The name Yukon is derived from the Loucheux first nations word Yukunah which means `big river'. The land was mainly occupied by the Tagish and Tlingit native people for centuries before the non-native explorers arrived in the 1820s. In the 1840s fur traders set up a few Hudson's Bay Company posts along the Yukon River. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, there wasn’t a clear border between Alaska and the Northwest Territories, as the land was known then. In 1887-88 William Ogilvie, a Canadian surveyor, surveyed the area making the 141st meridian the western boundary with Alaska and the 60th parallel the southern border with British Columbia. Hence the phrase North of 60.
Prospectors went north looking for gold in the 1880s and there was a gold strike along the Fortymile River, which drains into the Yukon River, in 1886. There were other smaller strikes until 1896 when gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek later renamed Bonanza Creek. A town named Dawson sprang up on the Yukon River at the mouth of the Klondike River. When word of the gold discovery reached the outside world in the summer of 1897, thousands of men, women and children hurried to Dawson during the winter of 1897-1898 hoping to find their fortune.
Because of the rush Dawson grew quickly to be the largest city north of San Francisco and it became known as the `Paris of the North'. It had hotels, dance halls, daily newspapers and saloons for its 30,000 inhabitants. Fresh eggs were brought by raft on the Yukon River; whiskey came in by the boatload before freeze-up; gambling made rich men out of some and paupers out of others; dance hall girls charged $5 dollars in gold for each minute they danced with a miner; the janitors made up to $50 dollars a night when they panned out the sawdust from the barroom floors. Due to the influx of people, the region officially entered into the confederation of Canada and was designated as the Yukon Territory on June 13, 1898. Dawson became the capital. Eventually the word `territory' was dropped and it was called The Yukon.
A Territorial Administration Building was constructed in 1901 for the territorial seat of government and Dawson was the centre for the government administration until 1953 when the capital was moved to Whitehorse.
The Klondike gold rush ended in 1899 when word of a gold discovery in Nome, Alaska, reached the prospectors and they headed further north. However, over the next few decades gold companies were formed and continued to mine the creeks, this time using dredges to dig up the creek bottom. They left behind huge piles of gravel called tailings. The dredging lasted until 1960 when gold prices declined making the operation uneconomical. Today, mining is done with big trucks, huge sluices, and back hoes.
The north is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun after the words in Robert W. Service’s poem The Cremation of Sam McGee:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The Yukon has the smallest desert in the world, the Carcross Desert, near the town of Carcross. It is an area that was once covered by a glacial lake. As the glaciers melted the level of the lake lowered until just the sandy bottom was left. Winds off Lake Bennett keep the sand moving and prevent most plants and trees from taking root on this.
During the late Wisconsin ice age (10,000 to 70,000 years ago) an arid section of the northern hemisphere was not glaciated because of the lack of moisture to support the expansion of the glaciers. The area, called Beringia after the Bering Strait which is near the centre of the region, encompassed parts of present-day eastern Siberia, Alaska, The Yukon, and ended at the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. The growth of continental glaciers sucked up moisture which led to the sea level dropping by up to 106 metres (350 feet). As a result, a land bridge was formed between northwest North America and northeast Asia.
It is believed that parts of western Beringia (eastern Siberia today) were occupied by man 35,000 years ago. The forming of the Bering Land Bridge allowed the first humans to travel from Asia to North America. There is evidence that the history of man in North America goes back 25,000 years ago.
Some of the animals that survived for thousands of years in this arid land surrounded by glaciers were the North American horse and camel, the steppe bison, the giant beaver that weighed up to 181 kilograms (400 pounds), the Mastodon, the woolly mammoth, the giant short-faced bear, the scimitar cat, the American lion, and the giant ground sloth. All of these are extinct.
The territory of The Yukon was founded on gold mining, but there has been coal and silver mining in the territory also. It is now a favourite destination for tourists.