Jack Marshall's Accumulated Fragments: Don't forget about Richard T. Harris

Courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections R

There have been many stories — even plays — telling of the founding of the city of Juneau and the gold mines associated with the area.


The three people who actually discovered gold and began development of Juneau were Joseph (Joe) Juneau, Richard Tighe Harris and Chief Kowee, a Tlingit of the Auk Village.

Much has been written about Joe Juneau but I want to focus on Harris.

Harris was born in or near Drummadonald, County Down, Ireland, on Oct. 31, 1837, to John and Mary Anderson Harris. He was the youngest child of the second marriage of John Harris, and at least three of his siblings came to the United States in the great Irish immigration of the 1840s and 50s.

Harris was in America by 1855 and was naturalized by 1858. Some of the Harris and Anderson families were already in the United States, making the transition easier for him than for some immigrants.

Sometime between 1855 and 1859 Harris went to Girard College in Philadelphia, Penn.

By 1859 Richard was on his way to the frontier, drifting through Colorado and Montana where he was involved in both placer and lode mining.

In 1877 Harris found himself in the Cassiar district of British Columbia, mining for gold. By 1879, the more easily worked placers were pretty well played out and Richard was looking toward Sitka and the gold discoveries at Silver Bay.

George E. Pilz, a mining engineer, was hired by Alaska Gold and Silver Mining Company to manage several of the gold claims in Sitka. The Sitka mining district was organized on May 10, 1879 by Pilz and a number of miners who had left the Cassiar and were looking for new prospects.

Most of the miners from the Cassiar were placer miners and were not useful as lode miners. Two Cassiar miners, Joe Juneau and Harris, had lode mining experience and were hired to work in the mines. However, it turned out the mineral content of the gold was not particularly rich. It wasn’t long before even the lode mining mills were shut down, leaving about 82 miners out of work, including Harris.

In the summer of 1880 George Pilz came up with an idea to get help from the Native Alaskans to locate gold prospects in Southeast Alaska. The Sitka Natives who already worked for him in the Sitka mines volunteered to show Natives from other areas in Southeast what to look for.

Pilz made a standing offer of a bonus of Hudson Bay blankets and work for the tribe at one dollar per day for any Alaska native who brought in any ore samples he deemed valuable from a place where he could put men to work.

It wasn’t long before Pilz had all kinds of ore samples to consider.

Pilz is quoted as saying, “Nearly every tribe brought me some — the Chilkats, the Hoonup from Chichagoff and Cross Sound and Icy Straits, the Hoochinoos from Admiralty Island, the Auks from Auke River, the Takoos from Takou and Windham Bay, Schucks from Sumdum, and different others. About this time old Koweeh, the head chief of the Auks, a tribe on the Gastineau Channel, brought me some rich samples of the Basin ores.”

Pilz sent his men out in pairs, with Alaska Natives, to the area they were to examine.

“I paid all my men thus sent out, the sum of four dollars per day and I furnished a complete outfit of choice goods and supplies. I had each of them sign a contract with me to locate any fair looking prospects and if they made three locations on a vein, I took the pick of two and gave them the third location. The Indians I paid one dollar a day with ration of three hard tacks and one cup of seal oil.” Pilz is purported to have said.

On July 19, 1880, two days after signing the agreement with Pilz, Harris and Juneau left in a Columbia River model fishing boat owned by Pilz, with three Alaska Natives to man their boat.

Pilz was said to have been concerned about Joe Juneau. He was concerned that Juneau was always getting distracted by some new woman, and between alcohol and women, he never had a cent to his name.

Initially they traveled through Peril Strait and on July 23 tried to cross Chatham Strait to Hootznahoo, the village now known as Angoon, but were turned back by heavy weather. The following day, according to Harris’ account, they had “run south 25 miles down to the NE side of Baranof Island and crossed Chatham Straits to an Indian village named Elltooskin.”

They then went on around point Gardner and up Fredrick Sound until they reached a point on the mainland above Cape Fanshaw. By Aug. 11 they had reached the mouth of the Taku River. Moving from Stevens Channel cutting between Admiralty Island and Douglas Island, they traveled up to Eagle River and Glacier. Then, turning back, they stopped at Salmon Creek on Aug. 16.

Richard Harris wrote the following: “Aug. 17—Run down the channel about 2 miles and discovered another creek running from the mainland and emptying into Gastineau Channel. We went up the creek about a mile and a half and found in the bed of the creek above what we now call Snow Slide Gulch, about ten cents to the pan of gravel. We named the creek Gold Creek and it was the best prospect we had found on the trip. We carried out about 100 pounds of the quartz and panned out about a dollar and a half in gold. Juneau and myself, being satisfied there must be good gold deposits on the headwaters of the creek, concluded to return to Sitka, as our provisions were running low, and get another outfit and return to prospect the headwaters of the creek, and also to report to George E. Pilz.”

Later when asked why he didn’t prospect clear to the headwaters of Gold Creek before returning to Sitka, Harris said, “The underbrush and devil clubs were so thick it was impossible to follow the creek.”

Both excuses seemed a bit weak considering they left for Sitka on Aug. 23. It seems strange they would be discouraged from finding outwhere the float quartz came by underbrush, but stranger still was the statement from Harris that “our provisions were running low.”

So, what happened to five full unaccounted days?

Find out next week when the column continues.


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