Chapter 6 - Montana

In the summer of 1865 William and Mildred’s brother Joseph shipped a steam sawmill to Confederate Gulch in Montana, intending to sell lumber to the prospectors who had flocked there after the discovery of gold the previous year. Their enterprise was delayed by the sinking of the steamboat Bertrand in the Missouri River with the mill, which had to be salvaged. (By a remarkable coincidence, the Bertrand was excavated in 1969 with its cargo otherwise intact.) With the Montana winter setting in before the mill was ready to operate, William and Joseph sold up and returned to Missouri.


The summer of 1865 saw a great increase in steamboat traffic up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Montana, in response to the discovery of gold near Helena the previous year. William Wheatley, along with his brother-in-law Joseph Humes and a man named Wilson (about whom nothing further is known)1 decided to profit from the gold rush by transporting a saw mill to the gold fields. Apart from the ordinary need for shelter, the use of long wooden sluices in the gulches caused a great demand for cut timber. Mildred seems to have remained in Missouri with the children (John, 4 years old, and Mildred, 2), probably staying with Jose’s family. When William left she was very pregnant with Mary Eliza.2

Our knowledge of this trip depends on William’s letters to Mildred from on board the steamers Sam Gaty and General Grant, and to his father from Missouri after his return. These letters cover only the period from late May on, and are not as informative as we might wish. When writing to Mildred, William talks less about the trip than about their marriage:

I could write of many things that we have seen, and many stirring times we have had with the buffalo, antelope, and indians, but these I will keep for you until I return. I write you what you need most, that is, assurances of my constant love and devotion.3

William wrote a full account of the trip to his father; unfortunately, only the second part survives (and it is missing the last couple of pages). Unfortunately, William was not entirely honest in this account: he gave in to the temptation to pretend to have witnessed events which he can only have heard about at second hand…but I am getting ahead of the story.

To navigate a steamboat up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Benton was no easy task. The river was shallow and muddy, and full of snags: sunken tree trunks lodged in the sandy bottom and pointing downstream, threatening to pierce the hull of any boat that hit them. Steamboat navigation was only possible during the spring rise, which began in March, dropped off slightly, then swelled again in June. The best strategy was to ride down on the June rise; otherwise there was risk of being trapped above the rapids, and having to winter there.4 Speed and an early start were therefore essential, and any time lost mired on sandbars was resented.

For the passengers, the trip was tedious. The unchanging scenery of the great plains passed slowly. The only distractions were shooting at game (either from the boat or ashore during stops to cut wood for the steam engine), racing with other steamboats, and occasional parties when two boats laid up together overnight. Mail was received at forts along the way, and sent whenever a steamboat was encountered heading downstream.

In March 1865 Jose Humes left first, no doubt to scout a location for the mill; he seems to have traveled on the steamboat Deer Lodge,5 which was scheduled to leave St. Louis on 16 March and reached Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri, on 30 May, having had a pleasant trip.6 William and Wilson followed with the machinery on the Bertrand,7 which like the Deer Lodge belonged to the Montana and Idaho Transportation Line, owned by John G. Copelin and John J. Roe.8 The Bertrand left St. Louis on 18 March;9 the next day, Mary Eliza Wheatley was born.

The Bertrand hit a snag and sank at Desoto Bend, 20 miles north of Omaha, on 1 April. Most of the passengers stayed at the village of Desoto, and some, like Fannie and Annie Campbell, transferred to other boats and continued upriver almost immediately.10 William and Wilson, however, waited at Desoto for the salvage team, in the hopes of recovering their mill. They had no insurance, but seem to have contracted with the insurance salvors to recover the mill sometime in late April.11 Wilson went ahead on some unidentified boat, leaving William to accompany the mill on board the Sam Gaty.12 The sinking of the Bertrand delayed their plans by about a month: by 29 May, William and the mill were still below Fort Sully, while the St. Johns,13 which passed the wreck of the Bertrand eight days after its sinking, was almost up to Fort Union.14 William only reached Fort Union on 26 June.15

Accommodations on a steamboat were basic. The hold and most of the main deck were given over to cargo; cabins were on the upper deck, on either side of a central saloon running up the middle of the boat. Cabins had one door opening into the hall, and another opening onto the outer walkway. The hall had a long table where meals were taken.16

