Early Miners' code ruled in the Last Frontier

Aunt Phil's Trunk

As hordes of prospectors streamed into Alaska and Canada in the 1880s and 1890s, crime like thefts and claim jumping became more common. The Canadians had not yet established a law and order presence in their remote territory and the Americans' only established civil government was hundreds of miles away in Sitka.

In 1893, miners in the camp of Fortymile formed the fraternal Yukon Order of Pioneers to enforce correct moral behavior. The order's motto was "Do unto others as you would be done by." Miners could call a meeting that served as an improvised court when they had a complaint that needed to be settled.

One such meeting was recalled by Canadian policeman Charles Constantine in 1894, according to a National Park Service document:

"Law and order in the country has been enforced by a committee of miners, and with the exception of one shooting and cutting case last winter, it has been quiet and orderly....The miners took the matter up and gave the principals to understand that they would be ordered out of the country if any further trouble took place between them, and the one who did the shooting that if the man he shot died, they would hang him."

So prior to the arrival of sheriffs and judges to the Last Frontier, this sort of practical application of frontier democracy – called the miners' code – spread and ruled the far North. Each camp decided matters of common concern by majority vote and meted out justice to fit the crime.

When a situation came along that necessitated a meeting, the miners came together and elected a judge and a sheriff. Defendants and plaintiffs then gave their sides of the story, and after all the evidence was weighed, the miners would render a verdict.

Murder was punished by hanging; stealing meant a sound whipping or banishment. The guilty had no notice of appeal, no bill of exceptions and no stay of execution.

Miners sometimes took justice into their own hands when it came to matters of the heart, too. With no judges or preachers in the camps, they had to think up unique ways to perform nuptials, as was the case of some lovers on the Koyukuk trail.

Aggie Dalton and Frank McGillis wanted to marry, and in lieu of an official marriage contract, they created a substitute document along with one "French Joe." An account of the ceremony, which took place at a night camp with a group of stampeders en route to a Koyukuk River gold camp, was reported in the society columns of the Yukon Press on Mar. 17, 1899:

"On the evening of Nov. 10, 1898, a romantic union took place between Frank McGillis and Aggie Dalton, near the mouth of Dall River. Splicing was done by 'French Joe' (J. Durrant), and the form of the contract was as follows:

Ten miles from the Yukon on the banks of this lake,

For a partner to Koyukuk, McGillis I take;

We have no preacher, and we have no ring,

It makes no difference, it's all the same thing.

- Aggie Dalton.

I swear by my gee-pole, under this tree,

A devoted husband to Aggie I always will be;

I'll love and protect her, this maiden so frail,

From those sourdough bums, on the Koyukuk trail.

- Frank McGillis.

For two dollars apiece, in Chechaco money,

I unite this couple in matrimony;

He be a rancher, she be a teacher,

I do the job up, just as well as a preacher.

- French Joe.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.

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