In prehistoric times the area was used for agriculture by the Hän-speaking people of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and their forebears. The heart of their homeland was Tr'ochëk, a fishing camp at the confluence of the Klondike River and Yukon River, now a National Historic Site of Canada, just across the Klondike River from modern Dawson City. This site was also an important summer gathering spot and a base for moose-hunting on the Klondike Valley.
The current settlement was founded by Joseph Ladue and named in January 1897 after noted Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, who had explored and mapped the region in 1887. It served as Yukon's capital from the territory's founding in 1898 until 1952, when the seat was moved to Whitehorse.
Dawson City was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush. It began in 1896 and changed the First Nations camp into a thriving city of 40,000 by 1898. By 1899, the gold rush had ended and the town's population plummeted as all but 8,000 people left. When Dawson was incorporated as a city in 1902, the population was under 5,000. St. Paul's Anglican Church built that same year is a National Historic Site.
The population dropped after World War II when the Alaska Highway bypassed it 300 miles (480 km) to the south. The economic damage to Dawson City was such that Whitehorse, the highway's hub, replaced it as territorial capital in 1953. Dawson City's population languished around the 600–900 mark through the 1960s and 1970s, but has risen and held stable since then. The high price of gold has made modern placer mining operations profitable, and the growth of the tourism industry has encouraged development of facilities. In the early 1950s, Dawson was linked by road to Alaska, and in fall 1955, with Whitehorse along a road that now forms part of the Klondike Highway.
In 1978, another kind of buried treasure was discovered when a construction excavation inadvertently found a forgotten collection of more than 500 discarded films on flammable nitrate film stock from the early 20th century that were buried in and preserved in the permafrost. These silent-era film reels, dating from "between 1903 and 1929, were uncovered in the rubble beneath the old hockey rink". This historical find was moved south to Library and Archives Canada and the U.S. Library of Congress for both transfer to safety film and storage. A documentary about the find, Dawson City: Frozen Time was released in 2016.
The City of Dawson and the nearby ghost town of Forty Mile are featured prominently in the novels and short stories of American author Jack London, including The Call of the Wild. London lived in the Dawson area from October 1897 to June 1898. Other writers who lived in and wrote of Dawson City include Pierre Berton and the poet Robert Service. The childhood home of the former is now used as a retreat for professional writers.
Dawson City lies on the Tintina Fault. This fault has created the Tintina Trench and continues eastward for several hundred kilometres. Erosional remnants of lava flows form outcrops immediately north and west of Dawson City.
Like most of Yukon, Dawson City has a subarctic climate (Köppen Dfc). The average temperature in July is 15.7 °C (60.3 °F) and in January is −26.0 °C (−14.8 °F). The highest temperature ever recorded is 35.0 °C (95 °F) on 9 July 1899 and 18 June 1950. The lowest temperature ever recorded is −58.3 °C (−73 °F) on 3 February 1947. It experiences a wide range of temperatures surpassing 30 °C (86 °F) in most summers and dropping below −40 °C (−40 °F) in winter.
The community is at an elevation of 320 m (1,050 ft) and the average rainfall in July is 49.0 mm (1.93 in) and the average snowfall in January is 27.6 cm (10.87 in). Dawson has an average total annual snowfall of 166.5 cm (65.55 in) and averages 70 frost free days per year. The town is built on a layer of frozen earth, which may pose a threat to the town's infrastructure in the future if the permafrost melts.
Dawson was incorporated as a city in 1902 when it met the criteria for "city" status under the municipal act of that time. It retained the incorporation even as the population plummeted. When a new municipal act was adopted in the 1980s, Dawson met the criteria of "town", and was incorporated as such although with a special provision to allow it to continue to use the word "City", partially for historical reasons and partially to distinguish it from Dawson Creek, a small city in northeastern British Columbia. Dawson Creek is also named in honour of George M. Dawson. This led the territorial government to post the following signs at the boundaries of the town: "Welcome to the Town of the City of Dawson".
In 2004, the Yukon government removed the mayor and the town council, as a result of the town going bankrupt. The territorial government accepted a large portion of the responsibility for this situation in March 2006, writing off $3.43 million of the debt and leaving the town with $1.5 million still to pay off. Elections were set for June 15, 2006. John Steins, a local artist and one of the leaders of the movement to restore democracy to Dawson, was acclaimed as mayor, while 13 residents ran for the four council seats. Steins was succeeded in office by former mayor Peter Jenkins, who in turn was succeeded by the current mayor, Wayne Potoroka.
Other past mayors of Dawson City have included Art Webster, Colin Mayes, Yolanda Burkhard, Mike Comadain and Vi Campbell.
In the Legislative Assembly of Yukon, Dawson City is in the electoral district of Klondike, currently represented by Sandy Silver of the Yukon Liberal Party.
The government of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, now a self-governing First Nation, is also located in Dawson.
Today, Dawson City's main industries are tourism and gold mining.
