The New Territory
Alaska's purchase price seemed "dog cheap" to an American newspaper editor in 1867. It seemed strange that Russia would give up a huge territory when Europeans customarily fought bloody wars over portions of land that could be tucked unnoticed in any corner of Alaska. And Alaska, according to the proponents of its acquisition, was a veritable treasure box of wealth in furs, fisheries, timber, and minerals. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts exalted in Congress of "forests of pine and fir waiting for the axe; then the mineral products, among which are coal and copper, if not iron, silver, lead, and gold."  To Secretary of State William Seward, Alaska seemed certain to be "the great fishery, forest, and mineral storehouse of the world." 
Neither Sumner nor Seward really knew the extent of Alaska's mineral and other resources at the time of the acquisition. Much of the territory had not yet been explored. Speculations on great wealth were not unreasonable, but constraints of climate and distance delayed development until actual mineral discoveries caused widespread excitement. Only gradually did the emphasis shift from furs to gold, but the traders did open the interior and support the early prospectors who patiently probed streambeds for signs of gold.
Six distinct geographic regions are found in Alaska. The southeastern coastal region, or panhandle, includes the narrow coastal strip west of the mountain walls along which lies Canada's boundary, many coastal inlands and the Alexander Archipelago. Sitka and Juneau, sites of the first Alaska gold developments, are located in southeastern Alaska. Sitka was also the center of the Russian American Company's Alaska operations and the American governmental center before giving way to Juneau, a very productive gold mining town, early in this century. Sitka has some small sites (SNHP) under National Park Service administration. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (GLBA), where there was a modest gold mining activity earlier, is in the northern part of the panhandle.
Moving north along the coast from Seattle and other Pacific coast ports, southeast is the first Alaska region voyagers encounter. The second region, for travelers following the coast, is southcentral, which includes Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island and has as its northern border, the huge Alaska Range. Considerable gold mining was done in the Cook Inlet region. The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (WRST) is within southcentral, and it includes areas where most of Alaska's copper was mined. The third region is southwestern, which includes the Alaska Peninsula and its extension, the Aleutian Islands. Within southwestern park regions include Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve (ANIA), Katmai National Park and Preserve (KATM), and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (LACL). A little gold was mined near Lake Clark.
The fourth region is the interior or central plateau, which lies between the Brooks Range to the north and the Alaska range to the south. Denali National Park and Preserve (DENA) and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (YUCH) are within this section. Both park regions have a significant mining history. The original portions of Denali, then called Mount McKinley National Park, constituted Alaska's first national park when established by Congress in 1917. The fifth section in western Alaska stretches from the head of Bristol Bay to the Seward Peninsula and includes some islands of the Bering Sea. The Bering Land Bridge National Park and Preserve (BELA) is in western Alaska. Finally, the geographic regions include the arctic, extending from Kotzebue, north of Seward Peninsula, to Canada's northwestern border. Parks within this sixth region include Cape Krusenstern National Monument (CAKR), Kobuk Valley National Park (KOVA), Noatak National Preserve (NOAT), and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (GAAR). Little mining activity occurred within CARR, KOVA, and NOAT conservation units, but gold mining was significant in parts of the GAAR and BELA.
The geographic focus for much of Alaska's mining activity is the Yukon River and its tributaries. This is because the Yukon region produced most of the gold mined in the interior, and Yukon transportation routes dominated that era. The traffic of people and goods was largely from Pacific coast ports to the Lynn Canal and the upper Yukon or to St. Michael and the lower Yukon. The importance of the Yukon routes extended beyond the closing of navigation in the fall because major winter trails followed the banks or used the frozen surface. Mining areas that were not serviced by the Yukon River include southeastern, the Copper River and Prince William Sound region, Cook Inlet, the Kuskokwim, and a few others. Even the Seward Peninsula was tied partially to Yukon transport, particularly for winter travel.
This is a study of mineral discovery and development in Alaska from the first decades of the nineteenth century to the present. While the study is designed to focus on mining within the national parks, its early chaptersembracing the earliest prospecting through the Klondike eraare necessarily more general. Gold-seekers ranged widely and major events affected activities everywhere in the same general ways. Later chapters of this study offer particular treatment of the several parks where mining occurred.
