Skookum Jim, whose discovery led to the Klondike gold rush, gets a namesake asteroid

·3 min read
'Skookum Jim' Mason, one of the discoverers of gold in the Klondike in the 1890s. Last week, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him, based on a suggestion by the Yukon Astronomical Society. (Yukon Archives/Skookum Jim Oral History Project - image credit)
'Skookum Jim' Mason, one of the discoverers of gold in the Klondike in the 1890s. Last week, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him, based on a suggestion by the Yukon Astronomical Society. (Yukon Archives/Skookum Jim Oral History Project - image credit)

A legendary Yukoner received a posthumous honour that's out of this world.

Skookum Jim, also known as Jim Mason, discovered gold in the Bonanza Creek in 1897, leading to the Klondike gold rush. When he died in 1916, he put the fortune he made into a trust to help improve the lives of Indigenous people in the Yukon.

Last week, on the recommendation of the Yukon Astronomical Society, an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter was named after him.

"I think it's great," said Zena McLean, Skookum Jim Mason's great grand niece who didn't know her ancestor's name had been submitted.

"Anything that keeps Skookum Jim Mason's name up in public history of the Yukon is important to his remaining nieces and nephews and family."

Philippe Morin/CBC
Philippe Morin/CBC

Skookum Jim Mason was Tagish of the Dak l'a Weidi Clan. The trust fund he established in his will is still in existence today, according to the friendship centre that bears his name in Whitehorse. The interest generated from the fund is used to provide recognition to Indigenous people who have helped their community.

Maria Benoit, Haa Shaa du Hen, or chief, of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and former executive director of the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, was very happy to hear the news. Her great grandfather was Skookum Jim Mason's nephew.

"Coming from a First Nation, it's history in the making," she said.

Skookum Jim asteroid

The Skookum Jim asteroid is a main belt asteroid. It orbits with other asteroids in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

"It takes a little over five years to complete a full orbit around the sun," explained Christa Van Laerhoven, president of the Yukon Astronomical Society. "Its orbit is not quite circular. It's not wildly what we call eccentric. It's not highly uncircular, but just a bit. And it's tilted relative to Earth's orbit by about 15 degrees."

As far as Van Laerhoven knows, it's the second asteroid whose name has a link to the Yukon.

"The only other asteroid that I can find with the Yukon connection is named Klondike," she said, adding it's named after two brothers who came up for the Klondike gold rush, made a fortune and donated money to a university in Finland that built a library.

In a quirk of fate, Van Laerhoven said it's the university where the Skookum Jim asteroid was initially discovered.

However, if you're hoping to see the Skookum Jim asteroid, Van Laerhoven said you'll need a telescope.

"Something fairly large," she said, large enough that it wouldn't be easy to bring out in your backyard.

McLean said she hopes that one day, science will be able to identify what the asteroid is made of.

"Wouldn't it be fantastic if it was heavily laden with gold?" she said with a laugh.

Naming process

The naming all started with an email from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada to the Yukon Astronomical Society that said they had an opportunity to put some names forward to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is in charge of naming things in space.

The way the email was worded, Van Laerhoven said, sounded like the IAU wanted to honour someone who had served society well.

"We really felt that if we were going to honour a Yukoner, we wanted to honour Skookum Jim," she said.

"We really felt that his presence in Yukon history loomed so large that if we were going to get an asteroid named after a Yukoner, then it really should be him."

The suggestion was put forward in 2018.

The Yukon Astronomical Society was notified of the honour last week, on April 11.

"I'm absolutely tickled pink that the IAU took our suggestion," said Van Laerhoven.

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