Leroy Napoleon (Jack) McQuesten

(1835 - 1897)

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photo of Jack McQuesten

Leroy Napoleon (Jack) McQuesten (undated)
Photo from Yukon Archives

Leroy Napoleon (Jack) McQuesten was born in Litchfield, New Hampshire and labored on a farm during his early years. At the tender age of 13, he spirited off to the 1849 California Gold rush with family, who had previously uprooted from New Hampshire to Illinois. Jack McQuesten was a big, stout man who stood well over six feet tall and weighed, even in his youth, more than 200 pounds. By 1858, he had entered British Columbia (Canada), and by 1863, during the American Civil War, McQuesten was mining on the Fraser River. In 1871, he was one of the vigorous, young Americans who were prospecting in more remote locations in northern Canada. In addition to McQuesten, the group included James McKnipp, Alfred H. Mayo, Arthur Harper, Frederick Hart, and Andrus Kansellar. In 1872, Harper, McQuesten, and Mayo, along with Hart, were trading and prospecting in the Omineca region of western Canada. McQuesten had already worked as a prospector, a trapper, a trader at Fort Gary, Manitoba, and as a Hudson's Bay Trading Company voyageur. McQuesten and companions traveled to remote Yukon Territory in the summer of 1873, and by September of that year, had arrived at a former Hudson's Bay Trading Company post on the Yukon River in present day Alaska.

In 1847, The Hudson's Bay Trading Company (Hudson's Bay) had established the trading post 'Fort Yukon' in Russian America territory at the confluence of the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers without significant protest from Russian officials-partly because it was unclear whether or not the post was in Canada or Russian America. But once the United States acquired ownership of Alaska through the 1867 purchase from the Russian Tsar Alexander II, Hudson's Bay was forced by U.S. authorities to leave in 1869, when an American flag was raised. The Alaska Commercial Company assumed ownership of Hudson's Bay expropriated property, which also became the pattern of ownership of trading posts all over the formerly Russian held territory of Alaska. Early traders, including McQuesten, Harper, and Mayo, saw an opportunity to fill the vacuum left by Hudson's Bay departure. These dominantly U.S. citizens would begin to dominate the vast Yukon River basin on both sides of the International Boundary.

In 1874, after journeying downriver with Arthur Harper and Alfred Mayo to St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon River, McQuesten traveled back up the Yukon River to establish a trading post that he named Fort Reliance on the east bank of the Yukon, just 13 km (7 miles) downstream of the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. Fort Reliance remained the center of the fur trade and mining activities in the upper Yukon River for more than a decade, finally yielding that position to a new post established in 1886 near Stewart River further upstream. Logs from Fort Reliance were subsequently shipped upriver to the new Stewart River post, while others were burned by river steamers, so little remained of Fort Reliance after 1886. A new trading post at the Stewart River was established by one of McQuesten's partners, Al Mayo. That the old Fort Reliance was so close to what became the great Klondike gold district has intrigued historians since. Fort Reliance served as a topographic compass for the region, which still exists today. For example, the mouth of the Fortymile River and settlement is 40 miles downstream from Fort Reliance. The mouth of the Sixtymile River is 60 miles upstream from Fort Reliance.

Arthur Harper and Al Mayo had joined with Jack McQuesten in the establishment of Fort Reliance in 1875. McQuesten operated the post but did ask Harper and Mayo for help from time to time. When McQuesten was away securing supplies out of St. Michael during 1882, Harper and Mayo took over the management of the post. It was during this time period when an unfortunate incident took place at Fort Reliance. Harper and Mayo were having trouble with a local group of Klondike area Natives, who had become agitated with the rapidly expanding presence of traders and prospectors caused by the 1880-1881 opening of the Chilkoot Pass by Alaskan coastal Indians. Harper and Mayo decided to temporarily leave the post until attitudes and relations improved. The traders concealed, as best as they could, all of the valuable supplies, which included an arsenic-grease mixture used to kill mice and other vermin. The Natives, not being able to trade for supplies, looted the post. They found the arsenic vermin poison and mixed it with flour as a food supplement. Two elderly woman were poisoned and died and a young girl was permanently blinded.

