The Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota is a region covered in forests, with streams and rivers flush with fish. A large variety of animals make the place their home. And for the Lakota Sioux, it was considered sacred.
Signed on April 29, 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was an agreement between the United States and several bands of the Lakota, Yanktonai Dakota, and Arapaho Nation that, in part, granted ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota. It also brought an end to Red Cloud’s War.
Unfortunately, the peace was short-lived.
Six years later, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer of the United States Army began an expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory (today: Bismarck, ND) with orders to explore the Black Hills, surveying the region for a possible fort site. Civilians accompanied Custer’s 7th Cavalry, prospecting for gold.
And it was gold they found, at least to some degree. Rumors began to spread of fortunes to be made and the number of civilian parties travelling to the area increased.
To their credit, United States government officials became concerned with how this development could cause agitation among the Native Americans with whom they had just signed a treaty. Soldiers were sent to prevent gold-rushers from entering the area.
General George Cook, in his autobiography written in 1889, described the attempts to stop the influx:
“The discovery of gold in the Black Hills was attracting much attention amongst the people of the country. As it was on the Sioux reservation, the authorities in Washington were anxious to prevent this violation of the treaty stipulations. General Sheridan, in command of the Division of the Missouri, issued an order directing the troops to arrest any such persons attempting to go into the Black Hills and to destroy all their transportation, guns, and property generally. But notwithstanding all these precautions, many had sifted in. I was ordered to proceed to that country and eject these people.”
But while there were attempts to prevent such activity, the Lakota Sioux grew from agitated to hostile. John Finerty, in Warpath and Bivouac, written in 1890, stated that three quarters of the Black Hills region and all of the Big Horn had been declared off-limits by the Great Father and Sitting Bull.
Finerty adds that as people entered the region, they found more reasons to love it:
“The beauty and variety of the landscape; the immense quantities of the noblest species of American game; the serrated mountains and forest-covered hills; the fine grazing lands and rushing streams, born of the snows of the majestic Big Horn peaks; and, above all else, the rumor of great gold deposits, the dream of wealth which hurled Cortez on Mexico and Pizarro on Peru, fired the Caucasian heart with the spirit of adventure and exploration, to which the attendant and well-recognized danger lent an additional zest.”
In 1876, with public pressure mounting to seize the Black Hills from the Lakota, President Grant sent a commission to negotiate a new treaty with the tribes. U.S. offers were refused by the Lakota. Grant was then persuaded to wage war, but he was concerned with the lack of provocation, so he set conditions for the natives that he knew would most likely be violated. In late 1875, he sent orders for the Lakota to retreat to the reservation by Jan. 31, 1876, or face military force. Despite the views of several U.S. agents in the Dakota Territory that the deadline was too short given impending winter conditions, Grant refused to extend the deadline. On Feb. 8, 1876, with no action taken by the tribes to obey Grant’s orders, war began.
The Black Hills War, or the Great Sioux War of 1876, did not last long. Given the greater resources available to the United States military, the campaign came to a swift conclusion in February of the next year with the signing of The Agreement of 1877, which enforced reservations for the Lakota. Though outmatched, the Lakota were able to secure a legendary victory at Little Big Horn, killing George Custer in June 1876.
The Black Hills now belonged to the U.S.
My family and I travelled to the Black Hills this past summer. We stayed at Custer State Park and travelled through Custer, SD. We saw the constant advertisements for Black Hills gold and of course, we made the pilgrimage to the Black Hills’ most famous attraction—Mount Rushmore. But as I stared up at the great human achievement that is Mount Rushmore, I couldn’t help but notice that the view behind me—overlooking the miles and miles of the Black Hills National Forest—was more attractive. I thought of the stories of this land and similar tales from around our country. Man-made monuments to federal authorities that, for many people, overshadow the natural beauty that surrounds it, and state-run parks and cities named after George Custer would appall the native peoples of the Black Hills.
While Native Americans were often viewed as a lesser people by our government, they held a view of nature that is to be commended. We took their sacred land in the pursuit of gold and riches and certainly disregarded their wishes. Let’s not forget, though, that we also disregarded the land. We did not care who would take best care of the land, but rather only that we wanted it.
As we take possession of land, heirlooms, or other items in our lives today, it is important that we all serve as good caretakers of the world and things around us.