Felice Pedroni (Felix Pedro)
(1858 - 1910)
Felice Pedroni, alias Felix Pedro, circa 1908
Photo from Wikipedia commons
Felice Pedroni, best known by his Hispanicized alias, Felix Pedro, was an Italian immigrant whose discovery of gold in the then remote Tanana River valley of Interior Alaska, sparked the 1902 Fairbanks gold rush, which resulted in the development of Alaska's largest gold district, frequently referred to by chroniclers of the day as "America's Klondike".
Pedroni was born on April 16th, 1858, in Fanano, Duchy of Modena, Italy, to a family of subsistence farmers. In 1881, following the death of his father, Pedroni arrived in New York City, and eventually assumed the name of Felix Pedro. Pedro traveled across the North American Continent, and worked in New York City, Ohio, Washington State, and British Columbia and Yukon Territory, Canada. In each locale, Felix would work until he had earned enough money to travel again. Pedro finally reached Alaska sometime in the 1890s, before the 1893 Circle (Alaska) and 1896 Klondike (Canada) gold rushes. The Circle-based Pedro first prospected the Fortymile district near the Canadian border, and then the Piledriver Slough area near present day community of Salcha. One of the best accounts of Pedro's pre-discovery exploration efforts is based on interviews conducted by Alaska Mining Hall of Famer Genevieve Alice Parker with Thomas Gilmore and other early Fairbanks pioneers as part of her 1929 Bachelor of Science in Geology and Mining Thesis at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. Parker's narrative is a classic summary of how prospectors operated during the Alaska-Yukon gold rush era. In the following summary, contemporary names of rivers, streams and topographic features are used for descriptive convenience, many were unnamed during Pedro's prospecting trips.
During the summer of 1898, Felix Pedro accompanied a young engineer on a trip out of the Fortymile region and down the Tanana (River). A clear water tributary to the Tanana River was explored and on a branch of this tributary, Pedro panned the bars for placer gold while the engineer examined a wide quartz vein showing in the wall of the valley. Here, Pedro found placer prospects 'which appeared to him to be very good'. He wished to remain on the creek and prospect, but with the approach of winter, the two were forced to make their way over the mountains and back into the Fortymile region. Without the aid of a topographic map, landmarks such as the appearance of the junction of streams, the presence of an Indian village and prominent topographic features were all fixed in Pedro's mind to be used as aids to assist him in finding the rich, gold-bearing creek at some later date.
During 1899 and 1900, Pedro made attempts to locate the rich, gold-bearing creek discovered in 1898, but was not successful. In 1901, a well known prospector, Tom Gilmore, joined Pedro on a prospecting trip to again search for the elusive 'Eureka' discovery. During late June, 1901, Pedro and Gilmore started from their Eagle Creek base in the Circle district. The partners started out in a southwesterly direction which they intended to follow as far as the Tanana River. A few days out, the compass by which they set their course was lost and they decided to follow the ridge line between the Chena and Chatanika Rivers. In about four days, they reached Fish Creek, where they began prospecting. Some colors were found in the stream gravels. The first gold to be taken from creek placers of the Fairbanks district by a European immigrant was panned by Pedro from a bar situated about one mile from the mouth of Fish Creek. The partners did not consider the find a very good indication of commercial placer gold deposits on the creek. Yet the mere fact that gold had been found served to encourage them.
Leaving Fish Creek, they crossed over the divide (Pedro climbed to the top of 'Pedro Dome'), and continued downstream along Fox Gulch to a point about one mile below the site of what became Fox settlement. Here, a promising showing of gold was found by panning the river bars. This widespread occurrence of 'colors' over the area served to indicate to them something of the vast extent of the mineralized area through which they were passing. At Fox Gulch, Pedro and Gilmore were joined by several more prospectors based in Circle. Swinging off Goldstream Creek, the party climbed to the top of Ester Dome with the idea that from that point, they could survey the country and make plans for further progress.
On August 26th, 1901, while they were on the summit of Ester Dome, the prospectors sighted a boat slowly coming up Chena Slough. With the aid of field glasses, the name of the boat's pilot house-Lavelle Young-was readable. This boat was recognized as being a 'trading boat'. The prospectors needed provisions badly, and here was the opportunity of obtaining some. After about three days of threading their horse pack train through swamps, heavy timber, and silt-cut streams, the prospecting party reached a point on Noyes Slough, about two miles from where the Lavelle Young was tied. From this point Pedro and another man of the party went forward on foot to meet the boat. They had provisions landed on the north side of the Slough. It should be noted that Pedro and companions had traversed across the upper reaches of Ester Creek, where some of the richest and shallowest pay in the Fairbanks district would later be found, but the group did not stop to prospect the area.
Trader and sometimes prospector E. T. Barnette had started from St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon River in the steamer Lavelle Young to start a trading post at 'Bates Rapids' at the junction of the Tanana and Delta Rivers. Unable to reach his destination, he returned to the mouth of Chena Slough and followed up the slough until the 150 foot long Lavelle Young ran aground at the present site of Fairbanks. In accordance with the agreement with Captain Charles Adams, Barnette, his wife Isabelle, five hired hands, and 130 tons of supplies were unloaded on the riverbank. The new trading post would first be name 'Chenoa City', later changed to 'Barnette's Cache'.
From Noyes Slough, Pedro and his party advanced approximately 70 miles to the southeast. Late August found them on a creek that Pedro believed was his 'lost creek'. It was named '98 Creek' in memory of his supposed discovery three years before. With the onset of winter, Pedro, accompanied by three of the other prospectors, headed back to the Circle district to get a more substantial outfit. Pedro and his three companions experienced many difficulties in their trip back to the Circle district. Winter was coming in and fall rains had swollen the rivers, making their crossings difficult and dangerous. All but one of their pack horses died and a dog packing their remaining food strayed off and lost his pack. Tired and hungry, the prospectors nearly succumbed to the elements, but finally reached their Eagle Creek base, having nothing but 'dough-gobs' to eat for the last three days of travel.