Particular themes of this study of placer and lode mineral mining in Alaska include consideration of the continuity of the mining frontier as it moved northward; the trade patterns in the Russian and early American eras; exploration; transportation to and within Alaska; law and litigation; social history; technological progress; community development; the role of government; mining investment and speculation; peaks and declines in productivity; and the literary-cultural facets of the mining frontier. For the most part, these and other themes are discussed within the chronological and regional sections of the texts rather than separately. Exceptions are such large, significant topics as the role of government and the literature of the mining frontier.
Russian efforts to develop trade in the Yukon River region began with the establishment of posts at St. Michael in 1833 and Nulato in 1839. Cinnabar (mercury) was discovered near Kolmakof on the Kuskokwim River but not mined. The Nulato post remained the farthest inland and farthest north throughout the Russian period, but other posts were founded at the mouth of the Unalakleet River, and at Andreesvsk, Alexkseevsk, and Komarovsk within a few years, and Russian Mission (Kvikhpak) on the lower Yukon was established in 1845. Alaska's fur possibilities also stimulated England's Hudson's Bay Company to establish Fort Yukon in 1847 at the mouth of the Porcupine River.
This encroachment on Alaska territory lasted until Capt. Charles P. Raymond of the U.S. Army protested the boundary matter to the company in 1869. Raymond had been dispatched because of complaints from American traders and voyaged to Fort Yukon from St. Michael on a small trading steamer. After his survey confirmed Fort Yukon's American location, Raymond notified the Hudson's Bay Company men and raised the Stars and Stripes over their post. Raymond reported cautiously on the economic potential of the Yukon: "Profitable management requires fixed posts . . . there is no place for small enterprise." Whether the length of travel justified large investments "remains to be seen." As for gold"no valuable mineral deposits in workable quantities have been found in the vicinity of the Yukon River up to the present time."  This was not quite accurate, as Frederick Whymper of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition had reported on signs of gold near Fort Yukon a few years earlier.
Raymond's flag raising was a necessary gesture, but his assertion of American authority was not fortified by other government action. Many years would pass before the United States' presence in the interior was firmly established. The government's indifference to the Yukon through the 1870s can hardly be wondered at since it was impotent even in parts of the west where serious Indian-white conflicts brewed. In 1879 Sitka's citizens, faced with Indian hostilities two years after an army detachment had been withdrawn, appealed to British authorities at Victoria for relief. After HMS Osprey arrived to calm aggressive spirits, the U.S. government dispatched Captain Brown with USS Alaska, who was relieved by Commander L.A. Beardslee and Jamestown after a few weeks. Jamestown and other ships replacing it remained on duty in Alaska waters from 1879.
With the acquisition of Alaska in 1867 the potential of the fur trade attracted several American companies, including the Pioneer Company, Parrott and Company, Taylor and Bendel, Faulkner and Bell, the Jansen Company, and the Hutchinson, Kohl Co. The latter became the Alaska Commercial Company and dominated Alaska trade for decades. A lease arrangement secured the Alaska Commercial Company a monopoly of the lucrative Pribilof Island fur seal harvest, but elsewhere in Alaska other traders were free to compete.
Among the pre-Klondike traders Francis Xavier Mercier, a founder of the Pioneer Company of San Francisco, stands out. He was born in Quebec Province in 1838, entering the fur trade in 1856 with the North West Company at Fort Benton, Montana, and Fort Union, N.D. His Alaska work started in 1868 when he voyaged to St. Michael, then ascended the Yukon to found Nuklukayet (later Fort Adams) 15 miles below the Tanana River mouth and lasted until 1885.
Within a year the Pioneer Company folded and Mercier joined Hutchinson, Kohl (soon to become Alaska Commercial). By 1872 he was the company's general agent for the entire interior based at a post he built at Tanana 12 miles upstream from Nuklukayet until he quit in 1875. From 1877 he represented the Western Fur and Trading Company, which the Alaska Commercial Company absorbed in 1883. Mercier remained with the Alaska Commercial Company until 1885 when he left Alaska. Francis Xavier's brother, Moise, was another pioneer trader who came north in 1868 and joined Parrott and Company the next year to run their Fort Yukon post until 1874. 
