Hougen Group

Richthofen Island

Like almost every land mark along the Yukon River, a large island in the middle of Lake Laberge was named by an American Lieutenant.

Frederick Schwatka had embarked along with six other American explorers from Dyea, Alaska on June 2, 1883 and travelled over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the largely unknown river. Then, the American scientific party sailed down the Yukon River.

On the way, Schwatka named nearly every landmark he saw. One was a large island in the middle of Lake Laberge. He named it Richthofen. But because he did not have the time to explore the rocky formation, he thought it was a peninsula, jutting out from the western edge of the large lake. So he called it Richthofen Rocks.

Ten years later, when George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada came along on an expedition that would accurately predict the coming gold rush, he discovered that the noted landmark was not a peninsula after all, but a large island. But Dawson, who had the authority to alter or change Schwatka's names if he wanted, decided to let the name Richthofen stand.

Thus, in the middle of Canada's best known lake, an imposing island was named by an American for a German.

Ferdinand von Richthofen was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1833.

As a world famous geographer and geologist, he produced a major geographical work on China. He also helped establish the science of geomorphology, a branch of geology that deals with land and submarine relief features.

Von Richthofen eventually wrote a massive five-volume study of Chinese geography and was influential in the development of geographic methods in Germany. He was also the uncle of German World War I flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, best known as the "Red Baron."

Schwatka was no slouch as an explorer. Prior to his famed Yukon River expedition, the American Geographical Society put him in charge of an expedition to the Canadian arctic to look for remains of the ill-fated Franklin expedition.

When Schwatka reported on his Yukon River findings after 1883, his work so alarmed the Canadian government that they sent George Dawson on a geographical expedition to the Yukon - in what may be called our first showing of the Canadian flag in the continuing debate over sovereignty in the far north.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin