History Mystery #1: The Smuggler's Treasure

Author: Sarah Masters Buckey

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Troy Howell

Publishing Year: 1999

Setting: New Orleans, summer 1814


Eleven-year-old Elisabet Holder has just arrived in New Orleans from Boston. Her father was captured by the British five months ago while on his cargo vessel (her mother died when Elisabet was very young) and her maternal aunt and uncle have offered for her to stay with them. It's going to be a difficult transition: her father was very wealthy before his capture and Elisabet was used to having anything she could need or want. When the cargo was taken by the British, her father's lawyer had to liquidate the Holder estate to pay the merchants who lost money. Elisabet ended up with only a few sets of clothes and some mementos like the family Bible and her treasured doll. As she's preparing to depart the boat, one of her fellow passengers gives her his business card, just in case she ever needs help.

Elisabet gets a shock when she sets foot in New Orleans. Her aunt's bakery assistant, an orphan girl her age named Marie, comes to fetch her rather than any family. Her uncle died suddenly while Elisabet was on her way south, and her aunt had to go take care of her adult daughter, who is ill. Furthermore, Elisabet is expected to work in the bakery. She's very used to servants and the idea will take some getting used to. She almost wonders if she should return to Boston, but reasons that the ship her father's on is said to be in the Gulf of Mexico, so she might be closer to him here. She's underwhelmed by the neighborhood bakery at first, but the workers are kind. One of them, Raoul, mentions a ghost and implies it might be the ghost of her uncle, but the baker, Claude, scolds him for spreading rumors.

The next morning Marie wakes Elisabet up before dawn and helps her learn the ropes of the bakery. Elisabet is resentful of suddenly being on the other side of serving counter, and looks for an opportunity to slip away to the docks. Maybe someone's heard if the ship her father is on is near. But business is so brisk there's no chance. At one point a man identifying himself as McCain comes in, threatening that Elisabet's aunt better pay him the money he's owed--or else. Marie confides that Elisabet's late uncle was a smuggler, but seven years ago gave it up for an honest life, married a widow (Elisabet's aunt), gave his riches to the church, and opened a bakery. When he collapsed suddenly a few weeks ago, he gasped out that his map could be found and something about upstairs and the night, but died before making it clear. It's unknown whether it's a map of the routes he used to take to avoid detection or something more valuable--like some treasure he kept hidden. McCain was only bluffing; he was trying to scare the information out of Elisabet.

A week passes, and Elisabet starts to settle into the routine of working at the bakery. She listens carefully to the customer's conversations, eager for news that could lead her to her father. Finally, she hears that the ship he's being held on is docked about two days' journey from New Orleans. She slips out of the bakery while the rest of the crew has a siesta and goes to the office of the man who gave her the business card. He's a lawyer named Mr. Robinson. The infamous Jean Lafitte's brother is one of his clients, accused of piracy (Jean is thought by some to be a pirate as well). Mr. Robinson is sympathetic to Elisabet, but without ransom money there's not much he can do, and Elisabet certainly doesn't have two thousand dollars (more than $26,500 in 2014). Elisabet thinks that if she finds her late uncle's map, she can free her father.

When she returns to the shop, the other workers are angry with her for leaving them in the lurch. They didn't know where she was, so Raoul and Marie went to search for her, making the bakery even more behind. Raoul and Claude see that she was motivated by trying to rescue her father, and forgive her as long as she won't run off again. But Marie is another story. That night she blows up at Elisabet for slacking off when she's been given this great gift of a bakery to inherit. Elisabet corrects Marie that she has no desire to stay in New Orleans at all, much less inherit the bakery. She just wants to find her father and go home. Marie softens, apologetic for the accusation--and to her credit Elisabet also apologizes for running off. Marie tells Elisabet that she was left on an orphanage doorstep as an infant and raised there until she was seven, when Elisabet's aunt and uncle came looking for someone to help in the bakery. They've treated her like their own child, and she dreams of owning her own bakery someday. Elisabet says they should put aside their differences--after all, they're practically cousins. Then they hear something downstairs, footsteps and door opening. A thief? The ghost? But in the morning there's no sign of anyone having been in the bakery (they sleep upstairs from it), and a search of the locked and off-limits section of the house where Elisabet's aunt stays proves fruitless.