Travel on the river was tedious, and William seems to have spent a good deal of time thinking about his marriage. He wrote a letter to Mildred on 29 May, which he numbered “one”, although he must have written to her before to tell about the sinking of the Bertrand. In this letter he ponders their religious life, and promises to enter more fully into her religious feelings. He also wrote a religious poem for her, entitled “Evermore”. This is a reversal of their relationship during their engagement, when he frequently pressed his Presbyterian values on her, and she never referred to them at all. In subsequent letters, William turned his attention to their sex life, about which he was surprisingly frank, and their personal relationship in general. It is clear that they have been under considerable stress, and he hopes for better times.

At Fort Rice William encountered “galvanized Yankees” (though he calls them “galvanized rebels”):17 captured Confederate soldiers who were willing to take an oath of loyalty to the Union and serve on the Indian frontier. The commander of the fort, the young Col. Charles Dimon, was a martinet in matters of discipline and had an exaggerated estimation of his ability as a diplomat among the Indians.18 He exacted an oath of loyalty from the passengers on the Sam Gaty, as he did with other steamboats, fearing that Confederate infiltrators were escaping up the river to the gold fields in the final days of the Civil War.19 Through his bungled diplomacy, he provoked a Sioux attack on the fort (led by the young Sitting Bull) a few weeks after the Sam Gaty passed, but William seems not to have heard of it.20

William’s letters 2, 3 and 4, written in early to mid-June, are all lost; perhaps they never reached Mildred. Letters 3 and 4 were probably sent on the Yellowstone, which met the Sam Gaty on its downward journey. Below Fort Union William transferred to the General Grant; other cargo from the Sam Gaty went on the Benton and the Deer Lodge, which was built especially for the upper Missouri and spent most of 1865 working as a lighter between Fort Union and Fort Benton.21 Low water continued to be a problem, and more and more steamboats crowded the upper Missouri looking for a channel to Fort Benton. The Sam Gaty turned back toward St. Louis, carrying letters 5, 6 and 7 (all of which survive).

At Dry Fork (Big Dry Creek), William vividly describes an attack by 14 Sioux on a party of five crewmen, including the pilot, who had put ashore after taking the yawl to sound a channel for the General Grant. One of the crew was killed immediately, another shot down in the river, and a third captured; the pilot and the last crewman were lucky to escape to the steamboat, which was labouring upstream to help them. The yawl was lost. William depicts the helplessness of the watchers on the steamboat:

It was terrible to see all this going on, but we could do nothing. We were trying to get the boat to their relief, but that was all we could do.22

The incident is mentioned by other diarists, but the most detailed account is given by C.J. Atkins, in the log of the Benton:

Started down the river and (at) daylight met the Grant – miles below. Informed us that her yawl was attacked near Fort Galpin, and three men were killed by Sioux Indians. We picked up the yawl three miles below Fort Galpin at 12 m. [i.e. noon]23

Atkins provides a full account, similar to William’s, in a footnote. There are some minor discrepancies between Atkins’ and William’s versions: Atkins (who apparently heard the story from the pilot, John T. Doran) reports that the yawl had gone downstream to find the channel they had missed, not upstream; that there were nearly one hundred attackers; and that only the pilot survived. He also describes some phases of the events in greater detail than William. None of these discrepancies is sufficient to undermine William’s credibility as a witness, but the date given by Atkins–11 June, during the General Grant’s first trip above Fort Union–disqualifies William entirely. He was still on the Sam Gaty below Fort Sully, several hundred miles downstream, at this date. There can be no doubting Atkins’ date: he mentions that the Benton picked up the lost yawl, and returned it to the General Grant when they met while relieving the Sam Gaty near Fort Berthold, in his log entry for 22 June. William must have heard the story from the crew of the General Grant, and probably had the spot pointed out when they passed it on the way to Cow Island. He seems to have gone on telling the story, for one of his grandchildren seems to have known it from an oral tradition (see appendix).

