Historical sleuth: KPC professor seeks to set record straight

Posted: Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Jane Haigh's office at Kenai Peninsula College is bursting with books. Obscure autobiographical histories, textbooks and even her own titles line the shelves bordering her shoebox workspace.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Kenai Peninsula College professor Jane Haigh listens Tuesday afternoon to D. Anne Martin during a discussion in a U.S. history class at Kenai Peninsula College.

Haigh says, half-jokingly, that she thinks she owns just about every memoir written by Alaskan women. And as she pulls the books from her library it doesn't seem to be an exaggeration.

The oft-forgotten or unrecorded stories from women in the West, especially in Alaska, are what fascinate her and have driven the majority of her historical sleuthing.

"It's so much harder to find women's history information," she said, explaining that women typically change their names when they get married, making records difficult to track down. "I just love solving all the mysteries."

Her most recent book, "Searching for Fannie Quigley: A Wilderness Life in the Shadow of Mount McKinley," tells the story of the woman, Quigley, who came west to join the gold rush to the Klondike and settled in Kantishna near Mount McKinley.

"She was a miner and a cook, an iconic pioneer woman of the area. She was just kind of a mythic character," she said. "She was doing something that men were supposed to be doing."

Haigh, who began teaching history at Kenai Peninsula College this academic year, brings her passion for uncovering history to her U.S. and Alaska history classes at the college.

"She's one of my favorite teachers and I'm not just saying that," said Chris Pepper, a student in her Western Civilization class. "She's very cool."

Pepper said Haigh is personable, has a sense of humor, and uses different teaching methods, like YouTube, to keep her lectures interesting.

"I really enjoy her class," he said.

Haigh recently completed her doctorate in history and American Indian studies from the University of Arizona. In 2007 she was named "Alaska Historian of the year."

Gary Turner, the director of Kenai Peninsula College, said that Haigh's honors really speak to the quality of education the college has to offer

"She's a wonderful addition," he said. "It's a real feather in KPC's cap when we have the 2007 Alaska Historian of the Year as part of our staff."

Originally from the East Coast, Haigh said she sought out Alaska when she was 18. That's when her passion for Alaska stories began, digging up facts in and around Fairbanks.

With nine historical titles under her belt, Haigh is a relatively well-known Alaskan historian.

Anyone that has tried to find information on the Gold Rush in Alaska has more than likely come across the books she co-authored with Claire Rudolph Murphy, "Gold Rush Women," "Children of the Gold Rush" and "Gold Rush Dogs."

Recently, she has been digging deeper into a topic she has covered in the past -- Skagway's infamous con man Soapy Smith.

"People always said he took over the town of Skagway during the Gold Rush," she said. But he was just your average con man, she said. Smith learned everything he knew from political corruption in Denver.

She brought the two pieces of Smith in Alaska and corruption in Denver for her doctoral dissertation, and learned something else in her historical investigating.

"You have to be prepared for surprises," she said.

Through her books and research, Haigh is setting the record straight on Alaska history.

"No one else outside of Alaska thinks of it as a field of history. It's just local history," she said.

But to Haigh it's important to recover these stories and keep them alive.

Haigh will be presenting a lecture at the college commons April 15 at 7 p.m. on Soapy Smith and "Political Power, Patronage and Protection Rackets and Con men and Political Corruption in Denver: 1889-1894."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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