(1829 - 1898)
Sketch of Choquette
by Jenny Hawley after Choquette photograph from the
cover of Buck Choquette—Stampeder, by Henry W. Clark
Alexandre, nicknamed Buck, Choquette was born in Quebec in 1829. He made the California Gold Rush in 1849, the Fraser Rush in 1858, grubstaked his old partner Joe Juneau in the Cassiar in 1874, and died in Dawson City, Yukon Territory in 1898 of pneumonia while following the Klondike Stampede.
In 1861 Buck discovered gold on a tributary to the Stikine River above modern day Wrangell, Alaska. It was the first known gold discovery made in the Alaska panhandle, and it led to the rush to the Stikine in 1862--Alaska’s first. The 1861 discovery was actually in Canada, but the location of the International Boundary were unclear. At the time, much of Alaska’s Southeast coast was Russian-owned but administered by the English Hudson’s Bay Company under the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1825 (revised 1839). The importance of the discovery for the United States was that it brought American prospectors into the region who, by the time of the Alaska Purchase in 1867, had a fair knowledge of Alaska’s coastal resources. Prospectors located copper claims on Prince of Wales Island and then worked northward toward Windham Bay. The latter bay produced what were among the first commercial placer gold mines in Alaska. Choquette’s store up the Stikine River near Wrangell supported the nucleus of experienced prospectors, like Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, whose discoveries made Alaska’s first great mines.1
Alexandre Choquette was born into a Bourgeoisie devoutly Roman Catholic family in a Seignory (Township) in Quebec. His life was already planned, largely by tradition: School with Jesuits, altar boy with the padre, and probably an arranged marriage giving him even less freedom than those in the outlying farm families, the so-called Habitants. A certainty that would appeal to many was not for young Alexandre. Young Choquette’s teachers noted a wayward tendency. The padre caught him fishing on Sunday, and the most respected person, his uncle, read him the riot act on what he could expect if he didn’t settle down. Nevertheless, Choquette relied more on the opinions of the Erussard brothers, Pierre and Frederick, who had emigrated to the United States two years before. Alexandre wrote the brothers asking their advice and opinions. Pierre answered that they were happy enough with their factory employment, knowing that they had the freedom to leave and move to Boston, New York, or the hinterlands at any time. Pierre urged Alexandre to join them. Choquette, however, had a stronger urge that would not be assuaged by any amount of urban development.2
One morning he packed a larger than usual lunch and took off in the direction of the school house, which he bypassed. By nightfall he was fifteen miles from home. He kept going until he reached a larger market town where he found employment as a delivery boy and lodging with a farm family whom he supplied with firewood. Over the next year or so Aleck kept moving westward, working in towns, lodging with farm families, and at last reaching a temporary destination, Montreal where he found temporary employment with an apothecary, an inside job that did not satisfy him very long.
Wherever he went, Choquette learned and retained new skills. He also further strengthened an inherently tough constitution; whatever Choquette lacked in the way of stature he made up with quickness. He was naturally good natured and made friends easily, but he could and would defend himself when needed.
After leaving Montreal, Choquette went as far west as Fort Garry (Winnipeg) where he considered signing on with the Hudson’s Bay Company and adopting the life of a voyager in the fur trade. Events transpiring far distant had more appeal. In January 1848, J. W. Marshall was erecting a sawmill for the prosperous Swiss emigrant J. A. Sutter on the American River, a tributary to the Sacramento in central California. Marshall noted grains of a soft yellow substance that he thought could be gold in the mill’s tailrace. His laborers found more on the 27th of January. Marshall informed his employer of the discovery. Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery secret, but to no avail. All the nearby streams were gold-bearing. By August, California civil governor Mason announced that more than 4,000 men, more than half Indians, were mining. That number increased to 10,000 miners by year’s end. The stage was set for a major stampede in the spring months. One of the would-be stampeders was Choquette, who turned southerly toward a temporary Independence, Missouri, destination. Independence and nearby St. Joseph, had been the jumping-off points for Oregon Trail destinations since about 1836. The Gold Rush scholar Morrell noted,
“Never before, however, had there been such an assemblage of emigrants with their carts or wagons or ponderous ‘prairie schooners’ as gathered at St. Joseph or Independence . . . in the spring and early summer of that year .”
With no fear of manual labor and a portfolio of practical skills acquired during his travels, Choquette had no problem finding a California-bound wagon train. Although some wagon trains had as many as 200 men and women, a good number seemed to be about 20, a number large enough to discourage Indian forays and yet small enough to be flexible. Young, strong men with few entanglements, such as Choquette, were at a premium. According to Choquette’s biographer, Clark,
“. . . his willingness to tackle any job, his energy, his pep and good nature made him from the first a popular fellow among these rough and ready miners and settlers”.As they left civilization, Choquette adopted the deerskin garb of the plainsman, and acquired a new nickname, Buck, used throughout the rest of his life.4
On a July day of 1849 after a trip of about 100 days, Choquette stood on the summit of Donner Pass, ready to become a miner. His already mastered range of frontier skills was soon augmented with those of the prospector, the gold pan and rocker.
The earliest arrivals to the placer gold fields found rich pickings, but also a great deal of hard work building ditches and flumes, and just digging. But with every successful and hard-earned strike, there was a following crew ready to jump the pioneers and their legitimate claims. Unlike the first year or two in California, where every race and ethnic group, including French-Canadians, were accepted for their abilities, the newcomers looked down on all except “Anglo Saxons” of their own definition. Buck began to notice that the Anglo Saxons resented the Chinese laborers who were only wanted for menial and dangerous tasks and were content to live on rice. The newcomers resented the Mexicans and other foreigners almost as much as the Orientals and some of this feeling spread to the French-Canadians."5
As tough as he was, Buck needed help to watch his back. One evening around the campfire, Buck heard a familiar dialect. It turned out to be from a man of similar age and heritage whose prairie adventures had been like his. The man was another French-Canadian, Joe Juneau. The men became inseparable friends and working partners, a friendship soon made necessary.
As told by Clark:
“One day Buck and Joe were panning on a stream off the American River making fair pay and keeping busy, but a big Irishman, Ned McGowan, kept crowding them off the best spots. While Buck was up on the bank . . . McGowan sneaked up behind Joe and shoved him head-first into the stream and then roared up and down the creek, ‘Look at Frenchie going after the gold like the little pig he is’.” “Buck was down the bank in one leap and climbing all over the big bully. . .Joe climbed out and pitched in for all he was worth. Soon they had McGowan down in the water and would have given him a real beating or drowned him had they not been hauled off by the other miners.”6
Buck and Joe remained partners, mining mostly in the more rugged less-crowded hill country—perhaps with somewhat less gold, but fewer other problems. In the spring of 1851, Joe signed on with a company near Marysville, and urged Buck to join him. Instead Buck decided to head north into the Feather River country. In 1855, Buck passed through the Shasta country aiming for Oregon. He had a new partner, trapper Alois Tremaine.7
Buck bypassed gold-rich Rogue River in southern Oregon and the Willamette River which was attractive but already marked for agriculture. Buck moved again crossing the Canadian border for the gold strike on the Fraser in British Columbia. The word was that the bars on the lower Fraser were rich in fine gold, with the inference that rich gold fields could be found upstream.
Buck and young Tremaine decided to make the new rush, but through the northern route. They joined a party of about thirty men led by David Frost on the Columbia. Because of Indian trouble, the party waited at Walla Walla in Washington Territory for parties coming from California and the East. In the summer of 1858, now augmented to about 150 men and led by David McLaughlin, the party left Walla Walla. David proved an ineffective leader and, at the urging of Buck and a few other experienced men, was soon replaced by his disciplined and forceful brother James.
Even with guards posted every evening, the expedition lost men to Indians in outlying skirmishes. The party holed up near the old Hudson Bay trail along the Thompson River. At the Thompson River site, Buck picked up other skills as he assisted Mike Hannigan, a Crimean War veteran, in his care of the wounded. As the men healed, the party gradually broke up as they approached the broad valley of the Fraser.
Miners in the valley were barely making a day’s pay, but on March 23, 1858, a small party near Ft. Yale hit nugget-rich ground so rich that they cleared $2,000,000 before freeze up. Near the mouth of the canyon near Fort Yale, three men took out one-hundred ninety ounces in a week. Buck and other experienced miners left pans and rockers to small operators and switched to long tom sluice operations. Buck and a few men who brought gravel to the sluices with wheel barrows could mine 10-30 yards of pay gravel in a day.
