Rod Library--Special Collections
Am Good as Common: Thomas E. Seerley's Journey to the Montana Goldfields in 1864
The journal of Thomas E. Seerley is a remarkable historical and personal document. It is, on one level, a valuable and descriptive account of an arduous trip to the goldfields of the American West in the 1860s. In his journal, Seerley gives a clear picture of what it took to keep men and animals healthy and moving toward their destination under difficult conditions. His account of travel on the Bridger Trail is uncommon and has significant historical value. However, his journal also has a more personal side. Seerley's relatively brief journal entries, over just four months of travel, paint a clear picture of Seerley as a thoughtful, intelligent, hard-working, resourceful, and skilled man.
Thomas Seerley was adventurous. As a young man he drove cattle to market from Indiana to Maryland and then walked back to Indiana. Three years later, he took a flatboat down the Mississippi River and spent a winter cutting timber in Louisiana. He also received enough education to serve as a successful schoolmaster. In 1846 he married Louisa Ann Smith in Indianapolis, Indiana, before moving his family to a farm near Toulon, Illinois, in 1851.
In 1854 he moved to South English, Keokuk County, Iowa, where he, his wife, and their three sons worked a pioneer farm. The family grew, sewed, built, or hunted for just about everything that they needed. Even in this pioneer atmosphere, though, Thomas Seerley paid careful and close personal attention to the education of his children, all of whom became prominent and successful men. His son Homer became the president of the Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) and one of the foremost educational leaders in Iowa. His son Frank became the head of the well-known and progressive Young Men's Christian Association Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. His son John became a prominent attorney in Burlington, Iowa.
In the early 1860s, when at least two of his sons were old enough to help on the farm, Thomas Seerley decided that the family should consider moving farther west, possibly as far as Oregon. He would go west on his own to look at new land and maybe even find other kinds of opportunities. One such opportunity arose in May 1863, when gold was discovered on Alder Creek in the vicinity of Virginia City, Montana. News of the gold strike spread across the country. Miners rushed in as quickly as they could. It seems likely that Thomas Seerley read or heard reports of the rich strike during the winter of 1863-1864. He probably talked about the prospects and possibilities with his neighbors and his family. Were the reports of a rich strike true? How much would it cost to get to Montana, file a claim, set up a placer mining operation, and support himself for a year? Could he and his acquaintances, for the sake of safety and economy, combine resources and travel together? Would it be possible for him to go on to Oregon? Could his wife and sons take care of themselves and the farm during his extended absence?
One can only imagine the conversations that Thomas Seerley, his family, and his friends had that winter before they came to a decision. What could seem to be the greatest obstacle, leaving his family behind for a year, might not have been especially difficult. Two of his sons, Homer, 15, and John, 12, were old enough to do most farm work. His youngest son, Frank, was just five, but that was old enough to do small chores and to keep out of the way. Also, according to her son Homer, Louisa Ann Seerley was capable of performing any farm-related chore, including those tasks then considered to be work for men. In addition, Louisa Seerley sold butter and eggs that brought in the cash necessary to buy the few things that the family did not produce.
The Seerley family apparently had enough money saved to cover the expenses of the trip. Thomas Seerley bought or traded for at least some of his supplies and gear--bulk food, clothing, boots, and tools--before he left home. Prices in Iowa were much lower than they would be in Montana. He would also need to carry a certain amount of cash with him for expenses along the way, such as ferriage and wagon repairs. Once in Montana, he would need to buy supplies and gear both for his own subsistence and to develop a placer mining operation.
With some supplies on hand, and with money to purchase additional supplies in the future, Thomas Seerley still needed to provide transportation for himself and his gear. He seems to have entered into an agreement with other prospective travelers from his neighborhood, including men named Flory and Noffsinger, to buy a share in larger necessities, such as one or more teams of draft animals. Emigrants headed to the West used horses, mules, and oxen to pull their wagons. Oxen were the most commonly used draft animals, because, while they were slower than horses and mules, they tended to be sturdier, stronger, and less prone to disease. Seerley and his friends chose oxen as did the majority of emigrants. For example, on May 28, a layover day for his train, Seerley watched 137 teams pass. Sixty wagons used horses or mules. The other seventy-seven were drawn by oxen. On at least one occasion, Seerley was able to help an emigrant who had horses. On May 9, he wrote, "horse team stalled near the river took Tom & Dick & pulled out." Tom and Dick are presumably the names of two of Seerley's oxen. The exact nature of ownership of wagons and oxen among Seerley and his friends is unclear. It seems likely that Seerley and one of his friends jointly owned at least one wagon and one team of oxen. But certain entries in the journal seem to indicate that Seerley occasionally drove two teams. The ownership of that possible second team is unclear.
It is also unclear what kind of wagon Seerley and his friends chose. A purpose-built emigrant wagon would have been a significant investment, perhaps $500 or more. A large expense like that would likely have shown up as a major item in the financial accounts of the journal. Since Seerley made no special mention of a wagon in his journal, it is likely that he and his friends simply converted a farm wagon to their purposes. This was a common and economical choice for emigrants headed for the West. A converted farm wagon would not have looked as graceful as the familiar Conestoga wagon, but it apparently did the job. It sheltered goods from inclement weather. It was sturdy enough to survive rough roads. It was light enough to be drawn by oxen without frequent double teaming. In his journal, Seerley mentioned only one major repair to his wagon over the entire trip: replacement of the steel rim on one of his wheels.
With supplies on hand, a sturdy vehicle prepared for travel, and matters settled at home, Thomas Seerley left South English, Iowa, with a small wagon train on May 2, 1864.
Note on geographical names: In the early part of 1863, the area around what would become Virginia City was part of Dakota Territory. In March 1863, that area became part of the newly formed Idaho Territory. On May 26, 1864, the area became part of the new Montana Territory.
Thomas Seerley invariably wrote that his goldfield destination was Idaho. For the first three weeks of his journey, that was correct: Virginia City was officially in Idaho Territory. But Seerley did not note the territorial boundary changes that occurred later in his trip. That is, he did not begin to write that he was headed for Montana rather than Idaho. Perhaps he did not hear about the change while he was on the road. In any case, from Seerley's point of view, the change involved mere lines on a map. It was of little or no consequence to him whether Virginia City was in Idaho Territory or Montana Territory. The location of rivers, mountains, and gold was what mattered to him.
However, for the sake of consistency and clarity, the commentaries in this series of pages, unless dealing with direct quotes from Seerley's journal, will tend to use Montana as Seerley's destination.
Especially since the time of the discovery of gold on the American River in California in January 1848, Americans had been exploring and refining overland routes to the West Coast of the United States. By the early 1860s, after several more significant gold and silver strikes in the West--gold in Colorado and silver in Nevada--thousands of emigrants had made the trip by one route or another.
When gold was disconvered in the Idaho Territory, first at Bannack in the summer of1862 and then along Alder Gulch, near what would become Virginia City, in May 1863, prospectors from the Midwest and East had several routes from which to choose. One of those routes involved the Missouri River. Emigrants drove to an embarkation point somewhere along on the Missouri River. They then took steamboats to the head of the navigible waters of the Missouri River at Fort Benton. From there they travelled overland on the Mullan Road to their destination. Another popular route was the North Platte Road of the Overland Trail. Emigrants would take that road along branches of the Platte River across Nebraska and into Wyoming. When they reached the area near South Pass in Wyoming, they could take the Lander Cutoff, continue west to Fort Hall and then head north on the Montana Trail. Some travellers moved past South Pass and went all the way to Salt Lake City before heading north on the Montana Trail. Each of those routes had its advantages and drawbacks. When emigrants approached these turning points, they had serious and consequential choices to make.
However, even though emigrants used the routes noted above with considerable success, promoters of the Montana goldfields sought shorter, more direct routes north from the North Platte Road. One of the shortcuts, or cutoffs, became known as the Bozeman Trail or Bozeman Cutoff, named for John Bozeman, the first man to lead a wagon train over its entire length. Bozeman and a small party of horsemen had prospected the new route in the spring of 1863 when they travelled from the Idaho Territory, through the Powder River Basin, and down to the North Platte Road.
In the spring of 1864, mountain man Jim Bridger blazed another emigrant trail heading north from the North Platte Road. Drawing on his decades of experience as a trapper, guide, and Army scout, Bridger led a large wagon train from the North Platte Road through the Bighorn Basin to Virginia City in May and June of 1864. The Bridger Trail was roughly parallel to, but west of the Bozeman Trail. The new trails crossed hunting grounds of several tribes of American Indians. The Bozeman Trail crossed the hunting gounds of the Lakota Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne. The Bridger Trail crossed the hunting grounds of the Crow and the Shoshone. Relations between Euroamericans and the Crow and Shoshone nations tended to be better than those between Euroamericans and the Sioux and Cheyenne. Consequently, the Bridger Trail had the potential to be safer from attack. Those hunting grounds were critical to the Northern Plains tribes' nomadic way of life, which was based on bison and horses. The hunting grounds had been guaranteed to the tribes by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Under that treaty, the tribes, in return for annual payments, allowed safe passage of emigrants along the Overland Trail. The United States Army was responsible for enforcing the treaty.
The Bozeman and Bridger Trails were significant departures from the established North Platte branch of the Overland Trail. The prospect of conflict between emigrants and Indians along the new trails hung over the region. Some encounters between emigrants and Indians were friendly trading exchanges: for example, Indian moccasins or tanned hides for emigrants' flour or clothing. Hostile encounters initially seemed confined to quick, harrassing raids in which Indians stole horses, cattle, and equipment from emigrants. Occasionally, though, there was violence with resulting casualties. This put the United States Army into a difficult position. It was supposed to protect both emigrants and Indians. But, by the early 1860s, the ongoing American Civil War affected the situation. With the federal government and the Army focused tightly on defeating the Confederacy, events in Wyoming seemed to be of much less consequence. In addition, if mining ventures were successful, the federal government would benefit from the hard money that new gold discoveries would inject into the economy.
Despite constant and exaggerated rumors of hostile Indian action along the new trails, the 1864 travel season along the routes from the North Platte Road toward the goldfields passed relatively quietly. As noted above, conflicts were fairly minor. However, that situation did not continure for long. Perhaps there was a sense that tensions were rising to a dangerous level. Perhaps, with the Civil War winding toward an end in April 1865, the Army had gathered the will and the resources to carry out its mission. In any case, in 1865 the Army closed those trails to emigrant trains in order to avoid conflicts with Indians.
This was the situation into which Thomas Seerley put himself. There was a gold strike in Montana. Despite the undeniable rigors of the trip and rumors of hostile Indians, he decided that he wanted to head West and try his luck. He had the resources and the physical stamina to make the trip. His family could manage the farm and take care of themselves until he returned.
--South English to Council Bluffs, Iowa; May 2-May 19, 1864
Thomas Seerley and a group of acquaintances started in a small wagon train from South English, Iowa, on May 2, 1864. The trip across southern Iowa was relatively uneventful. The country was open. Roads were well-established. Landforms were gentle and familiar. The travellers learned and refined their skills as teamsters, hunters, stocktenders, and cooks. They began to understand how to deal with difficult situations, such as crossing rivers and large streams, in a safe and orderly manner. They learned how to find good encampments that included the three critical elements for their journey: wood for cooking fires, water for themselves and their stock, and grass on which their stock could graze. As their train combined with other trains, they learned to coordinate their needs and abilities in order to make progress toward their goal of reaching the West safely and in good time.
