The Stikine Gold Rush was a minor but important gold rush in the Stikine Country of northwestern British Columbia, Canada. The rush’s discoverer was Alexander “Buck” Choquette, who staked a claim at Choquette Bar in 1861, just downstream from the confluence of the Stikine and Anuk Rivers. Choquette traveled up the Stikine River, whose mouth is near Wrangell, and found gold at a location near Telegraph Creek, about 150 km (93 mi) up that river, at a place marked on the map today as Buck Bar.
Once news of the find reached the various other goldfields in British Columbia, the lower Stikine in the area of Choquette’s find was inundated with prospectors.
Eight hundred miners left Victoria bound for the goldfields but many did not proceed beyond the mouth of the Stikine. Those who reached the goldfield, which was 150 miles up the river, were not more than five hundred.
Alexandre, nicknamed Buck, Choquette was born in Quebec in 1829. He made the California Gold Rush in 1849, the Fraser Rush in 1858, grubstaked his old partner Joe Juneau in the Cassiar in 1874, and died in Dawson City, Yukon Territory in 1898 of pneumonia while following the Klondike Stampede.
Alexandre Choquette was born into a Bourgeoisie devoutly Roman Catholic family in a Seignory (Township) in Quebec. One morning he packed a larger than usual lunch and took off in the direction of the school house, which he bypassed. By nightfall he was fifteen miles from home. He kept going until he reached a larger market town where he found employment as a delivery boy and lodging with a farm family whom he supplied with firewood. Over the next year or so Aleck kept moving westward, working in towns, lodging with farm families, and at last reaching a temporary destination, Montreal where he found temporary employment with an apothecary, an inside job that did not satisfy him very long.
After leaving Montreal, Choquette went as far west as Fort Garry (Winnipeg) where he considered signing on with the Hudson’s Bay Company and adopting the life of a voyager in the fur trade. Events transpiring far distant had more appeal. In January 1848, J. W. Marshall was erecting a sawmill for the prosperous Swiss emigrant J. A. Sutter on the American River, a tributary to the Sacramento in central California. Marshall noted grains of a soft yellow substance that he thought could be gold in the mill’s tailrace. His laborers found more on the 27th of January. Marshall informed his employer of the discovery. Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery secret, but to no avail. All the nearby streams were gold-bearing. By August, California civil governor Mason announced that more than 4,000 men, more than half Indians, were mining. That number increased to 10,000 miners by year’s end. The stage was set for a major stampede in the spring months. One of the would-be stampeders was Choquette, who turned southerly toward a temporary Independence, Missouri, destination. Independence and nearby St. Joseph, had been the jumping-off points for Oregon Trail destinations since about 1836.
On a July day of 1849 after a trip of about 100 days, Choquette stood on the summit of Donner Pass, ready to become a miner. His already mastered range of frontier skills was soon augmented with those of the prospector, the gold pan and rocker.
The earliest arrivals to the placer gold fields found rich pickings, but also a great deal of hard work building ditches and flumes, and just digging. But with every successful and hard-earned strike, there was a following crew ready to jump the pioneers and their legitimate claims. Unlike the first year or two in California, where every race and ethnic group, including French-Canadians, were accepted for their abilities, the newcomers looked down on all except “Anglo Saxons” of their own definition. Buck began to notice that the Anglo Saxons resented the Chinese laborers who were only wanted for menial and dangerous tasks and were content to live on rice. The newcomers resented the Mexicans and other foreigners almost as much as the Orientals and some of this feeling spread to the French-Canadians.
As tough as he was, Buck needed help to watch his back. One evening around the campfire, Buck heard a familiar dialect. It turned out to be from a man of similar age and heritage whose prairie adventures had been like his. The man was another French-Canadian, Joe Juneau. The men became inseparable friends and working partners, a friendship soon made necessary.
Buck and Joe remained partners, mining mostly in the more rugged less-crowded hill country—perhaps with somewhat less gold, but fewer other problems. In the spring of 1851, Joe signed on with a company near Marysville, and urged Buck to join him. Instead Buck decided to head north into the Feather River country. In 1855, Buck passed through the Shasta country aiming for Oregon. He had a new partner, trapper Alois Tremaine.
Buck bypassed gold-rich Rogue River in southern Oregon and the Willamette River which was attractive but already marked for agriculture. Buck moved again crossing the Canadian border for the gold strike on the Fraser in British Columbia. The word was that the bars on the lower Fraser were rich in fine gold, with the inference that rich gold fields could be found upstream.
Buck and young Tremaine decided to make the new rush, but through the northern route. They joined a party of about thirty men led by David Frost on the Columbia. Because of Indian trouble, the party waited at Walla Walla in Washington Territory for parties coming from California and the East. In the summer of 1858, now augmented to about 150 men and led by David McLaughlin, the party left Walla Walla. David proved an ineffective leader and, at the urging of Buck and a few other experienced men, was soon replaced by his disciplined and forceful brother James.
Even with guards posted every evening, the expedition lost men to Indians in outlying skirmishes. The party holed up near the old Hudson Bay trail along the Thompson River. At the Thompson River site, Buck picked up other skills as he assisted Mike Hannigan, a Crimean War veteran, in his care of the wounded. As the men healed, the party gradually broke up as they approached the broad valley of the Fraser.
Miners in the valley were barely making a day’s pay, but on March 23, 1858, a small party near Fort Yale hit nugget-rich ground so rich that they cleared $2,000,000 before freeze up. Near the mouth of the canyon near Fort Yale, three men took out one-hundred ninety ounces in a week. Buck and other experienced miners left pans and rockers to small operators and switched to long tom sluice operations. Buck and a few men who brought gravel to the sluices with wheel barrows could mine 10-30 yards of pay gravel in a day.
