The Fortymile area lay within the traditional territory of the Hän. One group of Hän, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, hunted, fished, trapped and gathered throughout the region; they also had a seasonal fish camp at the mouth of the Klondike. They were experienced traders, bartering and selling goods to other First Nations and to the white newcomers.
In the summer of 1896 the Yukon was still a district of the Northwest Territories, with its capital in Regina and its boundaries the source of an ongoing dispute with the United States. A few small trading posts were scattered along the Yukon River.
A small number of miners had been at work in the Yukon since the late 1870s. Using basic hand-mining methods they prospected rivers, creeks and bars, trying to recover enough gold to sustain themselves for another season and hoping to make the big find that would make them rich.
Their numbers increased after September 1886, when coarse gold was discovered on the Fortymile River, the first such find in the Yukon. By the 1890s an estimated 1000 people — almost all of them men — were mining in the Yukon, mostly in the Fortymile area.
A small community named Forty Mile developed at the mouth of the Fortymile River. It was remote from the rest of the world in a way that we can barely imagine, dependent for supplies on the long Yukon River route to St. Michael, Alaska, at the river’s mouth on the Bering Sea. The small sternwheelers on the river could usually make only one trip upstream from St. Michael each summer. Until the arrival of the first North-west Mounted Police contingent in 1895, as writer Pierre Berton observed, “it was really an American town, getting its supplies from the United States without customs payments and sending out mail with U.S. stamps.”
The summer of 1896 was so hot and dry that low water shortened the already limited navigation season. The productive ground at Forty Mile camp had all been staked, and the future of gold mining looked uncertain. Approximately 80 km upstream, however, was a small creek that would soon become a household word.