Thomas Seerley recorded, with an implied degree of accuracy, the distance that the train travelled almost every day. While he occasionally wrote that they travelled "about 20 miles", most of the time he recorded a more precise figure, such as "14 miles", "17 miles", or "22 miles". Those fairly precise figures indicate that someone in his train had a means of recording mileage, probably a "roadometer". The roadometer, possibly invented by Mormon emigrants in the 1840s, was an early odometer that was attached to a wagon wheel. Cogs, calibrated to the size of the wheel, counted the wheel's revolutions. At the end of the day, the roadometer indicated how many miles the wagon had covered. In his entry for May 23, 1864, Thomas Seerley wrote the word "Roadometer", without explanation, at the top of the page. This lends credence to the notion that someone in the train was using such a device and that Seerley was able to get a fairly accurate reading of the train's daily mileage.
The train traveled west from South English. After two days they reached Oskaloosa, about forty miles from their starting point. Some members of the party wanted to take the Knoxville road, but others convinced them to stay together on the road to Pella. The ten wagons in the train passed through Pella on May 6 and camped in the Red Rock area. By the end of their travel on May 8, the train had passed Pleasantville and camped on Coal Creek on the eastern edge of Warren County, Iowa. By May 10, following a route similar to that of modern Highway 92, the train passed through Indianola and reached Clanton Creek, where they camped. On May 11, the train headed toward Winterset. There Seerley took the opportunity to leave the train for a few hours. He took his horse Frisky and rode to visit his brother William, who lived in the area. After a short visit, Seerley rode back and re-joined the train in Winterset. Continuing along a route similar to that of modern Highway 92, the train passed Greenfield and Fontanelle and camped on a branch of the Middle Nodaway River. After twelve days of travel, the train stayed at this camp for a day, May 14, in order to wash clothes, clean equipment, and give the animals a rest.
The train started again on May 15 and traveled steadily west toward Council Bluffs, where they planned to cross the Missouri River. Settlement in southwestern Iowa was more sparse than what the emigrants were accustomed to in south central and southeastern Iowa. Consequently, they had a hard time finding corn for their stock or flour for themselves. If they were able to find those provisions, prices were high. Even though settlement was thin, traffic on the road grew substantially. On some days there were as many as forty wagons in the train. Seerley also saw other large trains moving along the same road.
The train with which Seerley travelled reached Council Bluffs and the Missouri River on May 19. According to Seerley's journal, they had travelled 250 miles since leaving home. He had been on the road for eighteen days that included one day of rest and several days of limited movement. The train had averaged about fourteen miles of travel per day on the road. If the days of rest and limited travel are not counted, the train averaged about sixteen miles per day.
--Omaha to Fort Laramie; May 20-June 27, 1864
Crossing the Missouri River from Council Bluffs to Omaha was a worrisome trial. The Missouri River was much too wide and deep for the train to ford, so they needed to rely on ferry service to reach the Nebraska side. The Missouri River ferry at Omaha was a significant bottleneck on the journey to the West. Many emigrant trains, from many points east, converged there simultaneously during the peak travel season of 1864.
As his train approached the ferry landing, Thomas Seerley heard disheartening rumors that troops were going to shut down the ferry service altogether. That proved not to be the case. However, there was a very long line of wagons awaiting passage. Seerley drove down to the river, over deeply rutted roads, at 1 o'clock in the morning of May 20. He received the number 96 in crossing order. He crossed safely at about 3 o'clock that afternoon.
The emigrants looked around Omaha briefly, wondered at the prices for staple items, and then camped a few miles west of town. The seemingly endless, grassy, rolling prairie of Iowa was behind them. The second phase of their journey, which would take them across Nebraska and into Wyoming, had begun. Most of this route followed the old Oregon Trail. It was well-established, well-travelled, and relatively safe. But finding adequate daily supplies of the essential wood, water, and grass would take more effort. And they would encounter more challenging weather, landforms, and river crossings. They would also need to come closer to making decisions about their ultimate destination. Should they go all the way to Oregon? Should they head for the goldfields in Montana? Or should they turn around and go home?
The train with which Thomas Seerley was travelling left the Omaha area, crossed a branch of the Papillion River, and then the Elkhorn River. On May 23, they reached the Platte River. This was a milestone for travellers. Seerley called it a "strange" and "singular" river. The Platte would be their guide as they moved across Nebraska and into Wyoming. They would travel alongside the Platte for hundreds of miles. The broad Platte Valley would also be a potential source of sustenance for them and their stock during the journey.
They moved past Fremont on May 23, across the Loup River on May 25, and further west until they stopped on May 28 for a wash up day. Emigrant traffic was heavy. Thomas Seerley counted 137 wagons passing or stopped near his encampment. After their day of rest, they crossed to the south side of the river near the Jesse Shoemaker settlement, and continued along the south side of the Platte until, on June 3, they passed Fort Kearney. There Seerley was proud to see the flag of the United States flying over the post.
On June 9, they reached Pawnee Springs, where they recharged their drinking water supplies. That night a woman in the train gave birth. Unfortunately, her newborn child died and was buried along the trail. The train stayed at Pawnee Springs for several days in order to allow the woman to regain strength. Other members of the train hunted and attended religious meetings, though all activities were hampered by cold, rainy weather.
When the woman who had given birth was feeling somewhat better, the train continued its steady, daily progress up the North Platte. On June 19, they passed Ash Hollow, a well-known resting and watering place along the trail. They passed over the Cobble Hills and on June 24 they passed Chimney Rock, another trail landmark. On June 25, they passed Scottsbluff and continued west across what is now the Nebraska-Wyoming state line. They reached Fort Laramie on June 27. Thomas Seerley sent and received mail at the military post, but he was not impressed by the country. Reaching Fort Laramie had been a goal for him. Having reached that destination, he was eager to move on. Perhaps gold fever was becoming a bit stronger for him.
This completed what Thomas Seerley considered to be the second phase of his journey. During this phase, the train had travelled 522 miles, according to his calculations, in thirty-seven days, including a few rest days. That was an average of about fourteen miles per day overall. Despite generally more difficult driving conditions over frequently sandy roads that strained the oxen teams, that was about the same daily average that the train achieved in its trip across southern Iowa.
--Fort Laramie to Upper Bridge of the Platte River (Red Buttes); June 28-July 11, 1864
The train immediately left the Fort Laramie area and continued up the Platte River. This phase of the journey would be relatively short. The emigrants would continue to follow and use the resources of the Platte River. Travelling conditions would be similar to those that they experienced in western Nebraska, though they would need to work harder to see that their stock had adequate grass and water. They would also need to come to a final decision about where they intended to go: west to Oregon or north to Montana? And, if they were headed for Montana, which route would they take?
Thomas Seerley used the brief halt at Fort Laramie on June 28 to send and receive mail. The train included twenty-eight wagons when it left Fort Laramie. It grew much larger over the next few days. By July 1 there were one hundred fifty wagons and by July 3 there were two hundred in the train. These large numbers increased the emigrants' sense of security against Indian attack. But they also increased the difficulty of finding grass and water for the much larger herd of cattle, horses, and mules. Getting the stock down to the Platte, or onto islands in the river proved time-consuming and dangerous. Crossing the Platte for better grass or to follow a better stretch of the road endangered the lives of men and cattle. Much of the trip up to the area around what is now Casper, Wyoming, was occupied with special concerns for the safety and wellbeing of the stock.
Thomas Seerley noted few landmarks along this part of the trip, so it is difficult to say exactly where the train stopped and started each day. He usually mentioned only occasional badlands and the train's crossings and re-crossings of the Platte. On July 7, the train reached the Lower Bridge over the Platte. This was a well-known Overland Trail toll bridge owned by John Richard. There was also a trading post and blacksmith shop there. Emigrants sometmes stopped near the Lower Bridge to rest, organize, replenish supplies, and gather strength for the rest of their trip. It was also the place where emigrants needed to make the decision on whether they would continue on the Overland Trail to the Lander Cutoff or turn north onto one of the new roads to the godlfields. Just a few miles ahead, they would come to Richard's Upper Bridge over the Platte. There the emigrants would need to choose either the Bozeman Trail or the Bridger Trail for the final lap on their trip to Virginia City.
On July 3, Seerley wrote in his journal that he intended to make arrangements to go to Idaho. On July 4, he wrote that he had made those arrangements. It is unclear exactly when he had come to that decision or why he had made it. But, with the new trails to Montana just a few days ahead, he was committed.
Thomas Seerley reckoned that the trip from Fort Laramie to the Upper Bridge (Red Buttes) was 156 miles. It had taken fourteen days to cover this distance. His train's average daily mileage was only about 11 miles. However, the train had waited and gathered strength for a few days in the Lower Bridge area. These inactive days pushed the daily average down, but they helped to prepare both men and stock for the tough road ahead.
--Upper Bridge of the Platte River (Red Buttes) to Virginia City, Montana; July 12- August 26, 1864
The last phase of the trip would prove to be the most challenging. Both cutoffs to the goldfields, the Bozeman Trail and the Bridger Trail, had been only recently explored, and, compared to the Overland Trail, had been lightly travelled. Rumors about hostile Indians abounded. There were rough roads and steep grades that would make for difficult driving. In addition, the emigrants, leaving the familiar Platte Valley after six weeks of travel, would need to adjust to new daily routines and new landforms.
Emigrants headed for Montana via one of the cutoffs had to decide whether to take the Bozeman Trail or the Bridger Trail. Both of those trails were new; wagon trains did not make successful passages on either trail until the spring of 1864. The Bozeman Trail had been blazed by John Bozeman and a small group of horsemen--not teams drawing wagons--who travelled from Virginia City down to the Platte in 1863. Bozeman's attempt to lead a train back up to Virginia City via his new trail in 1863 had been turned back by the Sioux and Cheyenne. Probably out of fear of additional attacks, only four large trains made the trip up the Bozeman Trail in the 1864 travel season. The third of those trains had met with significant Indian resistance. It is unclear if Thomas Seerley had heard accurate reports about those attacks when he was trying to decide if he should join a Bozeman Trail train, which was organizing when he reached the Lower Bridge.
For emigrants who chose to leave the Overland Trail, the alternative to the Bozeman Trail was the Bridger Trail. Mountain man Jim Bridger had opened that road in the spring of 1864 with the intention of finding a route that would lessen the potential for hostilities with Indians. Bridger was a legend in the American West. He had married Indian women from several tribes. He enjoyed good personal relations with tribes in that area. He might well have known the geography, landforms, and native people of Wyoming better than anyone then alive. His trail headed in the same general direction as the Bozeman Trail, but it skirted west of the Bighorn Mountains and passed through the Bighorn Basin, rather than the Powder River Basin route of the Bozeman Trail. In so doing, the Bridger Trail passed through the hunting grounds of tribes that were less hostile to emigrants.