By the end of the season in 1858, there were thousands of men mining in the Fraser Valley. A few became rich. More left much of the product of their hard work with gambling houses and saloons at Fort Yale and other settlements.
Buck was about to leave the valley when he heard that his old California nemesis, Ned McGowan, planned to take over the valley, forcing out the Canadians. McGowan who had some success with bullying tactics in California quickly lost out to troops sent out by Governor Douglas who also was the manager for Hudson’s Bay Company. In the winter of 58-59, Buck considered joining a rush to a placer-hardrock play, the Caribou, but decided to pass, adopting a new role in Victoria, translating and advising newcomers. Buck’s familiarity with the “Chinook jargon” was particularly helpful as anyone traveling north from Victoria was practically in Indian country where the jargon was the lingua franca.8
Buck finally decided it was time to dispense with civilization and work north along the coast with an ultimate target as the next major river to the north the Stikine. The river was known to the Hudson’s Bay Company as a source of fur. Buck visualized it as the next major gold-bearing stream north of the Fraser.
Choquette, in the company of Tlingits and in a giant war canoe, sailed out of Sidney, B.C. on the east shore of Vancouver Island in May 1861. The voyage north, through hazardous coastal waters, took five weeks. In mid-June they landed at an Indian village near the mouth of the Stikine that before 1849 had also been a Hudson’s Bay post. Buck was welcomed by Chief Shakes, the powerful head of the Tlingits of the Stikine region. Knowledge of the Chinook jargon and an innate tact in dealings with the Indians, especially with Chief Shakes and his comely daughter Georgiana, proved of immense value to Buck. Initial good feelings between Buck and Chief Shakes were cemented by the Tlingit-ritual marriage between Buck and Georgiana. And although Buck had reservations on what a woman could do, Georgiana soon took logistic charge of the prospecting venture up the Stikine: In the dominantly matriarchal Tlingit society Georgiana enlisted Chief Shustack, Sub-Chief Howkan, and Chief Kadashan to help organize the venture.9
Initially the venture had limited success. By early fall when they left the spruce coastal forest for the deciduous forest of the interior, Choquette had found trace colors, but nothing of great value. By the time that his Native crew was beginning to get bored with Choquette’s tedious prospecting, Buck’s fortunes changed abruptly: Pans showed abundant fine-colors with interspersed nuggets. On the first day, Choquette took out $5 worth of gold, then, on succeeding days, $11, $12, and $13. The party stayed in the area for about three weeks extending the area of mineralization, but left hurriedly when Georgiana came down with life-threatening pneumonia.
Georgiana’s fever broke on the way downstream but she was a long way from recovery. Rather than the Indian village destination, Buck took Georgiana to Shakes Hot Springs where he set up camp and nursed her back to health. In so doing, Buck missed the HBC’s S/S Labouchere south on her trip to Victoria and in so doing lost the opportunity to describe his discovery first hand. Even garbled news was sufficient to stimulate a gold rush in 1862.10
Apparently the first written announcement of discovery was in the British Colonist of September 12, 1861, when a “Rumored Gold Discovery” was announced. The Colonist’s news was supposedly based on communications between the captain of the Labouchere and Hudson’s Bay headquarters. The newspaper immediately back-peddled and called the earlier story a hoax after it was traced back to Indians who had just arrived in Victoria.
After a further bout of miscommunication and rumors that Choquette had been murdered, the Colonist of November 20th announced that the discovery was real after all and that Choquette was very much alive and had been able to resupply from the Hudson’s Bay post at Fort Simpson instead of returning to Victoria.11
Total confirmation of the discovery occurred on January 10,1862, when Buck himself arrived in Victoria on the schooner Nonpareill, bringing with him about $40 worth of gold from his claim. The news of Choquette’s success caused stampeders to empty out of Victoria and other western British Columbia settlements. Miners took possession of anything that could float even though many of them lacked knowledge of their destination.12
They would have been better served if they had waited for Buck as he assembled a proper mining expedition. Choquette stayed in Vancouver lining up his expedition while quicker stampeders beat him to the diggings. Most of the miners lacked Choquette’s prospecting and skills. Although a few experienced miners did well many but did not and returned to Victoria casting doubt on the importance of the Stikine discovery.
