Joseph Juneau

(1833 - 1899)

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Photo of Joe Juneau.

Joseph Juneau, date unknown.
Photo from Alaska's Digital Archives.

Joseph Juneau, born May 28, 1833 in Repentigny, Quebec, Canada, was the second and most adventurous son of Francois and Marguerite Juneau. From his boyhood on, he heard of his illustrious cousin, Laurent-Salomon Juneau, who had followed the fur trade before settling down to found the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By the time Joe was sixteen, he was on the western path, traveling first to California, during the gold rush of 1849. His trail is difficult to follow, but in the next twenty-five years Juneau was in Oregon and the Fraser River, sometimes with his countryman Buck Choquette. In the mid 1870s, Juneau joined the gold rush to the Cassiar, near Deese Lake in British Columbia, Canada. The district was best reached up the Stikine River from Wrangell, Alaska.

An event in 1879 changed Juneau's life. A German immigrant mining engineer, George Pilz, needed experienced miners and prospectors to work at a mine in Silver Bay south of Sitka, Alaska, and to follow up on rich specimens of gold-ore brought to Pilz by Indian prospectors and scouts.

Juneau and another experienced miner, Richard Harris, pursed Pilz's best prospects. In mid-summer 1880, the two men followed what became Gold Creek, on the largely uncharted mainland of Alaska east of Baranof Island, as far as Snowslide Gulch, where they obtained marginal but commercially passable pan samples: about 10 cents worth of gold per pan. Before tackling the rest of Gold Creek, the men returned to Sitka. Juneau was back on the creek in early October, and this time he and his partner proceeded up Snowslide Gulch and dropped into a basin cut by hundreds of gold-bearing quartz veins. They followed a creek that they named Quartz Creek into what became the Silver Bow Basin. In thirty years of mining and prospecting, Joe Juneau had never seen its equal in terms of the immense size of the gold-bearing zone.

Juneau, a more easy-come, easy-go prospector than Harris, had sold his interest in the new district by about 1882. But his name remained. Miners decided to name the new city at the base of Gold Creek, formerly called Harrisburgh or Rockwell, after Joe Juneau, who then bought drinks for any and all takers for severals weeks in celebration of the name change.

Before he left his namesake townsite, Juneau conceived a child with a young Tlingit girl known as Susie. Susie was sent to Sitka, where she married a man named Andrews, so that her baby would have a name and would arrive in wedlock. The baby was Mary Andrews Marks, matriarch of many descendants in the Juneau area. Mary lived to the age of 102.

Joe Juneau never had another success comparable to his discovery at Juneau, but he did make one more gold strike - in the Circle district of Alaska in about 1895. Joe also made one last rush to the Klondike in 1897, but the rough years had taken a toll on his once rugged constitution. Juneau died in the Yukon in 1899. A few year later, miners and citizens of his city brought his body back for burial in Juneau, a belated honor, but well deserved.

By David B. Stone and Charles C. Hawley, 1999

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