History Mystery #15: Mystery on Skull Island

Author: Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Dahl Taylor

Publishing Year: 2001

Setting:  Charles Town, South Caroline, spring 1724


Twelve-year-old Rachel Howell has lived with her grandparents in New York since she was five, after her mother died and her father left for South Carolina to start a new life. He's established as a shopkeeper now, and has sent for her. She's excited but also nervous. As they near the Carolinas, their ship is boarded by pirates. They make off with most of the cargo, but let the passenger live after taking all their valuables--including the pearl pendant Rachel always wears, a necklace belonging to her late mother. But everyone does arrive in port safely, at least. Rachel reunites with her father. The two are excited to get to know each other again--although they won't have as much time to themselves as Rachel envisioned. Her father is engaged to be married, and her soon-to-be stepmother will be arriving in a few weeks. Her father does make a concerted effort to spend with her each day, to his credit.

Rachel is able to explore the town during the days. She meets another girl her age, Sally Pugh, the daughter of the tavern owner, and they become fast friends. But too soon the ship carrying her father's fiancée arrives. Rachel fears that she will be strict like her grandparents (she loves her grandparents, but loves the freedom she enjoys living with her father). But she reminds herself that she's quickly gotten used to and loves Charles Town, and maybe her new stepmother will be the same. Miss Miranda LeBoyer disembarks with her Aunt Catherine. Rachel counts one point for her and one against: she seems uncomfortable with her father's business partner Mr. Craven like Rachel does, but she also seems to disapprove of Sally. However, she overhears Miranda and Mr. Craven talking. They each know other somehow, but when Mr. Howell returns, they pretend they've just met. She tells her father her concerns, but Mr. Howell isn't worried. Miranda was born in Barbados, where Mr. Craven's done business. It's not unreasonable they might know each other but not want to discuss it much. He further says that Mr. Craven is a respected businessman in Charles Town, and that there's no reason for Rachel to feel uneasy around him.

Then at dinner that night, Miranda and Aunt Catherine bring up Sally. It's not proper for Rachel to associate with people below her station. Despite admiring the business sense of Sally's widowed mother, Mr. Howell agrees with the women and tells Rachel she's not to see Sally anymore--surely she'll make new friends when she starts school. Rachel knows she at least has to tell Sally why they can't be together, and sneaks out of the house that night to see her. The girls figure out a plan to meet on occasion and row out to a nearby island, where no one will seem them together. They go to the island a few times, first finding the remains of someone long ago trapped in quicksand, and name it Skull Island. There are also some markings that seem to indicate a trail. They follow it and find what might be the hiding place for some buried treasure, but they have to leave before they can investigate. However, Sally's younger brother has followed them, and by the time they find him, it's too dark to row back to Charles Town. During the night, they see two men go to the hiding place and it's indeed filled with valuable things. The two men fight over something, and one is nearly killed. Rachel, Sally, and Sally's brother head for home as soon as they can, eager to leave Skull Island and never return.

Rachel is worried that she'll be punished severely for staying out all night, but it turns out that her father was at an event with Miranda and Aunt Catherine until late in the evening, so they assumed she was just asleep when she got home. And then her father receives news that a ship carrying expensive cargo for him was plundered by pirates--he'll be financially ruined if he doesn't secure a loan. He leaves for Philadelphia to pursue one with a business contract. While he's away, Rachel happens to see Miranda cavorting with Mr. Craven and accepting expensive gifts from him--highly inappropriate for an engaged women to do with her fiancé away in that time, and would probably even raise eyebrows today. Rachel even recognizes her mother's necklace among the gifts--distinct not only because of its intricate design, but because of a broken pearl near the clasp.

She confronts Miranda, who accuses Rachel of making up the story to stop the wedding, leaves the house in a huff. Rachel follows her, and sees her going to Mr. Craven's, and asking if her father is in. Rachel discusses all this with Sally and Todd, and they surmise that Mr. Craven is buying stolen items from pirates and reselling them for a profit--a quick way to get rich, but illegal and punishable by hanging. And since Rachel's father is Mr. Craven's business partner, he could be charged with the same crime. Rachel takes advantage of a free evening to help Sally and Todd wait tables at the tavern, and overhear some pirates discussing Skull Island and the treasure hidden there. The three are able to figure out that Mr. Craven doesn't just buy from pirates, he is a pirate--the one who threatened to kill the other man when they were last on the island. Rachel knows they have to return to find evidence so the pirates can be brought to justice. They find some silver ingots, and grab them to take to the sheriff...just as Mr. Craven happens upon the scene.

Fortunately, it's foggy and the trio is able to hide, but Mr. Craven is still looking for them. He nearly catches them when Rachel's father comes to the rescue, aided by the sheriff and other lawmen. Safely back at home, the truth comes out: Miranda had hidden her relationship with Mr. Craven because she was ashamed that he'd been a pirate in the past, but thought he'd given it up and was living as an honest merchant. When Rachel recognized the necklace he gave her, she saw through his lies and devastated, lashed out at Rachel. Mr. Craven had been purposely undermining Rachel's father, from the moment the engagement was announced, because he didn't approve of the union. As Miranda talks, it's clear she truly does love Rachel's father. She apologizes to Rachel for being so stuck-up about peoples' stations. She sees now that it's more important how a person acts than how much money someone has. With everything cleared up and the stolen goods given back their rightful owners, Rachel's father and Miranda can go ahead with the wedding--and Rachel is happy about it.

A Peek into the Past

When Charles Town (now Charleston) was first found in the late 1600s, its residents didn't mind being between two major pirate ports (the Caribbean and the inlets of North Carolina). Pirates attacked Spanish ships almost exclusively, and since the Spanish had raided Charles Town, its residents didn't have much sympathy for the Spanish. They happily accepted the pirates' money and stolen goods. But after a few decades, pirates began attacking ships indiscriminately. It became illegal in the colonies to trade with pirates, the same way that it's illegal to sell goods stolen by others today. The penalty for piracy was hanging. Consequently, piracy declined steeply.


Dedicated to "Peg Ross, my editor and teacher."

North and South Carolina had only been separate colonies (as opposed to one colony of Carolina) for fifteen years or so by the time this book is set.

Sarah says this to her younger brother, who wants to go with her everywhere to avoid the chance of being left out: "I can scarce answer nature without you afoot." Funny line.

While rowing to the island, Rachel and Sally see a snowy egret and a large black and white bird that catches a fish. I'm guessing a bald eagle. Bald eagles don't usually show up on the Carolina coast until summer, but maybe their migration patterns were different three hundred years ago.

I was expecting that Miranda would leave Charles Town and Mr. Howell would marry Sally's mother. Surprise ending! For me, anyway.

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