On 29 June the General Grant unloaded most of its cargo at Milk River, together with the cargo from seven other boats; a compound was built and manned, and the General Grant pressed upstream. On 7 July it reached Cow Island, and it was determined that no further progress could be made. A courier was sent on to Fort Benton overland to fetch wagons, and cargo was brought up from Milk River by the shallow-draft boats. On 19 July, William left the river and traveled cross-country with his machinery with a wagon train to Fort Benton.

William reached Fort Benton at the end of the month, where he finally received some letters from home. After ten days he left with a wagon train for Helena to find Jose and Wilson, leaving his mill to follow. Traveling slowly because of heavy rain, he reached Helena about the 14th of August. After waiting some time for the mill, William returned to Fort Benton, being forced to break his principles and buy a horse on a Sunday. After a few days in Fort Benton, he returned to Helena in late September. Jose and Wilson had selected Confederate Gulch as the location for the mill. This was a new and rich gold field, on the east side of the Missouri (now under the lake), near the settlement of Diamond City. It was now clear that the mill could not be put into operation before winter; and news from Missouri indicated that William stood to lose his farm if he did not return quickly and see to the litigation himself. Accordingly, he and Jose sold the mill and left Confederate Gulch on 26 September. They traveled south to Salt Lake City, and returned to Missouri from there.

In 1969 William’s first boat, the Bertrand, was excavated and found to contain most of its cargo, in a remarkably good state of preservation. It is now housed at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge where the hulk lies reburied. The contents of the Bertrand comprise a precisely dated time capsule, and are tremendously valuable for our knowledge of the material culture of the frontier in the 1860s. No eye-witness accounts of the sinking of the Bertrand and the subsequent salvage operations in April 1865 survive. William’s testimony would therefore be extremely valuable, if it could be found. He must have written at least two versions, possibly more. The letter to his father describing his experiences is clearly the second in a series, for it refers to previous letter taking him as far as Crow Creek Agency.24 If this letter was similar to the surviving letter, it must have described the Bertrand disaster in some detail. William must also have written to Mildred and told her about the sinking soon after it happened, for he alludes to it in one of the surviving letters as if it were shared information.25 Finally, it seems likely that William kept a journal on his trip: his letter to his father frequently gives precise numbers of days, distances, and dates. None of these texts survive among the family papers. They had probably already been lost by 1916 when William’s son John Wright Wheatley typed the copy of the surviving letter to share with his brothers and sisters, for John would hardly have typed up the account of the second half of the trip and left out the exciting story of the sinking. That it was part of the oral tradition within the family is shown by the memoir written by one of William’s grandchildren, which contains an inaccurate version of the loss of the Bertrand: “some time after that the boat burned no lives were lost but the boat was a total and cargo was a total loss”.26


Primary sources

Journal of William H. Gallaher, 1865. A passenger on the St. Johns, Gallaher saw the wreck of the Bertrand on 9 April. Published: James E. Moss, ed., “Ho! for the Gold Mines of Montana: Up the Missouri in 1865: The Journal of William H. Gallaher.” Missouri Historical Review 57 (1963) 157-83, 261-84. The original is in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection–Columbia, C3924 (University of Missouri / State Historical Society of Missouri), and includes a list of passengers on theSt. Johns (not published): < whmc/invent/gallaher.html>.

Journal of Isaac N. Rogers, 1 Jan. to 31 Dec. 1865 - Virginia City merchant, came down from Fort Benton on the Yellowstone, met his wife on the St. Johns on 4 June, presumably returned with her to Montana; ref. in Moss (ed.), p.261 n.58; The original (248 pp.) is in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection–Columbia, C897 (University of Missouri / State Historical Society of Missouri): < pioneer3.html>.

Journal and letters of Col. Charles Dimon (Fort Rice) (Brown): unpublished; at Yale Univ., Beinecke Library, WA MSS S-1308.

Frontier Scout (published at Fort Rice); article in North Dakota journal.

Journal of Abel J. Vanmeter en route to Montana on the Deer Lodge (the boat Jose Humes was on): ed. Jean Tyree Hamilton, Abel J. Vanmeter, His Park and His Diary (Marshall, MO: Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc., 1972), apparently a reprint of her article of the same name, Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 28 (1971) 3-37. The original is apparently in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection–Columbia, C414 (University of Missouri / State Historical Society of Missouri): <http: //>.

