hh20o.htm =c@8" =c BDGt &H &Ȥ %~ (x =c@ 'ITEXTR*ch($Xldz NPS Historical Handbook: Fort Laramie

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The Fight for the Black Hills

Rumors of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota had persisted for many years, which induced the Government to send an expedition under Col. George A. Custer from Fort Abraham Lincoln on the upper Missouri to investigate the area. Proceeding without opposition from the Indians, the expedition confirmed the presence of gold in the hills and sent out word of their discoveries to Fort Laramie in August 1874. The resulting rush of prospecting parties was at first forbidden by the military, who rounded up several and imprisoned some of their leaders at Fort Laramie, while other parties were attacked by the Indians for flagrant violation of the treaty of 1868.

A second expedition, led by Col. R. I. Dodge and Prof. W. P. Jenney, set out from Fort Laramie the next spring to explore and evaluate the gold deposits in the Black Hills. Miners also thronged the hills, and efforts to make them await negotiations with the Indians were only partly successful. Meanwhile, the Government did make an effort to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux; but the Indians, led by Chief Spotted Tail, set a justly high price on the area, which the Government refused to meet. Moreover, the wild bands of Sitting Bull and other chiefs refused to sell at any price and warned the whites to stay out. No longer restrained by the Army, the miners now swarmed into the hills, which became a powder keg.

Fort Laramie
Fort Laramie in 1868.
U. S. Geological Survey photograph by William H. Jackson.
(click on image for a larger size)

Fort Laramie
Fort Laramie in 1876.
Courtesy D. S. Mitchell.

(click on image for a larger size)

Ignoring existing treaties, the Government decided to force the wild Sioux onto their reservation, and when the order for them to come in was not instantly complied with, the Army prepared for action. A double enveloping campaign was planned, to be led by Gen. George Crook with troops based at Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman, and by Gen. Alfred H. Terry with Custer's Seventh Cavalry from Fort Abraham Lincoln and Col. John Gibbon's command from Fort Ellis, Mont. In March, Crook marched north from Fort Fetterman, 80 miles northwest of Fort Laramie, with 12 companies of soldiers. His cavalry surprised a large village of Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Powder River in Montana, but Crazy Horse rallied the Indians and forced the troops to retreat. Again in late May, Crook moved north with 20 companies of men plus 300 friendly Shoshones and Crows, and once more, on June 17, on the Rosebud, he was defeated by a great array of warriors led by Crazy Horse. Retreating to his supply camp, Crook again decided to send for reinforcements.

Meanwhile, General Terry's command had marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln and met Colonel Gibbon's detachment on the Yellowstone River. Again dividing his forces, Terry sent Custer and the entire Seventh Cavalry up the Rosebud River, while he and Gibbon, with 12 companies of infantry and four troops of cavalry, proceeded up the Bighorn River.

On the morning of June 25, 1876, Custer's scouts sighted the Indian village in the valley of the Little Bighorn. He divided his command to attack the village from three directions. The Indians, however, first met Maj. Marcus A. Reno's contingent of three troops in the afternoon in overwhelming numbers and forced them to retreat to a defensive position, where they were joined by a similar detachment under Capt. Frederick W. Benteen and the pack train. Meanwhile, the great part of the Indians had swung away to meet and wipe out Custer's personal command of five troops. Again the warriors attacked Reno, but since he was on favorable ground he was able to fight them off until the next day when their scouts detected the approach of General Terry. Firing the grass, the Indians moved off into the Bighorn Mountain, leaving over 260 soldiers dead on the battlefield. It was an empty victory, however, as the Indians were compelled to scatter to hunt for food. By winter, reinforced armies under General Crook and Colonel Miles had defeated bands led by Dull Knife and Crazy Horse, forcing them to return to the reservation and surrender, while Sitting Bull's band fled north into Canada.

In the meantime, the Government had decreed that no annuities should be paid to the hostile bands or to any Sioux until they had ceded the coveted Black Hills to the whites. A commission succeeded in getting the Sioux to sign an agreement effecting that end when it became law in February 1877.

The Northern Cheyennes were taken south to the Indian territory in 1877, but they broke away the next year, led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf, and headed north for their old home in the Dakotas. After hard campaigning by troops from Fort Laramie and other posts, many of Dull Knife's band were killed and all others were captured. These, however, were permitted to remain on the northern reservation.

The rush to the Black Hills gave new importance to Fort Laramie, for, with its bridge across the North Platte, it was the gateway to the gold-mining region via the trail leading north from Cheyenne, whose merchants advertised the route as being well guarded. Although the troops from the fort were virtually all engaged in the effort to combat Indian depredations and provide escorts, travel to the gold fields was in fact extremely hazardous. Regular service by the Cheyenne and Black Hills stage line was impossible, until conditions improved in the fall of 1876. But no sooner had Indian raids on the trail lessened than the activities of "road agents" threatened the traveler. Even armored coaches with shotgun guards failed to deter the bandits seeking gold shipments.

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