Am Good as Common: Thomas E. Seerley's Journey to the Montana Goldfields in 1864 - Introduction

Seerley Journal cover


Provenance of the Journal
In September 2010, Molly Cole arranged for a Seerley family journal and a small collection of books to be delivered to the University of Northern Iowa campus and donated to the Special Collections Division of the Rod Library.  Mrs. Cole is a direct descendant of Homer H. Seerley and Thomas E. Seerley. 

This is the line of ascent from Mrs. Cole to Thomas E. Seerley: 

  • Molly Cole is the daughter of Edward R. Hanna and Elizabeth Clark Hannah. 
  • Elizabeth Clark was the daughter of Atherton B. Clark and Helen Seerley Clark. 
  • Helen Seerley was the daughter of Homer H. Seerley and Clara Twaddle Seerley. 
  • Homer H. Seerley was the son of Thomas E Seerley and Louisa Ann Smith. 

So, Mrs. Cole is a great-granddaughter of Homer H. Seerley and a great-great granddaughter of Thomas E. Seerley.

Homer Seerley was the president of what is now the University of Northern Iowa from 1886 through 1928.  Mrs. Cole's family tradition is that Homer Seerley wrote this journal when he was a young man.  However, internal evidence and external circumstances lead to the conclusion that Homer Seerley's father, Thomas E. Seerley, was the author.


 Physical Description of the Journal
The journal is about 4 1/2 inches tall and 3 inches wide.  It is bound in thin black leather over flexible boards.  A leather strip attached to the binding on the back cover of the journal wraps around the fore edge to fit into a strip of leather inserted into face of the front cover binding.  This strip effectively wraps the fore edge and protects the text from damage.  It also acts as a clasp to keep the journal closed.

There is a pocket built into the back of the journal with an accordion fold at the bottom of the binding.  This pocket could hold small, folded documents, receipts, and notes.  There is also a double slit in the fold between the right edge of this pocket and the back cover binding to accommodate a short pencil.

The journal consists of a front endpaper leaf, 116 pages of ruled text, and a rear endpaper leaf.  On each ruled page, there are sixteen horizontally ruled lines, printed in blue and 1/4 inch apart. There is a red line printed vertically 1/2 inch from the left margin on left hand pages and 1/2 inch from the right margin on right hand pages.

The journal was probably inexpensive and intended to be carried conveniently in its owner's pocket.  With its built-in pencil slit, pocket for notes, and wrap-around clasp, the journal was meant to be a self-contained office from which its owner could conduct daily business or in which to take notes.


Physical Condition of the Journal
Given its age and its utilitarian nature, the journal is in good condition.  The leather binding is worn along its edges and scuffed on its high points.  The wraparound leather clasp is beginning to separate along its glued surfaces.  Some pages of the journal are beginning to become detached from the binding, but most pages are still attached.  The paper does not seem to be brittle.  Overall, the journal is intact and readable. 


Content of the Journal
Thomas Seerley usually wrote his journal entries in the evening or during stopovers for repairs or clean-up during his trip to the Montana goldfields in 1864.  It would have been just about impossible to produce legible entries while on horseback or while riding over incredibly rough roads in a wagon pulled by oxen.  Finding a quiet place in the evening, with sufficient light to see what he was doing, must have been a challenge for Seerley.  It must also have taken discipline to make a journal entry almost every evening after a long day of dangerous, difficult work.

Thomas Seerley made entries in his journal in both pen and pencil.  All of the pen entries are clearly legible.  Some of the pencil entries are smudged and less clear.  But nearly all of the journal is legible at least to the extent that a reader can understand Seerley's intent and meaning.

Seerley used the endpapers, the first few pages, and the last few pages of his journal for rough notes, lists of supplies, and financial accounts.  Those entries are occasionally written sideways or upside down on the pages.  Sometimes he overwrote existing text.  Those pages, unlike the orderly daily entries, can be hard to read.

Most of the ruled pages consist of daily entries made by Seerley on his trip from South English, Iowa, to Virginia City, Montana, from May 2, 1864 through August 26, 1864.  Those entries are orderly and clear.  Seerley typically recorded:

  • the distance traveled that day;
  • the availability of wood, water, and grass;
  • the weather, if it was remarkable;
  • the condition of the roads;
  • the geography and beauty of his surroundings;
  • his success in providing fresh meat for the wagon train;
  • disputes or concerns among people in the train;
  • special occurrences;
  • his health and mood.


Handwriting and Style of the Journal
Thomas Seerley's handwriting is clear, with few erasures, inserts, or crossovers.  He wrote neatly on the ruled lines.  Seerley used some practices that are typical of mid-nineteenth century hands, such as:

  • occasionally capitalizing common nouns, which possibly reflects his knowledge of German;
  • using older orthographic forms of certain letters, especially elaborate forms of upper case letters;
  • breaking a compound noun into its component parts:  for example "camp ground" or "Yellow stone";
  • breaking a word at the end of a line wherever he ran out of space instead of breaking the word  between syllables.

