The Real, Insane Story of the Nome Gold Rush

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Written By Alex

On July 10, 1899, the gold prospecting camp called Nome City almost exploded into violence.

A miner’s meeting was called to order in the Northern Saloon – where almost 600 angry men gathered in the large tent intending to declare all of the existing mining claims in the Nome district void and illegal, and to reopen some of Alaska’s richest gold creeks for a restaking free-for-all.

The bristling crowd thought it unfair that the inexperienced, young Scandinavians known as the “Three Lucky Swedes” – in a span of just 7 days – staked most of the best claims in the Nome mining district, and left thousands of men claimless in the scrappy town at the edge of the Bering Sea.

Most of these men were destitute stampeders chasing news of gold strikes west from the Klondike to the Seward Peninsula – losing everything they owned in the process.

Landing about as far north and west as you could get in Alaska without dropping into the sea, these failed prospectors were hungry and angry that these “aliens from Sweden” had “tricked” the Americans and stolen all the rich gold claims out from under their noses.

The meeting ultimately failed, and just a few days later, right when mass violence seemed inevitable, the saloons were suddenly empty. Shopkeepers closed their doors, and barbers hung up their clippers. Each man was out gleefully mining record quantities of gold – thanks to a near-miraculous second gold strike in the Nome mining district.

So what happened?

alaska gold rush nome AK

The Common Story

For a historical event that’s inspired movies, tv shows, and documentaries – and still draws men to upend their lives and move north to strike it rich – the discovery of the Nome goldfields is still shrouded in mystery.

When one thinks of the rush for Alaskan gold at the turn of the 20th century the Klondike usually comes to mind. You might picture old-timey prospectors trudging over a snowy mountain pass with a rucksack and a pick, or the saloons of Dawson City.

But the Klondike River and the gold district named for it are not in Alaska as is commonly believed, but in the Yukon Territory, Canada – though many men traveled through Alaska to get there, and continue to mine the area over the border in towns like Chicken to this day.

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That makes Nome the “real Alaskan gold rush” of the turn of the 20th century. From a human perspective it was bigger and madder than the Fairbanks rush just a few years later.

The telling of the story of the Three Lucky Swedes finding gold on Anvil Creek in 1898 is usually so simple it’s almost parabolic.

Here is the gist:

John Byrteson, Erik Lindblom, and Jafet Lindeberg – three Swedes with just a few months of combined gold prospecting experience – partnered up on a prospecting venture out of Golovin, Alaska. They made their way west along the coast of the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea, panning along the way, and discovered extremely rich deposits of gold on Anvil Creek late summer of 1898.

The three Swedes, now considered quite lucky, proceeded to stake a huge number of mining claims that would gross them $20 million dollars in gold over the next 20 years – a veritable fortune by those days’ standards (and not a bad one today).

But the devil is in the details, as they say, and the full story is far, far crazier than the shortened version suggests.

The story of the Three Lucky Swedes was really a product of two very lucky gold strikes. The first one made them rich, and a near-miraculous second one saved their lives from an angry mob of luckless prospectors. Additionally, the lucky Swedes were preceded by a very unlucky Swede that made their discoveries possible.

The Three Lucky Swedes who discovered gold in Nome Alaska
Source: Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches” by Alaska Geographic Society

The Unlucky Swede

Nels O. Hultberg was a Swedish missionary at Cheenik who caught gold fever and was instrumental in establishing the first permanently-settled placer gold mining camp on the Seward Peninsula at Council City after his prospecting party struck gold on April 23, 1898.

Producing $12 million in gold over the next 30 years, the Council City strike was fruitful, but was merely a taste of the great riches found in the creeks of Nome just 80 miles to the west six months later.

During that summer, still in the throes of prospecting fever, Reverend Hultberg and fellow Council City founder, a mining engineer named H.L. Blake, put together another expedition party to look for gold. This party included a Swedish coal miner named Mr. John Byrteson and three other companions.

The six were traveling west along the coast of the Seward Peninsula in a small boat when a storm came up and forced them to take cover inside the mouth of a winding river. The boat swamped in the breakers just as they entered the mouth and most of their supplies were lost in the surf.

Unfortunately striking great riches of gold doesn’t make men very happy, and Hultberg and Blake were had been fighting almost constantly since the party left Golovin Bay on July 31st.

Little did the party know – suffering through the misery of pancakes and cold water in the morning as all the coffee had been lost in the storm – they had landed at the mouth of the Snake River, and were camping right on top of some of Alaska’s richest gold-bearing ground.

Blake and Hultberg were arguing so much that they had little time to look for gold. But Reverend Nels Hultberg did find some time to pan a little material on a tributary of the Snake River called Anvil Creek – and found excellent gold prospects.

But when he came back down to meet up with the party, Blake says, Hultberg told him “dey is not any gold up dare” in his thick Swedish accent. Apparently Hultberg wanted to keep the information to himself.

The party proceeded west when the storm subsided – leaving the richest valley in northwestern Alaska without staking a single claim.

