Side Trail Story
Matilda McGillicuddy
Steve Levi

Side Trail Story

Matilda McGillicuddy may have had a name that was right out of a pulp magazine but she was as far from a timid wife as a narwhale was from a rocking chair. She was hard as square nails, an Alaska Gold Rush virago. She took no grief from any man, or woman, and made her own way in life. She was married to a man who made her appear mosey. His name was Denver, like the city, and they were an unbeatable team, the kind of marriage that misfortune avoids to keep its record pure. Denver and Matilda had two children, George and Sara, who were just as tough as their parents. It was a quartet of the worst kind of people to settle in Hootlani: hardworking, honest, God fearing and sober by choice. Worse, they were Methodist.

Denver had been assigned to Hootlani by the Syndicate after the death of Nimrod because he could fix anything. But he was more than a jack-of-all-trades. He was better than a jack-of-all-trades. He had come to Hootlani with his family to stay. Theirs was not to be a sojourn of a few year to earn enough money to retire somewhere in the lower states comfortably. He and his wife were on a mission. They were on a mission to convert the heathen be they white or Native, Portuguese or Italian, Negro or Mexican. Alaska had been divided up among the various religious orders and the Methodist had been given western Alaska and the McGillicuddy family drew the Hootlani straw.

Father Albert had no difficulty in accepting the McGillicuddy clan into his church. He was an old school Christian. He did not look upon any acreage as his domain and was only interested in the savings of souls. He lived frugally so he was above the profit motive. Besides, he was hardly a spring chicken and, at some point, he was going to be called away. What better hands to leave his flock than in a righteous couple sinking roots deep in the taiga of Hootlani?

Father Albert was also pleased that the McGillicuddy pair had no problem dealing with the local Indians. Or Eskimo, depending on to whom one was talking. Very few residents of Hootlani saw the Natives as anything other than bothersome individuals who were always looking for someone to buy them liquor – which was strictly illegal but did not seem to bother any of the tavern owners in the least. The only good Indian anyone ever saw was Bacon Harold’s wife and she did not drink, gamble or gossip.

It did not take long for the McGillicuddy family to fit right into the community. Denver was rarely seen because he had a work-a-day job and was more than busy keeping the vessels of the Syndicate ship shape and Bristol ready. During the winter he busied himself on repairs of the dock, warehouse, windmills, lumber mill and some of the structures that needed repair – with the exception of the taverns and brothel. God, he said, would have to take care of them.

Being an entrepreneur as well as a jack-of-all trades, Denver saw opportunities in Hootlani. God, as the McGillicuddy family quickly discovered, did provide in mysterious ways. The family bought a lot for a dollar and spent the first winter in a half-cabin/half-tent. The next spring, while digging a well, Denver hit a hot spring. Not one to waste the Lord’s gifts, they opened the first laundry, an enterprise that broke even because they paid George and Sara well – but they forced the children to bank their money at the Methodist bank in Seattle because only God knew what was going to happen after any sunrise. The children did double duty, George as a cobbler and Sara a seamstress because only God knew what was going to happen after any sunrise.

Matilda was a ball of fire. She quickly became the town’s doctor for all ailments save gunshot, primarily because those were usually fatal. She spent as much time ministering to the ailments of the Native body as the Native soul and established a pest house in the village. She taught school in Hootlani and demanded that the urchins spend at least an hour a day learning reading, writing and mathematics. The six children in town were given a free ride with books; the urchins’ education was supported by Harry Dunbar and Billy the Loon, both of whom were businessmen to the core. They knew there was no substitute for a good education and both knew that sooner or later the two of them would be depending on those urchins for their golden years.

When it came to the Indians – or Eskimo – even though the village was close to Hootlani very few of the indigenous came to town. Here were two cultures living side-by-side never seeing one another. There was some trade between the two but that was facilitated by a very few, primarily Harry Dunbar and Jerome Findlay Quidley III on the white side and a select number on the Native side. The aboriginals provided furs and hides. Harry Dunbar provided needles, thread, fabric and mirrors, typical products for Indians in the West; Jerome Findlay Quidley III provided liquor.

Both men had been put out of business when Bacon Harold’s wife came to Hootlani and took charge of the trading. She increased the traffic in furs and hides and added meat, ivory carving and scrimshaw to the mix. Sarah Henderson knew exactly what she was doing. She and her husband had been dealing with the Syndicate for over a decade so she was acquainted with distributors in Seattle and Portland. She was well-liked and trusted and was a bit of an oddity because she was an astute businesswoman and, at the same time, a Native – an odd combination if you lived in the lower states. She sold the furs and hides directly to distributors thus increasing the take for the Natives. Meat was sold exclusively to the Two-Ladies Dining Establishment, an enterprise started by two fallen-but-standing-again women who operated the only restaurant in Hootlani and was, incidentally, the only business in Hootlani that boasted a shingle. The Native ivory carvings were shipped to Portland and then traveled by rail across the country to New York where they were sold as exotic objects d’arte at discriminating galleries at five times the acquisition cost. That was fine with Sarah Henderson because the money was good and came by wire.

