Lillian Mabel Taylor worked in Livingstone Creek and Whitehorse from 1902-1913 as a cook and laundress, and owned mining claims. Image from the Yukon Archives, Eva Stehelin collection.
Since we're halfway through Black History Month, this is a good time to revisit an article I published in The Tyee back in 2009: On the Trail of the Yukon's Black Pioneers. Excerpt:
The Atlin Pioneer Cemetery lies not far out of town on the Surprise Lake Road. Not long ago, my wife and I stopped there and walked among the gravestones and markers. One of them, a 1970s replacement for a long-vanished marker, was for "John Ellwood Simons, African, February 8, 1914 age 51 yrs; froze to death."
The manner of his death was not unusual. Others in the graveyard had drowned, or been found dead on a trail, or accidentally shot (one gunshot victim had been mistaken for a bear). Northern B.C. and the Yukon, a century ago, were hard places to live and easy places to die.
In researching my book on the black pioneers of British Columbia, I had never heard of Simons. I still haven't been able to learn anything about his origins or his experience in the Atlin gold-rush era. I can only speculate that he was one of a number of black Americans and Canadians who moved north in search of gold in the early 1900s.
But at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse a few days later, I came face to face with another black pioneer: Lucille Hunter, photographed in her blind old age before she died in 1973. Making her acquaintance led me into a remarkable community that set down roots far north of the 60th parallel.
A Yukon matriarch
Lucille Hunter had been the matriarch of that community. In 1897 she and her husband Charles had traveled from Michigan to the west coast and then taken the Stikine Trail to the Klondike -- considered one of the hardest routes. She was heavily pregnant. According to the 1901 census, she would have been 23, though other sources say she was just 19.
The Hunters stopped at Teslin Lake to deliver her baby daughter, whom they named Teslin. According to Yukon historian Les McLaughlin, who knew her in her old age, the local Natives had never seen a black person before: "Not quite sure what to call the Hunters, they simply described them as 'just another kind of white person.'"
The Hunters moved on by dog team to Dawson City, arriving in February 1898. They staked three claims at Bonanza Creek and went to work. Lucille helped Charles dig for gold while also caring for Teslin. In 1901, according to the Yukon archives, they were among 99 blacks living in Yukon, among almost 30,000 whites.
A few years later, McLaughlin says, the family moved to Mayo and staked some silver claims. For years, Lucille would walk between Bonanza Creek, outside Dawson, to Mayo -- about 220 kilometers each way -- to work her claims.
Evidently the Hunters did well enough to stay in the Yukon, but their daughter Teslin, after marrying a man named Jorgensen and having a baby son, died. Then Charles died in 1939, age 70. Lucille, now 65, had to care for herself.
She and her grandson Buster continued as miners until 1942, when US construction battalions (largely composed of black enlisted men) began to build the Alaska Highway. Lucille and Buster moved to Whitehorse. According to her obituary, she started a laundry business in a tent, with Buster making deliveries around town. At some point Buster Jorgensen married and moved to the Queen Charlotte Islands. Lucille remained in Whitehorse, living on her own despite her failing eyesight.
McLaughlin recalls going past her tiny house, where the old blind lady listened constantly to her radio. The house burned down one night, but she survived and moved into a basement suite. There she remained until she broke her hip a few years later. After that she lived in hospital until her death in 1973. Her obituary said she was 94, but if her age in the 1901 census is correct, she was probably 99.