The Founding of Juneau, Alaska

by Nancy Warren Ferrell


For the most part, the vast spruce covered mountains and protected waterways along Gastineau Channel in Southeastern Alaska laid untouched to the mid 1800s. Before that, Tlingit Indian tribes fished the rich salmon routes for centuries. And a few well-known explorers had come before: Men such as George Vancouver and John Muir.

But it was rumors of gold that lured prospectors to the Gastineau Channel in the 1870s. Sandwiched in quartz within these coastal mountains, ran a 100-mile belt of gold from Windham Bay to Berners Bay1. River gravel below the peaks sparkled with yellow particles washed down from the mountain lodes.

A German-born mining engineer, George Pilz, then working in the headquarters of the Territory--Sitka--grubstaked prospectors to search for gold and silver 2 in Southeastern. Pilz offered substantial rewards to the local Indians("100 pair of Hudson's Bay blankets, and work for the tribe . . . ") 3 for any promising gold-bearing ore. When Chief Cowee of the Auk Tlingits brought in rich ore samples, Pilz sent out a party of miners to follow-up on the hopeful location. The party consisted of Joe Juneau and Richard Harris. They left Sitka in the summer of 1880.4

The two prospectors, with an Indian guide showing the way, located gold in Silver Bow Basin, on a stream they simply called Gold Creek.5 "We followed the gulch down from the summit of the mountain into the basin," Harris later said, "and it was a beautiful sight to see the large pieces of quartz, spangled over with gold." 6 This find was the first major Alaskan gold discovery.7

A day after the discovery--October 4, 1880--the miners wrote a "Code of Local Laws," and staked the mining discovery. Since it was likely Joe Juneau could not read or write English,(8) Harris acted as recorder for the new town. On October 18--Alaska Day--the men blocked out a 160-acre townsite on the beach. The new mining district Harris named after himself --Harrisburgh.9

When the discovery became news, the U.S. Navy sent a steam launch to the Gastineau Channel area with the first small party of stampeders.10 The Navy detachment was sent to keep order in the mining camp,11 and was under command of Lt. Com. Charles Rockwell. A month later, Christmas of 1880, 30 miners populated the area.12 The men feasted on clam soup, "Stikeen" pot pie, and stuffed porcupine 13 that first Christmas dinner.

One of the first town meetings was held in February 1881. It was then decided that since there were so many cities in America called Harrisburgh, the town name would be changed to honor the Navy commander.14 Thus, "Rockwell" became the new name. However, by the end of 1881, Joe Juneau was complaining that nothing in the district had been named for him.15 Because he lobbied enough support from the miners, they changed the name of the town to Juneau, as it remains today.

During that first year, the area grew. A number of general stores sprang up, China Joe started a bakery, a blacksmith shop and a drug store went into operation, plus several saloon doors swung open. Indians from surrounding tribes were attracted to the mining district, too. By May 1881 alone, an estimated 450 Indians and 150 whites populated the town.16

Juneau grew steadily as the years went by. When many of the gold streams played out for the individual prospectors after a few seasons, mining and milling companies took over.

Not long after the Juneau discovery, gold was found across the channel on Douglas Island in December 17, 1880.17 French Canadian Pierre Erussard staked a rich ledge of quartz in May of 1881 on Douglas. From that discovery, and others, grew the famous Treadwell mines of the future.18


Copyright © 1995 Nancy Ferrell


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Last revised on 7/12/95 - mlg