The Custer expedition into South Dakota and its aftermath (1874-1876)
THE STRUGGLE FOR
THE BLACK HILLS
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.
“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.
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.