Although he initially considered that the Bozeman Trail might be better, Thomas Seerley decided to join a train that would take the Bridger Trail. Other emigrant trains came to that same conclusion. A total of ten trains took the Bridger Trail in 1864; only four took the Bozeman Trail. The train with which Seerley travelled was the ninth, and second to last, train to take the Bridger Trail.
Concerns for security meant that the train needed to be large. The train waited for additional wagons to join them for three days at the Lower Bridge, one day between the two bridges, and then another day above the Upper Bridge. On July 13, with forty-two wagons in the train, the emigrants finally turned onto the Bridger Trail. Six more wagons joined the following day. A day later there were seventy-one teams in the train. The layover days around Red Buttes might have reinvigorated the train. Or perhaps the men and stock were energized by the prospect of finally heading directly to the goldfields. Whatever the motivation, the train travelled twenty-five miles, twenty miles, and then fifteen miles on the first three full days on the trail. Thomas Seerley and his companions had good success at hunting, but water and grass for the stock were hard to find during those first few days. Seerley wrote that one twenty-five mile stretch had no water or grass at all. On July 17, cattle began to die, perhaps from a murrain disease or just overall stress. Seerley noted that cattle continued to die over the next ten days.
The train rested for a day, moved just seven miles on each of the next two days, and then rested again. After moving nine miles on July 22, the train made a long ascent over steep, dangerous roads and passed over the summit of what are now known as the Bridger Mountains on July 23. They descended the next day and, after a drive of twenty-two miles, camped on what Seerley and other emigrants called the Wind River. It was actually the Bighorn River.
Reaching the Bighorn River, with its plentiful supply of wood, water, and grass, provided relief to the tired men and stock. But the river itself proved to be a significant obstacle; it was wide, deep, and fast. The train spent the next day and a half trying to cross it. Initially they sought a ford, but without success. Then, by accident, they came across a ferry that had probably been built by Jim Bridger early in the travel season and then used by subsequent trains. They worked all night to ferry teams and wagons--one-by-one--across the Bighorn River. They finished crossing at nine o'clock the next morning, July 26, and then pushed on eight miles before camping.
Crossing the summit and then making their way over the Bighorn River seemed to foster discord and disunity in the large train that had left Red Buttes two weeks earlier. Continued mortality among the cattle probably did not help the situation. Some may also have begun to feel less frightened about the prospect of Indian attacks, and, consequently, felt less of a need to stick quite so closely together. In any case, from this point until the end of the journey, smaller groups within the train seemed to move, halt, and operate on their own without necessarily conforming to the leadership of William Stafford, who had been elected train captain at Red Buttes.
The group with which Thomas Seerley seemed to associate made good progress over the next few days. From July 28 through August 3, the train moved ninety-two miles. They travelled along the Bighorn River until they came to the road that headed northwest toward the Greybull River on July 30. They reached the Greybull River on July 31, drove along that river for a day, and then moved overland toward the Shoshone River, which emigrants called the Stinking River. Those seven days of travel had been remarkable for several reasons. First, they covered an impressive distance even though some of the road was rough and both cattle and men were sick. Seerley said that during the last stretch before reaching the Shoshone River, they travelled thirty-five miles without finding good grass. Conditions were hard for the stock and the emigrants. Seerley's friend Kemry had difficulty with his team and became so discouraged that he sold his stock and equipment to others in the train. He decided to turn around and head back home. There was at least one more notable highlight to this portion of the trip. On August 1, the train met Jim Bridger himself. Seerley's train was headed up the trail toward Virginia City. Bridger was headed down the trail with a train that included disappointed miners returning from Virginia City to Fort Laramie. Bridger planned to put together another train at Fort Laramie and then make his second trip of the season up to Virginia City. Seerley wrote that Bridger and his men "gave hard report" of the prospects in Virginia City. That report discouraged some of the emigrants. Seerley's friend Kemry joined the Bridger train and headed home. But Seerley still wanted to try his luck.
After a day of rest, the train moved down the Shoshone River as far as Sage Creek on August 5. After stopping to butcher a bison on August 6, the train drove hard for twenty-four miles on August 7 and reached Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River at dark. They continued along Clark's Fork for about twenty miles to a point at which the Bridger Trail merged with the Bozeman Trail. On August 10, they reached the East Rosebud River. Seerley marvelled at the trout that he caught in those sparkling streams. He had extra time to fish and hunt during this part of the journey, because the train sometimes stopped for a day, or made only a short move, in order to allow some members of the train the opportunity to prospect for gold in those streams. On August 13, they reached the Yellowstone River, where Seerley saw what he considered to be "Some of the nicest bottom land - good soil & fine grass".
On August 18 the train left the Yellowstone River and headed over heavy, rolling land before they reached the wide bottomland of the Gallatin River on August 19. Seerley admired the irrigated farm fields there. They drove twenty miles on August 20 and reached the Madison River, where Seerley again enjoyed the clear, cold water and beautiful landscape. On August 21, they were only about twenty-five miles from Virginia City. The train took the next three days to prospect for gold in Norwegian Gulch and Hot Spring Gulch, but they had no luck there. They got back on the road on August 25 and drove into Virginia City on the afternoon of August 26.
According to Seerley's calculations, the train had covered 522 miles from the Upper Bridge on the Platte River to Virginia City in forty-six days for an average of about eleven miles per day. Those forty-six days included a number of rest days, time spent waiting for the train to gather strength, and days when the train stopped to prospect. If those days are subtracted from the total days, the average daily mileage for days actually on the move rises to about fourteen miles per day.
Overall, Thomas Seerley calculated that he had travelled 1450 miles on his 117 day journey. Of those 117 days, his train had rested for nineteen days. The average daily mileage for all 117 days was about twelve miles. For the ninety-eight days when the train was actually on the move, the average daily mileage was nearly fifteen miles.
A quick look at today's on-line driving directions pages provides an interesting modern perspective on Seerley's trip. A driver today, who chose to go across Nebraska and then up to Montana on a route that approximates the path of the old North Platte would cover about 1413 miles as compared to Seerley's 1450 miles. However, the modern driver could cover that trip in about 22.5 hours, as opposed to Seerley's 117 days. What is more, there is an even shorter modern route from South English to Virginia City that goes across South Dakota. That route would cover 1305 miles in 20.75 hours. The contrasts are striking. An average day's travel for Thomas Seerley was about 12 miles. Modern drivers can cover Seerley's average daily travel in about ten minutes.
A Day on the Road for Thomas Seerley
Thomas Seerley's daily activities on the road varied depending on the location of the train. But on a typical day on the road, Seerley got up around six o'clock in the morning. After a quick breakfast of coffee, bacon, and bread, he helped to round up the stock. If the train were in dangerous country, the stock would have been kept close overnight. Rounding them up would not have taken long. But if the train were in safe country, the stock would have been turned loose. Overnight they sometimes wandered miles away in search of good grazing. Rounding up every last cow, ox, horse, and mule could take hours. An experienced herdsman like Thomas Seerley probably knew every single animal among the hundreds associated with the train by its appearance and habit. That would have helped him and the other herdsmen in getting the herd together each morning. Even so, rounding up the herd sometimes delayed the train's daily departure by several hours. When the herd was under control, and the draft animals were hitched to their wagons, the train began its day's journey. Seerley and the other teamsters drove their teams from a wagon seat, on horseback, or afoot alongside their teams to keep them moving steadily in the right direction.
Around noon, depending on the availability of grass and water, the train stopped for an hour or two so that the emigrants could eat and the stock could rest, drink, and graze. The train started again and moved through the afternoon. By three or four o'clock, train leaders were looking for a good place to camp for the night. A good site included water for drinking and cooking, wood for cooking fires, and adequate water and grass for the stock. A nice stand of cottonwood trees that would provide shade from the sun and shelter from the wind was always welcome. A good day's travel would have covered about twenty miles.
The teams were unhitched and set out to graze. The emigrants pitched their tents and prepared a meal. They repaired their equipment and made plans for the next day's departure and travel. If the train were in dangerous territory, Seerley might have been detailed to guard the stock for a few hours overnight. On one notable night, during a rainstorm, the horses got loose at one o'clock in the morning, and everybody turned out to round them up. If they were in safe territory, Seerley might have gone out to hunt or fish. If he managed to kill a deer or an antelope, he butchered it and prepared the meat for himself or for distribution to other members of the train.
Despite the long, hard days, Thomas Seerley took time nearly every evening to write a thoughtful, descriptive page in his journal. There is a sense that his journal allowed him to put an appropriate and reflective end to his day.
Then he finally went to sleep.
Dangers of the Trip
The potential dangers of a trip to the American West in 1864 were substantial. Emigrants faced the prospect of illness, disease, accidents, violence, and death. Thomas Seerley reported on all of these unfortunate circumstances in his journal.
Handling horses, oxen, and mules was a significant part of Seerley's daily responsibilities. Even for a man like Seerley, who had worked with large stock all of his life, there were dangerous and unexpected occurences. For example, stampedes happened regularly. Sometimes the stampede included large numbers of animals; sometimes only a team or two got out of control. A large stampede simply trampled everything in its path: tents, equipment, and people. The trains with which Seerley travelled seemed to have been spared the consequences of a large stampede. But even a small stampede involving only a single team of large, uncontolled oxen pulling a heavy wagon, was a juggernaut. Seerley noted stampedes in his train on June 13, June 18, and July 3. His own oxen team stampeded on July 4 and late in the trip on August 19. No injuries resulted from the July 4 incident. However, as he wrote about the August 19 incident, " . . . today my team Stampeded ran furiously - passed several wagons. Mrs. Cooley Jumped out sprained ankle &c the result . . . ." Mrs. Cooley apparently suffered only minor injuries. But the accident showed how unpredicatable trail life could be. Even after over three months on the road, and probably working with familiar oxen, Thomas Seerley could still lose control of his team.
Fording unfamiliar rivers and streams was a recurrently dangerous situation for the train. Emigrants usually took time to seek safe, established fords. But even at established crossings, they sometimes faced deep ruts or rising river levels. On July 1, a man in the train named Isaac Miller nearly drowned as the emigrants drove their horses and catttle across the Platte River. Seerley wrote, " . . . went down several times - four men got him out - very sick - I took horse down and got him on to camp . . . . " A similar occurence took place at an especially dangerous crossing of the Bighorn River on July 25 when "some tried fording but came near drowning horse cattle & men."
Difficult crossings seemed to bring out bad bahavior among some of the emigrants, at least in Seerley's estimation. Crossings required cooperation. Yet sometimes those who crossed first simply took off down the trail instead of staying at the ford to help others cross or to herd spooky cattle. If people did not cooperate, lives and property were in significant danger.
There were other serious threats to the emigrants' health on the journey. On several occasions Seerley noted that the train had been in contact with groups in which there was small pox. Fortunately, the train seems to have escaped that serious threat. They also seemed to have avoided illnesses such as cholera, which plagued some early travellers. But ordinary, day-to-day life had its hazards. For example, the emigrants' drinking water was often unsanitary. Most wagons carried water kegs, which emigrants filled at places where the water seemed plentiful and clean. But sometimes they were forced to dig out springs or even excavate holes in streambeds and then drink whatever water trickled in. The hazards of tainted water were probably even greater while the emigrants were travelling along the Overland Trail, where thousands of others, over the course of many years, had left their trash, dead animals, and human waste behind.
