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The Montana Gold Rush Diary of Kate Dunlap

Kate Dunlap Gravestone

Grave of Catherine “Kate” Cruikshank Dunlap in City Cemetery, Salmon, Idaho.
The month and date of birth match those shown in an article about
Alexander Cruikshank in a Lee County history.  However, I believe the year of birth is in
error, and should be 1837.  The year of death matches that shown in the book
The Montana Gold Rush Diary of Kate Dunlap.
Click photo to enlarge

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Kate Dunlap, who was born and raised near the ghost town of Tuscarora, Lee County, Iowa, kept a diary of her pioneer travel from Iowa to Montana Territory in 1864, at age 27. Her original manuscript is now in the western history collection of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Kate Dunlap was born Catherine Cruickshank on February 14, 1837. Her father was Alexander Cruickshank, a native of Norway but of Scottish ancestry. He was the first white settler in both Pleasant Ridge and Marion Townships in Lee County, Iowa. Kate’s mother was Keziah Perkins, who previously lived in Hancock County, Illinois. Her oldest brother, James, was the first white child born in Lee County. Catherine was born after her parents had moved from Clay’s Grove (in Marion Township) to Franklin Township in 1836. Their log or plank cabin was about a quarter-mile due east of the present-day intersection of Highway 103 and Pilot Grove Road. Jim and Jeanne Foecke own the land today.

Kate Cruickshank married Samuel F. Dunlap on January 25, 1864 at the age of 26. Dunlap’s listed address was the now-defunct village of Tuscarora, which was near the Cruickshanks’ cabin. He was a graduate of Ohio University and served as a teacher and principal at schools for the “deaf and dumb” in the East.

Kate and Sam were apparently lured westward by ongoing discoveries of gold and silver deposits in what is now Montana. On May 2, 1864, some three months after their marriage, they left Keokuk for Bannack City, then in Idaho Territory (later Montana).

Unfortunately, pages of Kate’s diary covering May 2 to May 14, the Keokuk to Des Moines segment of their trek, have been lost over time. The first surviving diary entry, May 15, was written west of Des Moines: “The first Emigrants saw hard times on account of bad roads, no grass, and the great scarcity of hay. In the afternoon, we drove on to Lewis [Iowa], hoping to get hay but could not get any except we would put up bag and baggage at a hotel [Henderson House]. I was relieved from cooking, it being the first time I had eaten at a table for two weeks. Our “Tom” [horse] still worse off. Mr. Dunlap having had him thoroughly examined, it is believed that he will not be fit for use for a long time. He had improved every day since we started. One of Mr. Helm’s horses is also lame.”

The next day, Kate continued to lament for poor Tom, who was sold to the innkeeper. Once moving again, their trail crossed the “Nishnebotany” (Nishnabotna), and Kate commented about the hills of western Iowa. And, at the end of the day, she experienced some homesickness. “Just two weeks ago this hour, we ate our last dinner with our dear friends in my dear old home. Oh, my mind reverts to the scenes of my childhood, and in rapid succession the history of my past life comes up—and the last parting tears are scarcely yet dry upon my cheeks.”

After a five-day delay in Council Bluffs to buy new horses and groceries, the Dunlaps, now in a party of eight, struck out once again. They took the standard pioneer route along the Platte River. Near Columbus, they encountered a large company managed by William Ellis of Montrose (Iowa). The Dunlaps were invited by members of the Ellis party to join them, but declined.

Kearney was viewed as the western edge of civilization in Nebraska. Just west of Old Fort Kearney, men in the party shot three prairie dogs. Kate prepared one for a meal, but did not have the stomach to eat it. One of the men in the party rode off in quest of other game. He “reported seeing three buffaloes, but could not get a shot at them.” He did bring in a jack rabbit. The next morning, the group crossed a section of the plains that was lined with the heads of buffalo that had been slaughtered by hunters and Indians.

June 5: “Yesterday we passed a newly made grave on a little elevation of ground near the bank of the Platte, and a pine board at the head bearing the following inscription: ‘S.C. Park, who fell a victim from a shot discharged, accidentally, from his own rifle.’ [The man was later determined to have been shot by a member of his own party.] Today we came in company with Dr. Panebaker of Mt. Pleasant, son-in-law of Prof. Howe, whom he was endeavoring to overtake, supposed to be several miles ahead. The Dr. was in ill health, scarcely able to manage his team.”

June 6: “We are now in dangerous parts on accounts of Indians, and the stock has to be well guarded all night. The men take their turns on picket duty.”

June 8: “At Bluff Fork, we passed a village of Sioux Indians who were selling venison, antelope, and buffalo meat to the emigrants.”

The Dunlaps reached Chimney Rock on June 15 and Fort Laramie (Wyoming) on June 20. Kate noted that the soldiers there were “often very insolent to emigrants, stripping them of old soldier clothes, belts, and pistols. They are no protection to emigrants at all.” The book goes on to describe in detail the rigors of pioneer travel—physical exhaustion, injuries, lack of proper food for man and beast, and threats from Indians. There are sightings of other former Iowans and, sometimes, their graves. On August 16, after a trip of over three months, the party reached Bannack City.

Kate Dunlap did not have time to send her diary back to her family in Iowa until January 1865. A courier was dispatched to deliver the wrapped diary to Salt Lake City for forwarding to Iowa. However, he was caught in the mountains due to heavy snows near the head of the Snake River. After losing his horse, he required 50 days to walk the remainder of the way to Salt Lake. The diary would not have reached Lee County, Iowa until spring or summer.

In a subsequent letter to relatives, Kate commented that western Montana had much larger yields of wheat and potatoes than in Iowa. However, the climate was “not hot enough for corn.” The winters brought some very cold weather, the thermometer standing for three or four days at 44 degrees below zero. But there were no winds and a light and dry atmosphere, so she did “not feel the cold as one does in Iowa.” She noted the flurry of mining activity in the area. One silver deposit, if the assays held good, had enough metal to “lay a railroad from (Bannack) to Keokuk.”

After settling down in Bannack, Sam worked as a druggist and then operated a drug store. Sam and Kate were the parents of six (possibly seven) children. Sam died in 1878, only 14 years after he and his bride of less than eight months arrived at the Bannack gold field. After Sam’s death, Kate and her children remained in Bannack for five years. In 1883, they moved to Junction, Idaho. There Kate operated a drug business and served as a midwife and practical nurse for several years.

Kate Dunlap died in 1901, and is buried in Salmon, Idaho. Only a single faded photograph of her is known to exist.

(The primary source for the foregoing is “The Montana Gold Rush Diary of Kate Dunlap,” edited by S. Lyman Tyler and published by Old West Publishing Company, Denver, Colorado and the University of Utah Press, 1969. Other information was obtained from Lee County, Iowa historical sources and Cruickshank family descendants.)

(The old town of Tuscarora, Iowa was about four or five miles west of West Point, Iowa and due south of Pilot Grove.)

--John Stuekerjuergen


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