Miners’ Code ruled the Last Frontier

Far from the long arm of the law, prospectors during Alaska's gold rush days relied on the miners' code to mete out justice in the Last Frontier.
Far from the long arm of the law, prospectors during Alaska’s gold rush days relied on the miners’ code to mete out justice in the Last Frontier.

Prior to the arrival of sheriffs and judges to the Far North, a practical application of frontier democracy called the Miners’ Code ruled the Last Frontier. Each camp decided matters of common concern by majority vote and meted out justice to fit the crime.

When a situation came along that necessitated a meeting, the miners came together and elected a judge and a sheriff. Defendants and plaintiffs then gave their sides of the story, and after all the evidence was weighed, the miners would render a verdict.

Murder was punished by hanging; stealing meant a sound whipping or banishment. The guilty had no notice of appeal, no bill of exceptions and no stay of execution.

Miners sometimes took justice into their own hands when it came to matters of the heart, too. With no judges or preachers in the camps, they had to think up unique ways to perform nuptials, as was the case of some lovers on the Koyukuk trail.

Aggie Dalton and Frank McGillis wanted to marry, and in lieu of an official marriage contract, they created a substitute document along with one “French Joe.” An account of the ceremony, which took place at a night camp with a group of stampeders en route to a Koyukuk River gold camp, was reported in the society columns of the Yukon Press on March 17, 1899.

“On the evening of Nov. 10, 1898, a romantic union took place between Frank McGillis and Aggie Dalton, near the mouth of Dall River. Splicing was done by ‘French Joe’ (J. Durrant), and the form of the contract was as follows:

Ten miles from the Yukon on the banks of this lake,
For a partner to Koyukuk, McGillis I take;
We have no preacher, and we have no ring,
It makes no difference, it’s all the same thing.
Aggie Dalton.

I swear by my gee-pole, under this tree,
A devoted husband to Aggie I always will be;
I’ll love and protect her, this maiden so frail,
From those sourdough bums, on the Koyukuk trail.
Frank McGillis.

For two dollars apiece, in Chechaco money,
I unite this couple in matrimony;
He be a rancher, she be a teacher,
I do the job up, just as well as a preacher.
French Joe.”

(Volume 2, Aunt Phil’s Trunk)

By Laurel Bill


Alaska history