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Juneau: A City Built on Gold

Alaska’s capital city was founded during a gold rush.

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Alaska, the 49th state, is known as the last frontier. Its capital, Juneau, has a rich history in native culture as well as gold mining, which led to the development of the area. Today, the city thrives on tourism, but that wasn’t always the case. One of the last lands for Europeans to explore, Alaska and its capital city were first inhabited by the local natives, who made their homes and fished the salmon-rich waters to feed their families.

Juneau was not always known by its current name. Long before Europeans came to the area in search of gold, the land was called Dzantik’I Heeni, “Base of the Flounder’s River,” where natives enjoyed centuries of fishing. The members of the Auke tribe of Tlingit Indians had lived on the land for hundreds of years before travelers began exploring the area.

Mining for Gold

In 1880, George Pilz, a German-born mining engineer working in the territory, hired prospectors to search for gold and silver. He also offered rewards to the local natives of “100 pair of Hudson’s Bay blankets, and work for the tribe” for any gold-bearing ore. Chief Cowee of the Auk Tlingits provided ore samples, and Pilz sent out miners to investigate. Two miners were chosen: Joe Juneau and Richard Harris.

The mining pair found the ore in what they called “Gold Creek,” however, they didn’t trace it to its source, and soon they had obtained much of the gold in the water. Chief Cowee knew there was more to be found, much more, and convinced Pilz to send the men in search again. This time, Harris and Juneau climbed Snow Slide Gulch and when they looked down, they saw the mother lode. On October 18, they staked a 160-acre townsite on the beach. The next month, boatloads of hopeful prospectors arrived to try their hand at gold mining. Harris named this area after himself, calling it Harrisburgh.

With the stampede of gold-seekers arriving, the US Navy sent a steamboat of sailors to help keep order in the mining camp. One of the first town meetings was held in February 1881, where it was decided that too many American towns were already called Harrisburgh. The town’s name was changed to “Rockwell” in honor of Lieutenant Commander Charles Rockwell, the Navy commander who had been sent to help maintain order.

This didn’t sit well with Joe Juneau, who complained that his name had not been used. After all, he and his partner Harris were directly responsible for discovering the gold and bringing miners from all over the region to populate and build up the small camp. The miners agreed and the city’s name was changed to Juneau, as it is still called today.

Interesting Facts

  • The US purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million.
  • Juneau was established as Alaska’s capital in 1906.
  • Federal, state, and local government employs one out of every two Juneau workers.
  • Tourism is the largest private employer.
  • Commercial fishing and mining are still important to Juneau’s economy.


National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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