It was in 1874 that Leroy N. McQuesten and Alfred Mayo arrived in the interior and were sent by F.X. Mercier to build Fort Reliance some 30 miles within Canadian territory and 6 miles downstream of the mouth of the Klondike River. Mercier was not anticipating the Klondike gold discoveries in building a post in what was to be the great mining region; he wanted to spare upper Yukon and upper Tanana Indians a long haul to Fort Yukon or Nuklukayet and the temptation of trading with his rivals. On July 3 Mercier left St. Michael on the steamer Yukon to supply posts at Nulato, Nuklukayet, and Fort Yukon, then carry building materials upriver for Fort Reliance. Yukon had been voyaging the river since 1868, first for Parrot and Co., then for Alaska Commercial, but had never before gone above Fort Yukon. Another post Mercier built on the upper Yukon was Belle Isle, a name given to the general vicinity around the present site of Eagle, some 80 miles downstream from Reliance. He established this post in 1880 for the Western Fur and Trading Company and re-established it in 1882 after Western Fur and Trading abandoned it. Leroy Napoleon McQuestenalways known as "Jack"was born in New Hampshire in 1836 and is the trader most closely identified with mining development of this period. He and his sometimes partners, Arthur Harper and Alfred Mayo, sensed the transition from fur to mining dominance and did much to stimulate it. Arthur Harper, born in Ireland in 1853, ranged throughout the interior prospecting on his own, and was among the discoverer of the Stewart River, Fortymile, Sixtymile, and Tanana gold fields. Other independent traders active in the 1880s and the powerful Alaska Commercial Company were slow to shift from their traditional trade.
In a sense the Hudson's Bay Company subsidized the initial Yukon entry of McQuesten and his companies. He and other men had been trapping around the Nelson River when Chief Factor McDougal offered a guide, boat-building material, and provisions if the party would move to the Yukon. One Hudson's Bay man, who had been at Fort Yukon in 1869, when Captain Raymond voyaged upriver, contributed another inducement: "Mr. Sibistone told us that one of the officers that came up on the steamer washed out a yard of dirt near Fort Yukon and he had about a teaspoon of something yellow in the pan and the officer threw it away remarking that it would not do to let the men see it as they would all leave the steamer." 
Another early report of Yukon gold was publicized by members of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition who surveyed for a telegraph line from 1865-67 in Alaska and Siberia. Expedition men heard that gold in small quantities was found on the islands of the Yukon near Fort Yukon. In 1867 two expedition men found evidence of gold in the upper Yukon and another, Daniel Libby, made similar modest discoveries on the Seward Peninsula.
When his party reached Fort Yukon in August 1873, Alaskans were as pleased to see McQuesten as the Canadians were to see him go: "We were treated like kings." Mercier, happy to have fully equipped trappers in the country who would increase his trade, even let them have 50 pounds of flour, although his own supply was very low. In the spring McQuesten ran into Harper and his party of prospectors at Fort Yukon: "They wintered at White River, they killed plenty of moose and lived like kings all winter. They had done considerable prospecting but they found nothing that would pay." The prospectors were not discouraged, however, as they saw evidence that paying quantities of gold existed: "Mr. Koh Bear," McQuesten noted, "had about thirty dollars in coarse gold that an Indian by the name of Larieson gave him. The Indian said he had found it, a piece of rock that he picked up about thirty miles below the station. The place is now called Gold Mountain." 
The region Mercier and McQuesten opened up from Fort Reliance in 1874 showed little promise of prosperity to traders. For all its vastness it was, as Mercier noted, "so sad, so rigorous, and so unproductive, populated by three or four small uncivilized villages, separated from each other by hundreds of miles, living off the products of their hunting and fishing." Clearly a region so rude and remote was not one he imagined would one day "turn the head of all the civilized world." At the time there were only 32 whites in the vast region of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Tanana. All these men, except for Lucien Turner, a U.S. Signal Service officer at St. Michael and prospectors Arthur Harper, George Finch, and a man called James, were involved in the fur trade. But by the early 1880s, the fur trading posts would be the congregation points for an ever-increasing number of prospectors who made the first substantial gold strikes on Yukon tributaries. 
Sources are not clear on the first prospector to investigate the Yukon from the Lynn Canal entry. George Holt, who was killed by an Indian at Knik in 1885, may have crossed the Chilkoot in the 1870s. But priority perhaps belongs to the better-documented party of Arthur Harper, Fred Hart, George Finch, and Kinseller who reached Fort Yukon from Canada by way of the Mackenzie, Peel, and Porcupine rivers. Mercier hired Kinseller to assist Napoleon Robert at Nuklukayet, while the others prospected in the White River region in 1873-74, returning to Fort Yukon with McQuesten, Mayo, and George Nichelson, who had also used the Canadian interior route to reach Fort Yukon in '73. Mercier hired Mayo and Hart to assist at Nuklukayet and Nulato, and McQuesten, already known for his honesty and trade skills, to build Fort Reliance, with George Banfield to help him. Harper joined the Alaska Commercial Company in 1875, thus the illustrious trio of McQuesten, Mayo, and Harper settled in prospecting or encouraging prospecting as well as trading over the succeeding decade.