The emigrants' food supply, consisting of dried, smoked, or otherwise preserved staples, was relatively safe. But it certainly must have been monotonous, with only occasional changes when hunters were successful in bringing in fresh meat or when someone located wild berries. Seerley reported that the train suffered occasional bouts of undescribed illness that slowed or stopped the train for a day or two. Seerley reported that he himself suffered from diarrhea.
Probably the most significant medical occurence on the trip took place on June 9, when an unnamed woman in the train gave birth. The child died and was buried along the trail the next day. After childbirth, the woman's health was such that the train did not travel for four of the next five days.
The emigrants were conscious of dangers and annoyances from wild animals. They saw grizzly bears in Wyoming, though they escaped any close encounters. Seerley also mentioned on July 23, " . . Rattlesnakes at home here . . ." Along the Platte River, gnats and mosquitoes were especially annoying. The emigrants seemed to be well-armed both to protect themselves against wild animals and to harvest those animals for food. Of course, the widespread presence of guns of all sorts posed a certain danger. On May 24, Thomas Seerley's friend William Rodman was almost shot by the ramrod from a stranger's gun.
Like other emigrant trains, the train in which Seerley travelled had constant reminders of death when they passed numerous graves along the road. On June 3, near Fort Kearney, Seerley saw a coffin being made for a Wisconsin emigrant who had just died. Just a few days later he passed a spot where a man had been killed a month earlier. On June13 he saw three graves. On June 18 he saw the graves of four children. And, as noted above, his own train had buried a baby shortly after its birth on June 9.
Driving itself was dangerous. Especially after the train turned onto the Bridger Trail, parts of the road were treacherous. Long, steep ascents and descents, over rocks and gravel, taxed oxen and wagons. Sidling roads that lay at an angle to the direction of travel were particularly troublesome. A false move or hesitation by man or animal could pitch wagons, equipment, oxen, and men over sheer cliffs.
The greatest perceived danger that appeared in Seerley's journal was attack by Indians. However, this danger did not materialize. During the entire journey, Seerley's train had only passing or friendly encounters with Indians. The emigrants saw Indians already in Omaha and occasionally as they crossed Nebraska. They even traded with Indians along the trail. However, at least in so far as Seerley reported, the emigrants always had hostile attacks in mind. They passed places where they heard that men had been killed or that horses had been stolen by Indians. Or they heard that there was a large Indian encampment just a few miles down the road. Rumors apparently abounded along the trail.
The emigrants' primary defenses against Indian attack were vigilance and safety in numbers. If they believed that they were in danger, they guarded their herds overnight or drew their wagons into a circle and kept the stock within that circle. They also formed large trains as security against attack. Again and again Seerley's train halted until other trains joined them. Or the pushed hard for a day in order to catch up with trains ahead of them. It is hard to say whether their security measures were effective in deterring attacks, or if there was simply a lull in Indian hostilities. Overall, though, Indian attacks along the Bridger Trail were relatively light in 1864, perhaps because the Indians were still assessing the seriousness of the threat that the new trail posed.
Thomas Seerley's Health and State of Mind
Thomas Seerley faced significant dangers daily. Yet he seemed to have avoided serious accidents and remained fairly healthy for most of the trip. Thanks to his practice of recording his health and state of mind in his journal almost daily, we have a good overall picture of how he felt for the entire trip.
Thomas Seerley was a healthy, robust man of forty-three when he began the trip. He was certainly not a young man, given life expectancies of the mid-nineteenth century, yet his son Homer described him as "having a physique that permitted him to have few competitors." He was just under six feet tall and weighed about 180 pounds. For his era, Thomas Seerley was a big man. Homer Seerley also reported that his father "was not addicted to any bad habits of any kind and never used intoxicants of any variety or even tobacco . . . ." In addition to being in good physical health, Thomas Seerley had a strong spirit. Homer Seerley wrote that his father "could do as large a day's work and do it with as fine a spirit as any man that ever lived."
Thomas Seerley seemed to be in good physical condition to face the stress, strenuous work, bad water, and tiresome diet of the trip. He would face the stress of fear of Indian attack while trying to make sound decisions about the right road to take to the goldfields. The physical work would be backbreaking: heaving oxen off logs onto which they had stumbled; walking or riding twenty miles a day over hot, dusty roads; controlling large herds of uneasy stock. Water would sometimes come from fresh, sparkling streams, but it would also often come from muddy puddles at the bottom of a dry streambed. His diet would consist primarily of bread, bacon, dried fruit or vegetables, and occasional fresh or jerked meat from wild game.
Thomas Seerley did experience a few bouts of illness, but, for the most part, he made the trip in reasonably good health. On May 3, just his second day on the road, Seerley became ill. He cut back on eating and was better the next day. He was unwell on May 28, but took some bitters and recovered quickly. On May 31 he had a sore foot. He could not walk or drive, so he rode in the wagon that day. However, he was well enough to go buffalo hunting the next day. He had a longer period of illness from June 11 through June 16 and finally took some kind of pills before he felt better. Despite his discomfort, he did continue to perform his duties with the train during that time. He had his longest period of illness a month later, from July 8 through July 12. On July 11 he wrote: "diarrhea troublesome," the only occasion on which he provided a symptom of his illness. He did recover and was well for the rest of the trip.
Of his 117 days on the road, Seerley described himself as unwell on only about twelve days. On only one occasion did he offer a symptom. So, it is difficult to be sure about the nature or seriousness of his illnesses. Since he continued to perform his daily duties as teamster, herder, and hunter even on days when he felt unwell, perhaps he suffered more from discomfort than from serious illness. Given the quality of the water and diet available along the trail, it might be a good assumption that he suffered from various gastrointestinal conditions. It is noteworthy that both of his longer periods of illness occurred in somewhat similar situations. The first period began in mid-June when the train halted for three days to allow for the recovery of the woman who had had a difficult childbirth. The cold, damp, and drizzly weather made the camp a sloppy mess. The second period occurred in the area of the bridges over the Platte River. Seerley's train and other trains camped in this area for several days as they decided which road to take and then to gather strength for the trip. With hundreds of people and large herds of livestock milling around the same area, the campgrounds cannot have been anything approaching a clean living space. It would not be surprising if some of Seerley's illnesses were due to unsanitary conditions possibly compounded by his concern about the lack of progress toward Virginia City. Seerley may also have suffered some physiological effects from bouncing over very rough roads for days on end. However, considering the conditions of the long trip, Seerley experienced a remarkably good overall state of health.
Thomas Seerley also frequently described his mood or state of mind during the journey. For the most part, his spirits were buoyed or depressed by day-to-day trail events. Overall, he was a stolid, even-tempered man. In general, he seemed to be in a good frame of mind:
- when the weather was good;
- when wood, water, and grass were plentiful;
- when the train was making good progress;
- when people were cooperating;
- when he saw remarkable sights.
When any of these conditions did not meet his expectations, Seerley could become impatient, or, rarely, angry.
Considering the difficulties that arose along the train's route, Seerley maintained his composure and good spirits just about all of the time. He especially enjoyed the companionship of his friends on the trail. On May 4, just the second day of the journey, he wrote, "like the company". Occasional notes in his journal indicate that he and his friends talked about the country through which they were passing, political sympathies relating to the ongoing Civil War, prospects for success in the goldfields, and the overall organization of the train. However, on May 14, just ten days after stating that he was enjoying the company of others in the train, Seerley noted that another person in the train "carried off my wood and that I did not like." Apparently, someone took firewood that Seerley had gathered, a fairly serious breach of train etiquette and personal resonsibility. But Seerley also notes that another member of the train brought the wood back to him.
Seerley became irritated again a few days later as the train approached the Missouri River. When he heard rumors that troops were preventing emigrants from entering Nebraska, Seerley wrote "am gloomy about getting out of Iowa . . . I expect to Swim if such is the case." He was happy when the train did cross the river. A few days after crossing into Nebraska, the train passed Fort Kearney. Seerley wrote "Saw the flag at Ft. Kearney. It looked fine and large. It made me feel good to see our banner the flag of my country once again."
By June 14, after several layover days caused by the woman who was recovering from a difficult childbirth, Seerley was beginning to worry about the train's progress: "am afraid won't get to Idaho this season." But, as the train got moving again and pushed into Wyoming, and even after feeling ill for a few days himself, he wrote on July 13, "we are in hopes of good times." And, just a few days later he wrote, " . . . am well and only wish to go ahead to get work." That is a remakable statement in itself. After over two months of arduous travel, Thomas Seerley was looking forward to getting to work!
When the train turned onto the Bridger Trail, and began the last part of its trip to the goldfields, Seerley began to be a bit more anxious. On July 30 he wrote, "now in good spirits & hope soon to hear of Yellow stone diggins." Even after hearing a bad report on the gold prospects the next day, he wrote "I am bound to see the bauble burst or find gold". A layover day on August 4 left him disgusted. His entire entry for that day was: "Humbug! No move." Another bad report several days later kept him in a bad mood, but he retained his resolve: "Saw men returning. bad report of Idaho feel sorry about it yet will go ahead." At that point, Seerley could have turned his wagon around and joined those disappointed men who were heading home. Records show that many emigrants on the Bozeman and Bridger Trails did just that. Indeed, at least one of Seerley's acquaintances in the train sold his team and equipment and headed home. But Seerley continued toward Virginia City.
As the train approached Virginia City, Seerley's anxiety rose again. On August 14 he wrote: "are rather uneasy about Virginia being a bad place for us. will soon find out." The next day he wrote "am well and anxious to get through." His mood did not immediately improve when the actually reached Virginia City. In his entry for August 26, his last daily journal entry, Seerley wrote,:"fast place, many idle & all abominably wicked - work scarce board high - am afraid that I cannot get regular employment - if not I do not feel like stanying here too expensive. Finis".
Despite that last gloomy entry, Thomas Seerley did stay for about a year in the area around Virginia City, where he and several partners engaged in placer mining. The are only scattered financial accounts--no careful journals--for that year of mining. Seerley, like most miners, did not strike it rich, though, in his case, it was probably not for lack of hard work. He seemed to have found enough gold to maintain himself in the goldfields for a year. But he eventually did return to his home and family in South English, Iowa. He did not seem to suffer any lasting ill effects from the trip or his labor in the goldfields. He lived almost forty years after his return from the West.
Organization and Business of the Train
Thousands of Americans headed overland for the West in 1864. Some were from as far away as the East Coast, some were from the Midwest, and some were from the Border States. Thomas Seerley mentioned in his journal that he met travellers from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. Travellers from the East Coast, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio often took the railroad to Iowa, where they outfitted themselves, crossed the Missouri River, and then headed west on one of the Overland Trail routes. Travellers from western Illinois and Iowa tended to outfit themselves at home, hitch up their stock, and leave directly from home for the Missouri River crossing. Seerley's journey covered 1450 miles in 117 days on the road. If Seerley's train was typical, adult men were in the great majority. Seerley mentions only three women in his journal and no children, except for the baby who died at birth on June 9.
