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Hamlin Garland: Trail of the Goldseekers

Information about the noted American author and his papers, housed in USC Libraries Special Collections.

The Trail of the Goldseekers

A centenary tribute to Hamlin Garland's The Trail of the Goldseekers (Macmillan, 1899), based on materials in the Garland Collection at the University of Southern California. Photographs are by Hamlin Garland, from the Garland Collection at the University of Southern California. 

The watercolor illustrations are taken from a unique, extra-illustrated copy of the book, presented to Garland by the artist Ernest Shaw and kept with the Garland Collection at USC. 

Notes and descriptions are by John Ahouse, former American Literature Curator at the University of Southern California






Watercolor by Ernest Shaw (USC Garland Collection) 



Bill of sale, Ashcroft, B.C., for Garland's journey  (USC Garland Collection)

Which younger American writer, already famous, went to Alaska to observe and write about the Gold Rush in 1898, sketched a series of magazine articles along the way, and a year later published a book about his experiences on the trail? It was Jack London, right? Wrong. It was Hamlin Garland, and the book was called The Trail of the Goldseekers. (Jack London, whose Alaska stories would establish his career, had already wintered in the Klondike region at the time, trying his hand at prospecting; but as an author, he was an unknown who hadn't published a line as yet.)


The outgoing decade of the 1990s marked the centenary of the major gold discoveries in Alaska, which, after a slow start, achieved stampede proportions by the end of 1897. The galvanizing event was the arrival of the steamer "Portland" in Seattle, with a handful of newly created millionaires and their bags of gold on board. Charlie Chaplin in his "Gold Rush" has helped us to visualize this moment, as well as the frozen struggle of would-be miners up the slopes from Skagway, the nearest approach to the Klondike. The severe sub-Arctic winter of 1897-98 put most prospecting plans on hold till the next spring, when the real onslaught on the goldfields began. It was at precisely at spring thaw, in May of 1898, that Hamlin Garland set out to try to reach the Yukon River by an overland route. 

 Packing the horses (USC Garland Collection)


Garland established his early reputation as an outdoors writer chronicling not the western advance across the plains or the Rockies, but rather the opening of the "Middle Border," as he called it, the rough-and-ready existence of the homesteaders along the frontiers of the Upper Midwest. Born in rural Wisconsin and raised in Iowa and the Dakotas, Garland lost no time in moving to Chicago and New York to join the cultivated literary establishment. He knew and assisted the unlucky Stephen Crane, met Mark Twain, and became a disciple of William Dean Howells, the reigning literary light of Boston in those years. Garland "wrote what he knew," however; and his first collection of stories, which propelled him to overnight fame, told of the harsh conditions of the "Middle Border," gaining him the reputation of a "realist" author, as compared to the popular writers of romances and humorous tales of country life. A novel, Rose of Dutcher's Cooley, followed up on that success in the same vein, while his carefully researched life of General Grant, based on interviews with Civil War survivors, found him many more appreciative readers. 


Watercolor by Ernest Shaw (USC Garland Collection)


The trip by land route to Alaska, first suggested by his publisher, appealed to Garland as a return to the frontier challenges faced by his parents' generation. Gold seekers almost universally approached Alaska and the Klondike by water, either through the Inside Passage, north from Seattle and Vancouver, past Juneau to Skagway, or less arduously but at the cost of adding another 2000 miles to the trip, by following the Alaskan-Aleutian coast all the way into the Bering Sea in order to ascend the full length of the Yukon River across the breadth of Alaska into Canadian territory. The Skagway climb through Chilkoot Pass took sixty-five lives in an avalanche that spring, just about the time Garland crossed from Minnesota into Canada, attempting an altogether different route. Garland thought he was the man to make the trip overland through British Columbia, by a side-door, as he says, in spite of the lack of roads or trails. 








Watercolor by Ernest Shaw (USC Garland Collection)

On the high trail (USC Garland Collection)           

 Indian-style bridge (USC Garland Collection)

Among the Garland archives at USC are issues of the Spokane, Washington, newspaper he must have read from the winter of '97-'98, touting the possibilities of heading north into British Columbia and following various water courses into the gold regions. Needless to say, these routes were unmapped and largely untried. A mid-19th century effort to string telegraph lines to Alaska had been abandoned; and the rugged terrain, which would later prove daunting even to the builders of the Alcan Highway, was very sparsely populated in Garland's time. "I believed that I was about to see and take part in a most picturesque and impressive movement across the wilderness. I believed it to be the last great march of the kind which could ever come in America, so rapidly were the wild places being settled up." 

He was soon disillusioned. At one point, scarcely more than midway toward his goal, Garland wrote, "As I now re-read all the advance literature of this 'prairie route,' I perceived how skillfully every detail with regard to the last half of the trail had been slurred over. We had been led into a sort of sack, and the string was tied behind us." It was the outfitters and suppliers who stood to gain most by rumors of a new route; a year later the stampede was over. The profits made by ship and hotel owners along the coast, and by the horse-breeders and suppliers of provisions and equipment supposedly exceeded the value of all the gold brought out by the prospectors. 