Soon after this, probably fall 1877, McQuesten followed up on a gold prospect Harper had discovered on Sixtymile River. His account of this and the Indians' concern for his well-being indicates the general rule of racial amity on the Yukon:
Violence between natives and whites, common on other western mining frontiers, was rare in Alaska, but there were a few incidents. Briefly, in 1871-1872, the wife of Fred Riedelle, Alaska Commercial Company manager at St. Michael, graced the area with her residence, then in 1875, Mrs. James Bean joined her husband at the Alaska Commercial's Nulato post, later giving birth to the first white child in the interior. Bean left Alaska Commercial in 1878 to establish his own post 30 miles up the Tanana where Mrs. Bean was killed by an Indian. What motivated the Indians is not clear, but the tragic slaying illustrates the lawless situation in the interior. No American officials were available to apprehend the Indian, and the few scattered traders and prospectors did not gather themselves for action.
In 1877 McQuesten had some reason for anxiety about the Indians' mood. Several Indians broke into his storehouse at Fort Reliance and ate a mixture of arsenic and grease that they thought was flour. Three of them died of poisoning, and McQuesten returned to Fort Reliance very cautiously:
Pivotal events in Alaska's mining history were the discovery of gold at Juneau in 1880 and the exploration efforts of the U.S. Army that helped foster the obvious interior route from the Lynn Canal. Lt. Frederick Schwatka led an expedition in 1883 to chart the Yukon River from its source to its mouth. Though the Yukon was hardly unknown, it seemed important to fix its course precisely. Everywhere in the West the waterways had been a primary part of the transportation network, and the Yukon's 2,300 mile length made it appear the obvious geographic key. Exploitation of the river from its mouth at Norton Sound had been the initial penetration route but entry from its source, much closer to Juneau and Pacific Coast ports, made sense.
When Schwatka landed near the mouth of the Chilkat River he negotiated with the Chilkats for packers. After Schwatka got over the pass he built a raft on Lake Lindeman for his Yukon voyage. On the upper Yukon he met two prospectors, the "most woe-begone objects I ever seen," drop-outs from a prospecting party of that season who were returning to the coast. Along the way Schwatka met other prospectors who were faring somewhat better, including Joe Ladue, later to be a founding father of Dawson. Ladue and Schwatka met among the watery maze of the Yukon Flats where the soldiers suffered three weeks of tedious confusion working their raft downriver. At Nuklukayet, near the Tanana, Schwatka abandoned his raft in favor of Arthur Harper's steamer, and voyaged down to St. Michael in more comfort. Schwatka finished his task and published a narrative of his journey in 1885 that stimulated readers to the possibilities of Alaska. 
Alaska's population in 1880, the date of the first United States census, was estimated at 33,426. Excluding the military, this figure only showed 430 whites. Native peoples included coastal Indians (Tlingits, Haidas, and Tsimshians) of southeastern; Eskimos of the arctic (the Innuits), and of the Bering Sea and Pacific Coast (the Yupiks) the Aleuts of the Aleutian chain and other coastal areas; and Athapaskans of the interior. Included also were some 1,756 Creoles (mixed Russian and native).
By 1884 the date of publication for the first census, mineral discoveries had already caused a large increase in the white population. Governor Alfred P. Swineford estimated that there were 1,900 whitesa figure that was probably exaggerated.
The pace of prospecting quickened in the early 1880s, although there were no dramatic gold discoveries. McQuesten observed changes in 1882 that improved the quality of his life considerably:
With the venture of Ed Schiefflin and his brother in 1882, mentioned by McQuesten, it appeared that professional mining interest was stirring in the States. Schiefflin, famed as the discoverer of Tombstone, Arizona, opened a new era of well-financed prospecting by bringing a small steamer, the New Racket, to St. Michael for river voyaging. He wintered over in 1882-83 above the mouth of the Tanana, ascending that river a short distance when navigation opened for prospecting. Like other early prospectors Schiefflin found plenty of gold signs but not enough to excite him to further time and effort. After a single season's prospecting he gave up and returned outside.
