Objective: Black Hills

Publié le par custerwest

The Custer expedition into South Dakota and its aftermath


sources: Department of Dakota Cavalry Hdqtrs. - Special Orders No. 117 - June 8, 1874; Casey, Robert, The Black Hills, Bobbs-Merrill Publishing, Indianapolis and New York; Lee, Bob, The Black Hills After Custer, Donning Publishers, Virginia Beach, VA, BlackHills

The struggle for control of the Black Hills region is a story in itself. If one were to pick a defining moment in the story of the Black Hills coming under the control of the United States, it would likely be the Custer Expedition of 1874.

In 1872, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, in part, set the stage for the expedition to the Black Hills. In a letter written on March 28, l872, Secretary Delano, responsible for the Sioux territorial rights in the region, said:

“I am inclined to think that the occupation of this region of the country is not necessary to the happiness and prosperity of the Indians, and as it is supposed to be rich in minerals and lumber it is deemed important to have it freed as early as possible from Indian occupancy. I shall, therefore, not oppose any policy which looks first to a careful examination of the subject... If such an examination leads to the conclusion that country is not necessary or useful to Indians, I should then deem it advisable...to extinguish the claim of the Indians and open the territory to the occupation of the whites.”

Delano's remarks were in direct contradiction of terms defined in the l868 Laramie Treaty that states: "...no persons except those designated herein ... shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article."

Delano states the major reasons for an exploration in his letter: Americans and representatives in Dakota Territory felt that there was too much land allotted for too few Sioux (estimated to number from 15 to 25,000 in 1872); and the existence of mineral and natural resources in the area. Coincidentally, America entered a period of economic downturn in 1873. It has been widely speculated since that time that the Delano letter and other previous reports and rumors regarding the wealth of the Black Hills brought about the expedition of the following year.

General Alfred H. Terry of the Headquarters of the Department of Dakota in St. Paul formally ordered the exploration of the Black Hills on June 8, 1874. Lieutenant Colonel
George A. Custer was given command of the expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. The Custer Expedition was given orders to explore the region and evaluate possible sites for a fort in or near the Black Hills.

The expedition departed on July 2, 1874. The mile-long procession was lead by a buckskin-clad Custer on his favorite bay thoroughbred at the head of ten Seventh Cavalry companies, followed by two companies of infantry, scouts and guides. The detachment comprised more than l, 000 troops and one black woman, Sarah Campbell, the expedition’s cook. Six-mule teams pulled 110 white canvas-topped wagons, horse-drawn Gatling guns and cannons, and three hundred head of cattle trailed to provide meat for the troops. A scientific corps included a geologist and his assistant, a naturalist, a botanist, a medical officer, a topographical engineer, a zoologist, and a civilian engineer. Two miners, Horatio N. Ross and William T. McKay, were attached to the scientific corps. Custer also brought a photographer, newspaper correspondents, the company’s band, hunting dogs, the son of U. S. President Ulysses S. Grant, as well as his younger brothers, Tom and Boston.

This was not the usual military expedition. The Seventh Cavalry band played for the troops in the mornings as they broke camp and played concerts in the evenings. Troopers leaned from their horses to pick flowers. The large hospital tent served as a dining room for Custer and his staff. Wine bottles visible in Illingworth's photographs indicate they dined in civilized style.
Moving southwest, the expedition reached the Belle Fourche River on July 18. Custer and his party were amazed by the Hills. June was, and still is, the best month to be in the area. The expedition marveled at the trees, sheer cliffs, clear streams, grasses, flowers, and early summer climate of the area. Interestingly, they found few signs of Indian habitation. Custer scaled the 6,000-foot Inyan Kara, carving his name and date at the top, as he did on other lofty locations in the Hills. W. H. Illingworth set up his bulky equipment to photograph the string of white-topped wagons stretching along the valleys, wagons that would have to be lowered into gulches by ropes and chains that dug deep grooves into sturdy trees.


In mid-July, the expedition was camped in an open area east of the present town of Custer. Horatio Ross made the initial discovery of gold along French Creek. Custer wasted little time in dispatching the news to Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory. Bearing the news to the outside world, courier Charley Reynolds made the 115-mile ride to Fort Laramie in four nights, hiding during the day to escape detection by any hostile Indians. From Fort Laramie, Custer's reports were telegraphed to General Terry in St. Paul.

