Story last updated at 7/10/2013 - 2:21 pm
A thread that seems to flow through many Alaska's lost gold legends is the involvement of Natives. How did they know where to find gold nuggets? When I looked through my collection of books about the early English and American traders, I could find no mention of gold artifacts or nuggets being offered to Alaska ship traders. Nor were furs valuable enough for traders to offer gold items. In museums with Tlingit and Haida artifacts, I can't remember seeing gold inlays. Has anyone?
The metals Southeast Alaska Natives asked for from the Caucasian traders were iron and copper. William Sturgis, a Boston trader around 1799, left a journal, and he tells us that the Chilkat Natives found lumps of copper in the fresh water rivers. "Vessels that have been there have often seen the copper as it was found in its natural state, perfectly pure, and seen lumps of 10, 11 and 12 pounds. They then laid it on a flat stone and pounded it into a sheet about two feet square in which form they sold it." Sturgis does not mention trading for any of the copper.
It was iron that was most desired probably because it could be used in weapons. In fact, when the Spanish explorers were in Southeast in the mid-1770s, they saw the Natives using iron weapons. Iron was also used for chisels, adzes, knife blades and other tools.
There is much speculation as to where this iron came from. Perhaps it came from Japan on wrecked junks? Maybe the Tlingits and Haidas traded at Hudson's Bay posts in Rupert's Land (Canada). Another theory is that trade with the Russians came down through Alaska from tribe to tribe.
Iron, but not gold: it was undoubtedly too soft to withstand the desired uses.
As the Natives hunted they must have seen gold in the streams and remembered its location, but passed it by. From this came the legends that a Native showed the way to a discovery. The finder always planned to come back but couldn't return for some reason or other.
One such story was told by Mrs. Ben Leibrant, a Native woman, who lived in Kasaan Inlet for many years with her prospector husband. In the 1940s, she told John Bufvers, another prospector, that her grandfather long ago found gold-colored rocks near "Kennuk Bay" while out hunting. The nearest place he could take his find was the Hudson's Bay's Fort Simpson post, near today's Prince Rupert. On his return trip to Alaska he drowned, and consequently neither Mrs. Leibrant nor her family knew if it was real gold.
Where was "Kennuk Bay"? All she could tell Bufvers was "Some people call it Charlie Johnson's Bay." Perhaps that was Johnson Bay on eastern Prince of Wales Island south of Kasaan Bay. Hard-rock gold mines of Dolomi were staked long after the time of Mrs. Leibrant's grandfather. In the mining literature, no nuggets are mentioned in the small streams that enter that bay.
Another legend was collected by Calvin H. Barkdull, who was a want-to-find-gold prospector more than a hard-working prospector. He found fox farming near Petersburg involved much less physical labor. A Wrangell doctor and surgeon named Stanton told Barkdull in the late 1880s, he was operating at a hospital on the East Coast. One day a man came in his office suffering from an old gunshot wound in the lung. "I took him to my hospital but in spite of my best medical attention he grew weaker and failed to recover."
Before he passed away, the patient told Dr. Stanton that he had been in company with another white man, a Native man and woman. They left Sitka in a canoe and traveled four days to the mouth of a river that emptied into the section of Southeast Alaska now known as Frederick Sound. This river flowed from the mountains of the mainland. After two days of poling and lining the canoe up the river, they came to a small clear stream that flowed in from the south. Here they dragged the canoe to the edge of the forest, shouldered their packs and traveled onward. From there a game trail followed up the small stream to a crescent-shaped lake with a tiny, wooded island in the center.
Dr. Stanton said that the group found a small inlet stream on the north side of the lake. Taking out their gold pans, they began to search for gold. The legend tells about the party filling rawhide pouches with $1,700 worth of shiny gold.
Then a dispute arose over how to divide the gold and this led to a shooting affray and the death of the Native and the other white man. He told Dr. Stanton that he was wounded in the left breast. The Native woman horrified of the outcome of this adventure, ran in the woods and hid. With his share of the gold, the patient stumbled back to the canoe, floated down river, and was picked up off Cape Fanshaw by the PINTA and taken to the Marine Hospital in Port Townsend, Wash., where he recovered. Cape Fanshaw is on the mainland, a distinct point in Frederick Sound. Looking at a map, the nearby larger rivers enter Farragut Bay or Port Houghton, although there are many smaller streams that enter the Sound. We can vaguely date this legend: The Navy ship PINTA patrolled Alaska from 1884 though 1897.
Continuing his story, Dr. Stanton took a much worn map from his desk to show Barkdull. "This is the map he gave to me before he passed away and here are mint receipts for about $5,000." Gold was sold to the U.S. Mint in those days.
Here is the first flaw in the story. The gold certainly increased in value! Stanton continued: "With this evidence in hand, I disposed of my Eastern interests, moved to Wrangell. I have spent three years hunting for this mine but have not been able to find it."
Now to the second, much bigger flaw: "I found the Indian woman that escaped and she told me that under penalty of death from other tribal members she must not reveal the location." She said to the doctor, "Now go and find that mine and stake me in on it." How did she manage to return from the crescent lake without a canoe or means of communication?
Barkdull ended his story by saying that Dr. Stanton married the Native woman. "Probably for the purpose of finding out the location of the treasure, but her loyalty to the tribe was greater than her love of the doctor."
This is legend involving another doctor, this time in 1899. Dr. H. B. Rennalls was prospecting near Skagway and was called on to attend a Native whom he cured of an illness and helped to tide water. The man told the doctor he was his savior so he would share his secret. There was a place near Wrangell where sands carried much gold and rocks fairly glistened with gold. He and his friend had discovered it a year earlier. The pair vowed that neither would go to "Monte Cristo" without the other. There was never a time they could go together. The Native said that he would get his partner's consent to take the doctor with them.
In due time, a date was set. However the Native became very ill and bedridden. He provided maps, diagrams, and a multitude of instruction. Rennalls arranged a group of men from Skagway to accompany him. The captain of the coastal steamer FARALLON put them off at the designated point. It turns out the point was several miles out of the regular steamship course and on the north end of Wangell Narrows.
Nothing more about this lost mine was ever mentioned. Geologists and prospectors have never reported placer gold on a beach in that area.
Undoubtedly there are more lost gold stories. When we hear these legends will Natives lead men to gold? Will doctors search for the lost gold? Will there be more crescent- shaped lakes with an island in the middle? Perhaps we'll read about a new gold discovery in the newspaper about finding gold near the physical features in some of these stories. But don't hold your breath!
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.