The appearance of such a well-organized party of well-known prospectors encouraged others even if the Schiefflins did give up rather quickly. They reported the discovery of "a mineral belt" around Nuklukayet that included bars paying $10 a day per man: "There were many good indications of gold, especially in the region where a range of hills known as the Lower Ramparts are aligned with the river's course." Since the Schiefflins supported the theory that a great mineral belt encircled the world from Cape Horn through Asia and the New World, they believed that their modest gold discoveries confirmed the theory. What was more significant than such theorizing was the party's discovery of gold within Alaska. All earlier discoveries of gold along the Yukon occurring from the time of Alaska's purchase had been on British Territory. 
The faith that sustained the endeavors of the northern prospectors in the mineral resources of Alaska rested in the previous history of western mining. Gold discoveries in California in 1848 caused a stampede of thousands to the Pacific Coast. Subsequently prospectors found gold in Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, and elsewhere. Inevitably men turned northwards to search for wealth and found rewards on the Fraser River in 1858 and the Caribou a year later.
In the early 1870s the Cassiar district of British Columbia and Sitka, where the Stewart mine was discovered in 1872, created the excitement, then in 1880 major strikes were made at Juneau. As Juneau developed as a thriving community, it became the natural jumping off place to Alaska's interior for most of the prospectors who ventured forth in the 1880s.
Sitka, the former center of Russian America, was the scene of the first gold mining of the American era with the development of the Stewart mine from 1872 while Juneau was founded in 1881. Juneau proved to be a very important mining center and eventually replaced Sitka as territorial capital. Richard T. Harris and Joseph Juneau made placer and quartz discoveries in 1880 with backing from George E. Pilz, who was building a stamp mill at the Stewart mine, and other Sitka men. Placer deposits of the Silver Bow basin in the hills encircling Juneau were developed and continued to produce for decades. A quartz claim on Douglas Island very near Juneau was developed by John Treadwell, a California contractor and mining engineer. Eventually Treadwell's "Glory Hole," covering 13 acres and penetrating 2,000 feet into the earth, became world famous. From 1882 to 1916, the mines produced $60 million in gold from the ore processed. Flooding in 1916 forced the closure of operations.
Juneau's prosperity was assured by mining and its location on Lynn Canal, just 100 miles south of the trail leading to the Chilkoot Pass, made it a natural jumping-off place to the interior.
With justice the Cassiar district has been called "the training school for Yukon miners," and to the experience gained there the latter owed to a great extent their ability to cope with the natural disadvantages, for the conditions are similar in each region. Harold Goodrich, author of the history section in an early USGS summary of northern mining, detailed the Cassiar-Alaska relationship:
When the placer deposits of the Cassiar became exhausted by 1884 most of the miners left the district. Potentially rich auriferous quartz veins could not then be mined because of the high costs of importing machinery. Thus Cassiar miners looked northward. Why not try the Yukon country? Schiefflin's experience was known as were those of Schwatka and prospectors who had used the Chilkoot Pass entry into the interior. Ordinary miners lacked the capital for steamer transport on the Yukon but pushing downriver from headwater seemed easy enough.
Some 200 prospectors crossed the Chilkoot in 1883. Pleasant reports reached Juneau in 1883-84 of successes, although they were probably exaggerated. One messenger spoke of placers yielding $150 a day; another of gravel bars mined for $25 a day. Though most of the prospectors reached the Yukon's tributaries a few tried other regions, including the Copper River. In fall of 1883 a miner electrified Juneau by appearing with $1,000 in coarse Yukon gold, thus stimulating the movement of 300 men into the interior men in spring of 1884.
The interior miners brought with them experience in regulating mining districts and keeping order through miners meetings. Their ability to provide the rudiments of governance was on a par with their ability to extract goldvery crude and inefficient but effective for the transitional period. It was probably in 1882 that the first formal miners meeting convened on the Yukon occurred at Fort Reliance. Regulations concerning mining and the necessity of record keeping were of chief concern: "There was a meeting called to make laws governing the size of placer claims and water rights," Jack McQuesten explained, "so that everyone knew that he was entitled to in case anything was struck and then was bounded off and I was elected recorder." Thus it was that the way was smoothed for subsequent social developments in the great interior. 
Notes: Chapter 1
1. Ernest Gruening, An Alaskan Reader, 1887-1974 (New York: Meredith Press, 1967), 38-39; Richard E. Welch, Jr., "American Public Opinion and the Purchase of Russian America," in Alaska and Its History, edited by Morgan B. Sherwood (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967), 277.
Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008