Problems also emerged with resident Indians. The whiskey trade was of specific concern to Buck who on April 9th, 1862, wrote to the editor of the British Colonist:
“. . . We had no trouble with the Indians what so ever. It is only since I left the camp that some little difficulty took place between the party on board the Explorer and the natives. One of the passengers on the Explorer, some two or three days before reaching here took a canoe and some three hundred gallons of liquor to trade with the Indians. . .”Choquette detailed the problems and followed up in another letter to the Colonist on May 13 when he noted that experienced miners backed him up with a resolution
“that if any white man was caught supplying Indians with whiskey he should be ‘strung up’.”13
Choquette retained the good will of the Tlingits and he and Georgiana settled down and began a family. Buck, Jr. was born in the winter of 1862-63. (A major loss to the family was of Chief Shakes, who died in mid-summer of 1862. Shakes had been a stabilizing force in the region.)
In the succeeding years Buck enlarged the scope of his activities. Anyone working in the area was familiar with and dependent on the various roles of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The company was also dependent on the good will of the Indians and the few men like Buck who knew the territory. The company recognized that Choquette had an almost unparalleled knowledge of the Stikine region, and good relations with both settlers and Indians that could not be obtained from any other individual. On March 13, 1865, at Victoria, Roderick Finlayson of the HBC and Choquette contracted:
“Choquette hereby agrees to proceed to the Russian Territory on board the Otter and to land at the Stikine River there to procure the necessary canoes to proceed to that or any other river in the same Territory and trade all furs and gold dust that he can for the Hudson’s Bay Company.”14
Choquette’s knowledge of the region, of special value to HBC, had other international value. The Western Union Telegraph Company and subsidiary Collins Overland Company had begun the surveys for a proposed intercontinental telegraph line. Buck believed a fixed point of the line should be the head of navigation on the Stikine—still known as Telegraph Creek.
In 1874, Buck’s old California partner, Joe Juneau, appeared, and Buck outfitted him for the Dease Lake country in British Columbia, which was touted as the next Fraser. Joe had little luck on the new gold play and returned to Buck’s camp. Beside a supply point in a wilderness, Buck’s camp was a gathering point for experienced miners and prospectors. Buck could employ old acquaintances as Joe Juneau, Richard Harris, and Dick Willoughby while the men were between grubstakes. When German-trained mining engineer George Pilz wished to assemble a team of experienced miners and prospectors to prospect Southeast Alaska, beginning at Sitka, he needed to look no farther than Buck Choquette’s base at Wrangell.15
Buck’s relations with the HBC gradually cooled. A series of misunderstandings—triggered by placing rather inexperienced HBC managers over the highly experienced but independent Choquette caused eventual rupture of the collaboration. Nevertheless official HBC records state:
“From 1878 until 1894, Choquette continued, although intermittently, to trade for furs with the Hudson’s Bay Company and to obtain goods from the Company to trade on his own behalf . . . “
In the meantime, Buck’s children had received formal Catholic schooling and had gained practical knowledge around the trading posts. In the fall of 1886, while on a trip to eastern Canada, Buck’s wife Georgiana died. As much as possible her place was taken by her sister Agnes, another daughter of Chief Shakes whom Choquette later married. Buck took advantage of another southeast coast industry, the salmon fishery. To preserve the catch, he set up a saltery on north Prince of Wales Island and later a second one on aptly named Big Saltery Island.
In the fall of 1896, old Choquette friends from the Dease Lake country, George Carmack and Skookum Jim, reportedly hit the richest find yet—the Klondike. Buck had correctly resisted several supposed Bonanzas. This time, he knew that the discovery was real and that he had to make one last stampede. At seventy years old Buck was hooked, but he also had learned a great deal about gold stampedes: Miners themselves rarely profited to the extent that those who mined the miners did. Buck had enviable contacts and a built-in company—sons and daughters who knew every aspect of trapping, mining, freighting and storekeeping. Buck and daughters would operate a story in Dawson, Buck Jr. and Henry would handle heavy freight.
Bucks boys made a trip outside for supplies. Lining the steamer through an especially dangerous Five Finger Rapids, Henry’s leg was crushed. He died before the boat reached Dawson. To Buck, who had been operating the store almost by himself, it was a crushing blow for an already aging and weakened Buck. Aggie, who had returned to Wrangell, rushed to Dawson where she put Buck into the make-shift hospital. Old friends, like Joe Juneau, and new friends, Jack London and Rex Beach, visited the man who was a living, north-country legend.15
Buck (third from left) and laborers building the Choquette store
in Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, circa 1897.
