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Kathleen Eloise Rockwell (1873–1957), best known as "Klondike Kate", and later known as Kate Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren, gained her fame as a dancer and vaudeville star during the Klondike Gold Rush, where she met Alexander Pantages who later became a very successful vaudeville/motion picture mogul. She gained notoriety for her flirtatious dancing and ability to keep hard-working miners happy if not inebriated. She died in obscurity after some minor success training Hollywood starlets in the 1940s.
Rockwell was born in Kansas and lived in North Dakota for a while but grew up in Spokane, Washington. Her stepfather had stature in the community and the family lived in a large mansion. But economic failure created tension in the family, and this lack of home stability echoed throughout Rockwell's sometimes stormy life. She was known as an independent spirit, or "tomboy" as a youngster, often impersonating boys and playing with them rather than with members of her own gender. She seemed a happy child, although felt all too intensely the lack of social mobility for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Her parents sent the rebellious teenager to boarding school, but Rockwell was expelled. She had little interest for education and spent more time thinking of ways to flout the rules.
In the 1890s, after divorcing the stepfather, Rockwell's mother moved with her to New York. The younger Rockwell here had an unsuccessful attempt at show-biz. She left for greener pastures and arrived in Alaska in 1899. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police held a tight leash on prospective miners and various hangers-on trying to get to the Yukon and find fortunes in gold. Refused entry by a Mountie, she is reputed to have donned a boy's outfit and jumped on a boat headed for the Yukon.
First working as a tap-dancer in Whitehorse, Rockwell found her stride in Dawson City as a member of the Savoy Theatrical Company. Her act was very popular with the miners, and she was dubbed "Klondike Kate" as a result. It was in Dawson that she met Alexander Pantages, at that time a struggling waiter and bartender who eventually rose to become theatre owner.
The intense love affair between Pantages and Rockwell became the stuff of legend in the Yukon, although streaks of jealousy ensured that they found more stability in their professional lives than in their personal ones. They were not above swindling unsuspecting miners, and this dubious quality eventually infected their own relationship. She later accused him of reneging on a promise to marry her as well as attempting to cheat her of her money. Pantages surprised Kate by secretly marrying another woman, then telling her about it four days later in a letter.
In 1902, the Klondike Gold Rush was already dying out and Rockwell headed south, first to British Columbia where she set up a store-front movie theater, and eventually to Oregon, where she homesteaded 320 acres of dry land. After performing for years on stage even into her 40s, Kate Rockwell headed to Brothers, Oregon with $3,500 in cash and about $3,000 in jewelery, and trunks filled with dresses, gowns and hats. Kate was one of a growing number women who worked to "prove up" her parcel of land by living on the claim for the required five years. This was shortly after women had earned the right to vote in Oregon. She was known to have worked the land, and work in her garden in vaudeville gowns and dance slippers.
While waiting out the five years to earn the title to the land, Kate fell in love with and married Floyd Warner.<name name=Offbeat/> But shortly after they earned the title, they sold the land. The marriage didn't last. Kate was soon living in Bend, Oregon where she quickly reached celebrity status once again. This time it was more for her charitable work than anything else. Although her personality and friendly nature ensured Kate always had friends whereever she went. She eventually was known by locals as "Aunt Kate" and according to reports from Bend locals, "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 never achieved any of the fame she briefly held in the Yukon, although she made full use of the memories. "Sourdough" reunions in the 1930s provided a measure of uptick in her fame, as did training young Hollywood starlets in the 1940s. She lived in Oregon for the last 45 years of her life, first in the Bend area, then near Salem, and finally in Linn County.
She was briefly married to a cowboy named Floyd Warner. Later she married a miner named John Matson. Her husband at the time of her death was William L. Van Duren. Rockwell died on February 21, 1957 in Sweet Home, Oregon. Her ashes were later scattered in Central Oregon.
Ernie Pyle has a chapter about Klondike Kate (whom he calls Kate Rothrock) in his book Home Country.
- John, Finn J.D. (August 14, 2011). "Vaudeville's famous "Klondike Kate" became an Oregon legend". Offbeat Oregon. Retrieved April 17, 2014.
- "'Klondike Kate' Taken by Death". Spokesman-Review. February 22, 1957. Retrieved October 6, 2013.
- Houdek, Jennifer. "Klondike Kate: "Queen of the Yukon," 1876 - 1957". LitSite Alaska. University of Alaska Anchorage. Retrieved October 6, 2013.
- Lucia, Ellis. Klondike Kate: The Life and Legand of Kitty Rockwell, The Queen of the Yukon
- "Klondike Kate: 'Our Destitute Prostitute' or 'Aunt Kate'" from The Source Weekly, July 21, 2010
- "Klondike Kate's Last Request to Be Granted", from the Register-Guard, July 16, 1958
- "Klondike Kate's Ashes Claimed", from the Register-Guard, July 29, 1958
- The Two Klondike Kates
- Kathleen Rockwell at Find a Grave