In order that the reader may understand more fully the contents of these Klondike letters and the story of the trip, I shall presume to narrate the bits and pieces that have been told to me by my Father who was the “Bertie” of the letters and was 15 years old when his parents left for the Klondike gold rush.
As a starting point, it is most necessary to understand the background and prior experience of Solomon and Rebecca Schuldenfrei before they embarked on this adventure to seek their fortune in the Klondike. Both were born in the Cracoaw (sic) area of what is now Poland but was then part of the old Austria-Hungary kingdom. They migrated from their homes to the United States separately when they were quite young. Basically, Sol had done so to escape military proscription when he was in his late teens and Becci at an earlier age. I do not know whether they had known each other in Europe but they were not married until they were in the United States in the year 1881.
Their children were Herbert (Bertie, Bert) who was my Father born in 1882, Ludwig (Lulu, Lewis, Lew) born in 1884. and a bachelor all of his life, and Nellie (Puss, Natalie) born in 1886, married to Lionel Friedmann and the Mother of Maxine, Jeanne, and Babette. My Brother is Joseph M.
At the start of the trip, Sol was 41 years old and Becci was 34. They had been city dwellers all of their lives and had really never known physical hardship nor anything about camping out or maintaining themselves in the wilderness, — let alone the wilds of the Yukon where the temperature reaches 60 degrees below zero! It is almost inconceivable that they even considered embarking on such a venture and even more so that they carried it through and survived. By their own admissions, they were “greenhorns” and not fitted for the rigors of mining or even living the bitter life of the Yukon winters. Obviously, the newspaper reports of the gold nuggets lying on the ground waiting to be picked up were highly misleading. They left their children ages 15, 13, and 11 in the care of Becci’s Sister Gussie and her husband in Coudersport, Penna.
The basic reason for making the trip was money, - not adventure. Sol had been a necktie and shirtwaist manufacturer in New York City but probably had not been very successful. (He was a much better Pinochle and chess player and once even played against the renowned Capablanca). He was a very mild mannered man and was probably not tough enough to be a real good business man. Becci was by a wide margin both tougher and shrewder. As a grub stake for the trip, they sold the business, used all of their own funds, and borrowed whatever they could from friends and relatives.
The letters clearly bring out that Sol was always a merchant and certainly not a miner nor frontiersman. His ideas constantly ran to sending merchandise into Dawson City for resale to the miners for gold dust. He mentions such unusual things as stiff bosom shirts and 10,000 wire bedspring coils. He even manufactured a few neckties during the middle of the winter and actually sold them to the miners!
One story that typifies Sol is about firearms. When he was being outfitted in Seattle by the firm of Levy & Cooper on a single Saturday afternoon, he was asked what kind of a gun he had or wanted to buy. He told the man that he had no gun, did not want one, and would not know how to use one even if he possessed one. The man insisted that they could not go into that lawless wilderness without the protection of a gun so Sol purchased a pistol and then told the man to put it into one of the packs, to place the bullets in another, and then not to tell him in which packs they were located!
As a sequel to this story of the purchase of the gun, it seems that while they were in transit by boat or raft down the Whitehorse River, Sol or Becci overheard the two owners of the boat plotting to kill them and steal their huge store of supplies which were more valuable than gold at that time and place. The boatmen then, on arriving in Dawson City, would have reported that the Shelbys (the name changed from Schuldenfrei for the trip) had fallen overboard and been drowned in the swift current of the river and that the bodies had been lost. At this point, Sol dug into his packs for the pistol and the ammunition, told the men that their plot had been overheard, and, from then on until Dawson City was reached, either Sol. or Becci remained awake and on guard with the pistol to protect themselves. The last few days of the boat trip were thus uneventful.