Journal of R.M. Frazer on board the Deer Lodge, 1865, mentioned by Hamilton in her edition of Vanmeter’s journal, said to be in the collections of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

Larpenteur, Charles. Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872, ed. Milo Milton Quaife. The Lakeside Classics. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1933. There is a better edition with notes by Coues (reprinted by Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1989), which includes much supplementary material, including a list of steamboat arrivals and departures at Fort Union in 1865. I have used the 1899 edition at U.ofT.

Secondary Sources

Brown, D. Alexander. The Galvanized Yankees. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois P., 1963.

Hanson, Joseph Mills. The Conquest of the Missouri, Being the Story of the Life and Exploits of Captain Grant Marsh. Chicago: A.C. McClung, 1916.

Johnson, Walter W. “List of Officers of the Territory of Montana to 1876.” Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana 1 (1876) 326-27.

Lass, William E. A History of Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska P., 1962.

Petsche, Jerome E. The Steamboat Bertrand: History, Excavation, and Architecture. Publications in Archeology 11. Washington: National Park Service, 1974; rev. ed. 1993.

Roberts, Robert B. Encyclopedia of Historic Forts. New York: McMillan, 1988.

“Steamboat Arrivals at Fort Benton, Montana, and Vicinity.” Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana 1 (1876) 317-25.

Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1983: Passenger Steamboats of the Mississippi River System since the Advent of Photography in Mid-Continent America. Athens, Ohio; London: Ohio Univ. P., 1983.

Notes to Chapter Six

  1. He may be the same as the Sam Wilson who was traveling on the St. Johns, where William Gallaher met him: Gallaher’s diary, ed. Moss, p.181. 

  2. In an application for membership in the D.A.R. (II.M.i), Mary gave her birth date and place as “March 19 1865, ‘Val de Moulin’ –near Gravois Mills, Morgan Co., Mo.”; but in a later application to the United Daughters of the Confederacy which she filled out on behalf of her cousin Anna Isabelle Humes she made some notes about her uncle James Edwin Humes that imply that she was born at Sidneyvale in Virginia: “…He [sc. James Edwin] recuperated from these [wounds] at his old home at Sydney Vale-Plantation on the James river–Rockbridge Co. Va. I (Mary E. Wheatley McBride) was born in the same room where he rested from these wounds After death of my Grandmother My mother was at this Plantation during the settlement of estate while my father and James E. Humes’ brother Joe was on the trip to Montana. I never saw My father until I was 6 mo. old.” Missouri must be the place: apart from the unlikelihood that Mildred could have crossed the lines into Virginia in the closing days of the Civil War, there is evidence that William thought it possible that Mildred might meet a Missouri acquaintance, Ross, while he was away on the Montana trip: VII.B.b.10 p.4 (see below, p.8). Mildred and the children were in Missouri in Feb. 1866, when William wrote to his father (I.A.e.1. p.1 top margin; see below, p.14). 

  3. VII.B.b.14 p.2 (below, p.12). 

  4. Lass, Steamboating, p.44. 

  5. Way’s Packet Directory no.1482, and Petsche, Steamboat Bertrand, p.117: sternwheeler, 493 tons, built in 1865. Leonard Gilchrist commented on the Deer Lodge in 1866: “She is built expressly for this upper Missouri trade and is considered one of the best boats in the trade.” (Potter, ed., “Missouri River Journal”, p.283). A photograph of the Deer Lodge survives: see Petsche, Steamboat Bertrand, p.89, fig.87; Gallaher’s diary, ed. Moss, p.264. It is not explicitly stated that Jose was on the Deer Lodge, but William reports on 20 June that the boats that Jose and Wilson were on have reached Fort Benton (VII.B.b.13 p.1; below, p.11); he also indicates on 26 June that the Sam Gaty’s freight will be carried by the two boats it had met yesterday and the “boat Jos was on”, when it returns downriver (VII.B.b.14 p.1; below, p.12); in his letter to his father these three boats are identified as the Benton, the General Grant, and the Deer Lodge respectively (I.A.d p.11; below, p.19). Abel J. Vanmeter was also on the Deer Lodge, and his diary of the trip has been published. On 10 May, below Fort Rice, he noted: “Missouri killed a deer today on the left hand shore in the bottom.” The editor of the diary, Jean Tyree Hamilton, inserted a note identifying “Missouri” as “Mr. Hume”, but did not explain how she knew this; neither Missouri nor Mr. Hume are mentioned elsewhere in Vanmeter’s journal. Perhaps the answer lies in the unpublished journal of R.M. Frazer (who was also on the Deer Lodge), from which Hamilton frequently quotes. 

