Sam Bonnifield

Sam Bonnifield was born in August 1845 in Ohio. He was perhaps a sea captain on the Steamer Humboldt and came to Alaska as early as 1888.

Sam Bonnifield was a professional gambler and saloon owner who followed the gold from Skagway to Dawson City to Fairbanks in the early 1900’s. It is said he won the Yukonia Hotel and then lost it in one night. He and his brother moved to Fairbanks and opened the First National Bank, which shipped out $3 million in gold dust before the depression hit. Bonnifield was known as “Square Sam” and “Silent Sam” because he treated people fairly. He took the near failure of his bank very hard. He became despondent and suffered a “nervous breakdown”, kneeling in the snow in front of his bank crying, ”O God! Please show me the way out.”

In August 1910, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner noted that Sam Bonnifield arrived in town after walking the Valdez Trail. He spent a year recovering on the family farm in Kansas. The newspaper celebrated his return by saying, “No man ever lived in the North who has more real friends than has Sam Bonnifield, and the entire community will be glad to have him here once again.” In October 1911, the Alaska Citizen ran the headline “Sam Bonnifield is Insane Once More.”

“Sam Bonnifield was taken into custody by the Marshall’s office on Wednesday last on the charge of insanity, and placed in the federal jail. He has been unbalanced for some time, but his condition only became very noticeable the day of his arrest.

Bonnifield has never entirely recovered from the mental breakdown occasioned three or four years ago when the First National Bank, of which he was president, went on a script basis. He was taken Outside for treatment at the time of his breakdown and later walked into Fairbanks over the trail.

A few days before his arrest he drew quite a sum of money from the bank and distributed a part of it among the laborers around town; the balance he carried across the river and played with it in the sand.

When arrested he violently talked about President Taft, Cardinal Gibbon and other of prominence, saying that money is their god.”

Sam Bonnifield was found to be “insane” by a jury of six men and taken to Portland. He was admitted to Morningside Hospital on December 23, 1911, where he stayed until June 26, 1914. A few months after his discharge, he received a letter from Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, the head of Morningside Hospital, verifying that he was “recovered”. Dr. Coe went on to give him the following advice:

“All that I can ask of you is that you do not take life too earnestly or strenuously. As I understand it, you are not compelled to do two men’s work. You have worked hard and are entitled to an easier time. Take an easy time.”

Not much is known about Sam’s life after his stay at Morningside. He died in 1943 in Seattle from being hit by an automobile.

1900; P. Berton p 121, 423; The Mysterious North; Gates p124; Morningside Hospital website.

Mr. Patsy Henderson

“Kulsin” Koolseen was Tagish Charlie’s youngest brother. He was with George Carmack when the gold was discovered in the Klondike. He was the only original member of the Discovery Party (although he was back at camp at the time of actual discovery) to record the history of the discovery on tape. As a young man, he wanted a white man’s name, so Carmacks gave him one: Patsy Henderson.

He was born in 1879 maybe in Tagish and worked for White Pass as a storyteller in Carcross. He also had a fox ranch in Carcross. In 1950 he wrote “Early days at Caribou Crossing and the Discover of Gold on the Klondike”. He died in 1966 and is buried in the Carcross Cemetery.

Thornton; Duncan Frontier Spirit

No Smoking!

So, on Thursday we had an election to decide whether to ban smoking in Skagway. It passed overwhelmingly as similar such elections have passed in other Alaskan towns. More people turned out to vote than in any other past election to anyone’s memory. So, now you cannot smoke in buildings that employ people or in any government facility, or within ten feet of any doorway or window of such. You can still smoke in your car or in the privacy of your home. So far “No Smoking” signs have not popped up, but they will I’m sure. The city’s trash cans still have little ashtrays on top labeled “Butts” which I always thought just encouraged people to stand next to them and light up. In case you wondered, yes, there have been little fires that have started on and under the boardwalks and in the flower planter boxes. So perhaps this will prevent any fires in downtown.

Robert McDonald

Robert McDonald was born in 1829 in Point Douglas, Manitoba.

In 1861 he became an Anglican missionary to Yukon. In 1862, McDonald established a mission at Fort Yukon. He began in earnest to learn the native language. His work was cut short when devastating epidemics of influenza and scarlet fever swept across the North. The diseases wiped out large populations of natives and McDonald himself became ill. Fearing he would not survive his illness, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) sent William Carpenter Bompas to replace McDonald. However, before Bompas arrived, McDonald had regained his health. He owed his recovery to a tonic the natives gave him made from a plant root called “Toayashi”. The English translation of this word meaning “it helped cure his uncle”. He went on to translate the entire Bible, prayer Book and 300 hymns to Tukudh and two other Indian dialects. He later became the Archdeacon of the Yukon.

