Tomorrow, Dec. 14, 2013 is Juneau’s naming day, or more specifically the 132nd anniversary of the day Juneau became “Juneau.” It is an unlikely story at best.
Though the modern naming of our city happened in 1881, the area was well known prior to this time. Gold Creek (or Dzantik’i Heeni as the Tlingit called it) was a popular Aaak’w Tlingit fishing camp in the summer. It had one of the largest salmon runs in the area at the time. John Muir wrote about not-yet Juneau in 1879: “The scenery all through the channel is magnificent, something like Yosemite Valley in its lofty avalanche-swept wall cliffs, especially on the mainland side.” Muir also noted that the geology of the area was indicative of gold-bearing rock.
In 1880, George Pilz, a German gold seeker living at the Stewart Mine near Sitka, caught sight of Muir’s writings. Pilz was the first professional mining engineer in Alaska and had been sending men out in groups of two to do prospecting in different parts of Southeast. To increase his odds of finding gold, he guaranteed 100 Hudson Bay blankets and work at a $1 a day to any Alaska Native tribe who found gold. Chief Kowee heard the offer and went to Pilz with rich ore samples from Juneau. In July of 1880, Pilz sent out Joe Juneau and Richard Harris to stake claims for him in the area. It wasn’t until later that Pilz discovered that Juneau and Harris had traded their provisions for “non-mining” pursuits after landing at Auk Village. The pair returned empty handed several weeks later for more supplies.
Pilz, in a letter to James Wickersham wrote, “Harris and Juneau were among these so called hard rock miners but they could not punch a hole in soft muck.” When the two men returned to finish their prospecting, Kowee, concerned that he might not get the reward offered if these two failed, led them directly to a quartz outcropping in Gold Creek. Now with 1,000 pounds of rich ore samples, the pair plotted to run away to Canada with their gold. At that point Juneau and Harris were convinced — at gun point — by George Langly, a friend of Pilz’s, that it would be best to return to Pilz and inform him of their find. They did, and just like that the rush was on. Miner’s Cove (now Front Street) quickly became a village of tents and make shift cabins. Some called it Pilzburg in tribute to Pilz, while others called it Fliptown in reference to an inside joke.
Because French Canadian Joe Juneau could not read or write in English, Harris appointed himself recorder, and simply named the town Harrisburgh after himself. Kowee relocated his tribe to the area in order to collect the rewards promised to him, however, a U.S. Navy detachment under the command of Charles Rockwell was sent to keep order in the mining camp and forcibly removed the group. Kowee and his tribe went to the next cove over (to what is now Village Street) and never would see a penny or blanket promised. In the meantime, Rockwell decided that Harrisburgh was not an interesting enough name for the town and called for a vote to have the town renamed after himself, which it was.
But this is all just backstory. The story of our town is not that it is named after Harris, Rockwell, Pilz, Kowee, Langly, Muir, or any other possibly more deserving player because of what happened next. In 1881, Pilz and Harris went to Seattle for the winter while Rockwell headed to Sitka. Juneau stayed behind with 71 other miners to hang out in the new saloons that had quickly popped up here. That winter, he spent all of his money on buying himself and his fellow miners drinks. On Dec. 14, 1881 he established his place in history when a new vote was taken and our town was named “Juneau.”
Joe Juneau didn’t stay to revel long. He left Juneau in 1882, leaving behind a pregnant teenager, his name, and the notion that we who live here really love it when someone buys our drinks for us. So in honor of Juneau’s naming day (and maybe not so much in honor of Joe himself) buy someone a drink (or several drinks) — beer, hooch, coffee, sparkling water — whatever it is they fancy most. Because our town name is proof that people really do appreciate it; and what better way to celebrate Dec. 14 than buying drinks and raising a glass to Juneau.
• Schijvens is a lifelong Juneauite, is the author of Rain Coast Data, a monthly column of the Juneau Empire analyzing regional and local data trends.