A libertarian history of the Black Hills


  After living for many years in California, Mama Liberty (Susan Callaway) escaped to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming,  Nathan, now the publisher, first came to the Black Hills as a child in the 1960s, and moved back to the Hills in 1990. This history explains some of the reasons that the Black Hills is a great location for lovers of liberty, by retelling its history briefly.

The First Nations:

The first people who are known to have lived in and around the Black Hills, an “island of trees in a sea of grass” were the Numu (nʉmʉnʉʉ, meaning “the human beings” or “the people”), the Comanche, better known for their later homeland in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma (where the tribe is today). The Comanche (so called by the Spanish starting in 1706 from the Ute name for the people: kɨmantsi (enemy or “people who always are fighting”). There were and are other claims as to people who lived in the Black Hills before them.

The Comanche left the area (splitting from their kindred Eastern Shoshone who remained in Wyoming) to go south to the source of horses, and easier living, way back in the seventeenth century.   The area in and around the Black Hills was then occupied by Cheyenne (Tsistsistas and Sutaio) and Kiowa, who controlled much of the Northern Plains west of the Missouri River.

The Lakota crossed the Missouri starting in about 1760-65 (when disease wiped out enough of the population of the Arikara, Mandan, and other tribes’ towns which controlled the fords over the Missouri). In 1765, a man named Standing Bull or Standing Bear led a war party which found that the stories about the Black Mountains (Paha Sapa) were true, and is credited with “discovering” the Black Hills.” (Actually, the French (a military expedition led by the Verendrye brothers) discovered the Black Hills first, in 1743 – 22 years before the Lakota.)

By about 1750, the Cheyenne had driven the Kiowa out of the Black Hills and West River South Dakota.  Then, a decade and a half later, the Lakota launched a war of aggression against the Cheyenne themselves, ending with two major victories in 1775 and 1776. This pushed the Cheyenne west into Wyoming (the Powder River Basin) and south into Colorado (Eastern Plains), and took over the Black Hills.  (It may be at this time that the Cheyenne split into Northern and Southern bands although others date the break to 1850.) A later treaty between the Oglala and Sicangu (Brule) bands of the Lakota (ultimately accepted by all seven of the bands) and the Cheyenne allowed the Cheyenne to harvest trees in the Black Hills and periodically go to sacred places like Bear Butte, Devils Tower, and Inyan Kara. The alliance between the Lakota and Cheyenne may also date from this treaty, or it may have been still later the two nations became allies (especially after 1850 as the US expanded its presence in the area). (Most people do not know that many of the residents (and enrolled members) in the western part of the Rosebud (Sicangu) and eastern parts of Oglala (Pine Ridge) reservations are actually Cheyenne by ancestry and culture.)

The 1851 and 1868 treaties between the US and most of the AmerInd nations in Dakota, western Nebraska, and Wyoming, recognized the Lakota as owners of the Hills, and made them part of the Great Sioux Reservation.  So the US in effect ratified the conquest of the Hills and its theft by the Lakota from the Cheyenne, albeit three-quarters of a century later.

That was the situation in 1874 when Custer led the 7th Cavalry in the exploration of the Black Hills.  

Custer’s visit:

The official and legitimate purpose of the expedition (ordered by DC, not just something Custer did on his own) was to find suitable locations for forts and agencies to get the Lakota to stay more IN the Hills and the immediate area, instead of having to use agencies and posts on the Missouri, the North Platte, and the Powder River and Yellowstone.  The idea was that having to go to the various agencies (with their military posts) on the outer boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation (or even actually outside the Reservation) was a temptation then to go ahead and hunt and raid out further into the areas of settlement AND the railroads.

This 1874 expedition was not anything odd: the US had been sending exploratory and research expeditions into the Hills and the surrounding Plains for decades, with two in particular in 1851 and 1855. (See both the Hayden and Warren Expedition documentation.) This was legal under the 1851 and 1868 treaties. The Custer Expedition was much larger than those of the past, AND (Custer being Custer), the Press and photographers went with it. Today, many people think that Custer “discovered” the Black Hills, but this is not the case.  After the Verendrye found them, the first documented Anglo presence in the Black Hills was a party of fur trappers (mountain men) who went through and around the Hills in 1811, led by Wilson Hunt of the American Fur Company.  That is also the year of the first recorded Anglo-American tourist visit to the area, when Manuel Lisa acted as tour guide for a guy from Pittsburgh.