Credit: Patricia Neal, Fort Wrangel, Alaska: Gateway to the Stikine River, 1834-1899,
Greenwich, CT., Coachlamp Productions, 2007
Buck did not recover. He died in the spring of 1898. Descendant and Choquette biographer Clark wrote:
“The legion of pioneer prospectors all up and down the Pacific Coast who mourned his death knew that the frontier, whether mining camp, trading post or tent in the wilderness had lost one of their own.”17
By Charles C. Hawley January 22, 2013
Edited by Patricia Roppel, January 16th, 2013
Charles C. Hawley extensively abstracted from Buck Choquette: Stampeder by Henry W. Clark, Juneau, Alaska, 1960 (Also Rasmuson library Fairbanks.
*The spelling of Alexandre used here is the French-Canadian one used by historian Henry W. Clark who was married to Georgiana the younger, herself the daughter of Buck and Georgiana the elder.
Bancroft, H.H. The History of Alaska, in The Works of Hubert Howe Bancraft. Vol. XXXIII. San Francisco. A. L. Bancroft and Company. 1886.
J. D. Borthwick, Three-years in California. Bio Books, Oakland CA. 1948. Reprint, Wm. Blackford and Sons, Edinburgh. 1857.
Brooks, A. H., Blazing Alaska’s Trails (2nd Ed). Fairbanks. University of Alaska Press. 1953.
Juneau Pioneers of Alaska. Alaska Gold Rush Pioneers of Juneau-Douglas Area, 1880-1921. Juneau. Juneau Pioneers of Alaska. 1998.
W. P. Morrell, The Gold Rushes. 2nd Ed. Dufour. Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. 1968.
Patricia A. Neal, Stikine River Journal: Stories of Wrangell and the Stikine River. 2012.
Buck Choquette. Pencil sketch after Choquette photograph, from cover, Buck Choquette, Stampeder. Jenny P. Hawley, 2013.
Buck and laborers building Choquette store, Dawson YT, 1897, one year before Buck’s death.
Patricia A. Neal, Fort Wrangel, Alaska: Gateway to the Stikine River, 1834-1899. Greenwich, CT: Coachlamp Productions. 2007.
1 On credit to Choquette for first gold discovery in Alaska panhandle: Brooks, Blazing Alaska’s Trails, 298-299. On Anglo-Russian treaty, Bancroft, Alaska. 530, 542-543; fn 21 and 22.
2 Buck’s early life as visualized by Clark, Stampeder, 8-13.
3 On California Gold Rush: Mainly after Morrell, The Gold Rushes, 74-118; also in general after Borthwick, Three Years in California. Especially Chapters 4 to 21.
4 Clark quote 15, on “Buck,” 14.
5 On beginning of racial-ethnic problems in “diggings,”: Clark, ibid, 29
6 On meeting of Juneau and Choquette: Clark, ibid, 19, quote 21.
7 Juneau and Choquette split, Choquette new partner Tremaine; Northern California, Oregon. Clark, ibid, 23-24.
8 Fraser rush, reappearance of tough Ned McGowan Clark, ibid, 34-35
9 Importance of Chinook jargon: ibid, 34-36 Chief Shakes and daughter Georginia—marriage to Buck: ibid,57-59 10 On illness of Georgiana and delay of discovery news: Neal, Stikine, 66-67.
11 On news of Stikine discovery to Victoria: Clark, ibid, 1-3: on discovery itself, Stikine, 75-76.
12 On stampede to Stikine: discovery, see 1, also Bucks arrival in Victoria, ibid, 67.
13 On whiskey related Indian problems and quotes in letters from Buck to British Colonists: Clark, Choquette, 87-88.
14 On contract between HBC and Choquette, quote: Clark, Choquette, 101-102.
15 Joe Juneau and Dease Lake Rush; Choquette’s Wrangell camp as headquarters for prospectors, ibid, Clark. 118-119, 125.
16 On Buck’s plan for Klondike with his children as partners; fatal accident to Henry Choquette: ibid, 145-150.
17 Clark quotes re death of Choquette: ibid,151-152.