News of Pedro's discovery spread, and prospectors from the Circle district descended on '98 Creek'. Excavations through frozen muck commenced in earnest during the winter of 1901-1902. Colors were found from the top to the bottom of holes sunken into frozen gavels, but the final results were far from encouraging. The prospectors were discouraged with the new 'Tanana Region' that Pedro had introduced them to. Gilmore and Pedro were anxious that the Circle-based Argonauts accompany them back to the gold-bearing creeks near Barnette's Cache 70 miles to the northwest. But they were distrustful of Pedro and Gilmore because of the failure to find paying quantities of gold on '98 Creek', and refused to accompany them on a 'wild man's chase', and thus returned to Circle.
In the spring of 1902, Pedro and Gilmore returned to Barnette's Cache, and spent nearly all of their remaining dollars in replenishing their outfit. Before Pedro and Gilmore left a prospecting camp at Fish Creek, an Indian child from a nearby village became seriously injured when a sharpened willow chute pierced his thigh. Pedro, competent in field medical procedures, acted as 'medicine man' and successfully administered first aid to the child. With a solid friendship established, the Indians from the nearby village became in the prospectors' confidence, and told Pedro and Gilmore to "go up to the next creek, where plenty of gold would be found". Although Fairbanks Creek looked better to them, Pedro and Gilmore took their advice and prospected what later would be known as Bear Creek. Although some gold was found there, the end of spring was upon both prospectors with not enough to show for themselves. They had just enough money to fund one prospector during the summer-not two. A decision was made and Gilmore returned to Circle. Pedro stayed on to prospect the Tanana region north of Barnette's Cache for the remainder of the season.
On or about July 22nd, 1902, while prospecting 'Pedro Creek' near the Junction of Gilmore and Goldstream Creeks, Pedro sunk a shaft 14 feet in depth to bedrock and panned the bedrock surface. Paying quantities of gold were found just 12 miles northeast of Barnette's Cache, prompting Felix Pedro to exhort a famous saying: "There's gold in them there hills". Instead of claiming everything for himself, Pedro summoned back his partner Tom Gilmore and other colleagues from the Circle district to the discovery area north of Barnette's Cache, and all staked their claims in the new mining district. The news of Pedro's discovery quickly spread. Business was booming in the Tanana region, but after the trader E.T. Barnette sent letters to Dawson City in Yukon, Canada, a stampede involving 1,000 prospectors entered the area. Although some uncertainty about the value of Pedro's discovery persisted for a period of time, partly due to the extreme depth of the gold placers, it became evident that a major new mining district had been discovered. On September 8th, 1902, at the request of Judge James Wickersham, the camp (district) and later town was named Fairbanks, after U.S. Senator Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana, who would become Theodore Roosevelt's Vice President. Mining camps at Cleary, Olnes, Chatanika, Fox, and Ester sprung up around the gold-bearing streams. By 1908, Fairbanks was the largest city in the Alaska Territory.
Felix Pedro died on July 22nd, 1910, exactly eight years to the day after he made his Pedro Creek discovery, at age 52, in St. Joseph's Hospital, Fairbanks, Alaska. Initially, the case of death was listed as a heart attack. However, this was disputed by his business associate, Vincenzo Gambiani, who denied that Pedro was suffering from any heart problems. Pedro's body was embalmed and shipped to San Francisco and buried in nearby Coloma. On October 12, 1972, Felix Pedro's body was found, exhumed, and moved by Cortelloni Amato to Italy, where an autopsy was performed. Analysis of hair samples reportedly supported the conclusion that Felice Pedroni, a.k.a. Felix Pedro, was murdered. His remains were buried again in a small cemetery in Fanano.
Although there will always be a controversy about how he died, Felix Pedro earned his fame in as a distinguished Alaska mining pioneer. During life, he was honest and well-liked, and shared his knowledge of discovery with many others.
In 1947, the Felix Pedro Monument was erected at mile 16.1 of the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, near Pedro Creek. Since that time, the annual Fairbanks Golden Days celebration begins with a rededication of the Felix Pedro Monument. The Alaskaland Park in mid-town Fairbanks, originally opened in 1967 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase from the Russian Empire, was renamed Pioneer Park on July 22nd, 2002, at the 100th anniversary of Pedro's gold discovery. On that date, Fairbanks, Alaska and Fanano, Italy became sister cities.
By Thomas K. Bundtzen, 1998; revised 2009
Bundtzen, T.K., 1996, Mining history in the Fairbanks district with emphasis on activities of USSR&M Company, in, Bundtzen, T.K., editor, Abstracts of 15th Biennial Conference on Alaskan Mining: Alaska Miners Association Publication, p. 44-49.
Cole, Dermot, 2002, Exact date of Felix Pedro's discovery remains a mystery: Fairbanks daley news miner July 22, 2002.
Lindberg, Murray, 2007, Felix meets E.T.: the Founding of Fairbanks: Explore north, p. 11-16.
Parker, Genevieve A., 1929, The Evolution of Placer Mining Methods in Alaska: thesis submitted for the degree of Bachelor of Science in Geology and mining, Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, 62 pages.
Staff, 1906, Fascinating Tale: Pedro's Story of the Strike and How Klondikers Won Out: Dawson Dailey News, October 16th, 1906
Staff, 2009, Felix Pedro: Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, 2 pages.
Webb, Melanie, 1993, Yukon-The Last Frontier: University of British Columbia Press, 201 pages