Wagon trains were organized to provide safe and efficient passage to their destinations. This organization was sometimes formal, with written documents, financial arrangements, and an established leadership structure. But sometimes the organization was informal. Sometimes, too, a train was made up of several independent smaller companies of emigrants, which associated with the train for safety. Those independent companies often shifted their allegiance from one train to another to meet their particular needs. No matter what the organization, it often changed over the course of a trip due to unanticipated conditions or inadequate leadership.
The exact nature of Thomas Seerley's business arrangements for the trip is unclear. It appears that he and another man, probably from Seerley's South English neighborhood, split the cost of buying a team of oxen and maybe fitting out a wagon. Seerley and others may also have shared the costs of bulk food such as sugar, tea, bacon, and flour. Seerley himself purchased personal supplies such as boots, tools, and clothing.
On May 2, Seerley and a few others set off in their wagons from South English. Relatively early in the trip, and perhaps from the start, Thomas Seerely became associated with a train led by James Thomas. It is unclear if Seerley assumed any official duties in this association. It is possible that he took on assigned duties as a hunter, teamster, and herdsman. His son Homer seems to imply that he did have official duties. However, he may have joined the train simply as another able-bodied man, who would perform a normal range of duties as necessities naturally arose. In either case, James Thomas would likely have been happy to add more wagons and able men to the train.
Train organization was democratic. People voluntarily associated to achieve the common goal of reaching their destination in the West safely and efficiently. Leaders were elected and often received honorific titles such as Captain or Major. Leaders assumed the authority, in consultation with other train members, to make important decisions, such as when to begin and end a day's travel, where to camp, where to ford a river, and which variation of an established route to take. However, it seems as if a train leader's authority was only as good as his last several decisions. If enough emigrants were dissatisfied with a leader's decisions, they elected a new leader. If the dissension was limited to just a few emigrants, that group joined a passing train, hung back and joined a trailing train, or pushed ahead and joined a leading train. In any case, leaving a train was a critical decision. In dangerous country, a small group of wagons in search of a new train could find itself in serious trouble. One way or another, dissident groups needed to find another train to join.
Thomas Seerley quickly came to understand the fluid nature of train organization. On May 25 he wrote, "no use counting teams. road full from many states. form new organizations daily. lose old ones by out driving them." On June 6, a month into the trip, William Rodman, a friend of Seerley, left the Thomas train. Seerley wrote "this morning Bill Rodman and Jas. Thomas dissolved partnership. bill took out his things and cow." It is not clear why William Rodman was dissatisfied with the Thomas train or where he went after leaving the train.
Dissension within a train arose for a variety of reasons. For example, some emigrants might become dissatisfied for religious reasons such as the proper observance of the Sabbath. Some trains made a practice of laying over on Sundays. It would probably not have been a day of complete rest: stock still needed to be tended, clothes needed to be washed, and wagons and equipment always needed to be maintained. Seerley noted that the Thomas train did not observe the Sabbath. On May 22 he wrote, "Sunday but no Sunday here. Mrs. Thomas is a sort of boss and she has no particular love for Sunday so we are not likely to find things different . . . " There also seemed to be debate, if not outright dissension, in the Thomas train between certain Baptist emigrants and emigrants who held different religious convictions.
But probably the greatest cause for dissatisfaction was the overall rate of travel. In simple terms, some wagons were willing, eager, and able to travel faster than other wagons. The owners of those wagons might have had better teams, better equipment, or better health. Or they might have had smaller herds of livestock to care for. As noted above, if they were dissatisfied enough, they simply associated with another, faster-moving train.
Thomas Seerley seemed relatively happy with the Thomas train. Apparently most others also felt the same way. As they moved across southern Iowa, the train grew to forty wagons by May 17. The train developed a sense of unity and strength as it moved west. On June 20, as the train prepared to cross Crab Creek, in Nebraska, Seerley wrote "came near having a row with a train for passing in before us. we drove them off". Allowing another train to pass ahead of them in a creek crossing might have cost them an hour of travel time that day. The Thomas train apparently decided to act together to prevent that from happening.
Seerley stayed with the Thomas train until it was time to make a final decision on his ultimate destination. Should he continue on the Overland Trail to Oregon? If not, what route should he take to Montana? He seemed to have been working on those decisions fairly early in the trip. He concluded that going all the way to Oregon would take too long and be too difficult. Even if he made it all the way to Oregon, one way or the other, he would need to get his family out there, too. So he decded to head for the Montana goldfields. Having made that decision, how would he get to Montana? He could stay on the Overland Trail past Richard's Lower Platte Bridge, take a fairly long overland route, and reach Virginia City via the Montana Trail. Or he could take the newer and more direct Bozeman Trail or Bridger Trail.
The Thomas train was going to stay on the old Overland Trail. Whether that train was heading all the way to Oregon or taking an alternate route to Virginia City is now unclear. Seerley decided that he wished to take one of the newer, more direct routes to Virginia City. Consequently, on July 7, he made arrangements to leave the Thomas train and to join a train led by a Mr. Cooley, who was planning to take one of the new routes. Other trains had also reached the Lower Bridge area. Over the next few days, they apparently decided to combine into a large train so that they could travel in strength into what they believed to be hostile territory.
There was considerable discussion on whether to take the Bozeman Trail or the Bridger Trail. The assembled emigrants selected a committee of two to go to the Upper Bridge in order to take a look at the Bridger Trail. The committee reported back, and, on July 8, Seerley's group voted to take the Bridger Trail. Unfortunately, Seerley does not reveal the basis for that decision. On July 14 the combined group elected a Mr. Stafford, who had led a train from the Des Moines, Iowa, area as their Captain. Seerley was initially impressed by Captain Stafford. On July 15 he wrote, "I like Capt Stafford." But by July 24 he wrote: "Started early. our train ahead - Stafford not well pleased. don't care - they drive too slow". His dissatisfaction continued over the next few days. On July 29 he wrote: "all mixed up - afternoon started in advance of Stafford division will split up and go alone." Seerley noted that the next few days were filled with confusion and disorder in the train. By August 5 he wrote, "now no Captain nor order all is confusion no one willing to wait for another - wish I was through". Another quarrel ensued after Seerley and other hunters killed a bison some distance from camp. Should the train stop, butcher the buffalo, and bring the hundreds of pounds of meat into camp? Or should the train just move on? The group ultimately decided to stop and bring in the meat.
Perhaps the company had a chance to talk while they were butchering and perparing the bison meat. They certainly had time; they got about 1400 pounds of meat from the successful hunt. Perhaps a big meal revived everyone's good spirits. In any case, on August 7 Seerley wrote "all in good order reorganized again. Lebo capt." For the last three weeks of the trip, Seerley made little reference to the train's organization. To some extent, the large train that started on the Bridger Trail under Captain Stafford seemed to have fragmented into smaller companies associated with the Cooleys and men named Wright, Pauley, and Noffsinger. As they approached Virginia City, they stopped to prospect for gold now and then. They arrived safely in Virginia City on August 26.
Why did the train organization experience so much difficulty on its trip up the Bridger Trail? There were likely many reasons. First, leadership in the Thomas train had been stable from Iowa to Wyoming. Individual wagons or small groups of wagons came and went, but James Thomas apparently did a good job as leader. When Thomas decided to continue on the Overland Trail past the Bozeman and Bridger Trails, small groups from his train as well as other trains left the Thomas train and gathered to form a new train that would head north. When the new train got onto the Bridger Trail together, they soon found that they lacked group cohesiveness. They had traveled in their own groups for a thousand miles. They had developed their own rules and routines. Most important, they had developed a traveling pace with which they and their stock were comfortable. The new train had difficulty accommodating the tendencies and habits of the old trains. Pace of travel was the most troubling thing to Thomas Seerley. In his opinion, the Stafford train moved too slowly. Getting through dangerous territory to the goldfields quickly made the best sense to him.
Second, while the old Overland Trail presented certain obstacles to any train, by 1864 it had been in heavy use for fifteen years. Thousands of emigrants had traveled over it. There were occasional settlements and military posts at which a train could replenish suppliles, rest safely, and receive mail. The locations of good water, wood, and grass were well-known. Along that route, Indians were relatively peaceful. The Bridger Trail, on the other hand, was less than a year old. By the time that Seerley moved north on it, a number of trains had already taken that route. It would not have been hard to follow the trace of wagons and cattle that had moved up the trail in the previous months. The general direction of the trail would have been clear. But information about reliable sources of wood, water, and grass was still limited. In addition, the new Bridger Trailrail was still under development.: better fords and easier short cuts were still being discovered. The emigrants had critical choices to make even after they turned onto the Bridger Trail. Where was the best ford? Was that canyon a blind alley?
Third, even if the emigrants chose all of the best trail alternates, the Bridger Trail was tough on men, livestock, and equipment that had been on the road for over two months and a thousand miles. The trail led across dry, dusty areas with little or no water for men or stock. As the trail moved into the Bighorn Mountains, there were steep ascents, frightening descents, and narrow paths with sheer drop-offs. Just after entering the Bridger Trail, Thomas Seerley noted that cattle began to die: "several" on July 17, two on July 18, three on July 19, "more" on July 20, and "some" on July 21. This was the first time that Seerley had noted any death among the stock. Cattle were still dying a week later. Seerley blamed their deaths on a "dry murrain", which can indeed denote certain specific illnesses among cattle. But it is also a kind of nineteenth century catchall diagnosis for a range of cattle diseases. Seerley was an experienced cattleman. His diagnosis of murrain may well have been correct. Even so, many of the cattle may simply have been worn out by the long drive from Iowa. Or their worn condition might have brought on an outbreak of disease. Facing the difficult Bridger Trail might have been the last straw. Equipment also suffered on the trail. And some sort of illness among the emigrants further slowed travel.
Healthy cattle and sound equipment were critical to individual drivers and to the train. A man named Kemry, an Iowa acquaintance of Thomas Seerley, suffered the consequences of the tough conditions. At least one of his oxen was sick. There were also pessimistic reports drifting down the trail about the goldfields. On July 26, Seerley said of his friend, "he is in a fix and a stew." Things were bad enough that Kemry sold his stock and equipment to others in the train. Several days later, the train met a small group led by Jim Bridger that was heading south on the trail. Kemry joined the Bridger group and headed back home. Seerley sent a letter to his wife with his departing friend.
Another reason for the train's disruption in organization along the Bridger Trail might have been due initially to the perceived threat of Indian attack. Fear of attack seemed to be the motivating factor for waiting to gather a large, and perhaps mismatched, train at the Bridger Trail head and then for keeping the train together. However, this meant that the slower parts of the train dictated the pace of travel. That, of course, frustrated other parts of the train and led to arguments and discord. Farther down the trail, when Indian attacks did not materialize, emigrants may have believed that there was less reason to stick together. Consequently, portions of the train would leave camp early or arrive late at the next camp. When the train did stop for the day, the whole train did not camp together. On August 2 Seerley wrote "camped separately." Discipline broke down because the emigrants saw less need for it.