During their very difficult climb through the Chilcook Pass (where many men and pack animals lost their lives that winter) they happened to pass two men going in the opposite direction back to civilization. They stopped to talk with the men, gave them their names, and then continued on. A sudden heavy snowstorm came up but the Shelby expedition of Sol., Becci and their 28 pack Indians went through it safely. However, the two men on reaching Dyea reported that they had met the Shelbys with their Indians and that they surely must have perished in the terrible blizzard. This item appeared eventually in the New York Herald and was seen by the Aunt and Uncle who were caring for the children. They kept the news a secret until a letter finally came through several months later reporting that Sol. and Becci had made the climb through the Chilcook Pass in safety. Actually, during that trip there was a very serious rock and snow slide and several persons did lose their lives, but the Indians had carefully selected a safe campsite so the Shelby party and their supplies were safe. They took seven days to get over the pass.
It should be brought out also that Sol. had originally planned to take the trip to the Klondike with another man, This man could not seem to wind up his business affairs quickly enough, and, as the winter season was rapidly approaching, Sol decided to go on without him. At that point, Becci insisted that if he were going to take the risks and the hardships, she was going with him. Nothing would dissuade her. Of course, neither of them had any idea of the actual conditions which were to face them. Mr. Toledano, a close friend, planned to follow them out the next spring, but he was later advised by their letters to cancel his plans.
When Sol and Becci arrived in Dawson City in late September, 1897, they were too late in the season to go out prospecting for gold and it was too cold to spend the winter in the little tent which they had been using. Having no cash left, they sold the small fur robe which Sol had purchased for Becci’s comfort back in Seattle for $35 for $400. They then rented a very small (I estimate l5 by l5 feet) one room log cabin which they divided in half. They lived in the rear half and opened a restaurant in the front serving “home cooked” meals to the miners! Becci had never been a cook or really a housewife, having always been in business, but, with their large supplies of food and a woman’s touch, they made out over the first tough winter. It was so cold, however, that the food was mostly cold by the time it was carried from the stove to the table, a distance of 10 or 12 feet!
At that time in Dawson City there was a great deal of barter but the standard of value and exchange was an ounce of gold dust. Note that someone traded them 5 gallons of kerosene for a meal and they eventually sold the kerosene for $100.
Most of the original letters have been lost and there are only two originals in this booklet. Lionel Friedman had all of them typed from the originals in the 1930’s and these were retyped for this book by my wife, Leonore. The wording and spelling are exactly as she found them on the first set of typed copies which we still have. [Note by Robert Schuldenfrei: I have taken some liberties with the spelling to add consistency to the text.] Over the years of movements of households, deaths, etc., the bulk of the originals have been lost. Additionally, I have a number of original letters from the Children and the Aunt and Uncle from Coudersport to Sol and Becci in the Klondike, but, while they have a human and personal interest, they do not add materially to the Klondike Saga of the Schuldenfreis.
We believe that Becci was the second or the third white woman to enter Dawson City. [Note by Robert Schuldenfrei: This has been documented by Francis Backhouse as absolutely untrue. It remains a family myth to this day. The claim does not, however, diminish the story.] She retuned to the States and to her Children in the summer of 1898 when the ice went out in the rivers. Sol stayed on for another winter hoping to make his fortune or at least to recoup what he had spent on venture. However, after the fire which burned down his hotel, he returned home from the Klondike broke and in debt with 3 children to raise. He opened three small department stores in Atlantic City, Lakewood, and Plainfield. Where he obtained the capital to do so I do not know. They were moderately successful for a while, but by 1930 all three had been closed or sold out. Sol’s one financial success was in some real estate holdings in Atlantic City but even the proceeds of this were wiped out In the stock market crash of 1929.
Solomon Schuldenfrei died in 1923 at the age of 67 . Becci followed him in 1935 at the age of 72. Their Klondike adventure as reported by their interesting, human letters shows a strength and courage of our forebears that we often lose sight of today.
Wm. H. Schuldenfrei
Palm Beach, Florida
Additional comments by:
Robert Schuldenfrei (Great Grandson)
For the first section of letters follow this link to the first letters.