Case File: Hidden Meanings


We found a diary, quite by accident, and became fascinated by the author. We had to know more about her. - S. & T. Spenser, Butte, MT


Last winter we were updating the insulation in our home. When we tore up the attic floorboards, we found a small sheaf of loose papers tied with a string. We almost threw them out, but then took a closer look. It was part an old diary that apparently fell through a crack in the floor some years ago.

It's a very brief record (May 15 to August 16, 1864) containing 96 pages in an odd size (10" tall by 6.25" wide). The more pages we read, the more curious we became. We decided we had to learn more about the writer. Fortunately, in small letters at the edge of the very last page, we found her signature: Kate Durtesh. (Later we realized it was Kate Dunlap.)

By reading the diary we knew that she had been on a wagon train bound for Bannack, Idaho (originally part of Montana) in 1864. We started doing some research at the Montana Historical Society and online research. We also visited a state park at Bannack (now a ghost town).

So far we've been able to learn that her full name was Catherine Cruikshank Dunlap, and that she was 27 when she wrote the diary. She was a newlywed and her husband, Samuel Dunlap, was 11 years older. She refers to him as as "Mr. D," suggesting a certain formality. They settled in Bannack and ran a drug store that served a mining district. She also was a midwife and practical nurse. Sometime between the census periods of 1870 and 1880 she was widowed, and also buried one of her seven children. She died at the age of 64.

We believe there could be a complete version of the diary somewhere, because this one seems to be a copy. Our first clue is on the July 14 entry, which is a little stiffer than the other pages, and unruled. Here she wrote: I will now add in copying off my journal, that the parties persued the Trail, over-took the thievs, unawares, taking their dinner and secured the mules. They were said to be soldiers. Several shots were discharged but no one hurt. There are also several deletions and insertions, although these could have been made by someone else.

We think she was writing for a specific audience. For instance, on August 16, the day the Dunlaps arrived in Bannack, the diary indicates that she sat down and wrote five pages about the place. It seems more likely that she added this material later on, especially given the degree of detail. On the last page, she wrote: As it may be interesting to some who may peruse this journal to know how mining is performed I will add a short description.

But we still have a lot of mysteries to solve about Kate and the diary. For example, the Civil War was three years underway, but she never mentions it.

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