There may have been at least one more reason that train order declined: the proximity of the goldfields. When the train turned onto the Bridger Trail, most of the emigrants had traveled almost a thousand miles. They still had a long, hard pull for Montana, but every day brought them closer: 300, 250, 80 miles to go. In addition, they occasionally met riders coming down the trail from Yellowstone or Montana. Even though the riders' reports were often bad, Thomas Seerley, and probably many other emigrants, wanted to see things for themselves. Obstacles that got in the way of moving forward quickly, such as a conservative approach to driving, heightened their gold fever and promoted dissatisfaction with anything that stood in their way.
Communication and Social Relationhips Along the Trail
A trip across the American West in 1864 might seem like an isolating experience. Perhaps, in some ways, that was true. But isolation did not seem to be the experience of Thomas Seerley. He enjoyed the company of other emigrants both in his own train and in passing trains. Within his own train he talked about and debated many topics, such as the weather, hunting and fishing, the condition of the livestock, national politics, and the country through which they were passing. And, of course, there were always train organizational matters to discuss. Were they moving along the right route and in good time? Was the Captain making good decisions? Who was currently angry or not performing his duties properly?
Thomas Seerley does not appear to be a man who needed much in the way of entertainment, even if he had the leisure for it. According to his son Homer, his father was a teetotaler who also strongly objected to any form of card games or gambling. And, even though he was a good fiddler, he refrained from playing because he did not like the kind of dancing that was usually associated with informal musical entertainment. So those kinds of pastimes, available in some trains, held no attraction for him. He did seem to enjoy certain kinds of competition or displays of prowess. He noted on May 9 that he took second place at 100 yards in a shooting contest along the road. However, being a good shot was just part of his role as a provider of meat for the train. And, for the same reasons, perhaps hunting and fishing were his favorite activities. In his journal, he mentions seven times that he went fishing and fifteen times that he went hunting. In all likelihood, he fished and hunted many more times than that, probably whenever there was a chance for success. Seerley also noted several times that he went swimming, but, even then, there was a utilitarian purpose involved: it was an opportunity to wash off the dust from the trail and the grime from his daily activities.
In Iowa and eastern Nebraska, Seerley and his companions hunted birds and squirrels and caught catfish in the rivers and sloughs. Once they reached western Nebraska and then moved into Wyoming, they hunted larger game, such as antelope, elk, deer, and bison. They also marveled at the large trout and catfish that they pulled from the sparkling, fresh mountain streams and rivers. Fish and game formed an important part of the emigrants' diet. The fresh meat also provided a welcome change from the monotonous preserved food that they carried in their wagons. Fishing and hunting seemed to have a special appeal to Thomas Seerley. Those activities were productive: they provided food. But they also were pleasant ways for him to spend his time.
Seerley was entertained by the many wagons that he saw along the road. His own small train probably started with ten or twenty wagons, but it grew to forty wagons in two weeks. He routinely saw other trains of forty wagons moving past. On May 22, he saw one hundred wagons from several trains on one campground. A week later he counted 137 wagons rolling past. As they neared the cutoffs for the goldfields, he saw two hundred wagons at one place.
Seerley enjoyed keeping a tally of wagons, but he also took time to meet some of the travellers when they camped or rested near his train. He mentioned that he met people from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Some were strangers; some were people who knew him or his family. These chance meetings also provided the opportunity to meet fellow Masons, which he especially enjoyed.
He kept track of Iowa acquaintances whom he knew were on the road to the West, but who were not traveling with the Thomas train. Seerley would accomplish this by asking passing trains about his friends or, when he was done with his chores, by riding over to the camps of nearby trains. On one occasion, a friend of his, A. P. Flory, left a "cottonwood letter" for him. This was likely an informal mail system on the trail in which someone would leave a letter in a container attached to one of the sentinel cottonwood trees along the trail. The emigrants used at least one other means of communication with fellow travellers: informal signs along the way. On July 17, Seerley noted, " intend to find grass out 3 miles from here - a card points that way for grass." At a time when the train was having difficulty in finding good grazing, and their stock was sick and dying, that must have been a welcome help from those who had gone ahead of them on the trail.
Thomas Seerley also managed to maintain at least some contact with his family while he was on the trail. By 1864, the federal postal system was well-established along the Overland Trail. Folks back home mailed letters to the scattered ranches, settlements, and military posts along the expected route of travel. When Seerley reached those points, he called there for his mail and also took the opportunity to post his own letters to family and friends. Seerley wrote letters to friends on May 22, a day when he had a little extra time because the train moved only a short distance. It is not clear where he mailed those letters. Possibly he waited until May 29 when he mailed letters to his wife, his father, and an acquaintance at the Brewer ranch, not far from Jesse Shoemaker's trading post in Nebraska. On June 2, he wrote letters to his wife and several other people. The next day he mailed the letters at Nebraska Centre in what is now Buffalo County.
As the train neared Fort Laramie, Thomas Seerley had not yet heard from his family. He and a companion crossed the river and went to the military post on June 28. There he mailed letters to his son Homer, his wife, his father, his father-in-law, and several others. He was happy to find four letters waiting for him: one from his wife, two from Homer, and another from an acquaintance. It would be most interesting to be able to read both sides of that correspondence. Unfortunately, those letters do not seem to have survived.
Seerley had two more opportunities to send mail. After leaving Fort Laramie, the train moved up the North Platte Road and stopped at the Lower Platte Bridge, where they would make their decision on which road to take to the goldfields. John Richard owned the toll bridge and also operated a trading post and blacksmith shop at the site. On July 10, Seerley was able to buy a pencil and tacks at the store and also to mail a letter. His last opportunity to send mail on the road was a special circumstance. The Bridger Trail proved hard for men, stock, and equipment. Many cattle died. A man named Kemry, a friend of Seerley, was having particular difficulties with his team of oxen. It is not clear if his oxen actually died or if they simply wore out. In any case, Kemry decided that he had had enough. He sold his remaining stock and equipment to others in the train. When the train met Jim Bridger and his party moving down the trail for Fort Laramie on August 1, Kemry joined them and headed home. Thomas Seerley wrote a letter to his wife and sent it home with Kemry. That would be the last time for Seerley to send or receive mail until he reached Virginia City on August 26.
Thomas Seerley noted at least two other means of communication in his journal, though he himself did not use them. On June 23, near Chimney Rock in western Nebraska, Seerley saw the transcontinental telegraph line, which had been put into operation a few years before in 1861. And then on August 8, as they neared Virginia City, Seerley wrote that the train "met Express boy - gave favorable account of mines." This was not the familiar Pony Express that operated from April 3, 1860, along the Overland Trail, until the transcontinental telegraph line put it out of business in October 1861. Rather, it was likely a private service that carried mail from Montana to points south.
Thomas Seerley's Beliefs, Character, and Personality
Thomas Seerley was born into a Lutheran family. He joined the Methodist Episcopal church after settling in Iowa. An obituary says that he was a "great student of the Scripture, knowing many of the Psalms, epistles, and the Gospels by heart." Thomas Seerley's son Homer wrote that his father and mother "were active factors in the social and religious advancement of the community."
Thomas Seerley's journal provides considerable evidence of belief and character. On his first Sunday on the road, Seerley wrote that he "tried to remember that it is Sabbath day . . . " And, in a wonderful combination of the mundane and the sublime he continued "I washed my socks & read several chapters in the Testament . . . am well thanks to the Giver of health." The Testament is the only book that Seerley mentions having with him on the trip. Two Sundays later, on May 22, Seerley noted that Mrs. Thomas, probably the wife of train leader James Thomas, was not an observer of the Sabbath. He says that she "has no particular love for Sundays." Consequently, the train would not lay over that day. Seerley may possibly have been concerned about both observing the Sabbath and losing a day of rest. One way or the other, Mrs. Thomas's attitude did not completely dampen Seerley's religous sensibilities. He wrote, "Saw grave of old man 84 years old - felt solemn tried to feel this is the Lord's day."
During a three day layover in early June, due to a woman's recovery from childbirth, Seerley noted that he had a dispute with a Baptist preacher. Seerley indicated that neither he nor the preacher was convinced by the other's viewpoint. A man named Whitcomb spoke in response to the Baptist preacher. Seerley did not report exactly what Whitcomb said. He says only that "old man Whitcomb keeps harping on Baptist peculiarities." However, feelings ran high enough that Whitcomb and his followers no longer associated closely with the rest of the Thomas train. They seemed to prefer to hang around the edge of the train. They did not leave in the morning with the train, and, when the day's travel was done, they camped on their own a short distance away from the main group. Their beliefs led them to sever social relations with the train, but, for sheer physical safety, they could not go completely on their own.
Thomas Seerley did not make many other overt references to religion in his journal. Perhaps his religious observances, devotions, and reflections were so ingrained into his daily routine that he did not consider them sufficiently noteworthy to record in his journal. This might have been similar to his lack of references to food and eating. Unless there was something new or special relating to food, such as tasting a new kind of game, he wrote very little about it. Reverence, like eating, might just have been a natural and unremarkable part of Seerley's life.
Thomas Seerley made a number of references to the Order of Masons. His son Homer wrote that his father became a Mason while the family lived for a short time in Toulon, Illinois. Thomas Seerley served as a lodge master and remained a faithful Mason for the rest of his life. Some religious denominations consider Freemasonry to be in conflict with their creeds and confessions. But Thomas Seerley saw no conflict between his religious beliefs and his lodge membership. He apparently believed that Masonic precepts that called for believing in a Supreme Being, acting in a decent and civilized manner, and helping those who were in need harmonized well with his Christian faith. In keeping with the aura of secrecy about the order, Seerley never wrote the word "Mason" in his journal. Instead, he inscribed the Masonic symbols of square and compasses whenever he referred to the Masonic Order or its members. Meeting a fellow Mason was a happy and noteworthy event for him. On May 28 he wrote, "I here found a bro. [Masonic symbol] and had a friendly chat." On June 4 he noted, "saw and became acquainted with a number of good & true [Masonic symbol]".
Thomas Seerley's religious beliefs as well as the precepts of Freemasonry provided a basis for his character and ethical behavior. For example, he had a strong inclination to help others. Early in the trip, on May 9, he helped to round up a companion's cattle, even though that task was not his responsibility. When there were emergancies or difficult situations, such as river crossings, Seerley worked hard to see that the entire train and its stock got over safely. Seerley was generally even-tempered, but infractions of basic social rules annoyed him. He was unhappy, and maybe surprised, when a companion stole his firewood. Later in the trip, on July 12, as the train was preparing to embark on the Bridger Trail, someone stole his rifle and powder horn. That was a serious offense. A rifle was an essential tool that Seerley used to protect himself and to provide food. Yet he went no further in his journal than to call the unknown thief a rogue. He eventually had to buy a new rifle for $5, a significant sum. At that same embarkation point, he heard that someone had found a pistol and had not returned it to its owner. He made no evaluative or critical comments about these thefts, but he clearly thought that they were noteworthy.
