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Early Alaskan and Yukon Gold

American soldiers found gold near Sitka soon after the transfer of the former Russian capital.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, men in search of gold were continuing to straggle into the North.  Most were miners out of the Old West, seasoned by the diggings in California, Colorado, Montana and British Columbia. 

The veteran prospectors who arrived in Alaska to conduct the search for gold were ideally suited to the task.  They knew the gold pan, the pick and the long-handled shovel; their back and leg muscles had long been inured to squatting in creek beds, slowly washing the dross over the edge of the pan with expert swishes while they waited for the rich sheen to show itself on the bottom.

The prospectors came first in twos and threes with little more than a rucksack, a gold-pan, a short-stemmed shovel, and a phial of mercury, living on beans and tea and bacon, men fleeing ahead of civilization.  Whenever they struck it rich a parade of camp-followers crowded in upon them, saloon-keepers and hurdy-gurdy girls, tinhorn gamblers and three-card monte men, road agents, prostitutes, vigilantes, and tenderfeet.  And so, like the forward patrols of a mighty army, the first prospectors reached the last frontier and began, in the seventies and eighties, to infiltrate the Yukon Valley.

Two of the first arrivals on the Alaskan side of the Canadian border were Leroy Napoleon McQuesten and Arthur Harper.  McQuesten, New England born, had been a prospector all his adult life, having begun in the California gold rush and then following word of gold north in 1858 to the Fraser River country of Canada.  Harper, born in Ireland, had immigrated to the United States as a youth and thereafter had followed essentially the same trail as McQuesten.  At the time the two began panning for wealth in the Far North in 1873, there were not more than half a dozen white men along the whole, looping 2,000 miles length of the Yukon River.

In 1873 Arthur Harper came in from the interior of northern Canada traveling north and west from the Peace and Mackenzie river valleys in a wide flanking movement.  He was an Irishman with shrewd eyes and a great beard that later turned snow-white and gave him the look of a frontier Charles Evans Hughes.  Gold had drawn him north on the stampedes to the Fraser and the Cariboo, in the fifties and sixties.  Here, staring at his Arrowsmith's map of British North America, Harper asked himself why, if the run of gold stretched from Mexico to British Columbia, it should not continue north beyond the horizon.  Beyond the horizon he went, with five gallons of strong rum and five cronies, pushing down the Peace River in canoes hacked out of cottonwood poplar trunks, following the line of the mountains on their great northward curve across the Arctic Circle and into Alaska.  Twenty-five years later thousands would follow in his wake, on the same vain errand.

For two thousand miles Harper and his companions paddled and prospected, tracking their boats across the mountain divides, until at last, in 1873, they reached the Yukon River at its midpoint, where it curves across the Circle.  For the next quarter-century the river was Harper's highway; he roamed it, seeking in every tributary stream, testing the gravels, panning the sandbars, always hoping to find the treasure, yet never succeeding.  The gold was under his nose, but he missed it.  The stampede had started and there was gold to be had by the shovelful, but Arthur Harper was an old man by then, worn out from tuberculosis, slowly expiring in 1897 in Arizona.

Neither McQuesten nor Harper found any considerable traces of gold in their first Alaskan years, but being sure the mineral was there somewhere, they stuck with the search.  They may not have been striking it rich, but they and the few others like them were opening up the wilderness, learning the great Yukon river and its tributaries, cutting the opening wedge into the untapped and little-known interior.

In 1878 George Holt pushed directly in from the seacoast through the Chilkoot Pass, the only known gap in the armored underbelly of Alaska.   Nor did George Holt, the first man through the coastal mountains, find gold on the Yukon, though he sought it as fiercely as Harper.  He is a vague and shadowy figure, scarcely more than a name in the early annals of Alaska, but he is remembered for a remarkable feat: he was the first report of a white man crossing the Chilkoot trail came in 1878, twenty years before the Klondike gold rush, when George Holt, a white prospector, returned from the Yukon with two small nuggets which by his own imagination, excited the interest of the men at Sitka, the Panhandle capital, which was teeming with the backwash of the Cassiar rush.  Twenty prospectors, protected by a U.S. gunboat, debarked at Dyea Inlet not far from the foot of the Chilkoot, and here, after firing a few blank rounds from a Gatling gun, they convinced Chief Hole-in-the-Face that the pass should be opened.

