Arthur Harper

(1835 - 1897)

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photo of Arthur Harper

An American fur trader and boatman on the Yukon River, circa 1883; Arthur Harper is identified as the third standing from the left (with tall hat)
Photo from Old Yukon, page 159

Arthur Harper, born in Antrim County, Ireland in 1835, was the best prospector of a three-person partnership of Yukon River traders including himself, Captain Alfred Mayo, and Jack McQuesten. These three pioneers laid the groundwork for creating successful ties with Native communities, establishing trading posts from which prospectors could obtain provisions, and providing a framework for the general exploration of the Yukon Basin prior to the Alaska-Yukon gold rush. Harper, know as the trailblazer due to his inclination to prospect, is believed to be the first European man to consider investigating the Yukon River basin as a source of minerals. Throughout his career, Harper was badly bitten by the search for gold, and he definitely had a nose for the yellow metal. Harper was also a prolific writer of letters, and sent numerous written correspondences to 'Outside' sources during his quest for the Yukon basin's mineral wealth. As such, many historians believe he was instrumental in informing those 'Outsiders' of the gold potential of the Yukon basin, which culminated with the Klondike Gold Rush that occurred shortly before his death.

When he was 20 years old, Harper immigrated to California where he prospected for gold. While only marginally successful, he gained much practical experience in the trade. During the 1860s, he moved north into the Fraser canyons and Cariboo grasslands of British Columbia, Canada, where he prospected and mined with some success. He left British Columbia (BC) in 1871, the year it became a Canadian province, suggesting to some historians that BC was becoming too civilized for him.

Harper had a rectangular face, piercing eyes, and a no-nonsense demeanor that belied is patience and personality. He was the least diplomatic of the three Yukon traders. When his great beard was trimmed for a formal portrait, it turned snow white and Harper's persona took on the image of 'frontier patriarch'.

In 1872 and 1873, Harper traveled to the head of the Peace River in southern Yukon Territory, then to the Yukon River via the Liard, McKenzie, Ray, and Porcupine Rivers, finally arriving in Fort Yukon of the Alaska Territory in 1874 with Al Mayo and Jack McQuesten. Harper recognized that the Yukon River geology was favorable for the discovery of minerals, especially gold. He promoted its potential to prospectors and acquaintances, including the a well known, north country mining engineer, George Pilz, who later organized prospecting parties into the interior from Lynn Canal in the Juneau, Alaska area, largely based on Harper's advice. In 1873, Harper, in the company of another prospector, Frederick Hart, discovered fine gold in the river bars at the confluence of the White and Yukon Rivers, about 80 miles above and south of present day Dawson. Although the partners had little to show for their discovery, recent exploration in this the area suggests it be an important gold district.

In 1874, thirty-nine-year-old Harper met and married fourteen-year-old Seentahna, a.k.a. Jennie Bosco; at Koyukuk at the confluence of the Koyukuk and Yukon Rivers. Jennie was a first cousin of Margaret Mayo, who married the trader, Alfred Mayo, the same year. Later that year, the Harpers would join Margaret and Al Mayo to jointly establish a trading post at Tanana, near the traditional Athabascan trading site of Nuklukayet.

During much of the 1870s and 1880s, placer gold 'discoveries' in the Yukon basin consisted of fine gold on river bars, known as 'bar gold'. They deposits could be exploited easily with pans and rockers, but were invariably small and short-lived. However, in 1886, Howard Franklin discovered coarse placer gold on bedrock 25 miles from the mouth of the Fortymile River, and later, southwest of Eagle, Alaska. Harper quickly recognized the significance of this find and recommended to his trading partners, McQuesten and Mayo, that they take action. Harper and Mayo established a trading post at the mouth of the Fortymile River later that year. Harper then managed to contact McQuesten, who was in San Francisco at the time, to have additional supplies freighted to the new Fortymile trading post to accommodate the rush that would surely follow.

The Harpers would have eight children before their permanent separation in 1895. Although Jennie strongly objected, seven of the eight would be educated 'Outside', mostly in boarding schools in San Francisco, following the pattern of obtaining outside education for other trader children, i.e. the McQuesten and Mayo families. Jennie Harper did not have the background of being educated in mission schools like Kate McQuesten and her first cousin Margaret Mayo, and preferred a more traditional Athabascan life style of subsistence activities for both herself and her family.

Jennie's last child, Walter, born in 1893, stayed with her and moved to Tanana, and was raised as a more traditional Koyukon. At sixteen, Walter attended St. Marks Mission in Nenana, where his exemplary outdoor skills and pleasant personality attracted the attention of the Missionary-Explorer, Hudson Stuck. In 1912, the 20-year-old Walter accompanied Hudson Stuck on the explorer's greatest expedition, the first successful 1913 ascent of the south and highest peak of Mount McKinley. Arthur Harper's son, Walter, who led the ascent up the mountain, became the first man to step foot on top of North America's tallest point, the south peak of Mount McKinley. Tragically, Walter Harper and his new bride, Frances Wells, died in the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia in Lynn Canal, one of Alaska's greatest and most costly maritime disasters.

Photo of Walter Harper.

Walter Harper, Arthur Harper's son, was the first man to step foot on the summit of Mount McKinley (undated).
Photo from Wikipedia commons.

Arthur Harper would never know about his youngest son's climbing feat or of his tragic death. After separating from Jennie, he moved to Dawson and briefly remarried about the time of the Klondike gold rush. There is no indication that he was able to 'cash in' on the mighty strike.

In early 1897, Arthur Harper became terminally ill with tuberculosis, and after bequeathing his modest estate to his family, left Alaska to live out his remaining days 'Outside'. In recognition of his dedication to the Yukon trading enterprises, the Alaska Commercial Company paid for his passage to the west coast. He was the only one of the three Yukon River traders that got 'gold fever', yet ironically, he never benefited much from finding or mining gold. He did point numerous prospectors and miners in the right direction and provided sometimes unlimited credit to successful prospecting expeditions. Arthur Harper died in Yuma, Arizona on November 11th, 1897 at the age of 62, only four months after he departed Alaska.

In 1888, William Olgilvie applied the name Mount Harper, after Arthur Harper, to a high peak in the Olgilvie Mountains. Likewise, Mount Harper, a 6,515 foot high peak in the Yukon-Tanana Uplands 70 miles northwest of Tok Junction, Alaska, bears his name. Harper Bend 18 miles southeast of Tanana is named for Arthur Harper, who built a cabin there in 1875. Many descendants of Arthur and Jennie Harper continue to benefit Alaska to this day.

By Thomas K. Bundtzen and Charles C. Hawley, 1998; revised 2009


Gaffin, Jane, 2004, The Trading Trio of Arthur Harper, Al Mayo, and Jack McQuesten: Online website article. 23 pages.

Goodrich, H.B., 1897, History and conditions of the Yukon Gold district to 1897, in, Spurr, J.E., 1897, Gelogy of the Yukon Gold district, Alaska: 18th Annual Report, U.S. Geological Survey.

Murphy, Claire Rudolf, and Haigh, Jane G., 1997, Gold Rush Women: Alaska Northwest Books, 126 pages.

Orth, D.J., 1967, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 567, 1084 pages.

Webb, Melody, 1985, Yukon, the Last Frontier: University of Nebraska Press.

Wickersham, James, 1938, Old Yukon: Washington Law Book Company, Washington D.C.

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