Quick Facts

Capital: Whitehorse
Flower: Fireweed
Population: 31,587 (2005)
Languages: 90% English, 2.5% French, 7.5% Other
Area: 483,450 sq km (4.9% of Canada)
Highest Point: Mount Logan (5951 m)


Yukon Territory takes its name from the Loucheux (Gwitchin) Indian name Yu-kun-ah for the "great river" which drains most of its area. Lying in the northwest corner of Canada's continental mainland, isolated by rugged mountains, it shares a common border and many characteristics with its American neighbour, Alaska. Historically, it is indelibly associated with the great Klondike Gold Rush.

The first lasting contact between the Yukon Indians and Europeans was made in the 1840s by fur traders of the Hudson Bay Company, using maps and information from early explorers such as Sir John Franklin, who reached the Yukon's arctic shore in 1825. Traders in the interior and whalers on the north coast were followed by missionaries and the North-West Mounted Police in communities such as Fort Selkirk and Herschel Island.

By the late 19th century, gold prospectors in growing numbers pushed northwards from northern British Columbia or moved inland from the Bering Sea, following up the Yukon River from its mouth by sternwheeler. Several centres of gold mining developed, often for only a brief period. George Carmack's discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River on August 17, 1896, however, marked the beginning of what is often considered the world's greatest gold rush. Thousands of newcomers poured into this hitherto remote corner of Canada, most arriving by way of Skagway and the upper Yukon River. Dawson came into existence to serve the influx, at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, with the actual mining up the nearby creeks. In one month, in 1898, it grew into the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg, developing a complete range of services including water, sewerage, electricity and telephones. At its peak, the population has been estimated at 40,000.

The Yukon was made a separate territory, Dawson named its capital, and a well-integrated transportation system was established through much of the territory. Whitehorse came into existence at the point where transshipping from rail to river took place, but Dawson was the dominant centre. Between 1897 and 1904, it is estimated that over $100 million in gold was recovered from the creek gravels. The population of Dawson began to decline almost immediately. Newcomers seeking easy riches were soon discouraged and were lured by reports of other gold discoveries (eg, Nome, Alaska in 1899). By 1906 the most easily worked placer mines were finished, leaving claims to be mined by large companies using expensive dredges.

Yukon's economy shifted from gold to other minerals beginning in 1913 when its first hardrock mine started silver and lead production at Keno Hill in the central Yukon. A mill was later established at nearby Elsa with services in the community of Mayo. High fur prices made trapping an important seasonal activity in the 1930s for native people and prospectors, in the absence of any other industry.

The WWII construction of the Alaska Highway and the Canol pipeline and road expedited a new mineral exploration activity as well as bringing people, services, industries and tourists to the Yukon. With the highway came a permanent non-native population that outnumbered Yukon's indigenous peoples for the first time. Yukon's capital was transferred from Dawson to Whitehorse in 1953.

Yukon Indians now comprise approximately 25% of the population of the territory. In 1987, 4716 resided in 13 bands. Although there are six small Indian reserves in Yukon, only a few are occupied and the Indian Act reserve system has never been highly developed. Yukon Indians live side by side with non-native residents in every community in the Yukon and form the majority of the population in more remote villages. Since 1973, Yukon Indians have been negotiating a comprehensive land-claim settlement.

The Canadian Encyclopedia (2nd ed.), Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, 1988.

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