When McQuesten returned from St. Michael, he knew, as the main owner/operator of Fort Reliance, that he faced a crisis and needed to repair relations with the Upper Yukon River native community as soon as possible. He did not blame Harper of Mayo for any malfeasance, both of whom felt very bad about the situation. After a sensitive pow-wow, complete with sincere apologies, McQuesten billed the Natives for the stolen goods, but asked nothing for the damage to the facility. The Indians agreed to pay for the goods. The Indians did not blame the traders for the fatalities of the two elderly women, but asked for compensation for the blinding of the child. According to the Dominion of Canada land surveyor, William Olgilvie,

"...ten skins, the current terms of the country (about six dollars) was demanded for compensation of the injuries to the child. This amount was cheerfully paid (by McQuesten) and some presents given besides and the prompt payment and kindliness re-established the best of feelings."

After Fort Reliance was established, McQuesten went back to Fort Yukon in 1875, and then, accompanied by his partners Harper and Mayo, moved further downriver to Tanana, near the village of Nuklukayet. In 1878, McQuesten met and married Satejdenalno, a.k.a. Katherine or Kate, a Koyukon woman from Kokrines, a village situated about 80 miles west of Tanana.

In 1893, McQuesten grubstaked Russian-Koyukoners Sergei Cherosky and Pitka Pavaloff, a.k.a. Sorresco and Pitka in other historical accounts, who made the rich discovery of placer gold at Birch Creek, in what became the Circle mining district. In early 1894, McQuesten offered to outfit as many of those in the Fortymile district that wanted to try the new central Alaska district, and some 80 argonauts accepted his offer. By mid-1894, commercial pay was found on Mastodon, Miller, and Independence Creeks, which would become the core of the future producing district. Circle City was founded in 1894, and by 1895, was booming and known to be the largest log cabin community in the North Country. Jack and his able wife Kate established the Alaska Commercial Company in Circle. Circle also became a staging area for prospectors to work in the Yukon-Tanana region, even after the Klondike gold rush of 1896, i.e., Felix Pedro based out of the Circle area prior to his 1902 discovery of the Fairbanks district.

Jack's wife, Katherine James McQuesten, was educated at Russian Mission on the lower Yukon River in a Russian Orthodox setting. She was fluent in Russian, Koyukon, and English, and served as an important multi-lingual interpreter for her husband Jack and other Yukon traders such as Al Mayo and Arthur Harper throughout her life. Respectful of her upbringing, she gave birth to eight of her eleven children in a tent outside their western style houses, according to Koyukon (Athabascan) tradition. Because of a desire to provide quality educational opportunities like she had had, most of her children were sent outside Alaska to attend school, all in California. Kate McQuesten was a community leader and served as a unique intermediary between the native and white cultures within the trading posts in which she lived, i.e., Fort reliance, Circle City, Tanana, and Rampart, where both she and Jack lived for many years.

Photo Kate McQuesten with four of her children.

Katherine McQuesten with part of her large family. All of the children depicted would graduate from Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.
Photo from the Yukon Archives

In 1897, Jack, then 60 years of age, fearing food shortages and an economic crash in Circle City caused by the Klondike gold rush, decided to move his family outside. McQuesten did, however, manage to purchase mining claims on Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks in the Klondike district as late as 1898, and was able to profit from those investments. Jack, Kate, and family embraced a new life in a large Victorian mansion in the bustling town of Berkeley, California. After Jack McQuesten's death in 1909, Kate successful managed the McQuesten California estate until her own death in 1921 at the age of 61.

Leroy Napoleon (Jack) McQuesten was frequently and aptly referred to as the "Father of the Yukon". He died in 1909 at the age of 72, while tending to 'ambassador duties' for the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in Seattle. Throughout his life, he established important trading posts and grubstaked many successful prospectors throughout the Yukon River basin. Jack was also, by far, the most successful financially of the big three Yukon River traders, and was a multi-millionaire by 1898. The right limit of the Stewart River above the Yukon River bears his name-the McQuesten River. The more obscure McQuesten Creek, which heads into the Ray Mountains 28 miles northeast of Tanana, also is named after Jack McQuesten. Regarded by nearly everyone as an honest man, Jack was among the founding members of Yukon Order of Pioneers.

Photo of Jack McQuesten with the Yukon Order of Pioneers.

The original Yukon Order of Pioneers. Jack McQuesten is seated in the center of the front row; circa 1895
Photo from the Yukon Archives

Additional mention has to be made of McQuesten's remarkable wife, Kate. It is difficult to determine just how, exactly, this very successful man would have managed to become the premier Yukon River trader without her at his side. The long-held bush legend is that McQuesten never sent out a bill and was seldom shortchanged for his generosity. According to some, Kate was always looking after his business collections and made sure that he was always paid.

Written 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 of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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