As a child, writer Eleanor Phillips Brackbill and her siblings used to listen to a 78 rpm record of a 1948 radio drama, NBC’s “Cavalcade of America.” The episode “Queen of the Heartbreak Trail” portrayed Brackbill’s great-grandmother, Harriet Smith Pullen, who had participated in Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush.
Later, Brackbill wondered how much of the family lore was true. Determined to find out, she wrote a book about Pullen that was named one of the six best Alaska books of 2016 by the Fairbanks Alaska Dispatch News.
“The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman” turned out more like a Willa Cather novel of immigrants on the prairie than a Jack London tale, at least at first. The first half of the book focuses on Harriet’s father, A.J. Smith, whose diaries record his struggle to make a living for his family by farming in Wisconsin. Harriet was born into this strenuous life in 1860.
Burdened with debt, A.J. sold his land and moved his family to the Dakota territories. A few good years were followed by summers filled with wild fires and locusts; when the latter were not blocking out the sunlight, they were crunching – 3 inches worth – underfoot. Harriet learned to work hard, think fast and ride and handle horses.
In 1877, A.J. moved his family to the coast of Washington state. Here, living alongside the native Quileute people, he tilled the fertile earth fruitfully. When typhoid struck, a fur trader from South China, Maine, Dan Pullen, helped the Smith family. Eventually, Dan and Harriet married, appropriated the choicest land in the area and built an ostentatious mansion. When Dan’s land claims were held up in court, and a nearby Quileute village burned to the ground, many thought Dan had started the fire.
Meanwhile, a former business partner sued Dan and Harriet, and though exonerated, the court case bankrupted them. The final blow was the government giving what the Pullens thought of as their land back to the Quileutes. Harriet, hearing of the Gold Rush, struck out for Alaska in 1897.
Here begins the Jack London part of the story. Harriet, later known as “Mother of the North,” left Dan behind, and although he helped her and their four children build a house in Skagway, he died without her, back in Washington, in 1910. Eighteen years his junior, Harriet lived till 1947.
At first Harriet cooked in the improvised tent-shelters set up for the influx of miners. Her apple pies made her locally famous.
Then she sent for her horses, which, she said, she swam ashore one by one. With the horses, and always brandishing a pistol, she helped miners pack their gear up into the mountains.
When the Gold Rush panned out, she acquired another mansion and capitalized on a booming tourist industry by opening and constantly expanding her famous inn, Pullen House. She kept cooking her famous apple pies and told stories to her assembled guests, stories that, over the years, resembled tall tales.
Brackbill sums up Harriet’s life this way:
“Harriet understood that challenges in life, as well as successes, have value. She appreciated hard, consistent work and the power of the individual. She brought with her to Alaska all she had learned from her pioneering parents and husband, but in Skagway, she found her voice, her power, and a kind of freedom she had not known before. Even A.J.’s consistent journaling served as a model for her. In watching him write, she learned that a life lived well is a life worth chronicling.”
Brackbill, who lives near Portland, has written a fascinating book about a fiery, independent woman, the westward movements and hard lives of immigrants and their fraught interactions with Native Americans.
Though it’s full of historical records, she presents these deftly, focusing on the human foibles and glories they reveal.
Frank Freeman writes from Saco where he lives with his wife and four children.