In 1897, there was a great amount of optimism loose in the United States. Rather than the world of "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is", people had more trust in the government, the media, and people's control over their environment. With the railroads and telephones, the announcement that gold had been found in the Yukon made it seem like the world could not get any better. America already was characterized as the "land of opportunity" to immigrants and the gold rush made it seem like a reality. This was the world in which Rebecca Schuldenfrei, my great-great-grandmother, lived.
Rebecca Schuldenfrei was born in 1863 near Krakow in the Austro-Hungarian empire. At a young age she immigrated to America and lived most of her life in New York. In 1897 her husband, Solomon decided to set out to the Klondike with a business partner in search of gold. As the trip rapidly approached, the partner decided he could not leave his business and backed out. Becci, concerned that her husband was not tough enough for the wilds of the Yukon, would not let him go off alone and decided to come along. The couple had three children and, in a move very uncommon to mothers of her day, Rebecca left them in the care of her sister and joined her husband as a partner on his adventure. Having never lived outside a city, both Sol and Becci had no way of knowing what kind of dangers they faced. They went for practical reasons: Sol's business had not been very successful, but they must have had some sense of adventure or else they would not have taken all the risks they did. Most of what is known about Rebecca Schuldenfrei comes from the numerous letters she wrote to her sister and her children during the entire trip. Where these letters are quoted, her spelling and grammar is used. Whether what she says is completely accurate or whether it was appropriately filtered for her readers is unknown. What the letters definitely show is an incredible journey of a urban woman in the wilderness of the Yukon.
All the knowledge Becci and Sol could have had of the Yukon was gained from newspapers and stories. They brought what they guessed they would need, but they had no sure way of telling. They were outfitted by a company known as Cooper & Levy. Mrs. Cooper, wife of one of the owners, came out to the shop to see "the lady who goes to Klondike in a silk skirt" (Sept. 5, 1897). Becci was gaining a reputation. Sol had to be talked into buying a gun as the couple knew nothing about handling weapons. They had to buy a year's worth of supplies which would end up costing them hundreds of dollars to transport. However, due to the enormous inflation in the Klondike, the more supplies one brought, the better. In fact, to prevent mass starvation, a year's worth of supplies was required by law for gold seekers to enter the Yukon Territory. Becci's early letters show great optimism. From Fort Townsend, Washington she wrote, "There (in the Klondike) you know we will have nothing to do but pick nuggets and shovel gold, and will not eat any snowballs either, as we have lots of nice things to eat." (Sept. 8, 1897) It was easy to stay optimistic when the gold seekers were still on the trains and boats to which they were accustomed; but Becci, despite her discomfort throughout a great deal of the trip, maintained a positive outlook.
Rebecca and her husband left for the Yukon on August 30, 1897. For the trip, the Schuldenfreis changed their last name to Shelby because they thought people would have a hard time pronouncing their German name. Their travels took them first to Chicago, then Seattle, then Fort Townsend Washington by train. By this point they had to make up their minds whether they would travel to the Klondike by way of Skaguay or Dyea. It turned out that the Skaguay route was blocked and they would have to go by way of Dyea and therefore travel over the difficult Chilkoot pass. En route to Fort Wrangel, Alaska, Becci wrote from the ship, "The Steamer Queen, which we are on now, is a beauty, and we are very comfortable and in fact the whole trip so far has been very pleasant indeed." (Sept. 8, 1897) From Juneau on September 12, Becci wrote only of the beautiful scenery. From Dyea on the 16th, she wrote of rather enjoying the first hardships they have met with "It happened to rain as it usually does here at night, but we were partially protected by half a tent overhead...you would not believe how good camping out seems to do us." (Sept. 16, 1987)
After leaving Dyea the trip became more dangerous. While traveling over the Chilkoot pass in the next few days a sudden and violent snowstorm blew up. Two men whom Becci and Sol had met, traveling in the opposite direction, reported that the couple must have died. The news reached the States in the New York Herald and was spotted by Becci's sister and brother in law. Still holding out hope, they did not tell the children of their parents supposed death and were much relieved to receive a letter from Becci almost an entire month later. Becci wrote, "We are safe; do not worry...we heard that some people met with disaster, and there was a woman among them, so I don't want you to think it was anything to do with us." (Sept. 19,1897) Once over the pass, Becci and Sol had to wait while the native people, who were paid to carry their enormous amount of supplies, went back over the mountains for more food. Becci wrote on September 20, "I am afraid that the Indians will not come back and will give up the job; if this will be the case we will have to give up the job too, and go back to Dyea." This would have meant that Becci and her husband would have had to abandon their thousands of dollars of expensive supplies (they could not carry a year's worth of supplies themselves) and travel back over the dangerous pass.
