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Marsh Lake

Webster's dictionary says that Marsh means "low-lying wet land with grassy vegetation" - a transition zone between land and water. So is that why Marsh Lake is called ... Marsh Lake?

Nope. Like many geographic features in the present day Yukon, Marsh Lake was named by an American for an American. U.S. army Colonel Frederick Schwatka named the Lake on his journey of exploration down the Yukon River in 1883.

Schwatka was obsessed by the Yukon and Alaska.

He made more than one expedition to these far-off lands in the 19th century. On his journey of 1883, he named just about everything he saw. And since the trip was funded by scientific institutions in the United States, famous men in the scientific world were rewarded with a geographic feature in their honour.

Such was the case of Professor Charles Marsh. Born in Lockport, New York in 1831, Marsh developed a love for the outdoors as a kid. He became a palaeontologist, a scientist who studies fossils, and served at prestigious Yale University from 1866 until 1899.

Professor Marsh founded and was the first president of the American National Academy of Sciences and the chief palaeontologist with the United States Geological Survey from 1881 to 1899.

The professor was indeed a big man in science.

When Charles Darwin published his "Origin of Species" in 1859, there was little evidence that supported his controversial theory of evolution ... no direct proof to show development through the ages; nothing to show how animals - including humans - evolved.

It wasn't until Charles Marsh discovered fossil records of extinct horses that Darwin's theory was taken seriously.

While traveling the American west in search of bones in 1868, Marsh heard reports of "human remains" at the bottom of a well in Nebraska. On viewing them, he knew that they were not human, but rather from small ancient horses. These bones would later be one of the "missing links" in understanding the history of the modern horse.

Marsh wrote papers about the discovery which helped prove Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fittest".

He was also a dinosaur hunter. Each year, teams of researchers led by Marsh scoured the still wild parts of the western states to find dinosaurs and other fossils.

Each year, Marsh's scientific teams headed out into the still wild America - now known as Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota - to find dinosaurs and other fossils, and bring them back to Yale's new - and now world famous - museum for study and display.

Marsh Lake 1
Looking upstream towards the original dam at the foot of Marsh Lake. A sternwheeler and a scow are docked just above the dam and several cabins are visible. Date: ca. 1920
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7745. Click for larger view.

Marsh Lake 2
Dam and boat lock at Yukon River Bridge.
Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #228.
Click for larger view.

Marsh died of pneumonia at his home in New Haven, Connecticut, on March 18, 1899. His tombstone reads: "To Yale he gave his services, his collections, and his estate".

Whether Charles Marsh would find dinosaurs at the Yukon lake named for him is unlikely, but he would find the peaceful nature that he cherished during his long academic life.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Frederick Schwatka

The famous Whitehorse rapids, the toughest stretch of water on the Yukon river, lies beneath a large man-made lake. Schwatka Lake bears the name of an American army Lieutenant who named many of the geographical features along the entire length of the Yukon River.

Lt Frederick Schwatka was born in Galena, Illinois in 1849. He graduated from West Point military college in 1871 where he obtained degrees in law and medicine. But it seems Schwatka was born to be an explorer. In 1879, he led a Canadian expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing Franklin expedition.

Like many others who searched for Franklin, Schwatka was unsuccessful. But it established his reputation. Thus in 1883, he was put in charge of an American expedition to map and name the entire Yukon river system. The Canadian government was not aware of the expedition and Schwatka was probably not aware that much of the region was in fact Canadian territory.

He and his party of American military personnel climbed the Chilkoot and headed down the string of lakes into the Yukon River system making fairly accurate maps of the region. Schwatka seemed to realize not only the value of publicity but also the need to honour important Americans of his day. Thus he named and renamed many of the geographical features... like Miles Canyon which he named after his boss, General Nelson Miles.

The maps produced during this three-year long expedition were the best of the day until they were updated by a Canadian Geographical survey in 1888 under George Dawson. Schwatka quickly published lively accounts of his work, often emphasizing the hardships of his journey.

Frederick Schwatka died in Portland Oregon in 1892. In 1959, the newly built Whitehorse power dam created a large lake where the famed Whitehorse rapids once flowed. It was named Schwatka Lake.

Click for larger view.

In 1884 Schwatka published a book on his experiences on the Yukon River. The sketch is entitled "Ruins of old Fort Selkirk".
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Richthofen Island

Like almost every land mark along the Yukon River, a large island in the middle of Lake Laberge was named by an American Lieutenant.

Frederick Schwatka had embarked along with six other American explorers from Dyea, Alaska on June 2, 1883 and travelled over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the largely unknown river. Then, the American scientific party sailed down the Yukon River.

On the way, Schwatka named nearly every landmark he saw. One was a large island in the middle of Lake Laberge. He named it Richthofen. But because he did not have the time to explore the rocky formation, he thought it was a peninsula, jutting out from the western edge of the large lake. So he called it Richthofen Rocks.

Ten years later, when George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada came along on an expedition that would accurately predict the coming gold rush, he discovered that the noted landmark was not a peninsula after all, but a large island. But Dawson, who had the authority to alter or change Schwatka's names if he wanted, decided to let the name Richthofen stand.

Thus, in the middle of Canada's best known lake, an imposing island was named by an American for a German.

Ferdinand von Richthofen was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1833.

As a world famous geographer and geologist, he produced a major geographical work on China. He also helped establish the science of geomorphology, a branch of geology that deals with land and submarine relief features.