After reading through descriptions of beautiful valleys filled with lush grasses, flowing streams of clear, cold water, wild berries and flowers, Terry finally arrived at the core of the 3,500-word dispatch:

“... gold has been found at several places, and it is the belief of those who are giving their attention to this subject that it will be found in paying quantities. I have on my table forty or fifty small particles of pure gold...most of it obtained today from one panful of earth.”

Newspapers in the United States, and around the world, spread the word of the gold discovery by the last week of July. Back at French Creek, Horatio Ross, 20 men, and Sarah Campbell drew up papers and staked their claim for District No. l, the Custer Mining Company, before the expedition headed north. The expedition explored the central and northern Black Hills, and then exited the Hills near Bear Butte.

The nearly 1,200-mile expedition took sixty days, arriving back at Fort Abraham Lincoln on August 30, 1874. By the time Custer returned, the Black Hills gold rush was on. In Cheyenne and Virginia City, Sioux City and Sidney, Helena and Bismarck, groups of gold-hungry men prepared for prospecting trips into the forbidden Black Hills.

This led to a rush to the Black Hills by thousands of miners. The "Yankton Press & Dakotaian" newspaper editorialized about the 1868 Treaty: "This abominable compact is now pleaded as a barrier to the improvement and development of one of the richest and most fertile regions in America. What shall be done with these Indian dogs in our manger? They will not dig gold or let others do it.”

At first, the U.S. tried to stop prospectors from moving into the Black Hills. In September of 1874, General Sheridan sent instructions to Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, Commander of the Department of Dakota, directing him to use force to prevent companies of prospectors from trespassing on the Sioux Reservation. At the same time, Sheridan let it be known that he would "give a cordial support to the settlement of the Black Hills," should Congress decide to "open up the country for settlement, by extinguishing the treaty rights of the Indians." This was published in newspapers at the time. In 1875, General Crook was assigned to forcibly remove the thousands of miners – which proved impossible. By January of 1875, there were 15,000 miners in the Hills.

In the Spring of 1875, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and other chiefs were summoned to Washington to meet with President Grant and discuss the Black Hills. The U.S. wanted the Black Hills, and would send a commission later in the year to arrange a purchase price. The Indians didn't want this, and argued among themselves on what they should do.

The U.S. Senate Commission visited the Nebraska agencies in 1875 to negotiate an outright purchase price for the Black Hills of $6 million. Red Cloud, Spotted Tail (the "agency" chiefs) and Crazy Horse and the non-settled warriors refused. The Commission also tried to get the chiefs to change the terms of the 1868 Treaty, and to pay the Sioux a $400,000 annual rental to allow safe passage for the prospectors and settlers. Of course, the chiefs refused this also, and indicated they would protect the Black Hills from this invasion if the U.S. would not honor its Treaty obligation to do so.

President Grant then decided to abandon the treaty obligation of the United States to preserve the Lakota Territory. In a letter dated November 9, 1875, to General Terry, Sheridan stated that he had met with President Grant, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Secretary of War, and that the President had decided that the military should no longer try to keep miners from occupying the Black Hills: "it being his belief that such resistance only increased their desire and complicated the troubles." These orders were to be enforced "quietly," and the President's decision was to remain "confidential."

It was a wild and violent situation, with Indians attacking miners, miners and settlers attacking Indians, and ransacking by outlaws against Indians and miners alike. The U.S. Government concluded that the only remaining option was to protect the U.S. citizens mining in the Black Hills for gold.

On December 6, 1875, the U.S. Commissioner on Indian Affairs ordered the Lakota onto the reservation by January 31, 1876, threatening to treat them as "hostiles" and have them arrested if they did not meet this deadline. The Sioux bands were scattered during this harsh winter, some didn't get the order; others were hunting or camped in the unceded Indian Territory (which was their right). On February 1, 1876, the Secretary of the Interior relinquished jurisdiction over all so-called "hostile" (non-agency) Sioux - those Indians lawfully hunting in the non-reservation territory - to the War Department. The Army was ordered in.

The 1876 campaign that led to Custer's Last Stand was launched.

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