Nome Beach during Nome Gold Rush
Source: Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches” by Alaska Geographic Society

Two Lucky Swedes, and a Lucky Norwegian

John Byrnteson came back from his prospecting trip with some idea that there was gold in the tributaries of the Snake River. Did Hultberg confide in him about his prospecting? Did he find some himself?

We don’t know. But we know Hultberg’s name ultimately wasn’t on the list of the Three Lucky Swedes.

One name that was, though, was Eric Lindblom. 41 years old and the oldest of the trio, Lindblom was reportedly shanghaied while drunk in San Francisco, and woke up with a hangover on his way to Kotzebue Sound having unintentionally signed up for an two year hitch on a whaler.

The little Swedish tailor made plans to desert the ship before he ever got to Kotzebue. He heard rumors of the gold strike in the Council City district and made plans to head there.

Lindblom ditched his crew at Grantley Harbor north of Nome and successfully eluded search parties looking for him for several days. Exhausted and starving he ran into a lone prospector who warned him not to attempt to cross the country to Golovin Bay, as the prospector predicted Lindblom’s “bones would bleach in the mountains.”

He returned to Grantley Harbor and found an Eskimo family about to embark on a trading expedition to Golovin Bay. They took mercy on Lindblom and hid him under a pile of animal pelts as they paddled out of Grantley Harbor, passing within a few dozen feet of the tailor’s old whaling ship.

On his trip along the coast Lindblom said that his rescuers stopped to fish at the mouth of the Snake River. He did some panning and found gold in several tributaries of the very same river where John Byrteson’s party had landed.

The group really should’ve been named “Two Lucky Swedes, and a Lucky Norwegian,” because Jafet Lindeberg, the youngest of the group at 24, had just arrived in the US in January of that year from northern Norway.

Lindeberg’s goal was to earn passage to the Alaska gold fields in any way possible, and he was recruited by the U.S. government as a herder on an expedition to Lapland called The Klondike Reindeer Project. The project’s goal was to bring more than 500 reindeer to haul supplies to the miners in Dawson City – many of whom it was feared would starve without government assistance.

The Klondike Reindeer project was a disaster, with most of the animals starving to death long before they reached Dawson City, but for Lindeberg it was his ticket to fortune. When he got to Alaska he resigned his post and became a gold prospector full-time.

Lindeberg met Dr. A.N. Kittilsen in Alaska, a government physician and fellow Norwegian who was one of the founders of Council City with Blake and Hultberg. Kittilsen was headed back to the Seward Peninsula and encouraged Lindeberg to travel with him and prospect the lightly-traveled lands around Norton Sound.

what daily life was like during the Nome gold rush
Source: Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches” by Alaska Geographic Society

Lindeberg arrived in Council City in August 1898 where he soon met two other greenhorn miners: Eric Lindblom and John Byrnteson.

The three knew they had to discover a new area, because by late summer of 1898 Council City was “overrun by stampeders, and staked to the mountain tops.”

In early September of 1898, the three patched up an old flat-bottomed scow and sailed west from Dexter’s Trading Post at Cheenik. They were bound for the Snake River, a largely undiscovered area where Byrnteson and Lindblom had both found good gold prospects previously that summer.

After battling storms and arriving at their destination, they struck gold in “paying quantities” on about a half-dozen tributaries of the Snake River, all of which they named, including Anvil Creek, Snow Gulch, Glacier Creek, Rock Creek, and Dry Creek. The three proceeded to stake most of the best claims in the area in just 7 days.

After staking claims on the creeks they discovered, they returned to Dexter’s Trading Post with a shotgun shell full of gold dust.

It’s a good thing the three men were smart enough to keep their mouths shut about the discovery, because they had staked the claims totally wrong due to their inexperience.

The claims were not the right size, and they had not been marked properly. They had not held a miners’ meeting to organize a mining district, nor appointed a recorder who could officially record the claims. Until those steps were taken, their mining claims were not legally valid.

The Rush is On

Apparently they became aware of their mistakes, because the three men invited veteran miner Gabe W. Price from California to go back with them so they could stake the claims correctly. Price was an agent of Charles D. Lane, a multimillionaire miner and investor from San Francisco, and knew the intricacies of mining law.

By tradition at least six men were needed to call a miners’ meeting, so Price and the “three lucky Swedes” invited Dr. Kittilsen, who originally brought Lindeberg to the Seward Peninsula, and a Lapp reindeer herder named J.S. Tornanses to accompany them on the trip back to the Snake River.

On October 15, 1898 the six men officially organized the Cape Nome Mining District. Under the watchful eye of Price all the claims were carefully staked, measured, and legally recorded.

Winter was approaching quickly and the streams had already started to freeze over.

gold during the nome gold rush
Source: Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches” by Alaska Geographic Society

But in about five days’ time, with the use of two crude wooden rockers and water heated over a wood fire to thaw the frozen ground, they rocked out nearly $2,000 of placer gold from Snow Gulch and Anvil Creek.

At ~$20 an ounce gold price at the time that means these guys were pulling 20 ounces of placer gold a day out of half-frozen creeks with crude rockers!

