Make the McKenzie Connection!

The Case of the Klondike Kate Katfight

Part Three

“KLONDIKE KATE” ROCKWELL had visited Central Oregon before, and been deeply impressed by the beauty of the high desert. Now it seemed like just the place to get away from all things Vaudeville, to forget Pantages, to re-center herself. And she had friends there — although actually, she had friends almost everywhere, among the former sourdoughs of the Klondike gold rush.

And, the Oregon High Desert country at that time (circa 1910) was one of the last parts of the continental U.S. in which you could still file a homestead claim.

Of course, the claimable lands still available by then were few and unappealing. All the good land had been claimed years before, and all that was left was dusty rangeland.

The government had tried to compensate for the poor quality of the land by offering a lot of it — 320 acres instead of 160. But even so, most of these late-arriving homesteaders had a very hard time “proving up” their claims by living on them for the five years necessary to claim title. Most ran out of money and drifted away, leaving their abandoned buildings and fixtures to bleach in the high desert sun. You can still see some of these today.

But Kate thought she was up to the challenge.

So with $3,500 in cash, $3,000 worth of jewelry, and several large trunks full of dresses, gowns, and hats, she moved onto a dry-land claim near the town of Brothers.

Kate did almost everything dressed as if for a show. Folks would see her walking into Brothers in a dusty but fabulous (and fabulously expensive) evening gown about once a week. And there may have been another homesteader somewhere in the American West who regularly wore Vaudeville ball gowns, big floral hats, and dancing slippers while grubbing sagebrush out of the kitchen garden, but it doesn’t seem likely.

She joked about the odd footprints she left while doing chores around the place. “Those holes are not the tracks of prehistoric bobcats,” she once said, according to Ellis Lucia’s account in his book about her. “I made ’em with my dancing slippers.”

She also became an avid rockhound, one of Central Oregon’s first ever. She fell in love with and married a local man, Floyd Warner.

Kate Rockwell beat the odds and became one of only a tiny handful of dry-land homesteaders to prove up a claim that didn’t include a water source. But it still didn’t make sense to stay, especially for a social creature like Klondike Kate. She and Floyd sold out soon after getting the title.

The marriage didn’t last much longer than the homestead. By the early 1920s Kate was single again, and living in Bend. There, she became something of a municipal celebrity. Her home was a half block from the fire station, and she became a one-woman fire auxiliary, bringing hot coffee to the boys during fire calls.

She was a fund-raising dynamo, able to shake down almost any business or person for a contribution to a social cause; during the Great Depression, she made gallons and gallons of soup to help out the hobos.

She became known as “Aunt Kate of Farewell Bend.” Less charitable voices in Bend labeled her “our destitute prostitute”; it’s pretty unlikely she was ever either of these things, although there were a few times her finances came pretty close to destitution.

In 1929 she was called to testify in a criminal prosecution of Alexander Pantages — her ex-fiancé, remember — when he was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl. He was found guilty, though acquitted on retrial, and died in 1936. Some thought the entire case was trumped up by a group of Yukon sourdoughs angry about how he’d treated Kate, but that opinion might have reflected 1930s society’s attitudes toward rape victims more than the merits of the case itself.

She got married two more times, the first time to an old sourdough named Johnny Matson — who’d carried the torch for her since 1901, and still lived and prospected in the Yukon much of the time — and, after his death, to an old friend named Bill Van Duren. The two of them moved to Sweet Home, where, in 1957, she died.

There is an odd sort of epilogue to this story; it concerns Klondike Kate’s ashes. According to biographer Ellis Lucia’s account, among Kate’s last words spoken in life was a request to be cremated and have her ashes spread over the Central Oregon landscape she’d learned to love so well.

But by then she lived in Sweet Home. A Salem funeral home took care of the arrangements, and that’s where the ashes ended up. Her husband, Bill Van Duren — himself in bad health — moved directly to Seattle to be close to family.

So her ashes lingered in the storage room of the funeral home for several years.

Finally, in 1960, three years after her death, someone took care of Kate’s last request: “An innocent bystander,” Lucia writes coyly, “who held a deep appreciation for things historical and, because of his religious faith, was able to perform final rites.”

“He’s clearly hiding something,” historian Nathan Pederson told Bend Bulletin writer Beau Eastes, referring of course to Lucia. “He clearly knows who it is and is purposely hiding that from his readers.”

But Pederson — a former president of the Deschutes County Historical Society, and a historian with a particular interest in the Klondike Kate story — decided to dig into the mystery.

Was it a long-lost relative, he wondered? There always had been a rumor that Kate Rockwell and Alexander Pantages had had a love child in Alaska, who had been informally adopted out; nobody believed it, but could it be true?

Or was it an old Klondike sourdough who’d carried the torch for the “flame dancer” since they were both 22, now grown old and grizzled but still young enough to do an old friend a special favor?

Or was it Ellis Lucia himself? — Lucia was an old-school journalist who might not like to admit to being involved personally in a story.

But no, it was none of these. Pederson tracked down the truth, and it was somewhat mundane.

It was David Duniway, the head archivist at the Oregon State Library and grandson of the legendary journalist and suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway. A true innocent bystander, Duniway learned of the unfulfilled bequest and took it upon himself to see to it that this legendary Oregon original had her last wishes acted upon.

His grandmother would be proud.

(Sources: Klondike Kate: The Life and Legend of Kitty Rockwell, a book by Ellis Lucia published in 1962 by Hastings; Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, a book by Morgan Lael published in 1998 by Epicenter; “Klondike Kate,” an article by Nathan Pederson published in 2022 on the Oregon Encyclopedia; “History Hunter,” an article by Michael Gates published Dec. 1, 2018, in Yukon News.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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