Of Johnny Healy and Jack London

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably heard of John J. Healy or my biography of him, Healy’s West.


But if you have not–a quick primer:

Over a fifty-year career, John J. Healy left his mark on the Canadian and American west– as a soldier, trapper, prospector, trader, explorer, horse dealer, scout, lawman, editor, speculator, merchant, historian, and politician.

John J. Healy, Montana Historical Society

I was inspired to assemble this blog by a recent podcast – “Required Reading with Tom and Stella” in which the hosts reviewed Jack London’s literary classic, Call of the Wild.


As general manager of the mercantile giant, the North American Transportation & Trading Company, J.J. Healy had a relationship to London himself, as the young scribe met one of the primary merchants of the Klondike Gold Rush in Dawson City, Yukon Territory.

Healy himself was a frustrated writer, though more real world pursuits kept him from producing more than columns in the Benton Record of Fort Benton, Montana, and the many letters written to Tappan Adney, a Harper’s contributor, and another literary light stemming from the midnight sun world of the Klondike.

When Healy did put pen to paper, he wrote sharply, frankly and to the point; always in crisp sentence structure, if with the Victorian tendency to run on. Johnny spoke of a habit of reading into the night–of Washington Irving’s fur trade tome, –a documentation of the early expeditions of the American Fur Company into the Pacific coast. He could quote the poetry of Rudyard Kipling in an whiskey-fuelled stupor. In his career, he met Harper’s feature writer, Julian Ralph as well as Adney. And as we will see, Johnny Healy inspired JackLondon. That sense of literature and the research he put into his career captured a sense of history and place, combining his literacy with real world experience.

  • Jack London

Healy had literary enemies as well, primarily with the media of Dawson City (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dawson_City) who loved to hate him and his mercantile policies. After a trip to Chicago, in which it was rumored that his company had fired its manager, Healy returned to Dawson in July of 1899, astounding the enemies who believed him gonefor good. He even granted an interview to the hated Nugget. Changes were at hand he mused, but said little else. Back at his desk, he was energetic and optimistic.

A crowd of gold rush sourdoughs outside the North American Transportation and Trading Company’s store and warehouse complex in Dawson City. NATT manager Johnny Healy is near the lamp pole, in buffalo coat and wide-brimmed hat.    University of Washington Library

After years of intermittent absences, Johnny’s young adult daughters Nellie and Alfreda were are at his side. “They had a wonderful time…all their friends were glad that their future was so promising. The supposition was that Mr. Healy had finally got a paying mine and the family could have a carefree life from now on.”

Alfreda in particular captivated the gold rush scene on a frontier bare of women. Of her attendance at a prestigious New York finishing school, the sexist society columnist gushed: “Miss Healy’s beauty is striking. Her hair is black and becomingly worn brushed to the sides and gathered in a knot. Her brown eyes usually twinkle merrily, but a moment can change them to seriousness. Her figure and carriage are fine.”

Despite the debutante image, Alfreda was a tomboy and adapted to the north. “I was promised a dog team as soon as I learned to drive. I started with one and found him hard to manage. I added to the numbers until I had five large Malamutes…I could drive them very well and without the use of profane language. Men never seemed able to do that.”

Alfreda had the Healy genes for identifying rich mineral deposits. She acquired some property on Bonanza Creek, and superintended the work on her own claim, living in a cabin and working a shovel, making a tidy nest egg for her education. She was an independent woman, unwilling to hide behind misrepresentations as a gold rush heiress. “Indeed, when I go East within a few years, it will be under the guise of a poor girl. If the right man comes along than and wants me real bad, probably I will take him, knowing that it is not my money he is after.”

Alfreda Healy   Montana Historical Society

Alfreda turned heads, but one man saw inspiration beyond infatuation.
Jack London was a young roguish, rambling sailor–typically ill to mineral fever. He spent only a year in the Klondike, and came home with only a $4 souvenir gold nugget. Even before his departure, London changed his skill set, bound to make his fortune from the notebooks filled with diary entries, and musings about the land and people–the foundations of some of the greatest works of the English language.

Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories, was London’s first book on the north, but his novel A Daughter of the Snows disappointed both writer and publisher, and the female lead character offended Victorian literary critics.


Frona Welse’ was a tough, independent firebrand using her education to her advantage, and standing up to men¬–including her father, ‘Jacob Welse’. Alaska historian William Hunt concludes from the novel that ‘Jacob’ Welse, the wily old trader, had a role model–John Healy. “A captain of industry and a splendid monopolist, he dominated the most independent aggregate of men ever drawn together from the ends of the earth.”

London anticipated the liberated woman, of the future, but he was no prophet–he’d met such women in Dawson City. ‘Frona’ was obviously Alfreda, coming of age when London noticed her in the flower of womanhood, and characterized her spirit. “You won’t understand me; you can’t. I am no woman’s rights’ creature; and I stand, not for the new woman, but for the new womanhood. Because I am sincere; because I desire to be natural, and honest, and true.”

Jack London

A Daughter of the Snows stymied London’s career briefly, and he was forced to sell off the rights to the book to pay bills. But London had a back-up plan.

The follow-up, Call of the Wild immortalized Jack London–his true gold found in the mythology of the rarified north. Even if A Daughter of the Snows robbed the avatars of Johnny and Alfreda Healy of literary immortality.