The men wanted to continue to keep this gold discovery a secret, but of course that proved to be impossible.

Gabe Price broke first and wrote to a friend at Council City in mid-November about the new gold camp, and told his boss in San Francisco about the rich claim he received on Anvil Creek in exchange for helping the Scandinavians properly stake claims.

Mr. Price’s company, which he called the Wild Goose Mining and Trading Company, ultimately became the largest mining corporation in northwestern Alaska.

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Presumably the Scandinavians were talking too, because word of the strike spread through the late months of 1898 and early 1899. Prospectors poured into the Nome mining camp from the Seward Peninsula region over the winter. By the spring of 1899 over 1500 claims had been staked which, if placed end to end, would have stretched the entire length of the state of Illinois.

Somehow the word of the gold strike traveled over the frozen wasteland and into Canada that winter, because after navigation opened in the Bering Sea in 1899 prospectors swarmed in from the Klondike by the thousands. These were men who had bet everything on striking it rich in the Yukon and lost it all, and were now watching men get rich in a second gold rush that was again passing them by.

Of the estimated three thousand men at Nome by July 1899, about one thousand were completely destitute. They put up their tents between piles of driftwood on the Nome beach, the only unclaimed space available to them near the townsite at the mouth of the Snake River.

The Scandinavians and other alleged aliens in the district were natural scapegoats for their anger and frustration. The three Scandinavian greenhorns and their friends and associates had grabbed most of the best land in the weeks and months following the organization of the Nome mining district. The general sentiment among the luckless prospectors was that no new prospectors should be so lucky, especially those who weren’t Americans.

H.L Blake and other members of the initial expedition party to the Snake River were especially furious. Blake felt that he had discovered the gold in Nome and that the Scandinavians in the group tricked him and took their countrymen back to stake the creeks around the Snake River, instead of sharing the discovery with Blake and other members of the initial party.

With anger and desperation in the air the newcomers resulted quickly to claim jumping, which was rampant throughout the winter and spring and became a mania by the summer of 1899.

The destitute mob of prospectors that flooded into Nome justified the claim jumping by saying immigrants had no right to stake claims on U.S. soil, or that the Scandinavians had illegally staked too many claims for their friends and countrymen through power of attorney.

History of Gold in the Bering Sea
Source: Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches” by Alaska Geographic Society

Newcomers automatically jumped every claim, as Rex Beach put it, “whose location notice bore a name ending in ‘son,’ ‘berg,’ or had three consonants in a row.”

Claim jumping was little more than blackmail – as the true owner would rather pay off the “rival claimants” and keep mining the rich ground rather than get tied up, potentially for years, in legal battles. Some claims were located and shaken down by over half a dozen jumpers.

The battle between early claim stakers and the claim jumpers came to a head on the night of July 10, 1899.

The claim jumpers were so emboldened that they called a miners’ meeting at the Northern Saloon tent to declare all existing mining locations in the Nome district void and illegal, and to reopen all the creeks for staking.

Men were posted on Anvil Mountain four miles away, waiting for a bonfire to be lit that would signal the passage of the resolutions voiding the claims of the Swedes and other original stakers. Once the signal was received the parties of latecomers would race to grab all the best claims in the district for themselves and their partners.

But the agitators’ plan was foiled by the quick action of Lieutenant O.L. Spaulding of the U.S. Army. He and a half-dozen soldiers forced the meeting to disperse at bayonet point, and the military warned the prospectors that resetting the mining claims and menacing the current claim owners with a mob would not be tolerated.

The claim owners applauded the Lieutenant and the would-be stakers were outraged. Each day the situation grew more menacing and hostile and the army had to forbid anyone from carrying firearms, revolvers or pistols in the district.

Sluice box during the nome gold rush
Source: Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches” by Alaska Geographic Society

The Second Strike

But just a few days later right when it seemed that the luckless stampeders from the Yukon had, once again, missed the proverbial boat, a second gold strike was made. And this time everyone could access it legally.

The destitute men emptied out of the saloons and gambling halls. The barkeepers and faro dealers were gone, lawyers and barbers closed shop, and the men with paying jobs mining the creeks on behalf of the claim owners had deserted their posts.

Why? Because there was gold discovered in the sands of the beaches of the Bering Sea.

It turns out that underneath all these stampeders’ tents the Nome beach was so rich with gold that a man could almost pick it up like small sea shells. The miners called it “the poor man’s paradise.”

Small teams of two or three men lined up almost shoulder-to-shoulder with homemade wooden rockers along the beaches east and west of the Snake River mining the rich ruby-colored sands just a few feet below the surface, and the rest is history.

“It has grown as if by magic,” Nome’s first newspaper bragged about the town in its first issue. “It is true it is built upon sand, but the sand is golden and…it promises to be the greatest gold camp that has ever been known in the history of gold mining.”

Special thanks to The Alaska Geographic Society for publishing its book Nome: “City of the Golden Beaches”. It was our primary source of information and photos about this point of history in Nome.

You can find it on Amazon here.

For more on the Nome Gold Rush check out these article:

Real Gold by Emily Riedel from Bering Sea Gold

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