Electricity is provided by Yukon Energy Corporation (YEC). Most of the grid power is hydroelectric power through the north-south grid from dams near Mayo, Whitehorse and Aishihik Lake. After the local hydroelectric power plant for the gold dredges was shut down in 1966, YEC provided electrical power from local diesel generators. In 2004 YEC connected Dawson to its grid system. Since then the diesel generators function as a backup to the grid.
Gold mining started in 1896 with the Bonanza (Rabbit) Creek discovery by George Carmack, Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim Mason (Keish). The area's creeks were quickly staked and most of the thousands who arrived in the spring of 1898 for the Klondike Gold Rush found that there was very little opportunity to benefit directly from gold mining. Many instead became entrepreneurs to provide services to miners.
Starting approximately 10 years later, large gold dredges began an industrial mining operation, scooping huge amounts of gold out of the creeks, and completely reworking the landscape, altering the locations of rivers and creeks and leaving tailing piles in their wake. A network of canals and dams were built to the north to produce hydroelectric power for the dredges. The dredges shut down for the winter, but one built for "Klondike Joe Boyle" was designed to operate year-round, and Boyle had it operate all through one winter. That dredge (Dredge No. 4) is open as a National Historic Site of Canada on Bonanza Creek.
The last dredge shut down in 1966, and the hydroelectric facility, at North Fork, was closed when the City of Dawson declined an offer to purchase it. Since then, placer miners returned to the status of being the primary mining operators in the region until recently. In 2016, Goldcorp announced a takeover of Kaminak Gold's Coffee Project south of Dawson. This marked a shift in the region, drawing interest of the major gold mining companies in the Yukon. In 2017, Newmont Mining Corporation, Barrick Gold and Agnico Eagle Mines Limited have all committed significant investment, engaging in exploration of properties across the Central Yukon.
There are 8 National Historic Sites of Canada located in Dawson, including the "Dawson Historical Complex", a National Historic Site encompassing the historic core of the town.
The Downtown Hotel at Second Avenue and Queen Street has garnered media attention for its unusual Sourtoe Cocktail, which features a real mummified human toe. The hotel and the toe received increased attention in June 2017 after the toe was stolen; it was soon returned to the hotel by mail along with a written apology.
Bonanza Creek has two National Historic Sites; the Discovery Claim and the No. 4 Dredge.
Tr'ochëk is the site of a traditional Han fishing camp on the flats at the confluence of the Klondike River and Yukon River. The site is owned and managed by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. In addition to the fishing camp remains, the site includes traditional plant harvesting areas and lookout points.
Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall puts on nightly vaudeville shows during tourist season, from May to September.
Yukon School of Visual Arts, a university level accredited art program, is based in Dawson City.
Robert Service School, Dawson City's only grade school is named in honour of British-Canadian poet and writer Robert William Service (January 16, 1874 – September 11, 1958). The Robert Service School offers Kindergarten - Grade 12, and is one of only 28 schools in the Yukon Territory.
Every February, Dawson City acts as the halfway mark for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Mushers entered in the event have a mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson City while getting their rest and preparing for the second half of the world’s toughest sled dog race.
Dawson City also hosts a softball tournament which brings teams from Inuvik in late summer. Furthermore, a volleyball tournament is held annually at the end of October and is attended by various high schools across Yukon.
The city was home to the Dawson City Nuggets hockey team, which in 1905 challenged the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup. Travelling to Ottawa by dog sled, ship, and train, the team lost the most lopsided series in Stanley Cup history, losing two games by the combined score of 32 to 4.
Dawson City was the starting place of impresario Alexander Pantages. He opened a small theatre to serve the city. Soon, however, his activities expanded and the thrifty Greek went on and became one of America's greatest theatre and movie tycoons.
Jan Eskymo Welzl was an Moravian origin adventurer, hunter, gold-digger, Eskimo chief and Chief Justice on island New Siberia and later story-teller and writer. During his life in Dawson City he was called Perpetual Motion Man and also known as inventor. Bookes based on his stories were published in many countries over the world. Buried in Dawson City.
Martha Black, the second woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons, as a single mother in Dawson earned a living by staking gold mining claims and running a sawmill and a gold ore-crushing plant. She later married George Black, Commissioner of Yukon, and in 1935 was elected to the House of Commons for the riding of Yukon as an Independent Conservative taking the place of her ill husband.
William Judge, a Jesuit priest who during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush established a facility in Dawson which provided shelter, food and any available medicine to the many hard-at-luck gold miners who filled the town and its environs.
William Ogilvie, a Dominion land surveyor, explorer and Commissioner of the Yukon, surveyed the townsite of Dawson City and was responsible for settling many disputes between miners.
Victor Jory, actor of stage, film, and television, was born in Dawson in 1902 to American parents.
Black Mike Winage, a Serbian-Canadian miner, pioneer, and adventurer, who lived to be 107 years old, lived in Dawson City.
Weldy Young, professional hockey player for the Ottawa Silver Seven.
Joseph W. Boyle, "Klondike Joe," entrepreneur, hockey organizer and adventurer.