The Queen of Heartbreak Trail

Queen cover


***2017 WILLA Literary Award Finalist in Scholarly Nonfiction***

The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman (TwoDot, An Imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) is the first comprehensive assessment of Harriet Smith Pullen, the Klondike Gold Rush pioneer who, despite landing alone in Skagway, Alaska, in 1897, became a successful entrepreneur and hotelier by single-handedly hauling prospectors’ provisions into the Yukon where gold beckoned.

The story begins with young Harriet’s adventurous life with her parents homesteading in sod houses, challenged by prairie fires, floods, grasshoppers, droughts, and blizzards. After landing in Washington, Harriet marries another westwarding pioneer, a man from Maine. The two become embroiled in a lawsuit with a malevolent employer and a decade-long land legal contest with the U.S. government, which eventually returns the land to the Quileute Indians. Landless, destitute, and disillusioned with her marriage, Harriet reinvents herself in Alaska and thrives during the last great gold rush, independent and empowered, a raconteur heralded as “The Mother of the North.”

Brackbill, Pullen’s great-granddaughter, retraced by foot, by car, by train, by plane, and by ferry via the Alaska Marine Highway, the Pullen and Smith families’ westward migrations from Maine to Wisconsin and South Dakota, to Washington and Alaska. She uncovered documents to confirm the story in libraries and archives in seven states from Maine to Alaska.

Reviews and Awards

2017 WILLA Literary Award Finalist in Scholarly Nonfiction
The award honors the best in literature featuring women’s stories set in the West. The award is named in honor of Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, one of the country’s foremost novelists. Women Writing the West (WWW), a non-profit association of writers and other professionals, underwrites and presents the nationally recognized award annually.

Maine Sunday Telegram
Frank Freeman
“Pioneering Woman Found Her Voice in Alaska’s Gold Rush”
April 16, 2017
“Brackbill, who lives near Portland, has written a fascinating book about a fiery, independent woman, the westward movements and hard lives of migrants and their fraught interaction with Native Americans. Though it’s full of historical records, she presents these deftly, focusing on the human foibles and glories they reveal.”

Alaska Dispatch News
December 25, 2016
Reviewer David A. James named it one of the six “most memorable Alaska books of the year.” “This is a book about the forces that drove Americans across an ever-receding frontier, placing early Alaska history in the context of our nation’s restless expansion as it was experienced by one family.”

Publisher’s Weekly
May 23, 2016
“. . . this is really an account of a fascinating, adventurous pioneering family who actively participated in the transformation of the Pacific Northwest and Alaskan frontiers.”

Pacific Northwest Quarterly
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington
Jacki Hedlund Tyler
“The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman”
Volume 107, Number 3 (Summer 2016), page 150
“Regardless of the falsehoods that surround Pullen’s legend, she lived a fascinating life, and her and her family’s turbulent past was an authentic American experience. Hundreds of families who migrated west in hopes of a better future, however misguided, shared this experience, and Brackbill’s detailed account uncovers a wonderful example of this history. Moreover, Brackbill effectively demonstrates that the past cannot be lost to legends and that understanding her great-grandmother’s role in the construction of those alternative stories intimately provides a more complete history.”

Alaska Dispatch News
David A. James, “‘Queen of the Heartbreak Trail’ Overcame Setback after Setback in Route to Skagway”
August 28, 2016
“Brackbill has done considerable historical sleuthing with this book, producing a well-crafted history about two generations of a family forever reinventing itself, and of the American frontier . . . . This is an Alaska story, but it’s also an American story about chasing dreams across an entire continent and overcoming countless setbacks. “The Queen of Heartbreak Trail” is about who we all are as Americans. There is much to be learned from it.”

October 5, 2015
“In all honesty I was blown away with this book. . . . The best part is that it is all true and is really an amazing and comprehensive account of a very important part of American history. Namely, the travel to and settlement of the west.”

Alaska Dispatch News
Steve Haycox, “Nuggets of Truth in Harriet Smith Pullen’s Skagway Gold Rush Legend”
August 6, 2015
“Brackbill has done yeoman service separating the factual wheat from the invented chaff. But the fictionalized versions of Pullen’s life may have captured as much truth as Brackbill, with their stories of a pluckish woman succeeding on her own in a pioneer, mostly male world. Pullen’s was a signal achievement, improbable for its time, and an inspiration still.”


Praise for The Queen of Heartbreak Trail

The Queen of Heartbreak Trail is the first thorough biography of the legendary Alaska entrepreneur Harriet Smith Pullen. It is also the riveting account of a family that over two generations repeatedly relocated to the farthest edge of the American frontier, a place where struggles routinely outnumbered successes. Situating Pullen and her relatives, friends, and enemies within successive eras of western American history, Eleanor Brackbill skillfully disentangles fact from the many fictions that Pullen and others told about her life.  The Queen of Heartbreak Trail is at once a moving pioneer chronicle and a multilayered historical narrative.”
–JOHN FINDLAY, Professor, History Department, University of Washington, Seattle

“The Queen of Heartbreak Trail is western history at its best. This absorbing frontier story is as unique as it is compellingly readable. Painstakingly researched and told with unflinching honesty, the account of Harriet Smith Pullen’s life, complete with its many tragedies and triumphs, makes an enlightening and enjoyable read.”
–MARY BARMEYER O’BRIEN, author of Heart of the Trail: The Stories of Eight Wagon Train Women

“Separating fact from fiction was a major challenge for Eleanor Brackbill in compiling this significant biography of Harriet Pullen, one of Alaska’s justly celebrated legends. Brackbill has done yeoman service separating the factual wheat from the invented chaff, creating a highly readable account, which both casual readers and scholars will much appreciate.”
—STEVE HAYCOX, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Anchorage

Goodreads review excerpt

“In all honesty I was blown away with this book. It is like reading a grown up version of “Little House on the Prairie”. The best part is that it is all true and is really an amazing and comprehensive account of a very important part of American history. Namely, the travel to and settlement of the west. It is a riveting story of the author’s ancestors including where they came from, why they chose to move west, and the struggles they faced. The center piece or person of the story is an incredible lady by the name of Harriet Smith Pullen. . . . I am so impressed with this book that I actually went and bought another book the author wrote :)”
–VERONICA, Goodreads review

Watch me talk about Queen of Heartbreak Trail on Touchcast here.