It was the last major river in North America to be explored. It is the fourth longest on the continent, and the fifth largest in terms of water flow. But this great river, as it was known in the Gwitchin language, had many names before 1945.
It was Hudson Bay trader John Bell who first called the lower portion of the river "Youcon". The word means Great River in Gwitchin. Bell had crossed the Richardson Mountains from the Mackenzie delta, and descended the Porcupine River to its junction with the Yukon. The estuary of the river at Norton Sound had been explored in 1835 by the Russians, who called it Kwikpak, the Aluet word for Great River. The Tanana Indians called it Niga-to - their word for Great River.
In 1848, Robert Campbell, another Hudson Bay trader, reached the headwaters of the Pelly River, where it enters the Yukon Territory. There, he built Fort Selkirk. He called the upper part of (what we now know as) the Yukon River, the Lewes, after John Lee Lewes, chief factor of the Bay. And to confuse matters even further, Campbell thought the lower part toward Dawson, was a continuation of the Pelly River. So he named that portion the Pelly. Later, gold seekers called that portion of the river, from the Pelly to Lake Laberge, the Lewes as well. The portion of the river from Marsh Lake to Lake Laberge was called the Thirty Mile. A little confusing to be sure.
The confusion continued when Frederick Schwatka, a career man in the United States army, made a journey down the complete length of the river in 1883. He discarded Campbell's name Lewes, and called it the Yukon over its full length, a distance of 1979 miles, from Marsh Lake to the Bering Sea. Noted Canadian geologist, George Dawson, agreed with Lt Schwatka, but it wasn't until May of 1945 that the Canadian government officially changed the name Lewes to Yukon, thus finally giving this Great River its present day name.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: The Yukon River (2004)