The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana) · Sun, Nov 9, 1941 · Page 6

Pioneer Relates Exciting Story

of Covered Wagon Trail

Trip From Iowa to Alder Gulch Recounted

Mrs. Valiton Takes
Account From
Diary of Parents

      The trail of the covered wagon has been told and retold—in song and story.  Few are left, however, who can tell first-hand of that noted epoch—a period during which thousands left the comparative comforts of established homes to begin mass migration, which—in the words of one historian—“had no counterpart in American annals.”

     Today the Standard presents one such account, written by Mrs. Mary Valiton of Deer Lodge, who in last Sundays Standard told her recollections of Butte in 1876. “I was only one year old when this trip was undertaken,” she said. “My story is written entirely from a diary left by father and mother.”

     The trip in question was from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Alder Gulch, Montana, in the spring of 1865. Mrs. Valiton’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. G. W. Rea, were residents of Portville, N. Y., where Mr. Rea was in the lumber business.  Like millions of others, he had heard of the gold excitement at Alder Gulch, as well as famous strikes in other parts of the West. He decided to see it all, saying he would “be back in a year.” But his wife had ideas of her own; she also would like to make the trip. And they would take the baby.  In the meantime, they learned of an emigrant train that was organizing at Council Bluffs. They left at once for this “jumping off place,” where they accumulated a covered wagon, four oxen and the necessary equipment.  The trip took three months.

     And now 76 years later, when airplanes make the distance within a few hours, Mrs. Valiton set down the story of that journey across withering plains, spending many hours in piecing together the faded notes in her father and mother’s diary.

     “I hope” she said, “that the telling of it may do some good, as well as provide interesting reading. This page of American history, involving the severest hardship, suffering and sacrifice, should give pause to many young persons today who think nothing is good enough—who take for granted the comforts and conveniences around them – progress that was undreamed of when I was a girl. As these youngsters speed along our paved highways, experiencing one thrill after another,  tasting new pleasures, wearing fine clothes, spending money—do they ever stop and think ‘who made all this possible?  I fear that few of them ever have such thoughts. They should realize that what they enjoy today was made possible through the sweat and blood and tears of those who went before, and they should also remember that they can keep this fine, easy way of life only by adding their bit of service, loyalty and devotion.  Our great country, I truly believe, is at a fateful crossroads.”

     Mrs. Valiton has lived in Montana since her arrival with her parents at Alder Gulch in July, 1865. Her parents moved to the Gallatin valley in 1866, to Helena in 1869, to Missoula in the same year, to Deer Lodge in 1872 and to Butte in 1876. Here Mrs. Valiton (then Miss Mary Rea) met her future husband; Henry G. Valiton, who later became the second mayor Butte.  Mr. Valiton sent his young wife to Melrose on the day the first train arrived in Butte over the Utah & Northern, a narrow gauge track. “He wanted me to be able to say that I rode the first train into Butte” she said in recalling the event.  “He also saw to it that I was at Gold Creek for the golden spike ceremony in 1893, marking completion of the Northern Pacific.  I saw General Grant as he stepped from his special train. He helped drive the spike. I remember how disappointed I was in him.  I had visions of a tall, handsome man, gallant as the knights of old. But Grant was nothing like that. He was short of stature, his face hidden behind a brushy bear and he wore no fine trappings. That’s the girl of it! Always looking for looks. It never occurred to me to admire him for his military genius and for the leading role he played in preserving our beloved nation.”

     Mrs. Valiton was the first woman ever elected president of the Society of Montana Pioneers. Other of her sex who were thus honored were Mrs. Molly Kline of Butte, (now in California); Mrs. Jennie Chowning, Ennis; Mrs. Marvin Trask, Deer Lodge, and the present incumbent, Miss Mary Evans of Anaconda.

     Following is Mrs. Valiton’s story of the covered wagon journey from council Bluffs to Alder Gulch:  

Arrives in 1865

     “I arrived in Montana Territory in 1865, a small baby, coming across the plains in a covered wagon drawn by four oxen. I was born in Portville, N.Y. My father and grandfather were lumber merchants and also were engaged in a general mercantile business in Portville.  Father, having heard of the ‘Great West,’ where gold nuggets were supposed to grow like potatoes, decided to take a pleasure trip of one year and see that wonderful country. Mother thought the idea was splendid and decided that she, too, would make the trip and take her baby.  Hearing of a wagon train that was being outfitted in Council Bluffs, Iowa, father made arrangements for us to join it.  He turned his business over to my grandfather.  Locking the doors of their home, they started out.  Neither of them ever saw the old home again, the reason being that they felt they could never endure a repetition of the hardships experienced in getting here.  It was years after their arrival in Montana that they heard from home. Grandfather had died, and all that my parents possessed had passed to strangers.

