Harry Mellish and James Cleghorn: Pre Alaska Gold Rush prospectors
Harry Mellish and James Cleghorn
Pre Gold Rush Prospectors in Alaska

by   Coleen  Mielke     2016

Protected by Copyscape

Only a handful of prospectors braved Alaska's harsh Interior before the official Gold Rush of 1897. Two of those hardy souls were Harry Mellish and his partner James Cleghorn who crossed the Yukon River near the Russian Mission Portage and went up the Kuskokwim River to look for gold in 1890. Finding very little gold, the men spent the winter of 1890-91 in the village of Kolmakov near the confluence of the Kuskokwim River and the Holitna River.

The next season, Mellish and Cleghorn searched the Mulchatna River area but found only small quantities of super-fine gold. In 1892, the men split up and Mellish made his way to the head of the Copper River where he lived among the Ahtna Indians and took a young village woman as his wife.

In 1893, Mellish went to the gold mining town of Hope on the Turnagain Arm, to find a doctor. While there, he wrote a letter to a stateside friend, warning him that there was little gold in Alaska. The letter gives a rare first hand account of just how brutal life was for the young prospector:

"Hello Mark,
There is nothing here to warrant anyone coming up here yet. There are a few claims that will pay small wages, but that is about it.Sylvester McMahon, Billy Bowers, Antone and Billy Prior left here last week for the Kenai River. I saw Angus McDonald, Hal Lowe and a lot more of the boys who came to see me when I was laid up in my tent for a few days after I had to get one of my toes taken off.

The operation was by Dr. Leach of Stockton who had come to Alaska to look around for gold. I was in the Interior between Copper River and the Yukon last winter, where I got my toe frozen (in February) and it took me until April to get home and then I had to wait a month before I could start in my boat for Turnagain Arm to get medical aid, but by that time, the bones were so badly decayed that amputation was necessary. You cannot imagine how I suffered, stumping along with one snowshoe and a piece of board on my frozen foot for over 200 miles. The man who was with me was a pretty good fellow, for he not only hauled his own camp and mess outfit, but mine also and all I had to do was follow along behind him.

I hear that it is reported, down your way, that the Natives on the Copper River are very bad, in fact, they are perfect man eaters, but I must say that I have yet to find a more obliging race of people than they are. I do not speak from hearsay but from experience. I was right with them while in my crippled condition. They are not house dwellers, but lead a nomadic life, following game all of the time, being strictly meat eaters.

I came down here last night from Sunrise City on Six Mile Creek and my foot is doing me mischief, so I will close for the present and write you soon."

(Signed) Harry Mellish
Mellish spent the following winter at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek where he built a small cabin. After he left the area, his cabin was used by travelers in need of temporary housing over the next decade. Eventually, it was dismantled and the wood was taken to Knik to be used on other cabins.

Mellish didn't live at Cottonwood very long; the following hand drawn map (by O.G. Herning) shows him living near the Matanuska River in 1898. (I've added a few titles in RED to make them easier to see).


The last information I could find about Harry Mellish, had him running a boat from Port Townsend to Valdez (every 15 days) to deliver supplies and move mail for the Copper River Transport and Mining Company.

Mellish's prospecting friend, James Naismith Cleghorn, who came to Alaska in 1886, married an Athapascan woman named Mary Shitachka of Tyonek in about 1893 (*see note); they had 12 children: (step daughter,Kate Ballou 1892-?), (Jennie  1894-1959), (Lucille 1895-1985), (James 1898-1971), (Marie Xenia 1900-1977), (William 1902-?),(Eliza 1904-?), (Annie 1905-?), (Walter 1907-1975), (Bertha Stella 1908-1927), (Maxine 1913-1982) and (Adam 1915-1978). By 1896, James Cleghorn was the Alaska Commercial Company agent at Susitna Station. By 1910, the family was living in Ouzinkie on Spruce Island near Kodiak and times were tough. An article written in the San Francisco Call (newspaper) in 1912, said they had received word that the Cleghorns and their 12 children were trying to live on $25 a month. U.S. Treasury Secretary Wayne McVeagh was so concerned that he offered the Cleghorns free passage out of the area on a U.S. Revenue Cutter. By 1920, the family had settled in Seldovia. James Cleghorn and his wife are both buried there  (James 1852-1928) (Mary 1866-1932).

Cleghorn's son, Walter became a professional middleweight boxer (known as the "Kodiak Bear") and competed in 91 professional fights (in the lower 48) between 1925 and 1934.

NOTE: James and Mary's son, William Cleghorn died in 1943. His death certificate says his father's name was James Cleghorn and his mother's was Mary Paul (not Shitachka). The 1910 U.S. Census for Ouzinkie, Spruce Island, lists Mary as Athabascan--Kutchin Tribe.

NOTE: The Cleghorn's daughter, Marie Xenia Cleghorn Fondahn listed her mothers maiden name as Panfiloff in her Social Security papers.