The next year Ed Bean and the Rathe brothers tried to follow Holt's route and were turned back by the Chilkoot Indians.  They went to Sitka and sought help, and in 1880 returned with the U.S. cutter, Jamestown.  A few rounds fired from a cannon convinced the Indians that their monopoly on the Chilkoot Pass might more properly be shared with the white men who spoke with the voice of an avalanche.

It was 1880 when prospectors, Fred Harris and Joe Juneau, discovered rich placers at the head of what later was called Gold Creek in Southeastern Alaska.  The resulting stampede led to the founding of the mining town of Juneau and to the major lode gold discoveries in that vicinity.   And to Juneau came the wanderers and the adventurers, the Indian-fighters and the frontiersmen, men from all over the American west who could not sit still.  Juneau, in its turn, served as a springboard to Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.  By 1883 Juneau was the center of mining activity in Alaska. The Juneau strike produced 150 million dollars worth of gold, However, it was sixteen years before the Klondike and not properly a part of the Alaska gold rush.

In the next seven years nearly one hundred people crossed over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the Yukon - the trickle that led to the flood, the trailblazers for the stampede to follow.  There were the Whistling King, Cannibal Ike, Shoemaker Brown, Missionary Chapman, Seslie the Poisoner, Butter Frank, Caribou Steele, Russian Paul, Slim Jim Winn, and Dutch Kate Wilson, the first white woman to enter the Yukon on her own.

Meanwhile, gold seekers had also begun crossing the coastal mountains at the head of Lynn Canal, near Juneau, into the remote interior.  They trickled over the 3,739-foot Chilkoot Pass, on the Alaska-British Columbia border, to the lakes and streams which lead to the Yukon River.  The Tlingit Indians living along this section of the coast had long opposed the entry of whites into that country for fear of losing their trade monopoly with the interior Indians.  But assured that white men were seeking only mineral wealth, the Indians opened the pass in 1880.  Previously, white men reached the Interior of Alaska by way of a long all-water route, sailing by ocean steamer to Saint Michael, near the mouth of the Yukon River, and traveling up the Yukon in flat-bottomed river boats.  A major disadvantage of the Saint Michael route was that it was available only when the Bering Sea and Yukon River were free of ice - usually between late June and mid-September.  Though the Dyea Trail and Chilkoot Pass were more laborious than the Saint Michael route, it was less expensive and was open the year around, making it an attractive alternative route for prospectors.

In 1882 Ed Schieffelin went around to the Bering Sea opposite Siberia and moved up the long water highway of the Yukon River itself.  Schieffelin prospected during the trip in Alaska and found some specks of gold. He was for a while convinced he had found the continental belt he had been searching for. But he was extremely discouraged by the Arctic cold he experienced, up to 50 F below zero (-46 C).  He decided that mining in Alaska was a lost cause and he returned to the lower 48 states.  He died in front of his cabin in the forests of Oregon in 1897.

In 1883 Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka led an expedition across the Chilkoot Pass to Crater Lake, where the first waters of the Yukon gather from the melting snow of the encircling Coast Mountains.  From there, he mapped the river as far as Fort Yukon, and then on down the river to its northern mouth, though he assumed his exploration ended at Fort Selkirk.  He and his expedition were the first to follow the Yukon in its entirety.

By this time the men who were to make the final contribution to opening the Yukon country to white settlement were already there and had set in motion the train of events that were to lead to the great gold discoveries of the interior.  When Schwatka made his survey Leroy Napoleon "Jack" McQuesten, Arthur Harper, and Captain Al Mayo had been on the Yukon for ten years.  Joseph Ladue, who founded Dawson, reached the Yukon in 1882.  These were the men who made the last stampede possible, who opened the first trading posts and provided the supplies to make it possible for the prospectors and the miners to stay in this remote country and search for the gold that would bring thousands to the Yukon.  These were the men who started every town on the Yukon between Selkirk and Nulato.  Of the four, McQuesten had the greatest significance in the development of the upper Yukon, the most trusted and respected man on the river, and the most popular.  He first reached the Yukon in 1873.

