With the success of dramas such as Downton Abbey, movie makers have turned to history for inspiration. Yay! I’m all for teaching the modern generation about our past, our triumphs and our tragedies, our successes and our mistakes. What concerns me is the willingness of film-makers and screen writers to present fiction as historical fact. Even with the disclaimer at the end or the beginning of the film that the work comes from the writer’s imagination, the viewing public will believe that Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Henry VIII really said and thought what the film portrayed. Historical researchers will spend months or years, poring over personal correspondence, diaries, contemporary writings, newspaper articles and pictures of the day to ensure the accuracy of what they publish to the world about historical characters. Modern film-makers seem cavalier about truth. If the real life of an historical character is dull, they just make up stuff to give it more sex-appeal, attributing thoughts and words to an historical figure that may even contradict what is known about that person’s beliefs. As a writer and a lover of history, I find this approach disturbing.
“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill. I believe this is true. How often throughout history have we seen the same forces at work – greed, intolerance, hatred, fear, racism, — leading mankind into war and famine and suffering. Yet, how can we learn from the past if the past is distorted? I’m all in favour of a good story, in an historical setting, with real-life characters playing a role, but I think the made-up stuff should only apply to the made-up people.
To that end, I present this brief biography of one of the first women of the Klondike. It’s as accurate as I can make it. The tale needs no embellishment to touch the heart.
Sometime around 1886, Shaaw Tlaa, the daughter of a Tagish woman and a Tlingit man married, “in the custom of the country”, George Carmack, an American prospector and had a daughter with him. Upon her marriage, Shaaw Tlaa became known as Kate Carmack. Kate was skilled in the art of survival in the harsh climate of the Yukon. She kept house for her husband, raised their daughter, Graphie Grace, sewed moccasins and warm winter clothing to sell to other miners, picked berries and snared game for food and even took in laundry to keep the family going until the mining claims began to pay. Then on Aug, 16, 1896, George, along with Kate’s brothers, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, discovered gold on Rabbit Creek. The three men hurried to Forty Mile on the Yukon River to register their claim and the Klondike Gold Rush was underway. By default, Kate became the first woman on the Klondike. For the first year after their strike, Kate’s life didn’t change much, but in 1898 George decided to take a trip “outside” to enjoy his new wealth. Taking Kate and Graphie Grace with him, George headed south to visit his sister Rose Watson, in California.. In Seattle, George signed Kate into hotels as Mrs. Carmack and showed off his wealth by draping her with gold-nugget necklaces. He even told the newspaper reporters that he had a mind to take his family to the Paris Exposition in 1900 and he would be glad to have Jim and Charlie along. Sadly for Kate, the city proved her undoing. She was unhappy and bewildered in these strange surroundings. She and her brothers drank too much. Once she was arrested and spent a night in jail. The newspapers of the time delighted in portraying Kate and her brothers as wild savages. George doesn’t appear to have done anything to ease her way into southern society. After a few weeks in Seattle, the Carmacks moved on to California to stay with George’s sister, Rose. Rose was delighted to see her brother, but had scant regard for Kate. She must have felt enormous relief in the spring of 1899 when George took her home to the Klondike. The only fly in her ointment was that Graphie Grace stayed behind with her Aunt Rose to be “civilized”. On a second trip South in the summer of 1899, Kate was again sport for the newspapers and George complained bitterly to his sister about her, saying he’d like to send her home to Dyea right away. Instead of acting on that reasonable impulse, George returned to the Yukon alone, leaving Kate with his sister in California. In the winter of 1899-1900, George met Marguerite Laimee in Dawson and proposed at once. Marguerite accepted on the spot. Hurt and confused, Kate charged George with adultery, but although they had lived together as man and wife for thirteen years, she could not produce any legal documentation to support her claims. George married Marguerite in Seattle. Kate returned to the Klondike where. Skookum Jim build her a cabin in Carcross. She earned a small income from selling her needlework to tourists and occasionally posing for photographs. George sent not a single dollar to support her or their daughter. Instead, when Graphie Grace was sixteen, George arranged for her to leave the mission school in Whitehorse and join him in Seattle. It was the greatest betrayal Kate could have endured. In the Tagish traditions children belonged with their mother’s clan. A year later Graphie married her step-mother’s brother and severed all ties with her mother. Kate died of influenza on March 29, 1920.