Garland perceived his error early on, yet the balance of his book shows him pressing forward against one adversity after another (rain, mosquitoes, torrential streams, marshy ground -- some of which he could have spared himself by starting later). At hand are the faithful companion (Burton Babcock) and his no-less-faithful horse ("Ladrone"), every step of the way. Although Garland eventually arrives at the gold fields near Dawson, it is only to turn around and head home again. He had come not as a goldseeker, he writes, but as a nature hunter. Yet, "The trail was a disappointment to     me, not because it was long and crossed mountains, but because it ran through a barren, monotonous, silent, gloomy, and rainy country. It had almost no wild animal life, which I love to hear and see. Its lakes and rivers were for the most part cold and sullen, and its forests sombre and depressing."  Out of his journals (which are in USC's collections) Garland wove a narrative to be published the following year.


 Garland in camp (USC Garland Collection)








Battling mosquitoes (USC Garland Collection) 


More than he could have realized, The Trail of the Goldseekers is a document of a unique moment in history. By the time the book appeared, gold had been discovered on the sandy beaches near Nome on the west coast of Alaska; and a second stampede began. In a matter of months, Dawson and the Klondike were emptied of prospectors, all traveling downriver on the Yukon to try their hands where the shovel would replace the pickaxe. The fierce competition for mining claims ended just about the time the White Pass and Yukon Railroad was completed from Skagway up the heights to the Canadian border, where so many had perished or turned back along the way. Garland's narrative, like the opening of the narrow-gauge line, thus becomes a footnote to that single tumultuous year of 1898. At the same time, this gloomy journey to the North, undertaken not out of necessity or even the impulse to explore, may mark the beginning of today's "adventure for its own sake."

Garland, a man in his prime at thirty-eight years of age, sensed the imminent closing of the frontier and deliberately chose to undergo the hardships of the trail, both to test himself and to re-live "one more time" the pioneering spirit that had brought his parents' generation to Wisconsin. The results were mixed at best, but his book is an honest record of the limitations of such an adventure. The lure of gold had very little to do with it.  

[Garland's personal copy of his book is in USC Libraries Special Collections, illustrated not only with his own photographs but also with exquisite watercolors done after-the-fact by a Canadian acquaintance of Garland's, Ernest Shaw (1875-1969), who labored up the same route two weeks behind the Garland party in the summer of 1898.] 






Watercolor by Ernest Shaw (USC Garland Collection)


Garland's itinerary:

Hamlin Garland's route through British Columbia and into the gold country can be traced on the map from Garland's fictionalized account, The Long Trail (New York: Macmillan, 1907). The following place names are mentioned in Trail of the Goldseekers (south to north):

May 3

  • Ashcroft
  • Clinton
  • Hat Creek
  • 159 Mile House
  • Lake La Hache
  • Soda Creek (Fraser River)
  • Quesnelle
  • Blackwater
  • Muddy River
  • Tchincut Lake
  • Nechaco River
  • Old Fort Fraser
  • Endako (source)
  • Burns Lake
  • Bulkley River

June 1

  • Chock Lake
  • Morricetown
  • Hagellgate
  • Hazleton (Skeena River)
  • Kisgagash Mountains
  • Kuldo
  • Nasse River

July 1

  • Stikeen River
  • Hotailub Mountains
  • Telegraph Creek
  • Glenora (Stikeen River)
  • Wrangell
  • White Pass


  • Bennett Lake
  • Tagish Lake
  • Atlin Lake
  • Taku City

A hundred years later you could cover much of the same ground by following Highway 97 north from Kamloops to Prince George, connecting with Highway 35 west to the junction with Highway 37, then north to cross the Stikine (Stikeen) River on roughly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska. With the summer slipping away, it was at this point, at Telegraph Creek, that Garland decided to descend the Stikine southward to Wrangell, in order to follow the coast north to Skagway and return to the interior at Lake Bennett, reaching Atlin Lake and Taku before starting the homeward journey.  The return trip carried Garland and "Ladrone" by boat to Seattle and thence by train to Wisconsin.

Further reading

Further Reading

 The full e-texts of The Trail of the Goldseekers and Two Stories of Oklahoma


For more on Hamlin Garland, visit:

The Hamlin Garland Society

Keith Newlin's Hamlin Garland site

Hamlin Garland: A Son of the Middle Border 


For background on the Alaskan Gold Rush, see:

Berton, Pierre. The Klondike Fever: Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. New York: Knopf, 1959  
Doheny call number F931.B49

McCune, Don. Trail to the Klondike. Pullman: WSU Press, 1997 
Doheny call number F909.M49 1997

Among classic stories about Alaska and the Yukon, the best known are those by Jack London, together with his novels Call of the Wild and Burning Daylight. Many poems by Robert W. Service recall the gold rush, as do the once-popular novels by Rex Beach (The Spoilers).