The 1874 Black Hills Expedition

by Ernest Grafe

The California Gold Rush of 1849 unleashed a massive wave of migration that carried fortune-hunters to virtually every corner of the Old West. A quarter of a century later they were connected by a network of roads and telegraph lines, by the Union Pacific Railroad and steamboats on the Missouri River. Yet the Black Hills remained a mysterious place to the white world, part of the Lakota Sioux reservation guaranteed by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

There had always been rumors of gold here, however, and by 1874 the frontier settlements were putting pressure on the government to permit exploration. A financial panic was adding to the pressure, and it’s possible that the railroads were working behind the scenes to generate more business. It was in this atmosphere that Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan ordered a reconnaissance of the Black Hills, allegedly to look for a site on which to build a fort. The reconnaissance would be led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who brought along a photographer, several newspapermen and two prospectors — but who never once mentioned building a fort.

Custer prepared for the expedition at Fort Abraham Lincoln, which had been built just the year before near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. There he gathered ten companies of his Seventh Cavalry, adding two companies of infantry as a rear guard for the wagon train. He hired guides and teamsters and a large contingent of Indian scouts. William Illingworth signed on as a photographer, while the University of Minnesota agreed to send Newton Winchell as a geologist. Yale provided a young George Bird Grinnell to collect fossils. Aris Donaldson would serve as botanist, subsidized by stories he wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer. Four other newspaper correspondents also joined the expedition, as well as the practical miners Horatio N. Ross and William T. McKay. Col. William Ludlow headed up an engineering staff of six men using odometers, chronometers, sextants and compasses to draw a detailed map of their route. The portion along the left edge of the frame shows the area of today's Reynolds (“Elkhorn”) Prairie, and provides a good example of the meticulous work of the engineers.

It must have been a grand procession that set out from Fort Lincoln on July 2, 1874. There were 110 wagons and about a thousand men in all — plus one woman, a cook named Sarah Campbell. Sixteen band members rode their white horses up front, playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Out ahead were the scouts, guiding the headquarters staff as Custer chose a travel route. A rotating “pioneer” company of cavalry dug roads and bridged creeks where necessary. The expedition became a kind of sprawling traveling machine, (photo below)wagontrainLRadj1 working its way across the plains toward the Black Hills. It reached the Belle Fourche River on July 18 and continued to the foothills east of Inyan Kara, where two soldiers were buried on a bluff above the camp of July 23-24. One of them had died slowly and painfully of dysentery; the other had been shot during an argument with an old rival. It was here that Custer decided to enter the heart of the Black Hills. Just two years before the invention of the telephone, the expedition was about to enter a completely unmapped landscape.

The General followed a well-worn Indian trail deeper into the Hills, and soon came across a small Lakota village where Deerfield Lake is today — site of the July 28 camp on the map. The expedition reached French Creek on July 30, where the prospectors Ross and McKay immediately found a few flecks of gold in what is now the town of Custer — also the site of the first baseball game ever played in the Black Hills. Gold was found in greater quantities three miles further east, where a “Permanent Camp” was established August 1-5. Reconnaissance parties explored to the south and east while photographer W.H. Illingworth recorded a number of views in the surrounding area. Some of those who stayed behind sank a prospect shaft and filed the first gold claims. Sarah Campbell (known as “Aunt Sally” to the men) held Number 7 below discovery, on French Creek. She is one of several expedition members known to have returned in later years. A German sergeant named Charles Becker apparently did not, even though he talked to a reporter about his dream of building a beer garden in the valley.

The expedition started back to Fort Lincoln on August 6, and Custer — with a little help — killed a grizzly bear the following day (August 7, photo below). He and the other three hunters posed with the bear for one of the more famous photographs of the journey, but the true site of this event wasn’t known until the authors discovered it — along with several other photo sites — while preparing this book. The expedition picked its way toward Bear Butte, but couldn’t find a way out of the Hills through the rugged canyons in the area. Custer was forced to turn south, at last finding a break in a limestone wall that is still known as “Custer’s Gap.” Another soldier died of dysentery that day. Private James King was buried the next morning while Custer set out for Bear Butte. The date was August 14, the expedition’s last day in the Black Hills. Three weeks earlier this had been a completely unknown place, but soon the white world would be reading extensive stories and reports from the trail.

grizzlybear8inchThese writings — official reports, journals and newspaper stories — and the Illingworth photographs are historical treasures that, taken together, provide a rich portrait of the expedition. The fatal duel, the encounter with the Lakota, the prospecting, the shooting of the bear, details of camp life . . . all of these events and many more are brought to life in the pages of Exploring with Custer. Here you will find lively descriptions of baseball games and funerals, lost hunters and an Indian Elk Dance, ascents on Inyan Kara and Harney Peak. You will also be able to enjoy and study high-quality reproductions of the first photographs ever taken in the Black Hills, with directions to most of the photo sites.

This is your opportunity to travel back in time to join the adventurers as they explore the Black Hills. Not only was the expedition itself dramatic and eventful, but it would play a pivotal role in some of the best-known events in the West. Newspaper stories lured a small band of prospectors to the Black Hills within a matter of weeks, the first of thousands who would enter illegally despite threats from the Lakota Sioux and the U.S. Army. The gold rush fueled already growing bitterness among the Cheyenne and Sioux, who refused to run from Custer in Montana two years later. Several of the men in this group photo would die at the Little Big Horn, including the Arikara scout Bloody Knife (at left with Custer in the grizzly bear photo), who was shot in the head while standing next to Major Marcus Reno in the grove of cottonwoods. The Sioux and the Seventh Cavalry would face each other again in 1890, when an effort to disarm a band of Ghost Dancers went terribly wrong at Wounded Knee. But none of this could be imagined in 1874 when Custer lay down in a small Black Hills field — now within sight of a well-traveled road — to strike an uncharacteristic pose at one of the high points in his life. Years later, one of the soldiers who rode into the Black Hills in 1874 referred to the expedition when he wrote that Custer “never had any luck after that.” (Note from editor: if you've enjoyed the Expedition story, take a look at our two books on this subject. Or go back to Home page.)