In her next letter, written on September 25, Becci described the journey over the Chilkoot Pass which was actually a mountain with a huge series of steps carved into the ice. She wrote, "It certainly was never made for human beings, as any one who once went over it is either more or maybe less than human...I cannot find words hard enough to express it, as the most infernal would be the mildest kind of expression to give it." This was the first time that Rebecca had met with physical hardships on the journey, perhaps it was the first time in her life. She describes the last few grueling hours of the trip and how she did not think she was going to make it through. However at the end of the letter she writes, "I am quite myself again and ready to undertake the journey to-morrow...I have plenty of everything; don't worry about us, though I have not one dollar left, and I don't need any."
On October 17, Becci wrote the first letter from Dawson City, Alaska (actually, Dawson City was in the Yukon territory of Canada but the borders were somewhat unclear), their destination. It had been over a month and a half since they left for the Yukon. Having practically no money when they arrived, Becci decided to open a restaurant for a few months until her husband could get a claim. On October 19, Becci wrote, "Just at present things do not look so bright here as they are pictured in the newspapers...this beautiful Klondike is only good for very strong and hardworking miners, as any one, who is not brought up from childhood to the hardest kind of labor, is of no earthly use here." In order for the letters written by gold seekers to be sent, someone would have to make the dangerous trip "out on the ice" to get them to the coast where they could be put on a ship. People were paid to make the journey, but sacks of mail are heavy and no one could know if perhaps the man who took their letters abandoned them on the way. As a result, mail did not go out very often. The letters Rebecca wrote from Dawson City would not arrive on the east coast until early January of 1898.
In October and November, Becci began to feel the hardships of the Yukon. She wrote, "We have four hundred pounds of flour left and this is our only hope of making a little money so that we can live in a cabin this winter instead of a tent...since we left Dyea we had not yet sat or slept any differently than on the ground." (Oct. 17, 1897) Wood was always in short supply and Becci wrote of feeling bad for using the wood because Sol would have to go out in the cold to chop more. Yet she ends the letter by saying that she and Sol are very happy with their life in the Klondike. Whether she meant this or was just saying it so those at home would not worry, might never be known. What is clear is that she never wanted to complain.
At the end of October Becci and Sol were able to move into a 16 by 18 foot cabin. They had no furniture but were able to buy a broken down stove to fix up for use in their restaurant. However, food was rapidly becoming hard to come by; it cost so much to bring food into the Yukon that the prices were enormous and sometimes, stores just did not have anything to sell. By November, the temperatures were dropping to more than thirty degrees below zero and Becci began to wonder if she had made a terrible mistake. She began to miss her children very much and her letters became less about the Yukon life and more about how she missed her family. She writes, "As tears blind me as I am now sitting now and thinking that I must have been crazy to undertake it all; but My Darlings, do not imagine that we are having any hardships at all excepting that we are parted from you, otherwise we have it better than most." (Nov. 18,1897) Still, by the middle of the month, Sol and Becci's situation improved. With their restaurant now in operation they were making money although there was still no gold.
In early December as temperatures were dropping to 48 degrees below zero, Sol managed to buy part of a claim with some other men. Becci's letters were more cheerful, although she still worried about the risk that the claim involved. Her letters speak of the couple being content and comfortable but the business being slow. As the winter progressed, Becci tells of life becoming very dull; although they had enough provisions, the restaurant business had slowed and no one could mine in the winter. She wrote, "It is really taking one's life in your hands to undertake to go out on the ice for goods; we don't expect to have any business until May or June and by then, we won't have enough provisions left to run a restaurant." (Feb. 1, 1898)
In March, Sol tried to sell his part of the claim because he had not found much gold. Becci wrote, "Somehow I think we don't seem to have much luck, but yet I ought not complain...for as far as hardships are concerning we know nothing about (them)...still we do not give up hope of making some money when the great influx of people is coming in the spring." (Mar. 1, 1898) By April, Becci thought less and less of making money and more of going home. Throughout the trip Becci had written home to her brother in law asking him to send them goods, mostly clothing, so that they could sell it at a profit to the miners. Now, with almost all hope lost on prospecting, she asked for long lists of things hoping to make some money in retail because there was not enough money for the trip home. The restaurant business fell victim to competition. Becci wrote on April 12, 1898, "There have sprung up in the last two months more than a dozen restaurants in the space of about two blocks."
