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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Father of the Yukon – Jack McQuesten

      The Yukon River is the third longest river in North America. It flows northwest from the Coastal Range mountains of northern British Columbia, Canada, through the Yukon Territory and Alaska to the Bering Sea. Long before ships carried loads of gold to Seattle and San Francisco in 1897, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush, trappers, miners and traders inhabited areas around the Yukon River and there was a lot of movement back and forth between Canada and Alaska Territory. One of the most prominent of these early settlers was Jack McQuesten, the Father of the Yukon.

Jack McQuesten

      Leroy Napoleon (Jack) McQuesten was born in New England in 1836, but grew up on a farm in Illinois. At age 13, he accompanied family members on a quest for riches in the 1849 California Gold Rush. Even as a young man, he was an imposing figure, standing well over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds.

     By 1858, Jack had trekked north to British Columbia, Canada, where he became a voyager for the Hudson‘s Bay Company. A few years later he left and established a fur trade of his own, and by 1863 he was mining for gold on the Frasier River.

     In 1871, McQuesten learned that the United States had purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Two years later, the Hudson’s Bay Company (which Russia had permitted to operate in Alaska) was forced to leave, and the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) assumed the property they left behind. The ACC established trading posts all over the Alaska Territory. He and a group pf cohorts went to Alaska, where they prospected for gold and became involved in the prosperous fur trade.

     At the request of an indigenous chief, McQuesten established a trading post in 1874. The post, which he named Fort Reliance was located in Canada on the east bank of the Yukon River, seven miles downstream of the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. Fort Reliance became the center of the fur trade and mining activities in the upper Yukon River and remained so for more than a decade.

McQuesten's Family

In 1878, McQuesten married Satejdenalno, an indigenous woman who became known as Katherine or Kate. She was from the Kokrines village, and had attended the Russian mission school. Fluent in Koyukon, Russian, and English, she often acted as an intermediary for her husband and his partners when communicating with the local indigenous people. 


     McQuesten belonged to the Yukon Order of Pioneers. This was a fraternal organization established to provide for the welfare of its members and for local policing and adjudication in the absence of government authorities and formal law. Later, McQuesten helped to found a similar brotherhood, the Alaskan Order of Yukon Pioneers, and was its first elected president. Their motto was the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."  

Remains of Fort Reliance Chimney

     Fort Reliance also served as the compass for the region. Two examples remain today. The mouth of the Fortymile River and settlement there is 40 miles downstream from Fort Reliance. The mouth of the Sixtymile River is 60 miles upstream from Fort Reliance. Gold was discovered at Forty Mile in 1886, and it became the first major frontier settlement.

     By then, Fort Reliance was in decline. McQuesten and two partners built a store at Forty Mile in 1887. The three men grubstaked prospectors, giving them credit on their supplies until they could mine enough gold to pay off their bills.

McQuesten's store in Circle City, Alaska

     When gold was discovered downriver at Birch Creek in 1892, McQuesten grubstaked half the miners who set off to check out the new area. When the prospectors proved  the area even richer than Forty Mile, McQuesten followed in 1894 and set up a successful store at Circle City, Alaska. 

     Yukon Jack, the 100-proof Canadian whiskey, was named after Jack McQuesten. He met Jack London in 1897 and their meeting is believed to have inspired some of London’s novels that were set in the northland. 

     Predicting food shortages as a result of the influx of prospectors after the Klondike gold strike, McQuesten moved his family to California in 1897. He died there in 1909.

     In Yukon Places and Names, R.C. Coutts wrote (p.175): “His name was a byword for integrity and honesty. His trust in his fellow man was unbounded and seldom wrong. Nowhere in the literature of the Yukon is it possible to find a critical or unkind word about him. It is rare anywhere to find a man as highly regarded during his own lifetime as was Jack McQuesten.”

     Is there a better way to be remembered?

     McQuesten makes an appearance in my novel, The Claim. The Jack referred to in the excerpt below is Jack McQuesten.


     “I’m goin’ to get me a room for the night.” Will turned toward the door.

     Erik started. “You’re not going to camp with me on the riverbank?”

     “Naw. Men up here are honest. No need to police your gear and the skows are tied up secure.” Will grinned. “This here is the Paris of Alaska. With some of that money ya paid me, I intend to have myself a spree before we head back to Forty Mile.”

     Erik’s brow furrowed. “A what?”

     “Spree.” Jack said. “Miners let off steam by going to all the saloons buying drinks and cigars for everyone. They don’t get to town often so they’re wound tight as a tick.” He frowned. “When they get out of hand, they can bust up a place pretty bad.”

     Erik swallowed his reproach. He’d met men up here with Oxford degrees, and the long summer days and winter nights made customs of Outside society seem absurd. Will had taught him not to pass judgement.

     “Ya want to join me?” Another grin spread across Will’s face.

     “No, I’m going to turn in early.”

     Will shook his head. “Then, I’ll see ya in the mornin’.”

     Jack turned to Erik. “Now let’s talk turkey.” 



  1. Loved reading about Yukon Jack, Ann. There have been so many colorful characters in America's past, and it's gobs of fun to include them in our books. Nicely done.

    1. It is fun. Even when the historical characters as local and less well=known. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Wonderful overview of a larger than life person. Thanks for adding to our collective history. Doris

    1. Thanks for your comment. So many interesting people in our country's past.

  3. Fascinating piece. I know little about Alaska, but know a little more now. I was very struck by Jack McQueston and how much he looks like the actor Ted Levine. He'd be perfect to play him in a drama!

  4. What an interesting observation. I admit I had to Goggle Ted Levine, though, and definitely saw the resemblance. When I was researching THE CLAIM, I kept running across McQuesten, so had to include him.

  5. Ann, I admit I know very little about the Yukon, the gold rush, and so on, but I have learned so much from your stories, and I just love every one of them. Your characters are very realistic, and that's one of the main things for me in a story--something I really have to have. I look forward to more in your series!

    1. Thank you, Cheryl. I'm working on one now, but COVID is delaying my travel for research. Happy Thanksgiving.

  6. Really interesting history, Ann. Love the story re Mcquesten's wife being so supportive and vital to him

  7. It's sad that the importance of women's roles in history are so often forgotten and, in many cases, there are few records of their contributions.

  8. It must be nice to have 100 proof Canadian whiskey name a whiskey after you...Jack must have been an impressive person. Establishing a store in the Yukon in those gold rush days must have been very profitable.
    This was a wonderful article about a man I have not heard of before. I take it he left Alaska and moved to California knowing that here was going to be a food shortage. I guess he did that in the nick of time.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your article, Ann.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. He was, indeed, an interesting guy.