By the end of the season in 1858, there were thousands of men mining in the Fraser Valley. A few became rich. More left much of the product of their hard work with gambling houses and saloons at Fort Yale and other settlements.
Buck finally decided it was time to dispense with civilization and work north along the coast with an ultimate target as the next major river to the north the Stikine. The river was known to the Hudson’s Bay Company as a source of fur. Buck visualized it as the next major gold-bearing stream north of the Fraser.
Choquette, in the company of Tlingits and in a giant war canoe, sailed out of Sidney, B.C. on the east shore of Vancouver Island in May 1861. The voyage north, through hazardous coastal waters, took five weeks. In mid-June they landed at an Indian village near the mouth of the Stikine that before 1849 had also been a Hudson’s Bay post. Buck was welcomed by Chief Shakes, the powerful head of the Tlingits of the Stikine region. Knowledge of the Chinook jargon and an innate tact in dealings with the Indians, especially with Chief Shakes and his comely daughter Georgiana, proved of immense value to Buck. Initial good feelings between Buck and Chief Shakes were cemented by the Tlingit-ritual marriage between Buck and Georgiana. And although Buck had reservations on what a woman could do, Georgiana soon took logistic charge of the prospecting venture up the Stikine: In the dominantly matriarchal Tlingit society Georgiana enlisted Chief Shustack, Sub-Chief Howkan, and Chief Kadashan to help organize the venture.
Initially the venture had limited success. By early fall when they left the spruce coastal forest for the deciduous forest of the interior, Choquette had found trace colors, but nothing of great value. By the time that his Native crew was beginning to get bored with Choquette’s tedious prospecting, Buck’s fortunes changed abruptly: Pans showed abundant fine-colors with interspersed nuggets. On the first day, Choquette took out $5 worth of gold, then, on succeeding days, $11, $12, and $13. The party stayed in the area for about three weeks extending the area of mineralization, but left hurriedly when Georgiana came down with life-threatening pneumonia.
Georgiana’s fever broke on the way downstream but she was a long way from recovery. Rather than the Indian village destination, Buck took Georgiana to Shakes Hot Springs where he set up camp and nursed her back to health. In so doing, Buck missed the HBC’s S/S Labouchere south on her trip to Victoria and in so doing lost the opportunity to describe his discovery first hand. Even garbled news was sufficient to stimulate a gold rush in 1862.
Choquette retained the good will of the Tlingits and he and Georgiana settled down and began a family. Buck, Jr. was born in the winter of 1862-63. (A major loss to the family was of Chief Shakes, who died in mid-summer of 1862. Shakes had been a stabilizing force in the region.)
Choquette’s knowledge of the region, of special value to HBC, had other international value. The Western Union Telegraph Company and subsidiary Collins Overland Company had begun the surveys for a proposed intercontinental telegraph line. Buck believed a fixed point of the line should be the head of navigation on the Stikine—still known as Telegraph Creek.
In 1874, Buck’s old California partner, Joe Juneau, appeared, and Buck outfitted him for the Dease Lake country in British Columbia, which was touted as the next Fraser. Joe had little luck on the new gold play and returned to Buck’s camp. Beside a supply point in a wilderness, Buck’s camp was a gathering point for experienced miners and prospectors. Buck could employ old acquaintances as Joe Juneau, Richard Harris, and Dick Willoughby while the men were between grubstakes. When German-trained mining engineer George Pilz wished to assemble a team of experienced miners and prospectors to prospect Southeast Alaska, beginning at Sitka, he needed to look no farther than Buck Choquette’s base at Wrangell.
In the fall of 1896, old Choquette friends from the Dease Lake country, George Carmack and Skookum Jim, reportedly hit the richest find yet—the Klondike. Buck had correctly resisted several supposed Bonanzas. This time, he knew that the discovery was real and that he had to make one last stampede. At seventy years old Buck was hooked, but he also had learned a great deal about gold stampedes: Miners themselves rarely profited to the extent that those who mined the miners did. Buck had enviable contacts and a built-in company—sons and daughters who knew every aspect of trapping, mining, freighting and storekeeping. Buck and daughters would operate a story in Dawson, Buck Jr. and Henry would handle heavy freight.
Bucks boys made a trip outside for supplies. Lining the steamer through an especially dangerous Five Finger Rapids, Henry’s leg was crushed. He died before the boat reached Dawson. To Buck, who had been operating the store almost by himself, it was a crushing blow for an already aging and weakened Buck. Aggie, who had returned to Wrangell, rushed to Dawson where she put Buck into the make-shift hospital. Old friends, like Joe Juneau, and new friends, Jack London and Rex Beach, visited the man who was a living, north-country legend.
Buck did not recover. He died in the spring of 1898.
Stikine River placer gold is believed to be derived from sources in the Coast Mountains and originated in post-glacial time. Glacial ice moved up the Stikine River as far as Telegraph Creek where it appears to have halted. The richest placer and the coarsest gold is found a few kilometres below on Buck Bar. At this bar bedrock is less than a metre above the river channel and is composed of sand- stone, which dips in a downstream direction. Most of the gold was recovered from the bedrock surface, within the clay and sand. Some gold occurs in bars lower down but it is very fine, flour gold.
The Stikine River formerly flowed along a west side terrace course below Hyland Creek. Buck Bar lies on this course and other parts of the old channel may contain gold.