On September 1, 1898, Rebecca left the Yukon to go back to her family; it was just over a year since she left for the Klondike. Her husband was to stay on a while longer, always coming up with a new plan to make their gold rush fortune. But it was not to be. Sol eventually came back home, without any more money. The Schuldenfreis never made a million dollars, as had always been their dream. What Becci came home with was an incredible experience. She never said that she regretted making the journey and taking the enormous risks in the Yukon territory.
When Rebecca headed off to the Yukon at the turn of the century, America was a completely different world from that of today. The people of that era had not yet seen the sinking of the Titanic, the gore of World War One, or the Great Depression. The great skepticism of our country had yet to be formed. It may seem hard to believe that thousands of people with no knowledge the Klondike headed off into the Yukon to make their fortune from gold digging. By today's standards it sounds incredibly naive. Yet these people believed it could be done. It was as if there was one solution, something as simple as going out and mining. It was hard work, but anyone could do it. Finding gold seemed to be a way that anyone could get fabulously wealthy, practically over night. People, in general, are not that adventurous today, but it is difficult to come up with a comparable event. Perhaps the discovery of another habitable planet would have the same effect on today's world. Would thousands of people take off tomorrow to live on the new, wonderful planet? Maybe, but American attitudes are vastly different from those of the turn of the century.
Becci Schuldenfrei was part of that optimistic mentality. Although it was her husband's idea to get rich in the Klondike, she was instrumental in the couple's adventure. According to the family history, Sol was known to be a little too easy going for the tough life in the business world, and it was Becci who kept the family from going completely broke. She always maintained a positive attitude, if not always a realistic one. Having grown up all her life in cities, she knew nothing of the wilderness and the hard life for which she took off. But once the challenges presented themselves to her, she stood up to them and dealt with them the best she could. When mining did not work out, she turned to cooking. When the restaurant failed, she tried retail. Throughout the letters she always wrote how lucky she and Sol were. Even though she might be sleeping on the ground in a tent in sub-zero weather, Rebecca said her suffering was quite minimal and always felt for others who were not as fortunate. The one thing she complained of was the fact that she was without her children.
Rebecca left the role society had assigned her in life. By the standards of the time, she was supposed to be a wife and a mother and to keep her house. She went off to Alaska to help her husband, not to serve him. She went to be his companion and partner. At the time, many people must have thought she was crazy to insist on following her husband off into the wilderness, the Klondike was certainly not a place for ladies. Once, her oldest son, Bert, wrote to his mother telling her how neighbors thought she must be insane to leave her middle class home for a life threatening existence in the Yukon. People must have thought she was a terrible mother to leave her children but Rebecca stood up against the stereotypes. She truly thought the Yukon did her good. She once wrote of the people she met on the journey to the Klondike, "You cannot imagine how honest, kind-hearted and in fact noble they are; I think the so called "Society People" could learn yet a thing or two from them." (Sept. 14, 1897)
Rebecca Schuldenfrei had a lot of courage and a lot of strength throughout her trip to the Klondike. Some of the risks she took, first in the Yukon and later in the stock market, may seem foolish in hindsight but she left a lasting influence on the family history. Our family, in general, has been careful with money and risking it. Becci's risks may not have benefited her immediate family, but they have taught the family both about financial risks and about life's hardships. Becci wrote near the end of her adventure, "It is true there are not many nor in fact any comforts (in the Yukon), but then there is a vast difference between hardships and no comforts." (Apr. 12, 1898) Rebecca is fascinating because she is so different from myself. Part of it may be the generational differences, I tend to be reasonably cynical. But there was obviously something of a great risk taker in her that I admire. I am amazed by what she did, especially how she broke down gender barriers. Her risks may not have always benefited her, but Rebecca continued to take them and to take the consequences gracefully.
"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm" Winston Churchill
*10,000 Maniacs song title