Early Twentieth Century “College Girl Prospectors” Explore Near Arctic Circle

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Courtesy of Library of Congress

Panning for gold

“It’s no place for a young lady,” Agnes Powers’ friends advised her when she announced she was preparing to leave for the northern most regions of Canada in 1929.

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The Webster City native and former Des Moines Register reporter planned to travel with a college friend to fulfill their dreams of prospecting for precious minerals in Lake Athapapuskow in Manitoba.   

Powers believed her sense of adventure was inherited from her grandad, who had set out from Dubuque in 1849 with a team of oxen hoping to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. He had recorded his experiences in a leather-bound notebook that she intended to carry with her to Canada.

As she began preparations for her journey, Powers assembled supplies, including prospector’s tools, sleeping robes and hobnailed boots along with “loads of ideas.” Her ideas related to the possibility of getting lost in the wilderness included felling trees and laying them in the form of a cross in a clearing as a signal for rescue aircraft.

 The young women were busy studying water routes and interviewing miners for survival tips. Powers’ friend had taught swimming in her university days, so they felt she had skills that would be useful if their canoes upset. “We are fully aware of the perils of the wilderness, and we are willing to face them,” Powers said.

This wasn’t her first Canadian prospecting adventure. In 1927 Powers had taken a teaching position at Pikwitonei, Manitoba. Not far from the Arctic Circle, the one room school offered her a base of operation for her real passion—prospecting. Often traveling alone—expect for her white husky dog adorned with pink ribbons, she visited taverns and prospecting camps in her quest for rich minerals. She earned the nickname “The Great American Bum” for her willingness go anywhere in pursuit of her dream. And her determination paid off when she sold half of one of her six copper claims for $1,000.   

As Powers and her dog rested back home in Webster City and made plans for their second northern trip, family and friends warned, “You are staking your lives against a fortune.” But Powers wasn’t deterred.

“I was gone for six weeks on a prospecting trip which led pretty close to the Arctic Circle, and the most vicious animals I encountered were mosquitoes,” she said.

In May 1929 the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper reported that the two American women, who were “anything but ill at ease in the north woods,” had staked “a number of copper claims.” In September the Winnipeg (Canada) Tribune reported on the return of Powers and her friend from a two-month trip where the “college girl prospectors” had located “very good prospecting.” Both appeared in good health and were making plans for a return trip to begin “extensive trenching” to uncover precious minerals.

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Sources

  • “Agnes Powers Starts Second Trip Into North,” Des Moines Register, Apr. 3, 1929.
  • “Brings Tale of Airplane and Forest,” Wisconsin State Journal, May 27, 1929.
  • “Good Prospects Located by Two Girl Prospectors,” Winnipeg Tribune, Sept. 24, 1929.
  • Miller, Mary. “Co-ed Turns ‘Sourdough,’ Des Moines Register, Oct. 9, 1928.
  • Powers, Agnes. “Iowa Girl and Chum Scoff at Perils of Canadian Wilds to Search for Gold,” Des Moines Register, April 28, 1929.

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