Seerley was clearly a literate man, a close observer, and a careful writer.  His spelling and grammar are very good with only a few grammatical errors and a couple of consistent misspellings:  for example, "balance" and "tolerable".  Again, given the circumstances under which Seerley wrote, this is remarkable.

The amount of space on the small journal pages was quite limited; he recorded a great deal of information on a page that was smaller than a 3 X 5 note card.  Consequently, Seerley often wrote in descriptive clauses rather than complete sentences.  Portions of the writing are more like utilitarian notes than complete thoughts.  Still, the flow of his narrative is nearly always clear and his vocabulary is sometimes striking. 

Punctuation in the journal is inconsistent.  There might be a comma, a period, or a dash between clauses or sentences.  Or there might be a little extra space between clauses with no punctuation at all.  Seerley's use of capitalization for the first words of clauses and sentences is also inconsistent.

The writing style and penmanship indicate that daily entries were written contemporaneously with the events that they describe.  The text shows evidence of only slight later editing.  For example, the first element on most pages is the date:  14th, 15th, 16th.  But when Seerley began writing in his journal in May 1864, he apparently did not enter the month on each page.  Perhaps when the month turned to June, July, or August, or even sometime after he stopped making daily entries altogether, Seerley saw that it could be confusing to determine whether an entry for the 14th was for May, June, July, or August.  Consistencies in penmanship indicate that he went back and entered the correct month on the top of most pages some time after he had composed those pages.  Other than this slight organizational adjustment, though, there is little evidence that Seerley made any significant emendation of daily entries after he wrote them. 


Intent of the Journal
Some large, well-organized wagon trains selected an official secretary to record the business, finances, significant events, and itinerary of a train.  For several reasons, Thomas Seerley's journal does not seem to fit into this category.  First, Seerley was associated with several train organizations during his journey.  His journal does not focus on just one train.  Second, if Seerley served in official capacities in the trains with which he was associated, those capacities would have been as a teamster or hunter, areas in which he had special skills.  Entries relating to those kinds of duties are consistent, prominent features of his journal.  And third, a large portion of Seerley's journal entries are personal reflections and musings that would scarcely be a part of an official train record.

So what was the intent of Thomas Seerley's journal?  One significant purpose was to record the memory of a great adventure.  Seerley had already seen remarkable things when, as a young man, he drove cattle across the Appalachian Mountains and later rode a flatboat down the Mississippi River to work as a timber cutter.  But he had only heard or read about Western badlands, hostile Plains Indians, the Rocky Mountains, and hot, sulfurous springs.  As an experienced hunter, he also wanted to note his prowess in bringing in new game animals, such as blacktail deer, elk, bison, grizzly bears, and pronghorn antelope. 

A second important intention of the journal was to record prospects for a new home.  Homer Seerley, the eldest son of Thomas Seerley, wrote that his father had been thinking about going all the way to Oregon to seek a new home for the family.  Many Americans, including acquaintances of the Seerleys, were making that long, arduous trip at that time.  Early in the journey, Thomas Seerley decided that he would go only as far as Montana, where he would prospect for gold.  Yet, even after making that decision, Seerley seemed to keep the idea of a new family home in mind.  Some of the notes in his journal relating to the availability of wood, water, and grass, for example, go beyond the daily and transient needs of the train.  Was there a plentiful supply of clean water?  Was there timber available for fuel and for buildings?  Could cattle graze year-around or would they need hay?  Seerley was particularly impressed with the agricultural prospects of the Platte and Gallatin Valleys. 

Some of his observations might also be pointed toward a second trip to the West.  If he did find good prospects for a new home, he would need to return to Iowa and then guild his family back West.  So he needed to record where to find game and water at particular points along the route.  Perhaps the prospects of gold were also involved in his thoughts about a new home.  If he made a good strike in Montana, he would be able to buy land in the Platte or Gallatin Valleys.  Then he could use his journal notes to guide his family to their new home.

In all likelihood, Thomas Seerley had a mixture of intentions for keeping a journal.  What is more, those intentions might have shifted over time.  Going overland to Montana to look for gold was an adventure worth recording in and of itself.  He would have great stories to tell when he returned to Iowa.  Recording prospects for a new home was important, too.  Seerley had lived in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.  Another move West could have seemed like the next logical step to a man who might have been more of a pioneer than a settler.  With his farm in the capable hands of his wife and three sons, Seerley was free to explore.

But there might have been one more practical and personal motivation for keeping a journal.  Thomas Seerley was a thoughtful, serious, reflective man.  Sitting down to write each evening was probably a relaxing way to end a day of hard work, danger, and extraordinary sights.  A daily journal might well have helped him to keep organized, to sort and settle his thoughts, and to prepare himself for whatever the next day might bring.

Essay by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson, November 2011; last updated February 23, 2012 (GP).

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