A couple days later, Mr. Robinson comes into the bakery. He tells Elisabet that her father is indeed on the nearby ship--but not only will it probably leave soon, the captain is demanding three thousand dollars for ransom. That evening, Elisabet and Marie return to the off-limits section, and this time find the "ghost"--it's Raoul, hoping to discover the map and claim the reward money Elisabet's aunt had promised, although he denies having been in the place during some of the times the girls heard noises. They find a piece of paper with a Bible verse on it ("And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." Luke 2:12). There's a Madonna and Child statue in the room, but a careful search of it turns up nothing.

The next night the girls realize the sign must be the important thing and investigate the bakery's signage. In a hidden compartment, they find a leather pouch that holds the smuggling map! Just then, McCain appears out of the shadows with a knife, demanding the map. Marie feigns handing it over, but instead throws it far away as she blows out the candle, calling for Elisabet to grab it. McCain leaves Marie alone and tries to pursue Elisabet, but she knows the bakery better than he and darts away, McCain hot on her heels. She runs for Mr. Robinson's office, and McCain catches up to her just as she arrives. Mr. Robinson's dogs (that she met on her previous visit) defend her, jumping and snapping at McCain. Two rough-looking men appear out of the darkness and take both people and both dogs into Mr. Robinson's parlor. Elisabet tells him what happened. Mr. Robinson has a guest who tells the rough men to take care of McCain The guest also offers to advise Elisabet what to do with the map. He says she could sell it to the British, to the governor of New Orleans, or to him--and he'll help get her father back. Elisabet knows her father would never help the British learn anything that could be useful to them in the war, and the guest estimates the governor would only give her a thousand dollars for the map, so she agrees to sell it to him. Mr. Robinson has a servant escort Elisabet back, where all three bakery workers are waiting. Claude surmises she must have sold the map to Jean Lafitte, and assures that while the man might be a pirate, he's widely known as a man of his word. They put the thousand dollars he gave Elisabet in a safe for her aunt to disperse--it was her husband's map, after all.

Days pass with no word from Elisabet's father, Mr. Robinson, or Lafitte (although Elisabet's aunt will be returning in about a week). Elisabet's heart sinks, thinking she sold the map to a pirate and now there's no hope of her father returning. News that the British have attacked an island off the coast of Louisiana seems to prove this, and that Lafitte is working with the British. When things seems their darkest, a customer enters the shop asking for Boston brown bread--Elisabet's father! Lafitte gave the British the map for his freedom--but as Elisabet's father quickly explains, it was a copy of the map, with strategic errors that will trip up the British more than if they had no map to start with. What's more, the Boston lawyer cheated Elisabet and her father: the cargo was insured, and he just pocketed all the money from the sales. They'll head for Boston soon, and get back what's theirs. Elisabet and Marie promise to stay in touch, and perhaps even try to visit some day.

A Peek into the Past

Conveniently, most of this book's historical section is like the ones in Caroline's books and some of the Marie-Grace and Cécile books. It expands some on the important role that New Orleans played in the War of 1812, being a port that was impossible to execute a sneak attack on, thanks to the bayous surrounding it. There's also mention of Jean Lafitte, a real person who pretended to go along with a British invasion plan but in reality helped the US.


Dedicated "in memory of my parents, Margaret and Parke Masters, with love and gratitude."

The pages of this book and the other History Mysteries aren't as smooth as the other American Girl books I've read. They feel more like regular book pages instead of smooth.

Elisabet is proud of herself for not getting seasick on her voyage to New Orleans. I'm proud of my cast-iron stomach too--and happy about it. I hate throwing up.

Elisabet's father was born in London, but is now an American citizen.

Marie's method of throwing the wanted item away from the threatening man and herself is smart: if you're ever unlucky enough to be in the position where someone is threatening you or a loved to get you to hand over car keys or a wallet or whatever, throw the item and run in opposite direction you threw it.

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