‘I wasn’t aiming to sleep ladylike; I was hunting,” she said.
The woman had shot a grizzly and skinned it. It started to snow, and there was not enough light to make it back to camp that night, so she did the only thing that made sense.
“Well, old bear, this thick hide kept you warm a-plenty several years. Guess it can keep me warm one night,” she said.
So she wrapped herself in the freshly skinned bear hide and had a warm night’s sleep. When she woke up in the morning, covered in bear grease and blood, her own dogs almost ate her up.
So goes a story about Fannie Quigley, a pioneer woman of the North.
Even in her later years, Fannie could romp across the hills and valleys of Alaska, and the hardiest outdoorsmen couldn’t keep up.
In the remote wilderness of Mount McKinley (now Denali) she could lay out a feast fit for a king. She could kill and skin a moose, and haul the quarters home in her backpack, and do the same with a winter’s supply of firewood.
She was a tiny woman, barely literate, and could cuss like the most seasoned sailor; she drank like one, too.
She was known for her hunting and wilderness skills and her wild-game cooking
She could run a dog team and prospect for gold, and she did.
In fact, Fannie Quigley has become a legend in Alaska. But for 60 years since her death, her story has been told and retold — without checking the facts.
In fact, there was much confusion about who Fannie Quigley was.
That’s where Jane Haigh comes into the picture.
Haigh is a historian I met more than 20 years ago. She had a quick inquiring mind, and it didn’t take long for this long-time Alaskan resident to quiz me on what I knew about Fannie Quigley.
Haigh is also a history hunter, and the story of Fannie has been her quest for more than two decades.
Fannie came north to the Klondike during the gold rush, but her name wasn’t Quigley back then, and I had to confess that I knew nothing about her.
Over the years, Haigh pursued Fannie through archives and landscapes across the north, and where I found a blank, she ferreted out the details of the life of this unusual woman.
The story is told in her book Searching for Fannie Quigley: A wilderness Life in the Shadow of Mount McKinley, which was published this year by Ohio-based Swallow Press.
I can’t tell you Fannie’s entire story, but you might find this sketch of her life intriguing enough to buy the book.
She was born Frances Sedlacek in 1870 near Wahoo, Nebraska, to Bohemian immigrant parents.
She was raised in hard times and barely learned to read and write. Little is known about her childhood. She came north during the Klondike Gold Rush, probably as a cook in one of the countless roadhouses that sprang up during the stampede.
She used her cooking skills to advantage by setting up shop and serving meals to the ill-prepared during the numerous staking rushes that occurred after every whispered rumour of gold circulated in Dawson City.
And that’s how she earned the moniker “Fannie the Hike.”
After returning from a stampede to Clear Creek in 1900, she married Angus McKenzie, a dapper looking man, and they set up a roadhouse on Hunker Creek.
But he was a drunk, and their marriage didn’t last.
In 1902, Fannie was on the move, this time to Alaska, where gold had been found at Fairbanks.
She ended up with Joe Quigley, who also had a taste for gold, and they set out prospecting together.
Their search brought them to the Kantishna area, where they sought and tested hardrock properties, hoping to find the mother lode.
For many years, their pursuit continued. Joe did the prospecting work while Fannie hunted wild game, gathered firewood and tended a magnificent garden.
Over the years, the Quigleys’ location on the flank of North America’s tallest mountain brought many literate explorers to her door. These men and women chronicled her exploits and character over the ensuing decades, elevating her to legend.
In this book, Haigh ties together the elements of her personal experience and background events to establish context.
She visited many of the places that Fannie visited, and develops a picture of what life must have been like for this hard living individual.
At the same time as Haigh was absorbing the context, she was also finding the documentary evidence that puts truth to the legend, and enables us to understand Fannie for who she was.
In her quest for the truth about Fannie, the author also shares her insight into the perceptions of her chroniclers, who often painted Fannie as the way she ought to be, rather than the real person.
This is important because we know her not by what she wrote herself, but by what others wrote about her.
The narrative is lively and personal, and not annoyingly dull, as scholarly works often are. It carries the reader easily from start to finish.
Women’s history in Alaska was largely overlooked for most of the 20th century. Where it was captured on paper, seldom was it about the countless hardworking women who lived throughout the land.
Early 20th-century narratives portrayed the gold rush as a “time and place of masculinity,” in which “Women were erased, or set apart as singular or unusual, that is, not representative.”
Often they were locked into the classic stereotypes of dance hall girls and prostitutes, and trapped in late 20th-century popular revisions of history, such as the can-can dancer.
In this book, Haigh has removed some of the polish from the story and replaced it with a well-written and revealing account of an interesting and colourful pioneer.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.