     “The train which they joined at Council Bluffs consisted of 100 wagons. All went smoothly until they arrived in the Indian country.  From there on, all had to be on their guard. Night pickets were stationed around the camp.  Every unusual sound gave thoughts of the redskins. Within a short time the train arrived at a spot where the Indians had made an attack, murdering poor unfortunate travelers, burning their wagons, robbing the dead of their clothing and leaving their bodies for wild beasts.  After several days of anxiety, but without seeing an Indian, they felt they were not going to be molested. 

     “One bright, beautiful morning, father decided he would go deer hunting, as we hadn’t had fresh meat for days.  He told us he would overtake the train when it camped for dinner.  The train was corralled at noon and the oxen turned out to graze, with everybody happy that they had so far escaped the Indians.  When the train made camp at noon and night, the wagons were drawn up into a big circle. If you have ever seen on the screen the picture, “Covered Wagon,” you were given an idea of how the pioneers made camp on the plains.  Well, on this occasion, the oxen had been driven back in the circle, yoked up and all was made ready to start, when Lo! there was heard the dreaded warwhoop of a band of hostile Sioux Indians.  In less time than it takes to tell, our train was surrounded by hundreds of howling demons.  All became excitement and confusion.  Women clasped their babies in their arms, and with a prayer on their lips, ran to the wagons for safety. Arrows were flying thick and fast. In the midst of the fighting, father was seen coming over a hill with two deer on his horse.  Immediately he was surrounded, but being an expert marksman, and well-armed, he succeeded in killing several of the savages, to the surprise of all watching him, thinking every minute to see him fall.  But, instead, the Indians gathered up their dead and disappeared over the hill, but only to reform for the attack, as you shall see.  Cutting the deer from his horse, father made camp unharmed where he grasped his terror-stricken wife and babe to his heart.  The only way to account for the Indians giving up the attack on father was their superstition that he had a charmed life, he having killed so many and they not being able to kill one.  The Indians held with the train for three days, killing and wounding many of the party.

     “The only thing that saved us all from being massacred was the timely arrival of a regiment of soldiers, on their way to Fort Laramie.  As soon as the soldiers appeared, the Indians disappeared, riding like mad, as they realized they were outnumbered and stood no chance against well-armed and brave men.

     During the fighting, my mother had placed me in the oven of her cook stove (in the back of the wagon) where she felt I would be safe from flying arrows and bullets.  In the meantime, she was busy loading guns and handing them out to the men. An Indian, seeing her loading and handing out the guns, made a dash at her with a spear.  The captain of the train saw the attack just in time and shot the Indian dead.

     “A girl of 16 years and her baby brother, 18 months old, were captured. Their family name was Fletcher. The mother was killed, her body stripped of clothing and filled with arrows.  The father and his two young brothers ran for the train.  The boys made it but the father fell, mortally wounded, dying as the train reached Green River, Wyo.  This Mr. Fletcher and his family had overtaken our train just before we reached the Indian country. He had a team of four mules and could travel much faster than our ox teams.  The captain of our train advised him to stay with us, at least until we were past where the Indians were raiding.  But the eight or ten miles the oxen traveled each day was too slow for him.  On the day the Indians attacked us, he insisted on going ahead.  He and his family had got only a short distance when the Indians appeared and cut them off from our train, killing his wife, capturing his daughter and baby boy, taking his mules and burning his wagon.

     “The daughter was with the Indians for two years when she made her escape, somewhere in Texas, where she told her story, which was published.  Some years later the clipping was sent to my parents by friends in the East.  In her statement she said that after she and her little brother were captured they were tied on a horse.  Her little brother was so frightened that he could not stop crying. Thereupon, an Indian snatched the little fellow from his sister and dashed his brains out against a tree.  The girl fainted. The next thing she remembered, she was in the Indian camp.  One of the chiefs made her his wife.  She said that while the warriors were in camp she was well treated, but when they were gone on their raids, the squaws showed their jealously and would stick pins into her, pull her hair, sit on her and torment her in different ways.  Her Indian husband was killed in one of their war raids. She was then taken by another chief as his wife, traveling with him from place to place, finally making her escape after two years of a living death.  

Locate in Alder Gulch

     “After traveling four months over the dusty plains, our emigrants arrived in Montana, locating in Alder Gulch, noted Eldorado of the west and often referred to as the cradle of Montana history. Homes were made of logs, with dirt floors and dirt roofs. Provisions were scarce and prices high. Flour sold at a dollar a pound and other commodities in like range. The only thing cheap was meat, as that could be obtained by going a short distance with powder and a gun.  Buffalo, deer and elk were plentiful.