Although not credited, McDonald is believed to be the first man to discover gold in the Yukon. In 1863, while visiting natives on Birch Creek, he reported seeing gold and scooped a spoonful which he sent to the British Museum for analysis. McDonald was interested to learn that the substance was indeed gold, but he did not wish to pursue the life of a miner. He was more concerned that news of a gold discovery would trigger an influx of gold miners and feared the devastating effects the miners would have on the native way of life.

McDonald died on this day, August 29, 1913 in Winnipeg and is buried in St. Johns Cathedral cemetery. He is pictured above, late in life.

Poor boys

Although this fellow was kicked by a horse, poor Reed had to pay thousands to his oral surgeon to achieve the same handsome look!

Gonakadeit the Monster

Tlingit legend Gonakadeit is the Sea-Wolf pictured above.

Gunakadeit is based on a story told by Katishan, chief of the Kaasx’agweid of Wrangell, to ethnographer John Swanton in 1904. It was published in “Tlingit Myths and Texts” in 1909. The story chronicles a man who turns into a sea monster. This creature, who is part wolf, part whale, figures in numerous folk tales about a young man who uses the skin of a sea creature for night fishing; he is caught by a pair of whales who punish his deception by transforming him into a creature of the sea.

While in some stories he brings prosperity and good luck to a village in crisis, in other stories he is an evil sea creature that comes up in the fog to drag unsuspecting visitors in small boats down to the bottom of the sea.

On days when the dragon’s breath covers the inlet, I often think of Gonakadeit and the poor souls over the years who have drowned out there.

Bishops Bompas and Stringer

This photo was taken in 1904 because the baby was born in December 1903. Bishop Bompas was 70 years old and died two years later in Carcross. Bishop Isaac O. Stringer took his place. Minnie Wilson on the far left looks a little naughty especially with Charlotte Selina giving her a firm sidewise look! The gal on his left is Gertrude Alice Bompas, his neice.

from “the Rush for Souls – Missionaries, Mayhem and Memories on the 100th Anniversary of St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Dawson city, and St. Barnabas Church, Moosehide” 2002 by Ken Spotswood. I purchased this book in the Log Cabin Museum in Whitehorse on Monday. I will have other little stories from that in coming blogs.


It has been raining off and on for several days here in Skagway. Grrrrrrr! So we check the River gauge to see if it will reach flood stage:

When I worked at White Pass I saw in the vault a very old map of town that showed the areas that flooded in 1912, I think. I saw that the creek overflowed and so did the Skagway River, but there were certain houses that did not flood. It was then that the river took out part of the Gold Rush Cemetery. Many graves were washed away and people did not replace the headstones or headboards. When you look at it today you will see a definite earthen bench where it is nearest the railroad tracks. I believe that in that section there were more babies buried, as I know of one, whose descendant in town here told me about. The other graves in that lower section are of babies, so that is my conjecture.

The scene above is from the lower Chilkoot Trail July 14, 2003… Yikes, that’s cold!


Skookum Jim Mason, or Keish was born in 1856 near Lake Bennett to Gus’duteen and Kaachgaaawaa. He was married to Mary (1874-1927).

He is credited as the co-discoverer of the gold find at Bonanza Creek that unleashed the Klondike Gold Rush.

Keish meant “Lone Wolf” but he was dubbed “Skookum (the Chinook term for strong) Jim” for his feat of carrying 156 pounds of bacon over the pass in a single trip. In 1887 Skookum Jim Mason guided Captain Moore over a secret pass, an easier route to the interior that would later be named White Pass.

Skookum Jim built a large house for his wife and daughter in Carcross where he spent his winters hunting and trapping, and each spring he returned to the Klondike. Highly regarded by his people, Skookum Jim was known as a generous family man. He had the foresight to place what remained of his fortune in trust, and when he died in 1916 he left a substantial sum in trust for the benefit of Yukon Indians. For his role, Skookum Jim Mason was designated a Person of National Historic Significance and he is an inductee in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame.

He died in 1916 of a kidney ailment and is buried in the Carcross Cemetery.

Johnson book: Carmack;; Gates; Yukon Archives 1087#8

Tagish Charley

Yeil Saagi Yelidoogu Xoonk’I Eesh. His mother was Nadagaat Tlaa Kaachgaawaa who was sister to Kate Shaaw Tlaa Mason (Mrs. George Carmacks). Tagish Charley’s wife, also named Nadagaat froze to death in a blizzard on the Chilkoot Pass with her infant in 1890, while her husband was leading a party on the trail.

Charley was born about 1865 in Tagish. He guided early parties but was not involved in the discovery of gold.

He drowned in Carcross on November 14, 1905 and is buried in Carcross, his headstone shows him to be of the beaver clan.; Pierre Berton; Jennifer Duncan Frontier Spirit p 69