Battle of Little Bighorn: 22 – Prospectors in the Black Hills

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

Prospectors, frontiersmen, and the like seemed to consider that the gold strike in the Black Hills made the Treaty of 1868 null and void. At least, their invading actions certainly gave the impression that this was their attitude as they swarmed through the Hills in search of riches. And if they didn’t outright believe the treaty was no longer in effect, past experience assured them that one way or another the government would make it so.

The prospectors were probably unaware at the time that back east there were those who had considerable doubt about the accuracy of Custer’s mineral assessment. The government, also, wanted more exact information on the strike and found little comfort in the words of Doctor Newton Winchill, Custer’s chief geologist on the Black Hills expedition.

Winchill admitted that he had no first-hand knowledge of the gold strike. Backing up Winchill’s statement was Fred Grant, the President’s son who Custer had been forced to arrest for drunkenness during the expedition. Young Grant publicly corroborated Winchill’s story.

Black Hills Miners

The United States Government had the perfect solution for their need of more exact information — launch another invasion into the Black Hills, which was termed as a scientific exploration and would come about in the spring. In the meantime to placate the Sioux, or at least to make it appear so in the printed press, the government utilized the final months of 1874 in closing access to the Black Hills to whites. This action wasn’t too difficult to accomplish for the next few months. Winter, itself, would do most of the work.

However, on September 3, the Army warned that it would “burn the wagons and destroy the outfit and arrest the leaders” of any groups or individuals making an attempt to enter the Hills. However, by the first thaw in the new spring the several hundred miners residing in the Hills showed that the Army and its weapons had not done a complete job. The miners had even erected a log fort along French Creek near the spot of Custer’s gold find. It was going to take a special force of armed men to dislodge these determined miners.

Miners Fort, Black Hills

But the Army wasn’t the only group of fighting men who possessed firearms. According to John G. Bourke, who was there at the time, “The Indians were buying all the arms, ammunition, knives, and other munitions of war from the traders and every one else who would sell to them.” It sounds as though the Indians well knew, or at least had a strong suspicion, that there would be a big fight sometime in the near future.

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Bourke also says that “the [Army] posts were filled with supplies, garrisons changed to admit of the concentration of the largest possible numbers on most threatened localities, and the efficient pack-trains which had rendered so valuable a service during the campaign in Arizona [under General George Crook] were brought up from the south and congregated at Cheyenne, Wyoming.”

Whatever was to be the outcome of the situation, both whites and Indians were preparing.