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History Hunter: The misfortune of ‘Hard Luck’ Harper

The story of “The Father of the Yukon,” Arthur Harper
Photo from Early Days in the Yukon/William Ogilvie Arthur Harper was known as “Hard Luck” Harper for not finding gold on many of the famous gold creeks of the Yukon Valley. As a trader he was widely respected and known as “The Father of the Yukon” by many.

In mid-July 1873, a small party of dirty and exhausted men arrived at Fort Yukon, Alaska, which was located at the mouth of the Porcupine River, a tributary of the mighty Yukon. They had departed from the Peace River country the year before and had traveled by way of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers to reach their destination.

Convinced that they would find gold by going, they had endured incredible hardship on their voyage. They had camped for the winter in canvas tents and lived off the land. It had been two years since their supply of flour had run out. One of these men would later be regarded by many as “The Father of the Yukon.” His name was Arthur Harper.

Harper was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1835, and immigrated to America when he was 18. Two years later, he had moved to the west coast. Within a few years, he was prospecting in the interior of British Columbia before heading to the Yukon valley.

At Fort Yukon, Harper set out immediately to prospect for mineral wealth. Finding that some of the local Indians carried samples of native copper with them, he determined to investigate the region from which they came. Prospecting as he went, he made his way up the White River, and camped there for the winter.

The next spring, he tried his luck prospecting around the mouth of the Stewart River, but finding nothing there, he floated down the Yukon River and did the same thing around the mouth of the Koyukuk River, again, without luck.

To support his prospecting trips, he became a trader, working for the Alaska Commercial Company, in partnership with Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten. Their partnership lasted for 14 years, during which Harper, more the prospector than McQuesten, continued to search for gold.

In 1877, he tested the headwaters of the Sixtymile River. In 1881, he traveled overland from the present-day site of Eagle, Alaska, to reach the Tanana River. Harper prospected and collected a sample of sand from along the river, and shipped it out to San Francisco. When he learned that it assayed out at twenty thousand dollars to the ton, he tried to relocate the deposit, but failed.

He continued this pattern for many years to come; prospecting when he could, while trading to make a living. It seemed that every stream and tributary that he panned for gold later produced rich diggings for others, and for this reason, he came to be known as “Hard Luck” Harper.

But he never lost his enthusiasm for the mineral potential of the Yukon and over the decades, he wrote letters, always promoting the promise and opportunities for prospecting in the Yukon valley.

Harper and McQuesten continued their trade in furs with the First Nations people until 1885, when they decided to shift their main trade to supplying goods for the ever increasing number of prospectors streaming into the Yukon each year. Gold discoveries on the Stewart River caused them to move their base of operations to the mouth of that river and establish what became known, variously as Fort Nelson, Mayo’s Post or Harper’s Post in 1886.

McQuesten traveled out to San Francisco during the winter of 1886/87, to place an order for supplies, while Harper remained at their post at the mouth of the Stewart River, but discovery of gold on the Fortymile River called for an immediate change of plans.

Harper anticipated a stampede of prospectors the following year, so wrote a letter advising McQuesten of the change of circumstances. Tom Williams, a miner camped at Harper’s Post, volunteered to carry the letter outside so that McQuesten would know to increase the size of the order of supplies he would bring with him in the spring.

After break-up of the Yukon River in 1887, their steamer arrived at the mouth of the Fortymile River pushing a barge load of supplies. Harper was waiting; he set up a packing case as a counter on the deck of the barge, with scales to weigh out the gold and the merchandise, and everything was sold within forty eight hours.

The Fortymile River became the centre of mining activity for many years to follow, and the two traders continued in business together until 1889, when Harper formed a new partnership with another Yukon veteran named Joseph Ladue. They established a new trading post at Fort Selkirk that year.

Anglican missionary Reverend Canham and his wife joined them three years later. An itinerant prospector named George Carmack, worked in Ladue’s saw mill, and constructed the Anglican mission buildings in 1892 and 1893. Carmack was back again in 1895, but went downriver the following summer to the mouth of the Klondike River, to fish.

By that time, Ladue had moved the saw mill and established another trading post on an island near the mouth of the Sixtymile River. The summer of 1896, the traders’ dreams of a gold strike exceeded their wildest imagining when Carmack staked a discovery claim on Bonanza Creek.

Ladue moved his saw mill to the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers to service the new gold field, and then staked out a plot of land there. Harper did the same, and between them, they formed the Dawson Town Site Company.

The population of Dawson City exploded, and the value of their land increased exponentially. Lots that sold for $150 in 1897, were selling for $15,000 the following summer, and by the fall, the price had shot up to $40,000. Harper was now a wealthy man, with interest in numerous claims on Bonanza and Hunker Creeks, but luck abandoned him again.

Worn out by the years of hardship, he had contracted tuberculosis, and his health declined. Harper and his native wife and children shipped out to San Francisco in September of 1897, and while they checked into the comfort of the Commercial Hotel, he went into hospital for treatment and care.

From San Francisco, he traveled to Arizona later in the fall, looking for a cure for his illness. Instead, he died there November 24, 1897, never having had the chance to enjoy his new-found wealth. He was 63 years old. At the time of his death, his Klondike holdings were worth $200,000, which was a fortune in those times. Today, he is remembered by a mountain named in his honour, and a street in Dawson City.

Sadly, his ill fortune haunted him from beyond the grave. Years later, his son Walter, who had been schooled by Episcopalian missionaries, held the promise of bridging the divide between Europeans and indigenous people.

In 1913, he was the first person to reach the top of Mount McKinley, known today as Denali. He was going outside to study medicine when he and his new bride perished aboard the Princess Sophia, which sank in Lynn Canal October 25, 1918.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, The Yukon Fallen of World War I, co-authored with D. Blair Neatby, is now available on retail bookshelves. You can contact him at