Gold fever began rather tepidly in Alaska. Although Russian fur traders were aware of gold deposits found in Russian America in the mid-1700-1800s, they weren’t anxious to have gold-seeking outsiders combing their new land. So they said little about the discoveries of the bright gold metal.
English missionary Robert McDonald, who researchers say found gold in the Circle area round 1863, also did not bring light to his discovery. He was more interested in souls than gold.
Once the Americans took possession of the Great Land in 1867, however, interest in gold began to rise. Especially when a few men found promising prospects on the Stikine River in Southeast.
The first known discovery of gold by a white man came in 1861 when Hudson Bay Company employee Buck Choquette found gold on the Stikine, on what is now called Buck’s Bar. His find attracted a few men into the region through the Stikine waterway near Redoubt St. Dionysus – or Wrangell, one of the oldest non-Native communities in Alaska. It has been governed by four nations: Tlingit, Russian, British and American.
When Henry Thibert and Angus McCulloch found gold in the Cassiar District of Canada in 1871, a huge stampede headed north via the Laird and Cassiar routes.
Over the next several years, prospectors found small deposits in Southeast and several near Sitka, Alaska’s capital at the time. The lodes near Sitka drew interested mining parties north, and in the late 1870s, a German assayer George Pilz encouraged Richard Harris and Joe Juneau to prospect more of the mainland.
In August and September of 1880, the men made a discovery that led to the development of the Harris Mining District. They named the gold-mining settlement Harrisburg. The named changed to Rockwell in 1881, and it was changed again soon thereafter to Juneau.
Within a short time, many mines became active in Juneau and Douglas, an island across from what now is the capital of Alaska. The world-famous Alaska-Juneau mine became the largest low-grade ore gold mine in the world.
The rich strikes in the Juneau area drew many more prospectors into the coastal regions of Southeast Alaska. Many became miners for a few months in Juneau to grubstake themselves so they could seek their own pots of gold. Some found prospecting to be a miserable disease. Others saw it as a way to become self-sufficient. But for Alaska, their mining activities helped the economic development of Alaska as an American possession through exploration and settlement.
Many prospectors moved on to the Klondike in 1898 and then into Alaska’s Interior during the early 1900s. Their histories show some worked a winter or two in the Juneau area in order to finance their journeys into the Yukon and Tanana watersheds. Reseachers who followed the rush for gold into the north can trace some names from the Juneau district to the Fortymile, Circle, Nome and Fairbanks districts.