Battle of Little Bighorn: 21 – Gold in Black Hills!

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

Custer knew that the initial gold find in the Black Hills was not spectacular but still announced to the Bismarck Tribune that “The reports are not exaggerated in the least” and “recommend the extinguishment of Indian title at the earliest moment.”

It was no secret that the discovery of gold in the Black Hills would start a stampede of whites through Dakota Territory and bring about a war with the Sioux who would defend their land by killing miners and attacking wagon trains.

Then the government could retaliate, claiming the Sioux violated the 1868 treaty. If the Indians refused to sell the Black Hills the government would have “just cause” to take the Hills. It was a well laid-out plan and Custer was the pawn that started the ball rolling.

It wasn’t just the military and the United States Government that went forward to a “just cause” to take the ownership of the Black Hills out of the Indians’ hands. Civilians also wanted to possess the Hills for the purposes of gold prospecting, making homesteads, and building towns. The east was having hard times. Jobs were scarce and wages were low.

The people in the east were demanding that their government do something to relieve the situation. But civilians could also see that just such an action of taking the Black Hills away from the Indians would surely cause a war. And that they didn’t want either, along with hard times, poverty, and grasshoppers. One civilian voiced his concern.

Further evidence of non-military knowledge was given by William Eleroy Curtis, a journalist who was part of the literary contingency of Custer’s troop. A few weeks prior to the launching of the expedition Curtis posted in the New York World: “We are goading the Indians to madness by invading their hallowed grounds, and throwing open to them the avenues leading to a terrible revenge whose cost would far outweigh any scientific or political benefit possible. . . .”

Curtis sounds as though he were somewhat on the Indians’ side, then during the expedition when quartz rock began to show up he declares that they saw mountains of it “as beautiful as the hills of a celestial city, white and red and green and yellow crystals that fell under the hammer’s blow into emeralds and rubies and opals. . . .”

If Custer’s words were not enough to start a stampede, which they were and did, Curtis’ reporting would have more than accomplished the act.