Battle of Little Bighorn: 19 – Custer’s Gold

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

Fort Abraham Lincoln

On August 30th, Custer returned home to Fort Abraham Lincoln, riding at the head of his troops that marched into the fort just as it had left—with the sixteen-piece band, mounted on white horses, playing “Garryowen.”

The return march had been a hard dusty trek, especially after the deep green beauty of the Black Hills. It had not helped that the Indians persisted in burning the grass along Custer’s route to deprive his mounts of much needed nourishment.

It was during the return trip that Luther North remarked that they were lucky the Indians hadn’t attacked. In reply, Custer informed North that, “I could whip all the Indians in the northwest with the Seventh Cavalry.”

Bismarck, Dakota Territory

As to the gold that had been discovered, Custer’s first report that was sent with Reynolds had already created a considerable stir in Bismarck. Half of the town was already planning to go to the Black Hills by the time Custer returned to the fort. The other half of the town was busy figuring out how to make their fortune by selling wagons, food, and mining equipment to those daring to possibly place their scalps in the hands of the Sioux.

Yankton, Dakota Territory

Yankton, South Dakota and Sioux City, Iowa were also getting into the act by both announcing they were the official jumping-off place to the new gold fields. The gold fever pot was bubbling and Custer’s full report served to boil the pot over.

In Custer’s full report he declared that there was gold among the grass roots, gold in paying quantities in every stream. He even noted that there were numerous other attractions for those seeking to make permanent settlements. Custer added further fuel to the fire when he wrote, concerning the Black Hills, that:

There are beautiful parks and valleys, through which flow streams of clear, cold water, perfectly free from alkali, which bounding these parks, or valleys, is invariably found unlimited supplies of timber, much of it being capable of being made into good lumber. In no portion of the United States, not excepting the famous bluegrass region of Kentucky, have I ever seen grazing superior to that found growing wild in this hitherto unknown region. I know of no portion of our country where nature has done so much to prepare homes for husbandmen and left so little for the latter to do as here. The open and timber spaces are so divided that a partly prepared farm of almost any dimensions can be found here. . . .Cattle could winter in these valleys without other food or shelter then that to be obtained from running at large.”

Custer’s report certainly sounds promising and inviting. And no doubt that Congress saw it as the prime answer to all their economical problems. But Custer, and shortly afterwards Congress, seems to have forgotten one minor fact—the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux and unless a person was employed by the government he had no right to even be in the Hills, much less set up homesteading or prospect for gold.