Oliver Millett

Oliver Millett found the source of much of the Klondike’s gold but it didn’t make him as rich as it could have - he ended up in hospital with scurvy when he should have been staking a claim on his discovery.

Millett was from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. He left home at the age of 14 to work on ships before moving west to seek his fortune.

In 1897, at the age of 33, he was working at a lumber mill in Seattle. However, he quit the same day a ship called the Portland arrived carrying prospectors from the north and about a million dollars worth of gold. The gold rush was on and he headed north, reaching Dawson City on October 9.

Millett worked as a labourer on claim #41 on Eldorado Creek, one of a series of creeks prospected during the Klondike gold rush.

With everyone focussed on the low-lying creeks, Millett began to wonder whether the hills above the creeks might contain gold. This curiosity led him to prospect the high ground above Bonanza Creek, just below the point where it connects with Eldorado Creek.

The other prospectors thought Millett was crazy because the conventional wisdom was that there was no gold in the hills.

The work was hard – there were two feet of snow and the ground was frozen – and Millett caught scurvy from eating too little and working too much.

However, he eventually found a nugget. The discovery was enough to keep him going.

He dug a shaft 26-feet-deep but found nothing. He started another shaft and it was there that he found the white gravel that so often contained gold in the Yukon. According to a 1907 report by the Geological Survey of Canada, the quartz pebbles were white “largely due to the leaching out of the greater portion of the iron by circulating surface waters.”

Millett’s find would come to be called the White Channel, the track of a bygone stream that was the source of much of the Klondike’s gold.

Millett rushed down the hill to get lumber to build a shaker for screening the gravel. In his first day, he took out over $800 worth of gold. He kept going, ignoring his health, until he had $20,000 worth of gold. He then headed for Grand Forks to register his claim and get food.

According to Pierre Berton’s book, Klondike, “In his absence somebody suggested they call his hill Cheechako Hill because only a newcomer would be silly enough to look for gold there – and Cheechako Hill it became.” (Cheechako is a Chinook word for someone newly arrived in Alaska or the Yukon.)

Millett was too sick to get back to Cheechako Hill so he got a Nova Scotian friend, Captain Billy Norwood, to certify his discovery as required by the mining law. Millett then went to the hospital.

His find triggered a staking rush on Cheechako Hill and by the time Captain Norwood got there to drive stakes into the ground to mark Millett’s claim, most of the hill had already been staked. Millett was left with just a small wedge-shaped claim.

Millett, too sick to work his claim, sold it for $60,000 (a little over $2 million in today’s dollars). The new owners mined half a million dollars from it (almost $18 million today).

Millett recovered from his health issues and lived out his days in Juneau, Alaska, and Sedro-Woolley, Washington State, where he passed away in 1951 at the age of 87.

Millett did not become as rich or famous as some others during the gold rush, but the amateur prospector made a remarkable and important discovery by going against the conventional wisdom of the time.