Seattle is the beautiful city that we all know and love. Today, it’s a modern metropolis known for coffee, music and tech companies. But originally, Seattle was built on the back of something surprisingly low-tech: Gold.
As it turns out, the original fortunes of Seattleites were made as a result of a legendary gold rush. Long before we had Microsoft and Starbucks, we had prospectors and buckets of gold ore.
Note: When considering Seattle’s history, we must acknowledge that the land that is now Seattle is the traditional tribal land of the Coast Salish people, most notably the Suquamish and Duwamish Tribes. The Coast Salish tribes flourished in the fertile lands of the Seattle region long before it was even called “Seattle”.
Well, not exactly. The gold rush took place in the Klondike region of the Yukon territory in northwestern Canada.
In 1896, local miners in the Klondike region discovered gold for the first time. News soon reached west coast settlements including Seattle and San Francisco, prompting widespread migration of prospectors seeking wealth and glory.
In what soon came to be known as the Klondike Gold Rush, an estimated 100,000 people migrated northwards to seek their destiny. For context, the entire population of Seattle at the time was only around 50,000.
As tens of thousands of prospectors made their way north, Seattle became the primary gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush.
By this point (circa 1896), the city was a well established shipping center, with a large port, transcontinental railroad connections, and a population of over 50,000. This made it the perfect jumping off point for prospectors heading north.
As prospectors poured in, they brought with them their life savings. They needed provisions — mining equipment, warm clothing, dry goods, medicine, and more — for their new life in the Yukon.
This created an instant “boom town” in Seattle. The city’s population doubled in just 10 years, from 42,000 in 1890 to around 80,000 in 1900. Commerce exploded, and fortunes were made — and lost — overnight.
Canadian officials foresaw the coming stampede of prospectors, and proactively implemented some rules. Officials didn’t want thousands of foreigners dying in the rugged Canadian backcountry, so they required several things before travelers entered the region.
Most importantly, they required prospectors to bring with them a year’s worth of food. In a guidebook published at the time, prospectors were encouraged to bring with them:
All told, many travelers purchased and brought with them well over 1,000 pounds of food per person, plus all the necessary equipment to prospect for gold, and live in the backcountry. They were buying literal tons of supplies.
Much of these supplies were purchased in Seattle — particularly by wealthy prospectors, who often took the “Rich Man’s Route”, an expensive but easy route north which was mostly by boat. These travelers often departed from Seattle, spending small fortunes in the city on the way out.
Travelers passing through Seattle created a thriving economy in the fledgling city. Entrepreneurs took advantage, setting up outfitting shops, hotels, bars and more.
In what was to become a very interesting chapter in the history of Seattle, the city came into its own, learning how to advertise itself, attract new residents, and build new businesses.
One could argue that the entrepreneurial spirit that enabled modern day Seattle firms like Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft to form was born during the tumultuous days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Did you know about this fascinating part of Seattle’s history?