Martha Louise Black: First Lady of the Yukon

By Katie Cholette

A signed and matted black-and-white photograph of a woman smiling, dated 1932.

Martha Louise Black, 1932. Photographer: Pierre Brunet (e011154526)

Hidden among the millions of items in the collection of Library and Archives Canada are a set of 10 floral postcards. Unassuming in size, and modest in subject matter, they were produced by an exceptional and adventurous woman named Martha Louise Black. Dubbed “First Lady of the Yukon,” and the second woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, Martha Black was an astute businesswoman, an expert on the wildflowers of the Yukon and British Columbia, an author and lecturer, and the recipient of several honours. February 24, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of her birth.

A colour reproduction of a plant with four purple flowers and one that has turned to seed. Centred at the bottom are the initials MLB and GB, and it is dated 1955.

“Pasque Flower” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical print, 1955. (e011154530)

When Martha was born in Chicago, Illinois, no one could have predicted what an exciting life she would lead. In 1898, at the age of 23, she left behind the comforts of her home in Chicago (and her first husband) to follow the Gold Rush to the Yukon. Financed by family money, Martha and her brother George crossed the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River. They continued to the Klondike where she staked gold mining claims. Her first stay in the Yukon lasted just over a year, but Martha had been bitten by the bug of the North. When she returned in 1901 she staked more claims, opened a successful sawmill and married her second husband, George Black. She would spend a large portion of the rest of her life living in the Yukon.

A colour reproduction of a plant with three yellow flowers with wide leafy bases. It is initialed MB and dated 1930.

“Cyprepedium, Large Yellow Lady Slipper” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction, 1955 (e011154531)

Martha and George built a life for themselves in the Yukon, where she raised three sons from her first marriage. George, a lawyer by profession, became the 7th Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912. Together, the Blacks played a central role in Dawson and later Whitehorse.

A colour reproduction showing a plant with small purple flowers and wide, deeply lobed leaves. It is initialed MB and dated 1930.

“Crane’s Bill – Wild Geranium” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction (e011154532)

Martha’s lifelong interest in botany flourished in the north. In 1909 she began collecting and pressing wildflowers, filling in the backgrounds with watercolour—a practice she called ‘artistic botany.’ Her works garnered praise, and over the next two summers she was commissioned to collect and mount wildflowers from the Rocky Mountains for exhibition at Canadian Pacific Railway stations and hotels. A series of her works were subsequently published as postcards, and she was made a fellow of the Royal
Geographical Society.

A colour reproduction showing a plant with long woody stems, closely clustered tiny pink flowers and small leaves. The print is initialed MB and dated 1920.

“Heather” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction (e011154538)

In 1935, at the age of 69, Martha was elected to the House of Commons. She served as Member of Parliament for the Yukon until 1940. In 1948 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to Yukon servicemen. Martha died in Whitehorse on October 31, 1957 at the age of 91.

Learn more about her life and work:

Written by Katie Cholette

Images of the North West Mounted Police in Yukon now on Flickr

The Klondike gold rush left an infrastructure of supply, support and governance that led to the continued development of the territory to such a great extent that Yukon became a Canadian territory on June 13, 1898. The North West Mounted Police stayed to maintain peace and order under their steady hands.

Go North, Sir!

In 1894, the Canadian government’s interest turned towards the Yukon. There were concerns about the influx of American citizens into the region as the new border was disputed in certain areas. In addition, there were mounting concerns over law and order, and the liquor trade among the resident miners.

Inspector Charles Constantine of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was dispatched to the Yukon to carry out law enforcement, border and tariff control, and to assess the policing needs of the territory. After four weeks of duty, Constantine returned south and submitted his report to the government recommending that a larger force of seasoned, robust and non-drinking constables between the ages of 22 and 32 years be sent to the Yukon to carry out border and law enforcement. It wasn’t until 1895 that a contingent of 20 constables under Inspector Constantine’s command finally set out from Regina towards the Alaskan border. They reached the town of Forty Mile and established Fort Constantine in July 1895. The year was marked by logging, enduring the elements and insects, and constructing their detachment building. Remarkably, crime during this time was rare.

Two black-and-white photos mounted on an album page depicting two groups of North West Mounted Police personnel outside in the snow

Fort Constantine detachment (now Forty Mile) on the Yukon River, 1895, the first North West Mounted Police group in the Yukon (MIKAN 3715394)

Things changed drastically in 1896. Gold was discovered near the Klondike River and news spread quickly. From a population of about 1,600 in the area, it swelled by tens of thousands by the summer of 1897 with prospectors, gamblers, speculators and those with criminal intent. A majority of these miners came from the United States. The NWMP commanded by Inspector Charles Constantine faced a challenge in policing the influx of miners streaming into the region from all directions. Customs posts were set up at the Chilkoot and White Pass summits and the collection of duties and tariffs began. Those miners with insufficient provisions to make it to Dawson City and survive the winter were turned back. By 1898, outnumbered, under-supplied and under-staffed, 51 NWMP members and 50 members of the Canadian militia maintained Canada’s sovereignty, and law and order at the border passes and in the mining areas in the Yukon.

Three North West Mounted Police constables in uniform standing at ease with clasped hands over the muzzles of their rifles.

North West Mounted Police in the Yukon, 1898–1899 (MIKAN 3379433)

The Klondike gold rush lasted into 1899 until gold was discovered in Alaska. The migration of fortune seekers turned their attention and travelled towards that state’s Nome region. However, the Klondike gold rush left an infrastructure of supply, support and governance that led to the continued development of the territory to such a great extent that the Yukon was made into a Canadian territory on June 13, 1898. The North West Mounted Police also stayed to maintain peace and order under their steady hands.

Black-and-white photograph of two men in North West Mounted Police uniform sitting on cots in a tent

North West Mounted Police in the Yukon, 1898–1910 (MIKAN 3407658)

A wide variety of documentation is available at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) related to the North West Mounted Police, the Klondike gold rush, and their time in the territory. You may start your initial research in Charles Constantine‘s fond using Archives Search. A general search using his name will provide further records from the Department of Justice.

Try searching with some of these keywords to get more records from the era:

Bennett Lake / Lake Bennett
Chilkoot Pass
Dawson City Yukon
Dyea
Forty Mile
Gold rush
Klondike River
Skagway
White Pass
Yukon River

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