Chief Isaac's People of the River - Historical Accounts

Chief Isaac's People of the River
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Historical Accounts


Tappen Adney
Tappen Adney

Tappan Adney was in the Klondike from 1897 to 1898 to report on the Klondike Gold Rush. In addition to authoring the book The Klondike Stampede, which is still available in bookstore, he has provided the following to invaluable articles that include amazing illustrations:

Moose Hunting with the Tro-Chu-Tin”, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. C, No. DXCVIII, March,  1900. Read it here.

Indian Hunter of the Far Northwest on the Trail to the Klondike”, Outing Vol. XXXIX, No. 06, March 1902. Read it here.

Adney was interested in native cultures before his trip to the Klondike and probably knew more about eastern natives than any other white man of his time. He is also well known for his work with birch bark canoes of which he has constructed over 150 models. 


Discription of Chief Isaac
Captain Ferdinand Schmitter Account of the Chief
Tappan Adney's Description of a Traditional Camp

Discription of Chief Isaac

Source: Han Hwechin People of the River, C Mishler and W.E. SimeoneTappan

Adney, who camped and hunted with the Han Chief Isaac along the Klondike River during the gold rush, described his personality and behavior. Adney was a splendid artist as well as a fine writer. His many sketches of Isaac and his people give us a good sense not only of Isaac the man but also of the nomadic Han life in the Yukon backcountry. In his article 'Moose Hunting with the Tro-chu-tin," Adney reported that Isaac was a tall man who carried himself "with conscious self-respect" and had "a flashing eye that gave the impression both of mastery and shrewdness." Isaac would get up before daylight, step outside, and announce the day's activities. As Adney described: "He spoke not in the smooth, melodious tongue of the Eastern Indians, but slowly and deliberately, in short, crisp, incisive monosyllables. When he was done, he informed me in broken English that we were to hunt on the left-hand side of the river." From this description, it becomes clear that it was the chief's duty to give directions to the people for hunting and traveling. Undoubtedly, the chief's announcement also served as a general wakeup call. The fact that all the others were still in their tents at that hour of the morning pretty well precluded any questions or complaints. At the same time, Isaac is not remembered for being a bully, but for always talking politely to his followers.

Although most of the time he spoke Han, Isaac attempted to learn English as well, and his flavored speech of "short, crisp, incisive mono-syllables" evolved into a distinctive vernacular: "Mull moose, too much tupp; cow moose, plenty fat stop, he all right" meant that bull moose meat was too tough but cow moose meat was fat and tender. In Han and other Athabaskan languages there is no distinction between female and male pronouns, so it is common to hear Han speakers use "he" in place of "she" and vice-versa when they speak English.

Captain Ferdinand Schmitter Account of the Chief

Source: ??????

Captain Ferdinand Schmitter of the Medical Corps who,during his term of duty at Fort Egbert, adjacent to Eagle had this to say about Chief Isaac. (Schmitter 1910) "Under their form of government the chief (ha-kkih) had despotic authority. He detailed hunting parties and dictated their duties, and when game was brought into camp he assumed charge of it, apportioning it out to whom he pleased. The chief of the Moosehide Indians near Dawson shows much of the pristine dignity and authority of his rank, and whenever he buys anything in Dawson he does not carry it home, but sends an Indian after it. He shows his genteel extraction by always wearing a pair of fancy decorated gauntlets when he goes on a several days' visit to Eagle during warm weather."

Tappan Adney's Description of a Traditional Camp

Source: The Han Indians-Cornelius Osgood
Tappan Adney's experience in January 1898 provides an excellent description of the portable skin dwelling used by the Klondike band of the Han.

Two miles from the Yukon, above the mouth of the Bonanza Creek, the head of the caravan stopped, and Isaac marked the place for the camp at the edge of the river, alongside a dense grove of spruce-trees. As we turned off the smooth miner's trail every person old enough to walk slipped into snow-shoes, as the snow was about two feet deep.

The women took long-handled wooden shovels and removed the snow off the ground an elliptical space eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide, banking it all around two feet high. While some covered the exposed river gravel with green spruce boughs and kindled a fire in the centre, others cut sticks three to five feet long and set them upright a foot apart in the bank of snow, the long way of the intended house, leaving an opening at one side two feet wide for the door.
Traditional Camp
Traditional Camp
Source: The Indian Hunter of the Far Northwest - On the Trail to the Klondike
Tappan Adney, OUTING, Vol. XXXIX, No.6, March, 1902

The house-poles, an inch thick and ten or twelve feet long, whittled out of spruce and previously bent and seasoned into the form of a curve, were then set up in the snow at the ends of the camp to the number of sixteen or twenty, their upper ens pointing toward the middle in the form of a dome ten feet high. These were strengthened by two arched cross-poles underneath, the ends of which were lashed to the side-stakes with withes of willow twigs thawed out and made pliant over the fire. Over this comparatively stiff frame-work next was drawn a covering of caribou-skin, tanned with the hair on, made in two sections, and shaped and sewed together to fit the dome. The two sections, comprising forty skins, completely covered the house, except in the middle, where a large hole was left for the smoke to escape, and at the doorway, over which hung a piece of blanket.

The toboggans with the balance of the loads were hoisted upon pole scaffolds each side of the house, out of reach of the dogs, who looked and acted as if ready to devour anything from a moccasin to a rawhide toboggan-lashing.

Not until the house was done and enough wood stacked before the door to last until morning did any one stop for a moment. In a climate where the temperature remains not higher than thirty degrees below zero, and occasionally drops to fifty or sixty below, it is dangerous to dally, as white men are prone to do under the same conditions.
 In our little village there were seven lodges. In the chief's house were nine persons and seven dogs, divided into two households, each having a side of the fire to itself. On ours were Isaac, his wife Eliza, with a nursing boy less than a year old, myself, and three native dogs--Chicken (child), Gagul (broken leg), and John: also a tawny "whiteman's dog," Beaber, taken to board, a small black native pup, and an extremely miserable short-haired white man's pup, wrapped in a blanket to keep from freezing, and weighing just fourteen pounds by Isaac's spring scale. On the other side were a middle aged, stocky built man known as "Billy", or "the missionary's man," and his wife, with two girls respectively about eight and ten years of age, and a boy of the same uncertain age, four large native dogs and two pups. The human occupants kneeled or reclined before the fire, which was ingeniously built to throw the heat in two directions and to draw well, notwithstanding which latter, I soon discovered that it was often necessary to lie close to the ground, and when the smoke became too thick, to lift the lower edge of the skin covering.The following morning before daybreak word was given "All go." Toboggans were rattled off of caches, and house taken down and loaded as swiftly as they had been set up.


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Left to right, back row: Chief Isaac, Fred Isaac, child Edward Isaac. Front row: Eliza Isaac, Angela Isaac, Charlie Isaac, Princess Pat. Dawson slide in background. Chief Isaac's drum resembles the slide's shape of a moose. The Klondike enters the Yukon River at Dawson.