First Lady of the Yukon
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First Lady of the Yukon
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First Lady of the Yukon
A Chicago socialite rejects the comforts of home and seeks adventure during the Klondike Gold Rush
In 1898, Martha Purdy lived a comfortable life as a Chicago socialite with two small sons. Then gold-fever struck and her life changed forever.
The summit of the Chilkoot Pass was the gateway to the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush.  In early April 1898, a storm hit the Pass, triggering an avalanche that killed 60 men. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada,  C-004490, Packing up Chilkoot P
The summit of the Chilkoot Pass was the gateway to the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush. In early April 1898, a storm hit the Pass, triggering an avalanche that killed 60 men. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, C-004490, Packing up Chilkoot Pass)

Leaving her children with relatives, Purdy, her husband and her brother George joined the stampede of would-be prospectors to the Yukon. The Klondike Gold Rush was underway.

"To me it was a quest that had all the allure of a 'Treasure Island' or 'Aladdin's Lamp,' she wrote in her memoir. "I had only to go to the world-famed goldfields ... and collect the gold. I pictured myself and my children living in luxury the rest of my days."

Marthas husband traveled with her to San Fransisco and went no further. Shortly afterwards, Martha discovered she was pregnant.

Purdy and her brother continued up the West Coast by boat to the Alaska panhandle, then trekked to the treacherous Chilkoot Pass, at the border between Alaska and the Yukon.

"As I looked directly before me at the fearful mountain pass ... I thought of my New England forebears, women who had bravely faced the hardships of pioneering, ... Once again I knew that my path lay ahead, that there was no turning back now."

Purdy was four months pregnant when she arrived in Dawson City in the Yukon - a booming outpost near the gold fields.
During the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, Dawson City turned into an American-style frontier town with dance halls, theatres, and saloons. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
During the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, Dawson City turned into an American-style frontier town with dance halls, theatres, and saloons. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Filled with prospectors, the city overflowed with dance halls, theatres and saloons. Men outnumbered women 25 to one and it was said that "even an angel couldnt keep good in Dawson."

Purdy found a cabin overlooking the city.

"While I did not enter into the gaiety, I did have what sporting editors would call a ringside seat. We did not know when we squatted ... that we had established ourselves above the red light district."

While entertainment was everywhere, gold was not. By the time most prospectors arrived in the Klondike, the rich goldfields had already been staked out. By the summer of 1899, prospectors had panned most of the gold out of the territory.

Dawson half emptied when rumours spread that gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska. But Purdy remained..

"I could not shake the lure of the Klondyke. My thoughts were continually of that vast new rugged country ... Its stark and splendid mountains, its lordly Yukon River ... its midnight sun."

Purdy gave birth to a son Lyman, brought her other children north, and married a lawyer named George Black.

Martha Black became know as the "First Lady of the Yukon" and was the second woman elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1935 at age 70.


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