Wild Women Of The West: Ethel Berry


Ethel Berry Cowgirl Magazine

Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Bitterly cold snow flurries pelted the determined features of twenty-one-year-old Ethel Berry’s face as she drove her dog sled over the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. Clad in a pair of men’s mackinaw breeches and moccasins, she cracked her whip over the team of animals hauling an enormous mound of supplies behind them. Ethel was slowly making her way to the spot where her husband, Clarence was prospecting along the Bonanza Creek, later renamed Rabbit Creek, near the town of Forty Mile. Five months prior to embarking on the arduous journey she had married her childhood sweetheart, promising to follow after him all the days of her life. The newlyweds agreed to spend their honeymoon searching for gold in the Yukon Territory.

In spite of the newspaper articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the late 1890s, which firmly reported that Alaska’s frigid terrain was “no place for women,” Ethel believed she was strong enough to withstand the brutal trip. The outing to the area where Clarence was panning was a nine-week venture from its starting point in Skagway.

In 1896, the quickest way to reach the remote Bonanza Creek from Skagway was to trek the Inside Passage of Alaska, over a rugged channel that led to British Columbia and Lake Bennett, then travel by boat downstream along the Yukon River, some five hundred miles.  Next would be a hike to the town of Dawson and hiring a dog sled team to go to the panning site.

For more than two months, Ethel slept on the ground in a wolf fur-lined sleeping bag and dined primarily on sandwiches made of sticky flapjacks and cold bacon. When she arrived at the camp, Clarence escorted his bride to their primitive new home and left her there to unpack while he worked out on the creeks. The crude structure had no door, windows, or floors, and it wasn’t until a hole was cut in the front wall frame that she could even go inside.

As Ethel surveyed the shelter, she remembered a warning she’d received from an elderly prospector she met in Portland, Oregon: “Gold seekers in the heart of Alaska must put up with living in drafty cabins, tents, or caves. Their chief food in winter is bear-fat, and a bath or change of clothing is death.”

The words echoed inside her head and for a single moment she contemplated returning to her parents home in central California.

Love for her husband and a severe case of gold fever prompted her to stay and make the best of the difficult living conditions. In an interview several years later, Ethel described the initial hardship she and Clarence faced while setting up house. “We had all the camp-made furniture we needed, a bed and stove – a long, little sheet-iron affair, with two holes on top and a drum to bake in. The fire would burn up and go out if you turned your back on it for a minute. The water we used was all snow or ice, and had to be thawed. If anyone wanted a drink, a chunk of ice had to thawed and (the hot water) cooled again.”

Ethel Bush Berry was born in 1873 in Selma, California, where the average low temperature in the winter was thirty-nine degrees. Her parents were farmers, and although she was raised to endure hard labor and long hours of work, nothing could prepare her for the frozen north.

Clarence spent days away from Ethel searching for a profitable claim. The hope that he could locate a rich stake and provide his wife with the luxury he felt she deserved kept him going back to the frigid creek beds and icy mines.

Ethel occupied her time tending to their home. She cleaned and cooked and made flour sack curtains for the windows. The sacks were eventually taken down and cut into strips to use to sift pay-dirt in order to find chunks of gold. Ethel took her daily baths by lamplight in a washtub used for collecting pay-dirt.

Clarence’s early, but determined attempts to find gold were unsuccessful. While waiting for the big strike he worked tending bar in Bill McPhee’s saloon in Forty Mile to provide an income for his wife and himself. The longest stretch of time Ethel was left alone to fend for herself was five weeks. She knew the separation from her husband was necessary, however. Someone had to stay on their land to keep claim jumpers from overtaking their property.

The time apart from Clarence seemed like an eternity. “I missed him terribly and there was absolutely nothing to do,” she later wrote in her memoirs. “No one who has not had a like experience could appreciate even half the misery contained in those words – nothing to do. Just imagine sitting for hours in one’s home doing nothing, looking out a scrap of a window and seeing nothing, searching for work and finding nothing. At times when I felt I could not bear another minute of the utter blackness of such an existence, I would walk to a little cemetery nearby for consolation.”  

With the arrival of spring, Ethel found plenty to occupy her time. When the ice melted and the rocky mountains began to crumble away from the shifting snowpacks, she had new places to pan for gold. While examining chunks of bedrock one day, Ethel unearthed a handful of nuggets from their claim. Not long after her find, Clarence returned with rumors about a major discovery a few miles from their present location. The pair quickly packed their belongings and headed for the spot at Eldorado Creek. Clarence reasoned it was better to have two claims making money than one. Given Ethel’s talent for prospecting, she could see to the Bonanza Creek claim and he would work the one at Eldorado Creek, provided they found gold.

