Battle of Little Bighorn: 23 – Black Hills Gold Reaffirmed

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

With the beginning of spring in 1875, the debate as to whether Custer’s gold discovery in the Black Hills amounted to anything or not continued. The Reverend Samuel Hinman, an Episcopal missionary, made his own investigation of the Hills and afterwards declared the Hills to be “bleak” and “sterile” with “no evidence” of mineral wealth. Hinman further preached that to annex the Hills would be “an unwarranted use of our great power to impose upon the simple and the weak.”

Perhaps Hinman did not find any gold, but others certainly had. It has to be considered that Hinman was a minister, not a miner. Whether he was wrong or not, he was certainly wrong in assuming that the Indians were “simple” and “weak.” Perhaps he hoped his words would sway a gold-hungry nation from starting an Indian war. If he had any belief in his own words, this too was in error.

That war with the Indians over various Indian grievances, and the invasion of the Black Hills in particular, would come might just as well have been carved in stone. One contingency welding this deadly chisel was geologist William Jenney who directed the pre-planned, 1875, government expedition into the Hills.

When Jenney began sending back his dispatches from the Black Hills, which were widely publicized, he confirmed that what Custer had reported a year ago was certainly true and advised that a gold field some 800 square miles existed. In addition, he reported that this area was surrounded by enough farmland to support a large mining population. Though Jenney’s report was stated mildly, hundreds of newspapers took up the cry—and expanded on it. The previous fall, the New York Herald had made one of its truer statements when it declared that “If there is gold in the Hills no Army on earth can keep the adventurous men of the west out.”

Jenney found this prediction made by the New York Herald to be true as he met hundreds of miners working the Hills. He estimated that there were as many as 1,500 whites swarming over these forbidden valleys of the Sioux reservation.

Also reported by Jenney was that the commander of his military escort, Colonel Richard Dodge, in taking no action to restrain the white trespassers they encountered, disobeyed orders from Generals Sherman, Sheridan, and Terry that whites should be expelled from the Hills.

General Alfred Terry

Compounding the problem of expulsion was that many of the officers and men empathized with the miners. How could they bring themselves to deny the miners access to the Black Hills gold fields when many soldiers deserted Fort Abraham Lincoln and joined the Black Hills miners.

General George Crook

Not even General George Crook, the Indian fighter of the Southern Plains, who was now assigned to guard the Hills, could bring himself to arrest the miners.