Historic Klondike gold nuggets return to Yukon

The nuggets were once owned by 'Skookum Jim' Mason, one of the original discoverers of gold in the Klondike in 1896. Evan Nelson even has the papers to prove it.

Nuggets were once owned by 'Skookum Jim' Mason, who helped spark the 1898 gold rush

Patricia Cunning, executive director of the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, with Evan Nelson, who donated gold to the museum. The nuggets once belonged to 'Skookum Jim' Mason, a legendary character in Yukon history. (Dave White/CBC)

Evan Nelson's arrival in Yukon this week couldn't have been better timed.

It was Monday — Discovery Day, the annual holiday in Yukon that commemorates the 1896 discovery of gold in the Klondike. And Nelson, a doctor from Minnesota, had brought with him some small and shiny rocks, direct links to one of the central characters in that well-told story.

They were gold nuggets, once owned by "Skookum Jim" Mason. Nelson even has the papers to prove it.

'Skookum Jim' Mason, a member of the Tagish First Nation, is co-credited with discovering gold at Discovery Claim, a find that then sparked the 1898 Klondike gold rush. (Yukon Archives/Skookum Jim Oral History Project)

"It's just been something that we've kept, and I thought always should come back to Whitehorse," Nelson said. "Because of the history."

Nelson said his father was in Yukon for a brief spell in 1944 and was given the gold, along with a letter and other papers to prove its authenticity, by his friend Willard "Deacon" Phelps, a lawyer and businessman who had been in Yukon since the gold rush.   

Phelps, the story goes, got it directly from Skookum Jim some 40 years earlier, as payment for legal services.

Nelson then inherited it after his father died.

"I just kept it in good condition," Nelson said. 

'An actual touchstone'

Eventually, he decided to donate it to the MacBride Museum of History in Whitehorse, and he recently sent an email telling the story.

"It was kind of one of those moments in your career where you read the email, then you read it again, and then you read it the third time and you're like, 'this could be a real thing,'" recalled Patricia Cunning, the museum's executive director.

Nelson then sent pictures, and the papers, and Cunning then knew it was no fool's gold — it was indeed the real thing. It was also sure to become a prized part of the museum's collection.

The largest nugget and 'an actual touchstone - literally - back to the time of the gold rush,' says Cunning. (Dave White/CBC)

"To our knowledge, this is the only piece of gold that can actually be attributed to one of the founders of the gold rush, that actually is papered, and we're 100 per cent sure," she said.

"It's an actual touchstone — literally — back to the time of the gold rush, and to the players who profoundly changed the place that we all live and love and call home."

Cunning says the gold should be on display at the museum by next week, "so that Yukoners can come and see it right away." 

It's not clear how much it's worth, but Nelson doesn't care. He's happy to see it back where it came from.

"I think the historical significance of the material is so much more important than the monetary value of it," he said. 

"You know, it's an important part [of Yukon history] and the MacBride Museum is the perfect venue for it." 

With files from Dave White


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