Fictions of the Last Frontier: Alaska’s Gold Rush and the Legend of China Joe

In honor of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, the following is an excerpt from Juliana Hu Pegues’ Space-Time Colonialism: Alaska’s Indigenous and Asian Entanglements. This book is one of five titles from a reading list we created celebrating Asian American and Asian studies; view the entire reading list here.

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, and the Cassiar miners knew they were facing famine. A bitter winter and the Stikine River had frozen early—the last steamboat of the season would never arrive. The miners could not remember the year, their bodies so frozen they could no longer discern the passing of time. How long ago was it that prospectors struck gold in the calm creek that fed into Dease Lake? The rush was on then, and swarms of men stampeded the Cassiar Mountains, traveling up the Stikine from Fort Wrangel in American Alaska. The overwintering sourdoughs had gambled on sitting out the cold and gray days for an early start on spring prospecting, and they had lost. To be sure, without the last steamship, no one had enough food and supplies to last through the winter. No one, that is, except China Joe, the Chinese baker who cooked for prospectors in the mining camp. Swindlers arrived at his tent, with schemes to buy his flour to resell for a hefty profit. Joe refused and the crooks doubled down. They waved their guns and threatened Joe, but he would not be swayed. Instead, China Joe shared his provisions with everyone that winter, saving the miners from their starvation, and their despair. He asked for nothing in return. 

A few years later, Joe moved downriver to Fort Wrangel, the old Russian fort where the Stikine meets the Pacific, by then a boomtown outfitting miners on their way to the gold fields. Always ingenious, China Joe set up a restaurant and bakery in the hull of the lilting Hope, a beached sternwheeler. The miners never forgot the freezing winter on the Cassiar and the generosity of their friend, and China Joe never lacked for customers.

The tale of China Joe, a gold rush story from the mid-1870s repeated in Alaska for well over a century, is presented here, a condensed and composite version replete with the sentimental and superlative affectation often employed in the telling. China Joe’s story is integral to stories of the gold rush period of Alaska, and makes an additional appearance in the occasional tourist travelogue.2 Within Alaskan history generally and local histories of Juneau specifically, the China Joe tale appears frequently and with surprising longevity, resurfacing over the years as a central part of Juneau’s origin story. Newspapers highlight Joe’s prominence as a local figure, during his life and after, 

and his legacy includes a former mayor donating a memorial plaque in the 1960s for his gravesite and, in more recent years, a pair of Juneau residents penning a play about his life. China Joe also surfaces within Asian American literature and history, most notably in Maxine Hong Kingston’s biomythographical novel, China Men. This chapter focuses on the China Joe folktale, heavily repeated in Alaskan press and popular histories from the late nineteenth century to the present, to comment on the construction of white settler masculinity and, more pointedly, the multiple yet divergent registers of racial violence that make such heroic narratives possible. 

Gold rushes in Alaska fueled two crucial developments: economic growth and non-Native settlement, the trends together signaling a shift from colonial extraction to an incipient settler colonialism. Starting in the 1870s, Alaska became a preferred route for accessing the gold country in British Columbia and the Yukon. Traveling on steamship routes established by the tourist trade, tens of thousands of argonauts disembarked in Southeast Alaska to make the trek up rivers and mountain passes to the streams and riverbeds that promised gold. The quest for gold brought not only prospectors but also entrepreneurs who flocked to nascent boomtowns to outfit and entertain the gold seekers and Alaska Native and First Nation peoples from various nations and villages, as well as non-Natives from points south. In 1880, prospectors struck paydirt in Alaska proper, and soon after, industrial mines were established in three towns along the Gastineau Channel—Juneau, Treadwell, and Douglas— turning Southeast Alaska into the hard rock mining capital of the world. Alaska was permanently transformed, its non-Native population surging from fewer than 500 in 1880 to more than 30,000 in 1900; with the Klondike stampede that started in 1897, 100,000 prospectors would endeavor to reach the Yukon gold fields, the vast majority traveling through Alaska.

Juliana Hu Pegues is associate professor in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University.