A legendary figure in the Klondike, Skookum Jim Mason was a renowned guide and packer who is credited as the co-discoverer of the gold find at Bonanza Creek that unleashed the Klondike Gold Rush.
Born near Bennett Lake into the Dakl'aweidi clan of Tagish in 1855, Mason was given the birth name Keish, meaning wolf. In the 1880s he worked in Dyea during summers as a packer hauling miners' supplies over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the Yukon River. Known for his physical strength, he carried huge loads and once fought hand-to-hand with a wounded bear. Keish earned the name "Skookum" which meant strong in the Chilkoot language.
When steamship captain and surveyor William Moore came looking for an alternate route over the mountains, it wasn't long before he heard about the skilled and strong Tagish Indian. In 1887 Skookum Jim Mason guided Captain Moore over this secret pass, an easier route to the interior that would later be named White Pass.
While working on the coast, Skookum Jim befriended trader and miner George Carmack, and they went prospecting down the Yukon River together. The partnership deepened when Jim's sister, Kate, married Carmack and they started a family. Years later they all met at a fish camp at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers and joined for a prospecting trip up the Klondike.
The story goes that Skookum Jim, his nephew Tagish Charlie, and George Carmack were following a tip from another prospector and took a shortcut named Rabbit Creek. For awhile they panned with little success and ran out of supplies, though Jim managed to kill a moose. At one point Jim went to the creek for water, and lying before him on the creek bottom was more gold than he'd ever seen in one spot.
They staked several claims that August day in 1896. Word quickly spread and within a week all nearby claims were snapped up and prospectors had changed the stream's name to Bonanza Creek. There's some controversy over who actually made the discovery—Carmack claimed he did—but in the end the fellow prospectors shared the work and the proceeds of their claims.
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.