History Mystery #17: Mystery at Chilkoot Pass

Author: Barbara Steiner

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  Eastern Alaska, fall 1897 (Klondike Gold Rush)


Hetty McKinley has just landed in Alaska Territory from San Francisco with her father and uncle (her mother died some time ago), and her best friend and her mother, too. The vast wilderness stretches before them: it's seventeen miles to Chilkoot Pass, then down to a lake where they'll spend the winter. In the spring, it's off to find gold. They left on their journey the day she turned twelve. She considers starting the adventure a good birthday present.

But things get off to an inauspicious start. As the group departs the ship, some people find their luggage waterlogged and damaged. Hetty's best friend Alma Vasquez might have to return to San Francisco on the very same boat when her mother discovers her money pouch is gone. Hetty's family had some of their luggage thrown in the water by careless sailors too, but it's unclear if enough was ruined that they'll need to turn back. Despite the setbacks, most people are determined to press on. Alma's family is going to cook their wet food and that of a few other passengers' to sell at a restaurant. The people who lost food can earn money to either continue north or head back home. Hetty's Uncle Donall takes a break from gambling (with money borrowed from Hetty's father) to help gather firewood for the restaurant. Although she was initially sad to be leaving San Francisco, Hetty is now excited to be starting her new adventure. An aspiring novelist, she's sure she'll find lots of story fodder on the journey.

Soon the families are ready to head for the mountain pass. A woman named Sarah Lancaster attaches herself to the group. Hetty's not sure it's a  good idea to let Sarah tag along. She seems too delicate for the journey, although she is nice and Uncle Donall seems taken with her. As the group begins hiking the trail, Hetty's not sure what to think of Sarah. She turns out more capable than her appearance would indicate, but she also goes through a trunk someone abandoned on the trail, in a way that seems heartless to Hetty. Soon there are more troubles. Mrs. Vasquez discovers half her money stolen (it was hidden in two places), and Hetty's locket bearing a picture of her late mother is missing too. Hetty remembers what her mother told her when she was ill near the end of her life: Hetty's father isn't good at managing money, and Uncle Donall is too good at charming money from people. She taught Hetty how to properly take care of finances before she died. Hetty wonders, although she doesn't want to, if Uncle Donall is a thief, desperate for something to gamble with.

As the group presses on, more items go missing. A man is found to have stolen a few things, and flogged for it. Hetty's father falls ill, and so does a little girl. She ends up dying from it. Another family's baby dies, too. Death is expected on such a hard journey, but the little ones dying are hard to accept.

The flogging seems to have done some good at least. Mrs. Vasquez's money is returned, plus some extra cash. Seems someone was eager to get stolen things away and back where they belonged. Hetty still thinks Uncle Donall, and perhaps Sarah as well, is behind at least some of the disappearances. Hetty's father soon recovers from his illness, too. Slowly, Hetty and the others make it to the Golden Stairs, fifteen hundred steps carved out of ice that lead over Chilkoot Pass. They'll cross in the morning--but then her father collapses.

They end up snowed in by a blizzard while Mrs. Vasquez tends to Hetty's father. During the long wait, Uncle Donall confesses stealing the money from Mrs. Vasquez, but nothing else. Hetty and Alma learn some more about the other people in their group, but nothing to help them find their lost things (some stole the doll Alma's late father brought her from China, too). When the weather clears, Hetty's father is still weak. Sarah offers to pay some Alaska natives to help him over the pass--the fancy hat she wears actually conceals hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. No way she's the thief; she has plenty of money! And why is she so willing to help? She and Uncle Donall are engaged, so she's nearly a member of the family. But a rare autumn avalanche strikes, and kills 15 people. It seems there is so much sad news. Hetty is relieved to have some good: when the weather clears, her uncle will marry Sarah at the top of the pass. But as she helps Sarah get ready, she finds the stash of stolen goods in her things. Sarah is the thief.

Confused, Hetty doesn't say anything until after the wedding. It turns out Sarah was doing some sort of scavenger hunt. She didn't realize people would miss their sentimental items so, and seems truly contrite. Hetty says she must return everything in person, and apologize. Sarah agrees tearfully. People forgive her, and as if a sign that everything will be okay from here on out, the Northern Lights dance in the sky.

A Peek into the Past

The United States was in the grip of an economic depression in the last nineteenth century, so news of giant gold nuggets in the Alaska Territory spurred many men to sell all they had and head north. The land was largely unsettled, and they had to bring in their own supplies, as much as a ton of food and other equipment per person. Some women accompanied their husbands or sweethearts, and a few children, but not many. For about two years, many people found at least small fortunes in the land that everyone had mocked Secretary of State William Seward for buying from Russia thirty years before. He'd paid two cents an acre, $7.2 million in 1867 money, what was viewed then as an incredible waste of money for a hunk of remote ice. But the gold rush and later advantages (for example, oil fields) redeemed Seward.


Dedicated to "Susan Cohen, my super agent, who found this history/mystery series for me [and] for Peg Ross, my editor, who helped me find a better story than I thought possible."

This morning I was flipping through a book while waiting for my older daughter's appointment to start. It happened to be Call of the Wild by Jack London, set during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Really good book. Hetty meets Jack London and various other historical characters. I'll probably grab my own copy later tonight and finish reading it.

Hetty says her middle name is Stubborn. From the context she might mean she is stubborn, but people used to name their kids things like Temperance and Futility, so I wonder if that's actually her legal middle name.

Speaking of names...Hetty McKinley, Mount McKinley...coincidence?

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