  6. Hamilton, “Abel J. Vanmeter”, p.31; from Montana Vanmeter wrote in a letter: “I had quite a pleasant trip of it for such a long one. I was 72 days on the Boat. I was very much pleased with Officers and passengers on the Boat, I can say they were the most agreeable set of Gentlemen I ever was with, I did not hear a harsh word during the whole time which is something for such a long trip.” (ibid., p.32). 

  7. Way’s Packet Directory no.0593: sternwheeler, 251 tons, built in 1864. 

  8. Lass, Steamboating, p.43. 

  9. The Bertrand is not mentioned in William’s surviving letters, but we know that a boat sank under him (VII.B.b.10 p.3; below, p.8), and that he had to salvage his mill from the wreck of a boat owned by John Copelin near DeSoto in mid-April (VII.B.b.15; below, p.7). It can only be the Bertrand. The departure date of the Bertrand (Petsche, Steamboat Bertrand, p.9) fits with William’s remark to his father that he had been “on that river from the 18th of March to the 19th of July” (I.A.d p.5; below, p.16). 

  10. Gallaher’s diary, ed. Moss, p.163; Petsche, pp.10, 125. 

  11. VII.B.b.15; below, p.7

  12. Way’s Packet Directory no.5003: sidewheeler, 294 tons, built in 1853. It was one of the eight steamers that carried Gen. Sully’s expedition against the Sioux in 1864, along with the Gen. Grant (Hanson, Conquest, p.53). In March 1863 it was apparently attacked by Confederate guerillas near Sibley, Mo., while carrying passengers and freight to Montana (Chittenden, History, pp.251-3). 

  13. Way’s Packet Directory no.4939: sidewheeler, 309 tons, built in 1864. 

  14. VII.B.b.10 p.1; below, p.7; Gallaher’s diary, ed. Moss, pp. 163 and 182, for the movements of the St. Johns, which reached Fort Union on 1 June. 

  15. VII.B.b.14; below, p.12

  16. Lass, Steamboating¸ includes a plate of the saloon of the Far West, with the cabin doors along the side walls. 

  17. I.A.d p.1; below, p.14

  18. See Brown, Galvanized Yankees, pp.71-103. 

  19. I.A.d p.2; below, p.15; Gallaher had the same experience on the St. Johns on 24 May: “Were all ordered back to the boat to take the oath of allegiance. Capt Sousley having letters from Genl [Alfred] Sully & vouching for the loyalty of his passengers we were allowed to pass. The other boats [sc. Effie Deans and General Grant] were sworn.” (Gallaher’s diary, ed Moss, p.178). Joseph La Barge reported that the passengers of the Yellowstone were detained “on the charge of jubilating over the assassination of the President” (Chittenden, History, p.261; Sunder, Fur Trade, pp.263-4). 

  20. As General Sully was returning to the fort from a peace conference, Dimon fired a salute which was interpreted by the Indians as an ambush. Brown, Galvanized Yankees, p.101 ff. 

  21. Lass, Steamboating, p.43; Way’s Packet Directory, no.1482. 

  22. Below, p.20

  23. Atkins, “Log of the Steamer Berton”, p.301. 

  24. I.A.d p.1; below, p.14

  25. VII.B.b.10 p.3; below, p.8

  26. I.K.k.15 (below, p.30), which is probably a first draft of the text in I.K.m (below, p.30), concerning the Indian attack described at length in I.A.d pp.12-14 (below, p.20). The memoir is inaccurate in many details (notably placing William among the landing party that was attacked, whereas he was an observer on the boat, and putting the loss of the boat at the end of the journey instead of the beginning), but adds the detail that the captured Irishman’s name was Mularky.