Von Richthofen eventually wrote a massive five-volume study of Chinese geography and was influential in the development of geographic methods in Germany. He was also the uncle of German World War I flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, best known as the "Red Baron."

Schwatka was no slouch as an explorer. Prior to his famed Yukon River expedition, the American Geographical Society put him in charge of an expedition to the Canadian arctic to look for remains of the ill-fated Franklin expedition.

When Schwatka reported on his Yukon River findings after 1883, his work so alarmed the Canadian government that they sent George Dawson on a geographical expedition to the Yukon - in what may be called our first showing of the Canadian flag in the continuing debate over sovereignty in the far north.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Haeckel Hill

You have to hand it to Frederick Schwatka. There was hardly a geographic feature in the Yukon that he did not notice and name. In the summer of 1883, he led the Alaska exploring expedition down the entire length of the Yukon River from Lake Bennett to the Bering sea. He and his seven-man crew did not venture very far from the Yukon River itself.

So the fact that Schwatka saw and named distant landmarks near present-day Whitehorse is nothing short of remarkable. The purpose of the American military expedition, which, by the way, did not ask Canada for permission to travel through the Yukon, was to acquire information about the countryside and its "wild inhabitants".

By the time the Canadian government was aware of Schwatka’s journey, it was too late to disapprove. But the expedition alarmed Ottawa , which in 1887 sent noted Canadian geographer George Mercer Dawson to explore the Yukon. He was so successful that famed Dawson City is named for him.

But back to Schwatka and that hill a fair distance from the Yukon River that he saw and named. We know it today as Haeckel Hill and it was, indeed, officially named by the American - Lt. Frederick Schwatka in 1883.

Why did Schwatka give the obscure hill the name Haeckel? His expedition was a scientific one and had sponsors in the scientific community. Many of the features he named were to honour noted scientists like the Rink Rapids, Marsh Lake and Bove Island. So who was Haeckel? Ernst Haeckel was born in Germany in 1834. After college graduation, he practiced as a medical doctor in Berlin. He then became a professor of anatomy and worked on sponges and segmented worms.

Haeckel was influenced by the works of Charles Darwin. After he read Origin of Species, Haeckel became a supporter of evolution. He believed that the environment acted directly on organisms, producing new species. This was called the "law of recapitulation" and was later discredited.

No matter. Haeckel did leave his mark on the European scientific community and today a prominent feature in the Yukon bears his name. As for the American who immortalized the German, Ernst Haeckel, in the Yukon, Schwatka did OK too. Schwatka Lake, above the Whitehorse hydro dam, is named for this American Lieutenant who left his mark all along the Yukon River in the form of foreign names that will live forever.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




General Miles

As a kid growing up in Whitehorse, I always thought Miles Canyon was named as such because it was a few miles from downtown – not so. Rather, it was named by the American Army Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on his journey down the Yukon River in 1883. Schwatka had a bad habit of naming many features for prominent Americans.

Miles Canyon was named for General Nelson Miles of the United States Army, a man who was best known for his military campaigns against the Indian Peoples of the American Midwest. Miles was born in Massachusetts in 1839. He served in the American Civil War, then in the so called ‘Indian Wars of the Midwest’, and finally in the Spanish-American War of 1903. He was the only American to serve in all three wars. His legacy is somewhat mixed, and some even say tarnished. After the brutal American Civil War, Miles played a leading role in nearly every phase of the US Army’s campaign against the Indians of the Great Plains during the settling of the West.

In 1875, Miles was a field commander of the force that defeated the Kayowa, Kamenashi, and the southern Cheyenne along the Red River in South Dakota, and forced the Subans to enter reservations. Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the people, refused to leave his hunting grounds. On June 17, 1876 an event began that would eventually lead to the end of the Indian Wars. Rosebud Creek, Montana was the site of a battle in which the Lakota and Cheyenne, under Crazy Horse, turned back troops commanded by General George Crook. General George Custer, leader of the seventh cavalry, was sent to find the villages involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. They discovered a camp that may have contained 10,000 men, women, and children. Custer assumed the numbers were much less than that, and decided to attack. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer and all his men were killed. Following the battle, Sitting Bull led his band into Canada.

In 1877, General Miles led the winter campaign that scoured the Northern plains after Custer’s defeat by Crazy Horse, forcing the Lakota and their allies onto reservations. Miles feared that Sitting Bull might use his new home in Canada as a base for attacking Americans, and assembled a council in an attempt to convince Sitting Bull to return to the US. Miles promised Sitting Bull that all those who returned would receive a full pardon. Sitting Bull refused but in 1881, on the verge of starvation, Sitting Bull led his people back into the United States. While most of the band was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull was taken to Fort Randall South Dakota, where they imprisoned him for 2 years. In 1886, Miles led the American Armies in battles against Geronimo’s Appaches in Arizona, and forced them to surrender. Geronimo and his followers were exiled to a reservation in Florida.

In 1890, the Ghost Dance Uprising on Lakota reservations in South Dakota brought Miles back into the active field. To restore peace throughout the area, Miles directed troop maneuvers that panicked many Lakota bands into leaving their reservations, and led both to Sitting Bull’s death, and to the massacre of Bigfoot’s band of 200 at Wounded Knee in December 1890. Miles was named Commanding General of the US Army in 1895, a post he held during the Spanish-American War. He retired in 1903, died in 1925 at age 85, and was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery. So the next time you visit Miles Canyon, remember that this serene spot on the Yukon River is named for a military General who helped open the American West to settlement by leading the United States Military in many Indian Wars.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin