Black Hills are traditional hunting grounds for American Indians.
The Lakota never welcomed "the whiteman" to these hunting
grounds. The first European explorers to see the Black Hills were
probably Francis and Louis-Joseph Verendrye. These French explorers
were traveling through South Dakota near the Missouri River. The
exact route they were using is unknown, but according to Louis-Joseph's
journal, on New Year's Day in 1743 they were on a bluff overlooking
the Missouri River and were "...in sight of mountains".
It was reported that their American Indian guides would not take
them any closer to the mountains because hostile bands of Indians
were known to live there.
Lewis and Clark heard tales about the Hills
from other traders and trappers, but it wasn't until 1823 that
Smith and a group of about 15 traders actually traveled through
them. While fur trade was at its peak, the Black Hills were explored
to some extent by adventuresome trappers, but because the hills
were considered sacred by the Lakota, most trappers avoided the
area. Several reports of the discovery of gold in the "Black
Hills" were heard during this time. However, exactly where
the gold was discovered was often confusing because the Laramie
Range in Wyoming was also occasionally called the "Black Hills".
As immigration across the continent increased
there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The
Army established outposts nearby, but they seldom entered the Hills
Black thinking that to do so would surely cause trouble.
Trouble, however, was already brewing. Bands
of Lakota reportedly raided settlements and then retreated to the
cover of the Hills. Because of this, Lt. G.K. Warren was assigned
the task of making a thorough reconnaissance of the plains of South
Dakota, including the area known as the Black Hills. The study of
the area was supplemented by another reconnaissance in 1859-60 by
Capt. W.F. Reynolds and Dr. F.V. Hayden.
1861, residents of what is now Eastern South Dakota were organizing
groups of miners and explorers to investigate the Hills and reports
of gold there. In 1865 they asked Congress for a military reconnaissance
to do a geological survey on the Black Hills. The military recognized
the importance the Lakota Nations attached to the area and in 1867
Gen. William T. Sherman stated the Army was not in any position
to investigate to the Black Hills and would not protect any civilians
who did so.
Pressure to move into the Hills was temporarily halted in 1868 when
the land west of the Missouri was granted to the Lakota in an effort
to bring about a lasting peace with the tribes of the plains. The
treaty prohibited settlers or miners from entering the Hills without
authorization, in return the Lakota agreed to cease hostilities
against pioneers and people building the railroads.
In 1870 stories continued to circulate in Eastern South Dakota about
gold and other wealth to be had in the Hills. The citizens of Yankton
again pressed for an expedition. The Army and the Department of
the Interior tried to discourage any entry into the Hills.
American Indian raids and constant pressure from
the citizens of Yankton caused General Phillip Sheridan to propose
an expedition to investigate the possibility of establishing a fort
in the Black Hills. The Army suggested a fort to aid in controlling
the bands of American Indians who would raid settlements and then
return to the Hills to hide. The expedition, led by Lt. Col. George
A. Custer left from Fort Lincoln rather than Fort Laramie because
of the large concentration of American Indians at Fort Laramie and
the trouble that such an expedition would have caused.
The purpose of Custer's expedition was to find
a suitable location for a fort. However, for unexplained reasons,
a geologist and miners were included in the party. The miners occupied
their time searching for gold and on June 30th, near the present
day town of Custer, their efforts were rewarded.
After Custer's report of gold in the Hills, the
citizens of Yankton again petitioned the government to open the
Hills. The government held firm to the position that the Hills belonged
to the Lakota. This did not stop the rush of hopeful miners. The
first group to reach the Hills was the Gordon Party. Originally
lead by Thomas Russell and later by John Gordon, the party consisted
of 28 adventurers including Annie Tallent (Tallent is credited with
being the first white woman in the Black Hills). They were soon
forced to leave by the Army. During the winter of 1874 and 75 the
army tried to keep miners and settlers out, but by spring they found
the task to be impossible.
In 1875 another expedition organized by the Army
entered the Hills to determine its true mineral value. Walter Jenney
reported gold could be extracted with sophisticated equipment, but
individual miners would have a hard time of it.
By 1875 Col. Richard I. Dodge estimated 800 white
men were mining or residing in the Hills. Mining camps were established
near Custer, Hill City and Deadwood. As old claims played out, new
ones were found and towns died or were born almost overnight. By
1876, approximately 10,000 people populated the Hills.
In the spring of 1875 the federal government
attempted to solve the problem of ownership of the Hills by inviting
American Indian leaders to Washington D.C.. The American Indians
refused all offers and would not relinquish ownership of the land.
Some of the Indian wars that followed were a result of these problems.
The ownership of the Black Hills is still in
question. The Supreme Court decision that attempted to settle the
issue by paying the Lakota tribes for the land was not accepted
by all of the tribes. Many of the Lakota are still trying to gain
ownership of a land sacred to them.