Discovery of yellow metal initiates prospector rush to the Manitoba community of Minitonas

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

One of the strangest occurrences in the annals of the quest for mineral wealth triggered a gold rush in the Manitoba community of Minitonas, which is 472 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, between the Duck Mountains and Porcupine Hills and just south of the corner of Highway 10 and Provincial Road 366.

In 1912, Jack Elliott was killing and dressing turkeys for the Christmas dinner table, when he allegedly found bits of gold in the crop of one of the fowl. Other accounts claimed gold pieces were found in multiple turkey crops, but one or several turkeys does not detract from the oddity of finding hidden treasure in such a manner.

According to the Manitoba Free Press, the discovery meant the rush was on to the “Turkey Gold Fields of Minitonas.”

At the time, Minitonas was a tiny village of just 150 people. In the wake of the rush, its population would be swelled by hundreds of gold seekers.

In a headline, the January 27 Winnipeg Tribune labelled the Minitonas “Gold” Rush One of Most Unique Events in Mining History of World. Undoubtedly, finding gold in a turkey’s crop contributed to its uniqueness.

“This destroys the value of the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg,” satirized the August 29, 1912, Miniota Herald. “To get turkey gold you  must kill the turkey.”

After finding the “turkey gold,” Elliott staked out claims along the ridge where his flock had been quartered in the spring and summer. His finding of gold was first reported when he came to Minitonas from his farm on January 5.

What provoked the gold rush was the news of Elliott’s find quickly spreading across North America.  Some newspapers, such as the Ottawa Citizen on January 17, 1912, speculated that the Minitonas find might be another Klondike gold strike.

In New York State, the Dunkirk Evening Observer of January 26 reported that plenty of nuggets were found. What the newspaper alleged seems to have been unverified in other accounts, and its source was not revealed. It would appear that the claims made became more exaggerated by the distance travelled away from the so-called “gold field.”

The American newspaper claimed: “George Holroyd, a Yukon miner, started work in the morning with a pick and shovel. At noon he found a nugget weighing just over seven ounces and at the next shovel he dug out a four and a three and a half ounce nugget.

“Alex Mackenzie found two nuggets each weighing five ounces and many others have been reported in all directions from town.”

Furthermore, the newspaper stated that every man and woman and many children in Minitonas were “digging for the yellow metal.”

Even The Times of London, England, on January 18 reported that gold was found in turkeys’ crops at Minitonas.

According to an editorial in the January 29 Free Press, the Minitonas stampede demonstrated the irresistible lure of gold.

“On the basis of a report of a small piece of gold found in a turkey’s crop, hundreds of people, in the dead of winter, flocked to Minitonas and staked every snow drift within a radius of ten miles — duplicating in a small way the rush to the Klondike.”

Between 1896 and 1899, an estimated 100,000 people set out for the Klondike — only 30,000 to 40,000 actually made it, with just 15,000 to 20,000 became prospectors, and only a few became rich — when it was heard that gold had been discovered on August 16, 1896, in Bonanza Creek. The Klondike Gold Rush, which is arguably the most famous gold rush in history (the Witwatersrand gold rush in South Africa was the world’s largest), has been immortalized in numerous books, poems, photographs and films.

A front-page article in the January 23, 1912, Manitoba Free Press contained the headline, Real Gold Find. On January 22, Harold Campbell from Portage la Prairie received a telegram from his brother, J.A. Campbell, who lived in Minitonas. The telegram read in part: “Gold discovery genuine. About 100 claims staked. Several digging. Number of nuggets found.”

In a Free Press interview, Harold Campbell said he knew the district well, as he had lived there for several years. According to the article, “He was there about ten years ago when a man named Johnson took up a homestead. After being there some time Johnson declared that he had found gold, but the people laughed and nicknamed the homestead ‘Johnson’s Gold Mine.’ A year ago he sold out to Elliott for $1,000.”

One wonders why Johnson had sold the land at such a low price if there was a gold deposit at the homestead and subsequently vast riches underfoot.

The January 25 Tribune reported that Winnipeggers were seized by gold fever. “The disease, which originated in the city through a Christmas turkey from Minitonas being found to be inoculated with germs, taking the form of good healthy gold dust, has placed its relentless grasp upon the strong and weak alike. In many quarters, particularly of the railroad offices, men are talking excitedly of the prospects of rich finds, and the visions of unlimited wealth which lie before them.

“The situation has been brought to a climax by reports which reached the city this morning saying that those who had already staked claims and got to work, had struck the real thing.”

The Tribune on January 27, reported that Elliott, besides having found gold in the crop of a turkey, had in his possession a small gold nugget that he claimed was given to him by a man who originally found the nugget in Favell (sic) Creek (today, the east and west branches of Favel River flow near Minitonas). “He did not know the man’s name.”

There was also a gold nugget the size of a little finger on exhibit in the railway station agent’s office, which was said to have been discovered in the district, “and Minitonans pointed to it with pride.”

The station agent admitted to a Tribune reporter that the nugget had been found two years earlier at Fisher River. Ever the skeptic, the reporter wrote, “It was so pocket-worn that it was hard to tell what kind of trinket it had been attached to.”

Such meagre finds were a far cry from the multi-ounce nuggets reported by the Dunkirk Evening Observer.

Meanwhile, J.P. Hughes, an assayer from Winnipeg, who had set up shop in the Minitonas boardinghouse, commonly called “the hotel,” insisted that there were signs of gold in the district.

“He invariably found indications of gold, according to his own statements, and often picked out flakes from samples of sand brought to him.”

Such reports lead to thousands flocking to the tiny community in the hope of scooping up gold nuggets.

United States Consul General John E. Jones, who was based in Winnipeg, wrote a report stating that the trains leaving the city were “every day crowded with prospectors and others bound for the new fields.”

“During the past week people from all parts of the country have found their way to the district until everything in the place is being used as a boarding house, including the city hall,” reported the January 25 Tribune.

Minitonas had filled up to the point that many sought accommodations further away in Swan River and Dauphin, electing to either walk, drive or take the train to the gold fields.

“It is estimated that fully five hundred claims have been staked already and it is expected that number will double within the next two days. Under the existing law, a man has to pay $5 to take a claim and then has to register at Dauphin. The majority of the claims at present have been staked by friends of those wishing to go out there.””

The Tribune estimated that only about two per cent of the would-be miners had taken the time to acquaint themselves with Canada’s mining laws.

“Taking the word of others that gold was there, they staked at random, and today the whole countryside is marked with posts.

“And such staking! Old mining men have stood still and shook with laughter at these monuments of colossal ignorance of the mining game. One man staked a post in the centre of a claim — and that was all. Section lines were ignored. Claims over-lapped and many were re-staked as if the latest arrival had precedence over the first. Absolutely no notice was taken of the rules and regulations. Posts were placed with merely the name and address of the staker — in short it was practically all staking and no prospecting.”

(Next week: part 2)