It might come as a surprise to Northerners that Donald Trump’s grandfather made his first fortune “mining miners” during the Klondike gold rush in Bennett, British Columbia and Whitehorse, Yukon. Indeed, Friedrich Trumpf, born in Germany in 1869, ran restaurants and hotels in Seattle, Washington and along the Yukon River. Sensational reports in the last few years suggest that his establishments may well have included the provision of liquor, gambling, and prostitutes to men bound for surrounding gold fields. These reports have lead to claims that Grandfather Trump was a pimp, saloon-keeper, gambler, and draft-dodger. A little fact-checking reveals a more complicated story. Searches of digital databases of primary historical documents verify the general conclusions of some journalists, but not the exaggerated role that many writers want to give to the Trumps.
Friederick Trumpf (later Anglicized to Frederick Trump*) of Kallstadt, Germany, immigrated to New York City as a barber in 1885, at the age of 16. By 1891, he had made enough money to move to Seattle, where he purchased a restaurant in Seattle’s main commercial district off the wharves. This area would eventually become known variously as the Line, the Lava Beds, the Tenderloin, or Skid Row, but at the time he settled there, it was the heart of the Seattle commercial district. With the strike of gold and silver ores in nearby Monte Cristo, Washington in early 1893, Trump left Seattle and filed a mining claim strictly for the purpose of building a boarding house. Within the next two years, rumors indicated that Yukon and Alaska placer gold could be located by anyone with a shovel, gold pan and some gumption. A number of the men who had worked the Monte Cristo hard rock mines left for the Far North, and Trump grubstaked two miners. Some evidence suggests that Trump’s surrogates may have been in the Yukon area by June 1896, and without question, they filed claims on his behalf on Hunker Creek. Within days of the August 1897 discovery of gold on nearby Bonanza Creek by George Carmack and his Tagish brother-in-law, Keish Jim Mason, and their nephew “Tagish” Charlie, Trump’s partners sold two half-interest claims on Hunker Creek in Trump’s name.
When word of the Bonanza Creek strike came to the larger world in mid-July 1897, it appears that Trump himself went north, where he still owned Hunker claim No. 46 below discovery. Newspaper articles of early 1898 indicate that Trump was in Dawson the previous October, but, along with many others at the time, had begun to run out of food and other supplies. After trying to sell his Hunker Creek claim for $2,000 and failing to do so, he left Dawson and got as far as Circle City before becoming ice-bound for the winter. In early December, No. 43 Hunker Creek began to yield gold dust worth a surprising five dollars per pan, and the value of the nearby claims sky-rocketed. By Dec. 10, at least six different parties left Dawson with a dog sled team for Circle City, hoping to buy up Trump’s claim. Articles in the Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland newspapers fail to mention how much the winner of the race paid for No. 46, but some speculate that a duped Trump only got his asking price, not the $50,000 that other claimants on the creek received.
Still, $2,000 had the buying power of $58,500 in today’s money, and Trump obviously meant to turn that money around. By late March 1898, he had joined 29 other men to purchase a schooner and three years’ worth of supplies. They hired what they believed was an experienced sea captain and sailed for the mouth of the Yukon River. On April 25, the captain accidentally ran the ship aground on Chirikof Island, located about 80 miles southwest of Kodiak Island. Forty days later, the North American Commercial Company rescued the party (minus five who had died of exposure) and half their supplies. By late June, the survivors returned to Seattle; some, including Trump, made a second attempt at going north.
In March 1899, Trump recorded another Yukon claim, this one on Dominion Creek, near Dawson, but outside the Klondike mining district. He may have stayed in the Dawson area until the winter, before heading south. By the following February, he had built the Arctic Restaurant and Hotel on Lake Bennett, north of Skagway, along the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad. Four months later, he and his partner, Ernest Levin, purchased a lot in the newly-platted Whitehorse at the northern end of the railroad and the beginning of steamboat navigation on the Yukon River. Later in the summer of 1900, the two moved their Bennett establishment to Whitehorse.
Some writers claim that the Arctic Restaurant in both Bennett and Whitehorse kept “private rooms for ladies,” and extrapolated that the ladies were actually prostitutes. That conclusion has led to well-publicized claims that he ran brothels as a pimp and gambler. The supposition is a stretch. Prostitution did not operate that way in the towns along the route to the Klondike at the turn of the century. Most proprietors of establishments that housed prostitutes simply rented out rooms at very high prices to women of ill-repute. How the women found, entertained, and billed their customers was strictly up to the women involved, and did not require male intermediaries such as brothel managers and pimps. (Most managers of brothels were women, hardly ever men.) The pimps and madams of the North emerged only after red light districts were established and laws were passed to limit or regulate prostitution. While it might indeed be possible that Trump acted as a landlord for immoral activities, it is extremely unlikely that he actively recruited customers for paid employees.
Trump stayed in Whitehorse until January 1901, when he left Levin to manage the Arctic Restaurant and departed for San Francisco. Trump’s partner proved to be less than reputable. By the spring of 1901, several scandalous newspaper stories linked him to prostitutes and ruffians of various caliber. While Trump’s name would appear on Whitehorse tax and property rolls for the next several years, he appeared never to have returned north. He married his wife, Elisabetha Christ, in Kallstadt, Germany in August 1902, where he continued to live for another two years before being expelled by the German government for avoiding a military conscription. Much to his wife’s displeasure, they removed to New York City, where Trump returned to barbering, land-lording, and buying up real estate. The rest of the story is history.
* Some readers may be familiar with the “Drumpf” ancestral spelling of the Trump name. That spelling dates back to the 18th century. By the time Fred Trump immigrated, the name was spelled “Trumpf.”
The basic outline of this story first appeared in Gwenda Blair’s The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire (Simon and Schuster: New York, 2000). Dermot Cole, an opinion writer for the Alaska Dispatch News revealed the stories of the dog sled race to Circle City and the shipwreck on Chirikof Island (http://historybuff.com/donald-trumps-grandfather-made-his-fortune-selling-miners-booze-and-whores-WBlmAP4A2Yr9, first published August 24, 2016). Additional fact-checking was done through a number of digital databases, including those at Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, Newspapers.com, Chronicling America, Alaska State Library—DASH, and YukonGenealogy.com. Archivists at the following archives were also consulted: Yukon Archives, British Columbia Archives, and the Dawson City Museum.
Catherine Holder Spude retired as an archaeologist for the National Park Service, where she conducted several excavations of Klondike gold rush era sites in Skagway, Alaska. Since that time, she has published four books about the history of Alaska: All for the Greed of Gold: Will Woodin’s Klondike Adventure (Washington State University Press, 2016); Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Territorial Alaska (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015); “That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); and Eldorado! The Archaeology of the Northern Gold Rushes (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). The Lynn Canal Publishing Co., Skagway, Alaska also published her 2007 historical novel, Sin and Grace: A Historical Novel of the Skagway Sporting Wars.