Thomas Seerley was an orderly man. Confusion, commotion, and disorder annoyed him. He was perfectly capable of taking care of most problems on his own. But when situations arose that required collective action, he expected everyone to pitch in and do his part. Probably his most impassioned comments about violations of the social contract appeared after a difficult crossing of the Bighorn River. Fortunately, the train had found a ferry drifting loose near the point of crossing. Men from the train gained control of the ferry and then strung a rope across the river to pull the ferry back and forth. With the situation seemingly secure, they began the slow and laborious process of moving the train and its stock across the river. In all likelihood, this meant carefully moving one wagon at a time. The set-up took a great deal of time and hard work. The ferrying itself began at five o'clock in the afternoon and finished at nine o'clock the next morning. It was a dangerous operation in which several people nearly drowned. After working all night to cross the river, the train then drove eight miles before setting up camp. That evening Seerley was disgusted and probably very tired. He noted that some people in the train behaved badly during the crossing. He wrote, "find men show their true Character on this trip. Real shirks Some never help, but first to cross when ferry ready & then not help others." For Thomas Seerley, character was the willingness to do one's part in the task at hand and then to help others in need.
Thomas Seerley was a reliable and well-prepared member of the train. He planned ahead and thought things through. As noted previously, wood, water, and grass were daily necessities. But those necessities were not available at every place where the train camped for the night. Consequently, Seerley consistently planned for those situations. He kept his water keg full. And, if he heard that wood would be scarce on the trail ahead, he cut extra wood and carried it in his wagon. Sometimes, in order to have sufficient wood on hand, he would ride two or three miles into the hills, even after a full day of travel, to find a good supply of cedar. He cared for his cattle in the same way. At some points along the trail, Seerley knew that there would be no grass for the stock for twenty-five or thirty miles. While cattle could go without feed for a day or two, they would suffer stress and would be unable to perform well in their critical role as draft animals if they did not get adequate food. Consequently, on several occasions when he knew that grazing would be limited on the road ahead, Seerley wrote that he cut grass for his stock and carried it with him in his wagon to feed out on difficult days.
Given his mid-nineteenth century upbringing and reading, Thomas Seerley showed a reasonable amount of respect for Indians. Indeed, most of his references to Indians were descriptive rather than evaluative. He usually wrote only what he observed. On May 20 he wrote, "saw Omaha Indians." The next day he wrote, "some Pawnees came in begging." That led to an unfortunate characterization about all of the Indians whom he saw on this part of the trip. On May 24 he wrote, "Lots Pawnee no clothing but clouts all begars." But just two days later he wrote, "Saw 5 Pawnees chasing elk or game of some kind distantd 4 miles. nice Sight." On June 26 the train visited an Indian village of fifty-five lodges. Seerley tried to buy or trade for moccasins, but was unsuccessful. As the train moved across Nebraska and then into Wyoming, Seerley expressed concern, sparked by recurrent rumors, about possible Indian attack. On July 3 he wrote, "here Indians are dangerous - some killed and stock missing daily." A few days later he wrote, "Indians stole 17 horses from another train." On August 8 he wrote "Indian signs plenty." Seerley saw Crow and Sioux Indians, too, but the train passed peacufully through their territory without hostile incidents. Overall, Seerley's attitude toward Indians was based on both fear and experience. Rumors led him to be fearful for his own safety. For example, on June 9 he wrote, "stopped for noon 1/3 mile from road - 1 mile brought us to a small carrion creek where the dead body of a man from Missouri. killed by Indians in May - was buried. we felt hostile." But his fear or, rarely, anger, did not paralyze him. He simply took appropriate precautions such as special vigilance and extra guard duty. His experience, based on his own observations, indicated to him that the Indians whom he saw were not hostile to emigrants at that time. Consequently, he seemed content, for the most part, simply to observe them in much the same manner as he observed those settlers who lived in sod houses: they were part of a new, interesting country through which he was passing. In one interesting situation on June 19, Seerley was by himself, several miles from the train, at dusk. He thought that he saw two Indians go down a ravine, and he decided to follow them. But he did not find them there. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened to Seerley or the Indians if they had actually encountered each other.
In 1864, the American Civil War was still under way. Like most Iowans, Thomas Seerley favored the Union. He himself did not see military service, but his father, Nicholas Seerley, had served in the War of 1812. Nicholas Seerley had even been in the Baltimore trenches during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the event that led to the writing of the American National Anthem. Thomas Seerley made several references in his journal to the ongoing Civil War conflict and his own patriotic sentiments. On June 3, when the train was camped near Fort Kearney, he wrote, "Saw the flag at Ft. Kearney. It looked fine & large. it made me feel good to see our banner the flag of my country once again." The next day, while still at Fort Kearney, Seerley heard that a man had been arrested by troops "for hurrahing for Jeff. Davis." A week later, several emigrants, apparently in a nearby or accompanying train "hurrahed for Jef. Davis when they heard Grant was defeated." This behavior was clearly opposed to Seerley's patriotic sentiments. Yet he found it hard to condemn their actions outright. Just a week later he wrote, "Our boys in the train are singing Secession songs. Thomas don't feel at home among them yet likes to be along for they are clever to us." Apparently, at least in the James Thomas train, Americans of strongly divergent political viewpoints could show tolerance and still work together toward the common goal of heading West. The last patriotic reference in the journal occurs on July 4 when Seerley noted that two other trains, before starting another hard day's drive, fired a morning salute to celebrate the holiday of American independence.
Thomas Seerley showed an occasional and understated sense of humor in his journal. He sometimes made ironic use of language with Biblical or Classical echoes to describe ordinary events. For example, on May 6 he wrote, "somewhat muddy yet we started in good season followed on rejoicing." He used quiet irony on May 21 when he wrote, "from a small whisky concern this morning Billy and James Thomas had a quarrel. all settled again." As a teetotaler, Seerley might have written a diatribe on the evils of alcohol, but he did not. Later, after his argument with the Baptist preacher in his train on June 10, Seerley wrote, "am satisfied that we did not make a fortune at it". In other words, their public argument was not especially enlightening and would not have warranted a paying crowd. On June 29, near Fort Laramie, Seerley was looking for water. He noted, with ironic understatement, that he found just one spring with "enough water for three children". By way of contrast, two weeks earlier he "dug well - good one do for 100 teams."
Seerley also showed irony in his references to bison. An emigrant train's first encounter with bison was always remarkable. On the practical side, a successful hunt might bring in a thousand pounds of meat for the train. But there was also excitement involved with the hunt. The animals were huge, powerful, and dangerous to hunt. They were also a symbol of the American Great Plains. When trains spotted bison, they knew that they had reached another important point in their trip. The train with which Seerley was travelling organized its first bison hunt on June 1 as they approached Fort Kearney. Seerley and seven other hunters optimistically hitched up a wagon to haul the meat back and drove ten or twelve miles onto the bluffs adjacent to the Platte River. They saw antelope, but no bison. Their bag for the day was one prairie chicken. Seerley noted that the hunters were "tired and call buffalo meat poor stuff -". In other words, they had hunted hard, found no bison, and had no meat. They had a bad taste in their mouths, because they had nothing in their mouths. By contrast, when the train actually did bag a bison along the Bridger Trail on August 6, Seerley wrote, "I find it No 1 meat". For another bison product he had less affection. On several occasions he noted that buffalo chips made a poor fire.
Overall, Thomas Seerley's journal entries showed a remarkably even-tempered, tolerant attitude toward almost everything, even those things about which he had strong convictions. When other men quarreled over whiskey, Seerley simply noted that they had quarreled. There was no lecture about the evils of alcohol consumption. When someone stole his rifle and powder horn, he simply called the unknown thief a rogue and bought a new rifle. When a hunt was unsuccessful, he typically accepted responsibility for failure: for example, he would say that his gun snapped without firing. When religious controversies broke out in the train, he stated his position, but did join those who wished to prolong the discussion beyond a productive point. When bad news about the goldfields filtered down the Bridger Trail, he took those reports as incentives to get there and see for himself.
About the only things that consistently made Thomas Seerley dissatisfied or angry were impediments to making progress on the trail.
Thomas Seerley's Observations
Thomas Seerley was a keen and interested observer of the world around him. As a young man he helped to drive a large herd of cattle from Indiana to Baltimore, Maryland. After visiting relatives in Maryland and Pennsylvania, he walked back to Indiana. His son Homer wrote that his father "had most accurate information regarding sections of the country through which he passed."
Thomas Seerley had been to the East as well as to the South, where he had cut timber in Louisiana. But the West was new to him. What did he find remarkable during his trip to Montana? As noted above, he was interested in the organization and business of the wagon train. Related to these matters, he was also interested in social relationships with old and new friends. In addition, he took a consistent interest in making what might be termed prospective observations. He was always looking at the possible uses of whatever he saw. He would consider if a valley would make good farmland, if a creek would provide good water, if a stand of trees would make good timber, if an exposed coal bank would be a source of fuel, or if a patch of willow switches would make good whipstocks. He was also always interested in reporting his hunting and fishing successes. Though he abandoned the idea of moving his family to Oregon fairly early in the trip, he might still have been thinking about moving to the Platte Valley or the Gallatin Valley. If the family made that move, he would need to know where to locate essential resources along the route that they would take to their new home. And he would need to know what the new land might produce.
Yet Seerley's observations were by no means limited to the purely practical aspects of life. He also had an appreciation for natural beauty. On May 4, after just two days on the road, Seerley wrote that "we have a pretty campground." The next day, even after a hard rain, when he observed his camp from a ridge near Oskaloosa, he termed the camp "a city of muslin", referring to the white covered wagons and tents. The train passed through the Red Rock area along the Des Moines River, where Seerley observed "one of the finest cliffs I ever saw . . ." As the train passed through southwestern Iowa, Seerley was impressed by the open, rolling prairie. He called it "fine", "large", "endless", and "illimitable", but he also noted that there was little or no timber in the prairie. On May 16 he wrote, "prairie heavy rolling and little timber. I do not like the country . . . ." Here Seerley might have been expressing a common nineteenth century attitude toward open prairie land: that is, if land was good, then it would certainly be growing trees. Prairie land, then, sometimes seemed less valuable than timbered land, even if the enormous effort of clearing wooded land was factored in. On the other hand, Seerley might also have been expressing a practical outlook. Wood, as fuel and building material, was essential to pioneer farming. Open land might have been fine for crops, but how could he build and heat a house without timber? In open land he might also have had to face the prospect of living in a sod house. And that, as he stated clearly several times in his journal, was not something that he wished to do. Good stands of timber were always something that Seerley noted in his journal.
Thomas Seerley appreciated the beauty of several sights in western Nebraska. On June 19, after passing Ash Hollow, he saw some striking cliffs. Two days later, in the Cobble Hills, where wind and water had sculpted strange shapes in the bluffs, he wrote "here we pass what is called ancient Bluff ruins resembling castles hundreds of names are here. it makes a man giddy to look down on plain below - grand sight indeed." There was certainly no practical opportunity to farm or cut timber in a place like that. Seerley simply enjoyed seeing the unusual landforms. A few days later, as the train approached Scottsbluff and with the prospect of reaching Fort Laramie becoming more of a reality, Seerley wrote, "beautiful evening - all pleasant & in good spirits. beautiful sight or view on south side can see 40 miles. see Laramie peak 50 miles off".
