Journeys to the Land of Gold
Frontier Voices Haunt New Bozeman Trail Book
Like dust over a lonely path, the voices of those who braved the famous Bozeman Trail linger over the pages of the Montana Historical Society's newest release, Journeys to the Land of Gold.
Subtitled "Emigrant Diaries from the Bozeman Trail, 1863-1866," the richly illustrated, two-volume set, edited by historian Susan Badger Doyle, contains 33 firsthand accounts of those who followed the "Bloody Bozeman" to the goldfields of Montana.
The military history of the Bozeman Trail, which involved Red Cloud's War against the U.S. Army, has been heavily researched and well documented.
However, civilian experiences on what was the American West's last great overland emigrant trail have been less studied.
After an exhaustive 10-year search, Doyle collected 33 firsthand accounts of travel across the Bozeman Trail, including every known emigrant diary. Many of those accounts were in the archives of the Montana Historical Society.
"The Bozeman Trail is important for many reasons because it came so late, because of the cultural interaction and conflict it engendered, because of its influence on national consciousness, and because of the rich store of documents it generated," according to Charles E. Rankin, former Montana Historical Society director of publications.
When people imagine the overland trail experience, Rankin said, they usually are imagining events that happened only on the Bozeman, in other words, "war-bonneted Indians attacking circled wagon trains and soldiers attempting to ride to the rescue from palisaded forts."
"Journeys to the Land of Gold is an invaluable resource for understanding the making of the Bozeman Trail and the bloody crisis that followed," according to Elliott West, who wrote the afterword to the two-volume set.
The diaries are enhanced by extensive introductions and comprehensive annotations that provide the context for each trip and biographical information about the emigrants.
The words and emotions in the book are sometimes humorous, sometimes heroic, and sometimes tragic, but always they are filled with the spirit of those who faced great danger to help settle the West.
Samuel Word was a 26-year-old Kentuckian who meticulously recorded the route his wagon train took along the Bozeman in 1863, which provides a wealth of information on the evolution of the trail. He also wrote of the human cost:
"June 15th. Monday. The woman is a great deal worse. She's about 16 years old married just before she left, indeed she followed her husband to St Joe from Caldwell Co Mo & married him there. She has some kind of fever. Our doctr thinks it's the mountain fever. Our preacher has a very sick child almost dying. Doctr says it can't live. I am told we are waiting for the child to die only think of it waiting for one of us to die."
C. Adelia French of Mecosta County, Michigan, in her 1864 reminiscence tells of the brave and the not so brave in her account of a skirmish with some of Red Cloud's warriors, in which one emigrant was killed while a doctor called Crepin cowered under his wagon.
"After we got to the end of our journey, the doctor came out in the paper saying how he had ridden beside an Indian, holding the Indian by the hair until he killed him," French recorded bitterly.
C. M. Lee, an Indiana gunsmith and teamster, in his 1865 diary tells of the ugly side of some of those who traveled the trail:
"Some of the boys found an indian grave two indians and a papoose they buried according to their usual custom on top of the ground carefully wrapped up in a robe and placed out of the reach of wolves with a few of their trinkets beside them they tore the whole thing down and cut open the robe and took away what they fancied."
Lee later recorded the result of an Indian attack on one of his wagon train's outriders: "as was feared they found the body dead scalped and stripped of every particle of clothing near where the revolver shots were heard."
While the diaries record the dangerous and unusual, they also provide insight into the ordinary events and emotions of the travelers. Many emigrants, for example, made a special effort to honor the Sabbath.
Ellen Gordon Fletcher wrote of her first Sunday on the trail: "one of the women (the only one in the train besides ourselves) did her washing. She says that she has crossed the plains before and shall wash when she gets the opportunity. Chell and I preferred not to have our washing done for the present, rather than employ our Sabbath in that way."
Perry Burgess made his trip on the trail when Sioux resistance was at its height, and he found standing guard a nerve-wracking experience. But one night, Burgess recorded, "a man caught up to us who had a couple of whiskey barrels. We took two sucks apiece at his old whisky barrel through this quill, paid him 30 cents each and went away so joyful that we forgot all about being wet and cold."
Rankin said the new two-volume set will further stimulate academic research begun in 1999 when the Montana Historical Society brought together some of the best scholars, writers and experts on the Bozeman Trail for a major conference.
The oversized, hardbound, slipcased compendium has 864 pages, 42 illustrations, and eight maps. It is available at bookstores for $95, or can be ordered directly, plus shipping and handling, from the Montana Historical Society by calling toll-free 1-800-243-9900.