History of the Black Hills

Wind Cave is considered sacred and culturally significant to the Lakota and Cheyenne, and throughout the centuries, many tribal nations lived and traveled within reach of what would become Wind Cave National Park. The first 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 Jedediah 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

In 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 July 30, 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. A 1980 Supreme Court decision that attempted to settle the issue by paying the Lakota tribes for the land was not accepted the Lakota, and many of them are still trying to gain ownership of the land sacred to them.

Last updated: February 16, 2018

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