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Little Big Horn 1876-1877

The first European explorers to see what is now known as 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".

The Lakota never welcomed the whiteman to his hunting grounds and as immigration 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.

Discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, bringing an influx of miners, and extension of railroads into the area renewed unrest among the Indians, and many left their reservations. 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 DC. 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.

When the Indians would not comply with orders from the Interior Department to return to the reservations by the end of January 1876, the Army was requested to take action.

A small expedition into the Powder River country in March 1876 produced negligible results. Thereafter, a much larger operation, based on a War Department plan, was carried out in the early Sumner months. As implemented by Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of the Division of the Missouri (which included the Departments of the Missouri, Platte, and Dakota), the plan was to converge several columns simultaneously on the Yellowstone River where the Indians would be trapped and then forced to return to their reservations.

In pursuance of this plan, Maj. Gen. George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, moved north from Fort Fetterman (Wyoming) in late May 1876 with about 1,000 men (elements of the 2d and 3d Cavalry and 4th and 9th Infantry). At the same time two columns marched south up the Yellowstone under Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, commander of the Department of Dakota. One column of more than 1,000 men (7th Cavalry and elements or the 6th, 17th, and 20th Infantry), under Terry's direct commend, moved from Fort Abraham Lincoln (North Dakota) to the mouth of Powder River. The second of Terry's columns, numbering about 450 men (elements of the 2d Cavalry and 7th Infantry) under Col. John Gibbon, moved from Fort Ellis (Montana) to the mouth of the Big Born.

On 17 June 1876 Crook's troops fought an indecisive engagement with a large band of Sioux and Cheyenne under Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other chiefs on the Rosebud and then moved back to the Tongue River to wait for reinforcements. Meanwhile, General Terry had discovered the trail of the same Indian band and sent Lt. Col. George A. Custer with the 7th Cavalry up the Rosebud to locate the war party and move south of it. Terry, with the rest of his command, continued up the Yellowstone to meet Gibbon and close on the Indians from the north.

The 7th Cavalry, proceeding up the Rosebud, discovered an encampment of 4,000 to 5,000 Indians (an estimated 2,500 warriors) on the Little Big Horn on 25 June 1876. Custer immediately ordered an attack, dividing his forces so as to strike the camp from several directions. The surprised Indians quickly rallied and drove off Maj. Marcus A. Reno's detachment (Companies A, G, and M) which suffered severe losses. Reno was joined by Capt. Frederick W. Benteen's detachment (Companies D, H, and K) and the pack train (including Company B) and this combined force was able to withstand heavy attacks which were finally lifted when the Indians withdrew late the following day. Custer and a force of 211 men (Companies C, E, F, I, and L) were surrounded and completely destroyed. Terry and Gibbon did not reach the scene of Custer's last stand until the morning of 27 June. The 7th Cavalry's total losses in this action (including Custer's detachment) were: 12 officers, 247 enlisted men, 5 civilians, and 3 Indian scouts killed; 2 officers and 51 enlisted men wounded.

After this disaster the Little Big Horn campaign continued until September 1877 with many additional Regular units seeing action (including elements of the 4th and 5th Cavalry, the 5th, 14th, 22d, and 23d Infantry, and the 4th Artillery). Crook and Terry joined forces on the Rosebud on 10 August 1876, but most of the Indians slipped through the troops, although many came into the agencies. Fighting in the fall and winter of 1876-77 consisted mostly of skirmishes and raids, notably Crook's capture of American Horse's village at Slim Buttes (South Dakota) on 9 September and of Dull Knife's village in the Big Horn Mountains on 26 November, and Col. Nelson A. Miles' attack on Crazy Horse's camp in the Wolf Mountains on 8 January. By the summer of 1877 most of the Sioux were back on the reservations. Crazy Horse had come in and was killed resisting arrest at Fort Robinson (Nebraska) in September. Sitting Bull, with a small band of Sioux, escaped to Canada but surrendered at Fort Buford (Montana) in July 1881.

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.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:30:49 Zulu