Seerley made only a few brief comments on natural beauty along the Bridger Trail, despite the sparkling rivers and soaring peaks that he encountered. Perhaps he was too busy trying to keep the stock alive, driving safely on the difficult road, and keeping his spirits up in the face of hard news from the goldfields. After a difficult crossing of the Bighorn River on July 26, he found the area "quite bluffy & picturesque". On August 7, after crossing the summit between the Shoshone River and Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River, he reported "fine Scenery". Descending into the beautiful Gallatin River bottom, a "grand view" and a "fine valley", brought out Seerley's practical side again. He wrote on August 19, "this forenoon drove into Galatin bottom. bottom 15 miles wide. nice several houses are here built by Ranchers. have fine potatoes & other vegetables. all Irrigate . . . ."
Reaching the Platte River, with its broad, fertile valley, was an awe-inspiring sight to many emigrants. It would also be their travel guide, on their left or on their right, for hundreds of miles along one of the Platte River Roads across Nebraska and well into Wyoming. For Thomas Seerley, seeing the Platte River seemed to bring together his sense of practical observation with his appreciation for natural beauty. On May 23 Seerley wrote, "I went down and took a first look at this singular river. washed & felt that i had seen the strange river . . . ." He uses almost baptismal language to describe what was a moving experience for him. Reaching the Platte had apparently been an important goal on his journey. He had probably heard a great deal about the valley and its agricultural possibilities over the years. While some Overland Trail emigrants had used the phrase "seeing the elephant" to describe the all-encompassing, ineffable, indescribable object of their journey, Seerley seemed to use "seeing the river" to summarize the achievement of the first part of his journey. Yet, by the next day, again standing beside the Platte, he was back to being an emigrant looking for a pleasant place to rest, or a practical farmer spying out a new home. He wrote that the Platte Valley was "as nice a camping place as the world affords" and that he "would love to live here."
Thomas Seerley was interested in people. As noted above, he was a close observer of people in his own train and in other trains. But he was also interested in people who were quite different from those with whom he usually associated. Already in his trip across southern Iowa and then several more times in Nebraska, he observed sod houses and their inhabitants. For some reason, Seerley had a strong dislike for that kind of housing. On May 17 he wrote, "today saw an underground house. woman dirty. all dirty." On May 20, after crossing the Missouri River, he noted that he saw both African-Americans and Pawnees in Omaha, but he did not describe what they were doing. As noted above, Seerley did lapse into characterization several times, when, after seeing several groups of Pawnees come to the train to beg for food or clothing, he called them all beggars. But other than those times, he generally reported what he saw in simple terms: saw Sioux Indians, visited Indian village, saw three Crow Indians today. He does seem to have known enough about Indians to tell one tribe from another. Observing Indians occasionally along the trail might have lessened his fear of them. The more that he saw them engaged in peaceful activities, the less he seemed to worry.
Montana and Afterward
When Thomas Seerley reached Virginia City, Montana, on August 26, 1864, he was not in a good mood. The town had the look of a typical goldfield boom town. The roads were crooked, eveything was expensive, and the buildings were crude. Some of the buildings even had sod roofs, a particular offense in Seerley's scheme of values. He found many of the people to be idle and "abominably wicked". But probably Seerley's greatest disappointment was the poor prospect for work. He himself did not have a large amount of money to invest in a mining operation. His capital consisted primarily of his capacity for hard physical labor. Several times along the route to Virginia City he expressed his wish to find a job and get to work. Just the day before he arrived in Virginia City, he wrote, "am afraid that I cannot get regular employment - if not I do not feel like staying here too expensive Finis". Seerley believed in paying his own way by his own hard work.
Unfortunately, Thomas Seerley stopped making daily entries in his journal when he arrived in Virginia City on August 26. But he did recover from his initial shock of seeing a gold town and its rowdy life. His son Homer wrote that his father stayed in Montana for about a year. That means that he stayed there over the winter of 1864-1865 and into the summer of 1865, before he returned to his family and farm in Iowa. He might have raised some capital in Montana by selling his team of oxen, though the Virginia City market was saturated by many other emigrants who were trying to sell their oxen. Horses and mules held greater value than oxen once emigrants arrived in the goldfields. Seerley might also have found occasional work with other, more established miners in the area, who needed an able man with a shovel in their placer operations. But Seerley also engaged in mining on his own. While there are no daily or detailed entries in his journal for the period of time when he was in or around Virginia City, the first few and the last few pages of the journal include a series of financial accounts and records that clearly relate to this period.
Thomas Seerley's journal indicates that after he arrived in Virginia City, he became engaged in some kind of financial partnership with men named Flory and Noffsinger. Seerley knew both of these men from the train and probably back in Iowa as well. The details of that arrangement are not now completely clear, but the fragmentary accounts in the opening and final pages of Seerley's journal seem to indicate that it may have been a simple partnership in which each man was responsible for one-third of the expenses and would take one-third of the profits. The arrangement might have been modified by such factors as the assets, such as a wagon or a team of oxen, that each party brought to the partnership.
Seerley and his partners apparently spent a few days in the Virginia City area, where they made plans and perhaps gathered supplies for what they intended to do. On September 2, 1864, they started for Pipestone, Montana, about sixty miles north of Virginia City. They arrived in the Pipestone area on September 4 and set up a placer mining operation. It is not clear if they worked their own claim or if they were working for someone else. After a week of drying their site, they began to wash the soil and sediment for gold. The fragmentary accounts are hard to decipher and understand, but it appears as if they were able to take about $50 worth of gold dust in a good week from their operation that fall, for as long as the weather held. That was no small sum in 1864, but it had to be split three ways, and supplies were very expensive in the goldfields.
By mid-December, there is no indication that any further gold was being washed out. The entry for the week of December 18 is "too cold 00.00": that is, they made $0 that week. There are no entries in the journal relating to the amount of gold found for the rest of that winter and the next spring. Possibly the stream that they were working simply played out. It is also possible that the little company had to stop work because the water that they needed for their placer operation was frozen solid. Or maybe Seerley recorded later totals elsewhere.
Thomas Seerley also recorded the expenses that he, Flory, and Noffsinger incurred during their mining operation. They bought things such as nails, sugar, rope, flour, an ax, plates, a gold pan, tea, potatoes, apples, coffee, spoons, a knife, a pail, a hatchet, picks, and shovels. Representative prices include sugar at $.70 per pound, flour at $.23 per pound, bacon at $.50 per pound, and a shovel for $1.00. It is likely that one of the group had to ride to Virginia City whenever they needed to replenish supplies. Deep snow would have made travel difficult, but the trip did make it possible for them to send or pick up mail. Seerley noted carefully who had paid for each item. Then they periodically settled up among themselves. Seerley also used his hunting skills to keep the company well supplied with fresh meat. He noted that "at the mine" he killed eleven deer, two antelope, and one sheep over the winter and spring.
The company apparently worked that claim or other claims well into the summer of 1865. There seems to be a final settlement of the group's expenses on July 29, 1865, the last date noted in the journal. Thomas Seerley had $71.75 due from the other members of the company. They could pay him that amount in the new federal greenbacks or half that amount, $35.875, in gold dust. That discount for payment in gold dust was the going rate in Virginia City.
Sometime after that, Thomas Seerley went home to Iowa. It is not clear what route he took on his way home. No account of his return journey survives. Both the Bozeman Trail and the Bridger Trail were effectively closed to travellers in 1865 due to hostilities with Indians. So he probably took the northern route to the navigable headwaters of the Missouri River, or the Montana Trail south to the Overland Trail. He likely reached home in time for the harvest.
Thomas Seerley did not strike it rich in Montana. His son Homer wrote that his father made enough to support himself during his stay in the goldfields, but, other than the exerience itself, it does not appear as if Thomas Seerley had much to bring home from over a year of travel and hard work. Life returned to normal on the South English farm. Thomas Seerley resumed his life as a farmer. His wife Louisa continued to be a good mother to her three sons as they grew up. As a further indication that his father did not get rich in Montana, Homer Seerley wrote that the clothing that he wore when he went to college was his first clothing that was not made by his mother. What is more, when he did go to college, Homer Seerley walked the forty miles from South English to Iowa City because he did not have enough money for transportation.
Thomas Seerley served ably for eight years as a justice of the peace at a time when that office had a significant role in the administration of Iowa civil law. He and his wife retired to Iowa City in 1891. Thomas Seerley died in 1904. Louisa Ann Seerley died in 1914.
There is one more Montana connection that is open to speculation. Homer Seerley had a son named Clement, who earned a medical degree and then established his practice in Bozeman, Montana. Clement took up that practice in about 1909, five years after his grandfather, Thomas Seerley, had died. But, before his death, had Thomas Seerley talked to his grandson about his experiences in Montana? Had he told him about the beautiful scenery and the great hunting and fishing opportunities there? Had he told him about pioneering life in the West? That seems like a natural thing for a grandfather to have told his grandson. Did that make Clement wish to take a look at that land himself? Did he have some of his grandfather's pioneering spirit? We can never know whether or not that happened. However, even if it did not happen, it is still a great American story. Grandfather Thomas was a teamster and a miner who worked hard every day for over a year to get to Montana and then try his luck there. Over forty years later, Grandson Clement returned to that same area to serve as a doctor of medicine within miles of where his grandfather labored. Teamster to medical doctor in three generations. The Seerleys were remarkable achievers.
Thomas Seerley was an adventurous, pioneering man. When he was young, he worked his way through the American East and South. He farmed in Indiana and Illinois before settling his family on a farm in Iowa. He took his family responsibilities seriously, but, when he learned about new gold discoveries in the West, he seemed to believe that he had time for one more big adventure. Consequently, he and some friends outfitted themselves for an overland trip to Montana. Parts of that trip were difficult and dangerous. The portion of the journey over the Bridger Trail was especially challenging, with hard drives and fear of Indian attack. But Thomas Seerley's skills, determination, beliefs, and even temper, coupled with his interest in people and his surroundings, brought him through safely.
Seerley's role on the journey seemed to be that of a hardworking, able-bodied man rather than that of a leader. He paid attention to what was going on, kept his own counsel (or confided his thoughts to his journal), helped those in need, and expected others to do their part. He led an orderly life. Impediments to reaching the goldfields were about the only things that consistently upset him. His decision to take the Bridger Trail showed daring. Many more emigrants chose better-established routes. After arriving in Montana, he then worked a placer mining operation for almost a year before deciding that he had done what could be done with that enterprise.
Thomas Seerley sometimes used the phrase "am good as common" to describe his health and mood after a day on the trail. That probably meant that things were going about as well as could be expected. But this occasional phrase might have a broader application to Seerley's life. He did not return to Iowa a rich man. Yet his experience in the West commanded respect from his family and local community. His occasional way of describing his health and mood probably also described his tempered personality and general attitude. His assured, philosophical outlook, coupled with his ability to get difficult work done, made him a valuable asset to the wagon train and a treasure to his family. He probably believed that he was indeed a common man, or what a common man should be. However, in most respects, his sense of responsibility, his attitude, and his personality were much closer to the ideal.
Essays by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson, November 2011; last updated, February 24, 2012 (GP).