     “The camp was wild and woolly, with ‘a man for breakfast’ each day as the old saying ran.  Law and order was eventually established by the Vigilantes. In the meantime it was reign of terror. One morning my father, on going to the log shed where he kept his oxen, found a man hanging from one of the logs.  His blankets were on the ground and a card nearby, ‘Hung by the Vigilantes.’  No one knew who the victim was, where he had come from or what crime he had committed.  The Vigilantes were a band of Montana’s best citizens who formed a secret society to enforce the law and bring order out of chaos during the early 60’s.  They hanged all outlaws and murderers who were found guilty. They did not exact the death penalty unless proof of guilt was clear and indisputable.  When it became necessary to rid the country of men who were clearly of the criminal class, but upon whom the committee did not desire to impose the death penalty, they place the dreaded sign of warning, ‘3-7-77’ on the door of the cabin, tent flap or wagon of the suspect, a warning which gave three hours, seven minutes and 77 seconds to leave camp—and not return. The warning also signified a grave three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep.  If this warning was not heeded the culprit was hanged to some convenient tree, with a card pinned on his back, ‘Hanged by the Vigilantes.’  He was left hanging for some time as a warning to other criminals.

     “From Alder Gulch my parents moved to the Gallatin valley where Father squatted on a piece of land, thinking to establish a farm home.  But the Indians were so hostile against the whites that my parents were afraid to remain. Mother always kept a few provisions ready in case of an Indian raid.  If she saw horsemen in the distance she would take me and her little bag of provisions and hide in a near-by swamp, waiting there until she learned whether the riders were Indians or whites.  At night the settlers never had a light in their cabin for fear of guiding a band of Indians to their homes.  Such was the life of our pioneer women who endured the trials and hardships of those early days.

Moved to Helena

     “From the Gallatin valley we moved to Helena, remaining there until the spring of 1869. It was not the Helena of today—far from it. For every five homes there was a saloon, gambling den, ‘hurdy gurdy’ house (a low dance hall, where girls and women sold drinks after every dance, the girls being given a commission on the drinks they sold).  I well recall the famous ‘Hangman’s Tree’ which grew about where the center of Helena is today.  It was the tree from which the Vigilantes hanged many of the outlaws. As a child I remember seeing more than one of these criminals hanging from that old tree.

     “From Helena we went to a mining camp called Cedar Creek.  To reach this camp we had to travel over a mountain trail 15 miles on horseback, with our household goods carried by pack mules. There were only two children in the new camp, a boy about my age, and myself.  I was literally petted and literally spoiled by the kindhearted miners who catered to my every whim.  Cats, dogs and toys found their way over the mountain trail for me.  A man by the name of Kelley was murdered in a dance hall just back of our shack.  The shots awakened my mother and me.  The crowd poured out of the back of the hall into our yard, shouting and howling like so many Indians.  My mother was so frightened that she took me and crawled under the bed.  Next day Kelley was buried. The funeral was a long procession that filed its way up the mountain side. His coffin was a rough board box, painted dark red, the only paint to be found in camp.  It was carried on a bier by six men at a time.  With a few words and prayer spoken by a lawyer, Kelley was laid to rest.  I often have thought of that lonely grave on the mountain top.  My little boy friend and I followed Kelley along to his last resting place.

     “From Cedar Creek we went to Missoula in the fall of 1869. Missoula was a small town, with only one house on the south side of the river.  I attended the first school ever held there.  There were 13 students, only two of us now living.  Our teacher was Mrs. W. W. Dickenson. I have seen a thousand Indians camped on the south side, where now stands the State University with its wonderful buildings and campus.  The Indians would camp there when passing through going and coming from their semi-annual buffalo hunts on the east side of the Rockies.

Experience with Indian

     “I will here relate an experience I had in Missoula with a drunken Indian.  On the hill just north of town, several of my schoolmates and I were picking flowers.  We came upon an Indian sitting nearby.  He called to us and we went to see what he wanted.  He said, ‘Dance way-no, papoose, heap dance!‘  We saw that he was drunk and started to run away.  But he caught me by the arm and said, ‘Dance, heap dance, way-no dance’—dance I did, the Charleston or the rumba of today had nothing on the steps I executed for that redskin’s benefit.  He laughed and said, ‘Hi you scucum papoose, you go.’  I can assure you I needed no second invitation to take my leave.  In the Indian language, ‘way-no’ means good and ‘hi you scucum papoose’ means ‘you are a very nice child.’

     “In 1872 we left Missoula and came to Deer Lodge where we remained until 1876. In that year, Butte had discovered several silver and copper mines and it looked likely that a boom would soon take place.  So we decided to take a chance on it and moved there.

     “In conclusion I will say that all our travels of the  60’s and 70’s were made either by ox team or stagecoach, the latter drawn by four or six horses, changing horses every 10 miles and drivers every 12 hours, traveling both day and night. Every minute was one of fear, expecting to hear a command, ‘Halt, hands up!’ by a gang of road agents, or possibly the terrifying warwhoop of hostile Indians on your trail.

     “Dear readers, such was the life of our early pioneers. There are only a few of us left to tell the story—the story of hardships endured in order that future generations might have it easier. One by one they are laying down the pick and shovel and going to their great reward. ‘Peace to your ashes, dear old friends of the trail; your hardships are over, your work is done.’ ”


See Tells Story of Butte in 1876