The first pan Ethel dipped into the clear, cold water produced favorable results. Layers of gold rock reached from the point where Ethel was panning in the creek to a nearby craggy ledge. The Berrys had hit the mother lode. They sank a shaft deep into the ground and began stockpiling gold-bearing gravel. A stampede to the Klondike followed the news of their discovery and of a few other miners working the creek bed downstream from them.

Almost overnight Ethel went from living in solitude to regularly entertaining numerous miners for dinner. The Berry home was always filled with cold, tired, hungry prospectors who enjoyed Ethel’s cooking and her company.

In July 1897, a jubilant, but exhausted Ethel boarded a steamer bound for Washington. Clarence had decided to remain behind to secure the claim and complete the digging. Ethel was sent ahead with $100,000 in gold dust and nuggets tucked inside a moose-hide bedroll. After she deposited their find in a bank she was going to California to visit her family.

When the ship docked in Seattle she was bombarded by reporters who had heard about the Alaska Gold Rush and were anxious to interview the brave men and women who were the first to prospect in the frozen territory. Adorned in weathered garments that were kept in place with one of Clarence’s belts, and wearing shoes with holes in them, Ethel was the only woman miner among the plethora of men.

Journalists called her “The Bride of the Klondike” and her candor in answering the questions posed to her made headlines. A feature article about her exploits circulated around the world and included the advice she would give to women who were thinking about going north.

“Why, to stay away,” she said with a slight chuckle. “It’s no place for a woman. I mean for a woman alone – one who goes to make a living or a fortune. Yes, there are women going into the mines alone. There were when we came out; widows and lone women to do whatever they could for miners, with the hope of getting big pay.

It’s much better for a man, though, if he has a wife along. The men are not much at cooking up there, and that is the reason they suffer with stomach troubles and some say they did, with scurvy. After a man has worked all day in the diggings he doesn’t feel much like cooking….”

Although Ethel spoke a great deal about the hardship of living in the glacier wilderness, some newspaper reporters choose to focus more on the riches to be had in Alaska than the difficulties of getting to the fortune. The bold type across the California Alta News July 17, 1897 edition read, “Woman Keeps House, Picks Up $10,000 in Nuggets in Spare Time.” The headline overshadowed Ethel’s comments about the hazards of traveling across the region on a dog sled. “I put on my Alaskan uniform first…the heavy flannels, warm dress with short skirt, moccasins, fur coat, cap and gloves, kept my shawl handy to roll up in case of storms, and was rolled in a full robe and bound to the sled, so when it rolled over I rolled with it and many tumbles in the snow I got that way.”

Ethel and Clarence’s Klondike claim was one of the richest ever found in Alaska. More than $140,000 was pulled out of the mine in a single day. The couple wisely invested their discovery, developing claims throughout the Yukon, further adding to their wealth. The couple used their money to purchase a sprawling farm near her parents home in Selma. Reporters interested in learning how Clarence and his wife managed to survive the Artic frontier and return with such a large treasure were surprised by his answer: “I question seriously whether I would have done so well if it had not been for the excellent advice and aid of my wife. I want to give her all the credit that is due to her, and I can assure you that it is a great deal.”

In spite of her initial hesitation to go back to the mines at Eldorado and Bonanza Creek, Ethel did return in the spring of 1898. Her sister accompanied her on the second journey over the treacherous Chilkoot Pass. In addition to cooking and caring for her husband and the other prospectors in the area, Ethel carried out various mining duties. She oversaw the diggings at two of the major claims the Berrys owned.

In 1907, the enterprising Berrys began a successful, large-scale dredging operation in the Circle Mining district in the north central region of Alaska. The operation was an excavation activity carried out, at least partially, underwater. Dredging scraped the gold sediment off the seabed and further increased Clarence and Ethel’s strike.

In 1909, Ethel loaned $70,000 in gold nuggets she had found for a display in the Alaskan Yukon Pacific Exposition held in Seattle. After the exposition, Clarence collected the nuggets and sent them on to Tiffany & Co. where the gold was melted down and transformed into a dresser set for his wife.

For more than thirty years, Ethel and Clarence traveled back and forth between their farm in California and their home in Alaska. Clarence passed away during one of those trips in 1930. Ethel then moved to Beverly Hills and died at her home there in 1948 at the age of seventy-five.

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