small group of prospectors discovered a stunningly rich pocket of gold at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, and in the following two years thousands of individuals traveled to the area, hoping to find wealth in a rugged and challenging setting. Ever since that time, the Klondike Gold Rush - especially as portrayed in photographs of long lines of gold seekers marching up Chilkoot Pass - has had a hold on the popular imagination.

In this first environmental history of the gold rush, Kathryn Morse describes how the miners got to the Klondike, the mining technologies they employed, and the complex networks by which they obtained food, clothing, and tools. She looks at the political and economic debates surrounding the valuation of gold and the emerging industrial economy that exploited its extraction in Alaska, and explores the ways in which a web of connections among America's transportation, supply, and marketing industries linked miners to other industrial and agricultural laborers across the country. The profound economic and cultural transformations that supported the Alaska-Yukon gold rush ultimately reverberate to modern times.

The story Morse tells is often narrated through the diaries and letters of the miners themselves. The daunting challenges of traveling, working, and surviving in the raw wilderness are illustrated not only by the miners' compelling accounts but by newspaper reports and advertisements. Seattle played a key role as "gateway to the Klondike." A public relations campaign lured potential miners to the West and local businesses seized the opportunity to make large profits while thousands of gold seekers streamed through Seattle.

The drama of the miners' journeys north, their trials along the gold creeks, and their encounters with an extreme climate will appeal not only to scholars of the western environment and of late-19th-century industrialism, but to readers interested in reliving the vivid adventure of the West's last great gold rush.
Kathryn Morse is assistant professor of history at Middlebury College in Vermont.

"Morse demonstrates the dramatic environmental damage created by the gold rush, but she also helps us understand the very real accommodations that miners had to make if they hoped to survive in these far northern landscapes. . . . She is a superb storyteller with a wry sense of humor, a flair for the quirky detail and the revealing anecdote, and a keen appreciation for the tragicomic underside of this famous event."
-William Cronon, from the Foreword

"This environmental history of a gold rush is as surprising, revealing, and complicated as gold itself. I know of nothing quite like this wry and clever book."
-Richard White

"If you're only allowed one book about the Klondike Gold Rush, I suppose it has to be Jack London. But this volume definitely comes next - a wonderfully compelling account of what it actually felt like to pack up and head to the Yukon. Scholars will find it provocative and deep, but all readers will find it absorbing, touching, funny - a truly revealing window on our national history and our national character."
-William McKibben

"The Nature of Gold follows environmental history's prescription to examine how people know nature through labor. But this is no myopic study of gold seekers trudging up Chilkoot Pass and then lighting the fires that thawed the frozen earth for mining. Kathryn Morse recognizes how profoundly the economic and political culture of the 1890s shaped the rush for gold in Alaska and the Yukon. And she details the varieties of interconnected human and animal labor that sustained the Klondike rush, from the Native peoples who hauled supplies over the pass, to the woodcutters who provided the fuel for steamboats, to the packhorses and sled dogs who moved gods from place to place, to the local fishers and hunters and distant farmhands and meatpackers who kept the miners and their beasts fed. The Nature of Gold effectively and seamlessly blends both older and newer environmental history methodologies, and does so in an eminently accessible and compelling prose style."
-Susan Lee Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Foreword by William Cronon
Introduction: On the Chilkoot
1/The Culture of Gold
2/The Nature of the Journey
3/The Culture of the Journey
4/The Nature of Gold Mining
5/The Culture of Gold Mining
6/The Nature and Culture of Food
7/The Nature and Culture of Seattle
Conclusion: Nature, Culture, and Value
Selected Bibliography

"The Nature of Gold is a tour de force of modern scholarship. It takes on special significance because few theoretical analyses of northern settlement, particularly in Alaska, have yet been written, and the Klondike gold rush is one of the first historical events newcomers to the field find themselves drawn to. This work will give them just the introduction they need to construct a meaningful understanding of northern history. ."
-Pacific Northwest Quarterly