The area that is now Juneau, Alaska, was not explored by Europeans for a long time, much less settled. Even today, there are no direct roads that lead to it, though you can get there by boat or plane. It is rugged terrain, and icy much of the year, so accessing it was always an issue for those who were not familiar with the territory. However, Native Americans have lived there for a long time.
Juneau and the surrounding area was a popular fishing ground for the Auke and Taku Native American tribes for thousands of years. The Auke even had a burying ground there, as well as a village (known today as Indian Point). The Auke, along with the Sealaska Heritage Institute, continue to resist the development of Indian Point by European-Americans, as they consider it sacred territory. The sacredness comes from the burying ground there, as well as their annual spring tradition of celebrating the fishing bounty, which goes back thousands of years.
The Auke actually continue to use this area to harvest seafood, including fish, clams, seagrasses, and sea urchins, and they use the tree bark in the area for medicinal uses. The seventy-eight acre India Point area is now on the National Register of Historic Places, as of 2016, and is the first Native property in southwest Alaska to be placed there.
Descendants of the Taku and Auke also live in the Juneau area today. The most prominent descendant branch in modern Juneau is the Tlingit tribe. In fact, Juneau is a huge social center for modern Tlingit people, as well as the Haida and Tsimshian tribes.
The Russians technically owned Alaska, including Juneau, from 1784 to 1867, but they only settled the area sparsely and did not settle Juneau at all. It is speculated some Russian ships may have explored the Juneau area, but those trips were not recorded. The Russians did trade extensively during this time with the Natives who lived in Kodiak and on the Aleutian Islands.
The first European recorded as having visited Juneau is Joseph Whidbey, who was the captain of the Discovery during a 1791-1795 expedition sponsored by George Vancouver. Whidbey explored what is modern Juneau during the summer of 1794. He noted that the area had a channel, with a small island about mid-way up it, but that the channel was filled with ice, making it unnavigable.
Europeans started coming to the Juneau area in droves during the California Gold Rush. When a mining engineer named George Pilz offered a reward to any local Native tribal chief who could direct him to gold-bearing ore in 1880, Chief Kowee of the Tlingit people came through for him. Large gold nuggets were found in the Juneau area, and prospectors came to strike it rich.
In October of 1880, two miners marked off 160 acres where they wanted to build a town near the gold deposits, and a mining camp was soon established on it. The camp attracted so many people, it was a village a year after it was founded. It was the first European-American settlement in the area after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia.
By 1881, more than one hundred people lived in this village, which was called Rockwell. The name later changed to Harrisburg, and then to Juneau in December of 1881. The name change came at a meeting of miners who lived in the village, and it was done to make the name of the town more distinctive since many American towns were already named Rockwell and Harrisburg. The Juneau name was after a prospector in the area named Joe Juneau.
Juneau continued to be an important mining town until just prior to WWII. During its prominence as a mining town, the whaling and fur trade in the Alaskan town of Sitka declined. Sitka had previously been the capital of the Alaska territory. As Sitka became less important, the legislature of the territory moved its governmental seat to Juneau. Juneau was the largest city in Alaska in the period between WWI and WWII. Anchorage surpassed it in size and population in 1950.
The US Congress authorized funds to build a capitol building in Juneau in 1911. WWI delayed that construction. The citizens of Juneau donated money to the project, and the building was finally begun in 1929. In 1931, the new capitol building was finished. It was built in the popular Art Deco style and originally held the federal courthouse and post office for Alaska Territory, as well as its territorial legislature. When Alaska became a state in 1959, the building began being used only for state government purposes.
While there have been movements over the years to move the state capital to either Anchorage or Fairbanks, Juneau has remained the capital. This is because both Anchorage and Fairbanks are large cities, and most Alaskan people do not want either city to have undue influence in the state’s government. Juneau is between these two large cities and fits the criteria perfectly for the kind of state capital most of the people in Alaska desire.
A movement in the 1970s to move the state capital to Willow, which is seventy miles north of Anchorage, also failed. People who supported Juneau as the state capital convinced voters in Fairbanks to approve a ballot measure called the FRANK Initiative that requires voter approval of all bondable construction costs before building a new building can begin. including a new state capitol building in a new town or city. The people of Alaska voted against spending $900 million to build a new capitol building in Willow, so the capital remained Juneau. Measures to move the capital from Juneau in 1984 and 1996 also failed to pass the approval of Alaska voters. Juneau is still the capital of Alaska.