Yukon Helen

As family researchers our jobs are not just to investigate the facts but to learn about the people, the times, and how they influenced each other. Are there occasions you when came upon a name that just drew you in, someone whom you wished to know more about? That is just the way I felt when I came across Yukon Helen and thankfully her son kept a couple of letters giving me some answers to my questions.

Helen Branch was born in 1838 in St. Lawrence County, New York and married Walter Elon Howe, my 1st cousin 5x removed. Helen and Walter had 3 sons, 2 living to adulthood. So far they appear to be a normal hard-working farming family settled in upper New York, but looks can be deceiving can’t they?

After years of marriage, with their two sons grown, one newly married and the other practicing medicine in Iowa, Helen made a choice that would affect all of their lives. She made the fateful decision to travel from New York State to the Yukon Territory in search of gold! Helen was 59 years old. She writes in a letter to her younger son Artie that she doesn’t wish for her older son William to travel to the Yukon without “near family”, I’m guessing she didn’t consider his new wife to be “near” enough.

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So Helen, her son William and his newlywed wife Mabel Short packed their belongings and made the journey to Seattle where they joined the throngs of men (and a few women) heading for the gold fields of the Yukon Territory. Arriving in Seattle the small group learned that the gold fields had all been claimed. Since they had prepaid for their journey to Skagway, they decided to continue. One of the requirements the Canadian government had set in place was that each person was required to carry in with them 1,000 pounds of food and supplies.

Being resourceful people, Helen and William bought 1,000 pounds of flour, sugar and blackberries. They made the arduous journey and settled at Lake Bennett which was at the bottom of Chilkoot Pass and the spot where the miners began their boat trek on the Yukon River. In this spot Helen, William, and Mabel set up a sales counter and began to bake and sell blackberry pies for $100 in gold dust each. William also purchased used mining equipment from the men returning to the States and resold it to newly arrived prospectors.

Helen died in 1898, just a few short months after arriving in the Yukon. Although there is a headstone in Potsdam, St. Lawrence County, New York with her name inscribed, I think it is more likely that she was buried where she died in Tagish, Yukon Territory. The cost of transporting her body at that time would have been prohibitive. William and Mabel remained in the Yukon for a few years, showing up in Seattle in the 1910 Federal Census. They moved to Los Angeles sometime before 1930 where William died in 1933. Mabel lived a great many more years, dying at the age of 95 in Los Angeles in 1967.

Yukon Helen is remembered in her family as a woman of great spirit with an indomitable will to go her own way. Genealogists love to seek out stories of perseverance, grit, and determination and pass them on, it is a way of learning who we are. I encourage you to pass on your stories. You can start by just writing them down.

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