Small of stature, with broad, beefy shoulders somewhat out of proportion to the rest of his body, John “Jack” Dalton usually went about armed. The Van Dyke beard and carefully parted hair added a pinch of respectability to a brawler’s face, round with high cheekbones and a flat-bridged nose. He cut an imposing figure despite his size, in a black, wide-brimmed hat, suspenders, calf-high moose skin moccasins, and sporting a Colt holstered high under his right arm—a working stiff’s, not a gunslinger’s way of packing heat. “Pre-eminently fit” and “a bad hombre to cross,” Dalton thought nothing of snowshoeing 50 miles and admitting to an appetite afterward. Skagway, Alaska’s daily newspaper called him “perhaps the most famous pathfinder in Alaska.”
Details of his early life are hazy and accounts contradicting. Probably born in Michigan in 1856, Dalton had little formal schooling. Some scrape during his teenage years might have caused him to light out for Oklahoma. He soon gained a reputation as a formidable fighter and able hand. He may have dodged murder charges by sailing to the southern Beaufort Sea before being jailed in Sitka with the crew for poaching fur seals. In 1886, his skills landed him a place as roustabout and camp cook on the New York Times expedition to scale Mount St. Elias, North America’s second-highest peak, astride the Yukon-Alaska border. The leader, Frederick Schwatka, a former Indian fighter, had searched for Sir John Franklin missing in the Arctic and in 1883 reconnoitered the Yukon River.
When Dalton was nearing 75, he looked 55, and, if attacked, responded like the 25-year-old firebrand he’d once been.
The men began the precipitous climb, the first documented summit attempt, from Icy Bay. After less than two weeks of struggling with fast, silt-swollen creeks and Tyndall Glacier’s broken field of crevasses, Schwatka, in poor physical shape, fell ill, and they had to backtrack. Dalton afterward chose to remain at Yakutat, prospecting for coal around Disenchantment Bay.
In 1890, he joined a second expedition to chart the Yukon-Alaska borderlands, funded by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Dalton’s practical and parlaying talents opened for them a branch of the “grease trails,” one of several ancient routes to the interior. The Chilkats, a Tlingit Indian band, controlled this particular access. Decades before they had bested the mighty Hudson’s Bay Company, pillaging Fort Selkirk, one of its posts, which had driven the factors from the Yukon territory for the next 80 years. Two other bands owned the Chilkoot and White Pass corridors respectively. The trail network’s name referenced oil rendered from eulachon or “candlefish,” a Chilkat commodity. Before Dalton pioneered pack stock, Native caravans of up to 100 porters tumplining 100-pound or heavier loads needed a month for a round trip. His would reach the Yukon River in ten days.
After paying a hefty toll to Chief Kohklux—who’d fortified his house with two canons from a stranded Russian vessel—the six men ascended to the Chilkat headwaters before descending to Kusawa Lake. There, Dalton and the party’s executive officer Edward Glave split from the others to return. Where the rowdy Alsek pierces the Coastal Range, the pair secured a canoe and the services of a medicine man/guide. The stream spit them out in Yakutat Bay, soaked through and sore. Glave, an associate of the explorer Henry M. Stanley (who located Livingston in Tanzania), considered Dalton one of the best paddlers he ever saw. Spending two years overall with the scout, he likened his route-finding abilities to perfect musical memory.
Regrouping in the spring of 1891 and realizing the potential for their own trade venue, Dalton and Glave embarked upon another inland exploration, a way of freighting new to the north. The partners pastured four “short, chunky” packhorses they’d bought in Seattle at Lynn Canal’s Pyramid Harbor near present-day Haines. Dalton improvised equine snowshoes from spruce-sapling loops webbed with rope that resembled oversize lawn-tennis rackets. Snorting and trembling, the nags at first reared up, savagely pawing the air, and then, sunfishing, tried to shake off the strange clogs. At one point of their journey, the snow crust collapsed, plunging one pony into an icy stream underneath. In the lowlands their mounts floundered in spongy quagmire, but the riders, unloading, unsaddling, and pulling on lead ropes, saved them. The mosquitoes were like smoke, so thick that the horses’ exact shapes sometimes could not be discerned.
Dalton spent most of 1892 and 1893 clearing and corduroying his Chilkat Pass trail, the longer, less steep alternative to the Chilkoot and White passes that would come to bear his name. His zest for adventure kept him spry long after his Alaska forays. The early 1920s found him diamond prospecting in British Guyana. Though he lived to be 89, his longtime physician’s impression in 1929 would have made a great epitaph: when Dalton was nearing 75, he looked 55, and, if attacked, responded like the 25-year-old firebrand he’d once been.
Michael Engelhard is the author of American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. Fascinated with the Klondike rush, he’s also written about winter biking and goat sleds as means of transport there.