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A Brief History of the Black Hills from 1800, Part I

The following is by no means a comprehensive story of the Black Hills, nor is it meant to be. It is meant only to give a general view of the last 250 years of regional history. Editor, Visitor Magazine

The first recorded mention by Europeans of a range of mountains west of the Missouri River came in 1743 when the Black Hills were apparently seen by members of the Verendrye Party, who were looking at various trading opportunities for France beyond the Mandan villages along the Missouri River. The mention of snow-capped mountains comes in a journal entry from January of 1743. It is not believed that the Verendrye group came to the Hills.

By 1800, while the United States was less than 25 years old, and the Lakota Sioux people had occupied the Black Hills region for about 25 years. Inventors in Europe and America were experimenting with early variations of the steam locomotive that would alter the American landscape forever and, in the field of politics, a major step was about to be taken in the expansion of the United States and in the future of the Black Hills region.

The Louisiana Purchase (from History and Government of South Dakota by G.M. Smith, M.A. and C.M. Young, PH.D - 1904)

“The Black Hills are in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase, for which, in 1803, the United States paid France the sum of 80,000,000 francs ($15,500,000). The extreme northwestern part of the New Northwest was secured under the claim of discovery and exploration, based particularly on the work of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806. Louisiana had been held first by France under claim of discovery by La Salle in 1682. In a treaty entered into at Paris in 1763, Louisiana came into the possession of Spain. In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte conceived the idea of a great colonial empire in America, and by promises of political aid to Spain secured the return of Louisiana to France. His plans of empire miscarried, and in 1803 he was ready to sell this magnificent domain for a trifle . . .

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore this vast new holding. At the mouth of the Cheyenne River in the summer of 1804, they made the acquaintance of John Valle, a local trader. Valle made mention of the Black Mountains where he had spent some time trapping. He estimated the Black Mountains were 160 leagues west of their encampment.

Another group saw the Black Mountains from afar in 1811. A trading group led by Wilson Hunt passed to the north in an attempt to find an overland Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Looking for a trade route, they were apparently not interested in exploration.

The first American group to document a visit to the Black Hills was the Jedediah Smith Expedition of 1823. Smith and his party stayed in the Hills for a period of time, partially due to the recuperation of Smith after being mauled by a bear. Their journal noted that the Hills was not a good area for fur trapping; trappers then came to generally discount the region and move on to more lucrative fur trapping and trading areas of the West.

One possible visit by would-be prospectors to the Northern Hills is still debated. Seven men had come to the Hills in 1833 in the pursuit of gold. All perished at the hands of the Indians according to a carved stone discovered at the base of Lookout Mountain near Spearfish in 1887 by Louis Thoen:

"Came to these hills in 1833 seven of us all died but me Ezra Kind

Ezra Kind
G.W. Wood
T. Brown
R. Kent
Wm. King
Indian Crow

killed by Indians beyond the high hill got our gold June 1834"

The reverse side read: "Got all of the gold we could carry our ponys all got
by Indians I have lost my gun and nothing to eat and Indians hunting me."

Though historian Frank Thomson spent years researching the authenticity of the Thoen Stone, it is still not entirely clear if the carving is authentic, or a clever fake perpetrated by Thoen in the 1880s (the original stone is now located in the Adams Museum in Deadwood, South Dakota).

By 1855, the great overland trails leading west to California and Oregon had been hosting settlers from the east for over a decade, and relations between the tribes and the advancing settlers were in a constant state of unrest. General William Harney was given command of a survey detachment at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and ordered to head northeastward toward the Black Hills and on to Fort Pierre. By this time, the area had been given to the tribes of the Lakota as part of the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, and later as a part of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty (for more information on these treaties see the Web articles on Lakota history). Tensions ran high between the Lakota and the US government at the time, too, and the party was forced to briefly skirt the southeastern corner of the region.

Thus, what little information existed about the Black Hills was primarily based on rumors and secondhand accounts of the area until 1857 when an official survey expedition was sent to the vicinity by the United States government.

G. K. Warren, a former member of the Harney Party, intrigued by the Black Hills during his brief brush with them, convinced the government to let him lead a scientific party in 1857. His efforts to map and document the region were hindered by several bands of Lakota Sioux, but one thing did come through in his expedition report; a good location for a fort would be in the vicinity of Bear Butte.

The 1859 Raynolds Expedition may have been the hastiest in leaving the Hills. Several soldiers under Raynold’s command found gold in Beaver Creek on the northern slope of the Hills. Sensing a possible mutiny of his troops, Raynolds headed into the Powder River country to separate his men from the gold. His was the last of the US government’s exploration until the Custer Expedition of 1874.

Continue to Part II of this story.