But there were two things Sarah Henderson could not do: cut off the supply of liquor to the Natives and stop young Native women from running away to a brothel. But she tried mightily. She was able to stop Jerome Findley Quidley III from coming into the village with a wagon of booze but she could not keep the occasional bottle from finding its way into the aboriginal settlement. She could also not keep a headstrong Native from slipping into town to find someone who would buy them a drink, dram or bottle. But she did dry the community and provide what was called “White Man Food” at a lower price.

Young Native girls drawn by the lure of good money – good money for them anyway – in the brothel simply disappeared. For a young girl born in a barabara, a bed was a luxury even though it had no sheets and only blankets. Alaskan Natives had a different view of the sexual act but it did not take long for the novelty to wear off. But by then the girls might have been transferred several times and were so far from Hootlani they could not afford to come home. So they continued in the profession, spiraling downward like all of the other trollops, aging quickly and dying young.

Sarah Henderson found a kindred spirit in Matilda McGillicuddy. Both were religious in the original sense of the word: they were sterling of character even when no one was watching. They ministered to the sick, kept the weak on the path of righteousness and lived by the same rules they expected all others to follow. Even more important, the women straddled two worlds and this became critical in the early months of the Year of the Post Office.

Whatever it was and from wherever it came, no one knew. All Sarah Henderson and Matilda McGillicuddy knew was that it started with a cough that spread like wildfire on the Great Plains in a drought. Then came the pustules, oozing boils along with attacks of diarrhea, vomiting and yellow pus from the eyes. That was the good news. The bad news was that whatever disease it was it had come in force. Every Native village between Holy Mission and Lotsaluck was struck and cries for assistance from as far north as Barnette’s Cache were being received. Hootlani was the funnel for bad news because it had the telegraph office and missives of assistance were sent to the lower states.

The first to come with assistance were the religious communities. Methodist, Quaker, Catholic and Presbyterian churches across the country raised money for serum, bandages and antiseptic. Rallies were held in key cities across America and hospitals, medical houses and eleemosynary associations were strong armed and sweet talked into donating life-saving supplies. Then railroad officials were inveigled to transport the medical supplies at no cost to Portland. Packages of mercy came into Portland by the ton.

And there the critical material sat.

It was late February and there was no way to get the lifesaving medicine and bandages north. The crest of the Bering Sea was frozen six feet thick and would not break until the first week of June – if then. The Caribou River would not break for another two weeks after that. In essence, the Natives of Alaska were left to fester with their pestilence for at least another four months before the first shipment of mercy could arrive.

Sarah Henderson and Matilda McGillicuddy and their humanitarian brethren – and sisteren – did all that could to stem the tide of death. They separated the healthy from the infected. They boiled water and bathed the sick. They laundered bandages, cleaned up fluids and prayed for assistance from the Divine. None of it worked and the Natives died by the hundreds. It was a plague of biblical portion and there was great fear that there might not be a Native left alive along both the Yukon and Kuskokwim by the time the ice broke in June.

Untouched, in both senses of the term, were the non-Native residents along the Noonan Trail. While Natives were dying by the scores within a handful of miles from white settlements, there was very little concern in those white settlements. The pestilence was looked upon as either the luck of the draw or Nature’s way of weeding out the weak. Little was said about God being involved but whether or not Providence was involved few white hands were extended toward the Natives. In Hootlani those numbered included Sarah Henderson, Father Albert, Matilda McGillicuddy and, oddly, Nellie the Pig. There had been some reluctance regarding the assistance of Nellie the Pig because it was assumed that there was a self-serving motive in her humanitarian endeavor. But these reservations evaporated as she spent days away from her establishment and was not above performing the most degrading of personal services to men, women and children none of whom would ever so much as darken the door of a tavern let along a brothel. She wept along with the others and hers were not the tears of a crocodile.

The devastation of the Native communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim watersheds was nearly complete. By the time the steamships with the life-saving serums, bandages and medical supplies could enter the Alaskan watershed many Native villages had ceased to exist. Many were abandoned leaving only bones to indicate that they had been inhabited the freeze up before. Villages where there had been assistance from the missionaries and white citizenry seemed to have done better – but only slightly better. There was no doubt that the Native community as going to rebound. It was hard to believe that a people who had survived for 10,000 years in the harshest environment on the planet would vanish from the face of the earth because of a disease. Europe had survived the Black Death; Alaska’s Natives would survive this plague. But it would take more than a generation to recover.

Sarah Henderson and Matilda McGillicuddy remained good friends after the real missionary doctors arrived to supervise the healing. Not so with Nellie the Pig. She returned to her establishment and the three parted company as though they had never worked together shoulder-to-fingertip in pus, vomit and diarrhea. Sarah Henderson and Matilda McGillicuddy had done their duty and Nellie the Pig her penance and then things settled back to normal in Hootlani.