Gold in the Black Hills
Following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops in 1868, prospectors flooded into that vitally important part of the Sioux reservation. In defense of the Treaty of 1868 with the Sioux, under which the Sioux retained ownership of the Black Hills, the Army tried but half-heartedly to keep gold prospectors out.
Red Cloud and Spotted Tail negotiated with the U.S. Government in Washington, D.C. regarding the sale of the Black Hills in June of 1875. The U.S. offered $6 million for the Black Hills, or $400,000 per year to lease the land. Non-reservation Sioux, occupying the Sioux hunting grounds and raiding along its boundaries, opposed any treaty that would cede the Black Hills. The Sioux and the U.S. Government did not reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, hundreds of prospectors flooded into the Black Hills looking for gold while the Army did little to stop them. After a controversial meeting between President Ulysses S. Grant, the Secretary of War, Secretary of the Interior, Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Generals Sheridan and Crook in November of 1875, the Army withdrew from the Black Hills, effectively opening the land for miners. The Sioux’s ownership of the Black Hills from the Treaty of 1868 was not enforced.
On December 6, 1875, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs sent out an ultimatum to the non-reservation Sioux to return to their reservations before January 31, 1876 or else be forced there by military action. It is likely that this ultimatum was a ploy to lure non-reservation Sioux into war so that they would be forced to formally cede the Black Hills to the U.S. Government once defeated on the battlefield. Although many Sioux stayed at their respective agencies, others ignored the ultimatum, setting the stage for hostilities.
Working under the theory that the “outlaw” Sioux that refused to return to their reservations would be easier to catch in winter, General George Crook struck north from Wyoming in March, 1876. Crook failed to subdue the Sioux before severe winter conditions turned him back to Fort Fetterman. He thrust northward again in May after the weather improved. At the same time, General Alfred Terry struck west from Fort Lincoln in Mandan, Dakota Territory.