As the California gold rush died out, the men who could never get the gold fever out of their blood gradually moved north.  As the old gold diggings were either overmanned or stripped clean or caught up by big companies, they sought new mineralized areas similar to those of the Sierra Nevada.  The prospected Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  They pushed north into British Columbia, into the Caribou country.  They went up the Stikine River out of Wrangell, where in 1861 over four hundred Americans stampeded into Russian America and just over the border into British Columbia to the considerable alarm of the Russians in Sitka.  The Russians had seen what happened to the Mexican control of California when the dynamic Americans flooded that territory, and they feared that Russian America under the impact of a gold stampede might follow the same route.

McQuesten, Mayo and __?__McKrieff were among these prospectors.  According to Mr. McQuesten's own account, they were in the Caribou country of British Columbia when they heard of the American purchase of Russian America and decided to see for themselves what the country was like.  It took them nearly two years to make the trip to the Yukon.

And so, throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, a small number of gold prospectors and miners moved into and out of the Yukon River regions of the Yukon Territory and interior Alaska, making small gold strikes and moving from promising camp to promising camp. Alaskan villages, such as Circle City and Fortymile, were somewhat well known before the major strike along the Klondike River in 1896. The large, industrial Treadwell gold mine opened near Juneau well before the famous strike as well. Gold mining in the Yukon and Alaska was by no means an unheard of industry. Seattle and other Northwest cities saw a few gold miners, and supplied them with food and equipment. In early 1896, months before the Klondike discoveries, miners showed up in Seattle in increasing numbers, taking passage for Circle City and Cook Inlet, following news of gold strikes.

The Klondike and the Yukon River drainage was an area that prospectors felt would someday led to major gold strike. Gold strikes happened on several occasions, but on a very small scale. Miners working the tributaries of the Yukon; the Pelly, Teslin, Birch Creek, Steward and others, all had reasonable yields of gold. When a small amount of gold was discovered in the Steward River in 1884, all of the other camps in the area were emptied and the miners headed there. The same happened in 1893 at Birch Creek. These two stampedes combined still did not have the effect as the main strike of 1897.

By 1886 some two hundred miners had crossed over the Chilkoot Pass and gradually worked their way three hundred miles down the Yukon to the mouth of the Stewart River, on whose sandbars they panned out, in a single year, one hundred thousand dollars worth of fine placer gold. 

The first important discoveries of gold in Interior Alaska were made in the Yukon drainage basin.  In the winter of 1886 prospectors discovered the auriferous gravels of the Fortymile River, and by 1893 more than 300 men were at work on the creeks of this district, located along Alaska's eastern boundary.  News of a richer strike lured many of these prospectors north to Birch Creek, another tributary of the Yukon, in 1894.  The town of Circle became the headquarters of the Birch Creek district, and its population grew to 1,500 before it was nearly depopulated during the winter of 1896-97 by news that large amounts of coarse gold had been discovered in the Yukon Territory of Canada, not far from present-day Dawson.

The first strike of any consequence on the Alaskan side of the Yukon basin came in the autumn of 1887 on Fortymile River, a Yukon tributary named by prospectors because its mouth was approximately 40 miles from Fort Reliance.  Nuggets worth only about 50 cents apiece were reported, but the strike seemed promising enough to lure prospectors from both up- and downriver come springtime.

In this summary fashion was the dam broken each year, from 1880 onward, the trickle of men crossing the divide increased. Following the return of George Holt from the Yukon, more miners worked their way into the Klondike Basin. At all of the tributaries of the Yukon some gold was found, but never the amount that would cause a full blown gold rush. Interestingly, the presence of these miners is commonly overlooked in much of the history of the Yukon and the gold rush. Many of these men dedicated their lives to finding a large deposit of gold, hoping to strike it rich. This small group of individuals was so committed to finding gold that they adopted a hardy lifestyle to survive in an environment that was not always hospitable.

 

 



 


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