Custer didn’t really “discover” gold, either.  Soe people had known about gold in the Black Hills for decades, going back to various French explorers (including priests) in the mid-1700s.  Probably a lot more people knew, but somehow kept “having accidents” if they tried to tell others.  There is a lot of speculation that the fur trappers and traders were also dealing in gold, especially from 1823 on when Jedediah Smith, Bill Sublette, and others spent some time in the Black Hills and among other things, documented the Petrified Forest. And the Ezra Kind party in 1833-4 was definitely mining (placer, probably) for gold, although they apparently never made it out alive.  

By then, the first town in the Black Hills, still existing, called Saint Onge, had been established by French (and probably Metis) settlers who lived by hunting, farming, and fur trapping.  Several basements and dugouts still in use today in Saint Onge have evidence.  (Notice that Saint Onge, as well as several trading posts, were established BEFORE the FedGov put the Black Hills off-limits – long before any treaties.) (Also note that although Custer City is the “Mother City” of the Black Hills because of the 1875 gold rush, it is NOT the oldest known American settlement in the Hills.)

We don’t know if the various official FedGov expeditions in and around the Black Hills between 1820 and 1870 found any evidence of gold. They may have but kept it secret. Or it could be that government ineptness and incompetence meant they didn’t know where to look or what to do. (Or maybe that report got misfiled!)

But until 1874, the existence of gold was pretty much kept out of the newspapers and public eye. Among those involved and encouraging the secrecy was a Catholic priest, Pierre-Jean DeSmet. He died in 1873, just a year before the Custer Expedition.

The Gold Rush

The discovery on French Creek (notice the name – likely due to other undocumented French settlers) did trigger the Black Hills Gold Rush, but it took time.  The real impetus was the Panic of 1873, which would be called a Recession (or even a Depression) today.  And for almost two years, the Army was spending as much time rounding up trespassers looking for gold as they were “protecting” them against the Lakota.  Custer, (originally called Stonewall for the CSA military officer, Thomas Jackson, by the way), was the first location, because they had maps and lots of Custer’s civilian hires to show them where.  (Custer had not gone all that near Deadwood or Lead, due to the terrain and the fact that Whitewood Creek and Deadwood Gulch were aptly named – they were thick with dead trees that made it very hard to clear a road. And they were too close to Saint Onge.) Deadwood wasn’t established until a year later.

It is also interesting to note that Deadwood Gulch, when mining got underway in 1876, was documented to hold the remains of a number of old, abandoned mines (both hard rock and placer) dotting the area: whether that was the 1830s Kind Party or other unknown miners, no one knows. It could have been people coming upstream from Saint Onge, or other, undocumented settlements. And no one knows (or at least, isn’t talking) about whether any of that pre-1874 mining was allowed by the Lakota (or even the Cheyenne), secretly and tacitly.  But people do speculate.

So the real Gold Rush didn’t get going until war broke out because people kept sneaking in.  And then in late 1875 or early 1876, gold was found in Deadwood Gulch and the word got out.  Apparently, the find was enough bigger than what was being mined in Custer City and vicinity that most of the camps in the Southern Hills were virtually depopulated overnight.

Like Custer City, Deadwood was NOT a “lawless town.”  As mining seriously got underway at most locations in the Black Hills, Mining Districts were established in accordance with the Mining Act of 1872, and town and county governments were organized voluntarily – not chartered by the territorial government (which was in Yankton at the time and in Bismarck after 1883).  Officials were elected, including sheriffs, and appointed by town or district boards (marshals and the like). Volunteer firefighting companies and other organizations were established. Schools and churches were organized and buildings built, roads and streets built and maintained.  

Were the Black Hills lawless?

The gold miners and others may have been breaking the law (such as the 1868 treaty), but they were NOT lawless.  Justice was, whenever possible, swift.  Stage and freight companies (including Wells Fargo) handled much of the law and order stuff themselves, but worked hand in hand with elected and appointed officials. Compared to California from 1848 on, or Colorado or Montana from 1859 on, the Black Hills were peaceful and orderly – the only vigilante activity that is recorded was in Rapid City, against horse thieves.  And it was condemned (and cursed) by most people in the area.

The most lawless act regarding the Black Hills was done by Congress. That was the unilateral modification of the 1868 Treaty by Congress in 1877, seizing the western 50 miles of Dakota Territory and removing it from the Great Sioux Reservation – this included much of the Black Hills. Further lawlessness in the next decades saw more and more of the Lakota land taken by Congress and opened for settlement, including the break-up of the reservation into the five modern Lakota reservations in 1889.  And effectively stealing of hunting rights in most of Nebraska and Wyoming and big chunks of Montana and North Dakota, from the Lakota.

The Lakota are not totally blameless when it comes to law-breaking or lawlessness, either.  They used the period between the 1868 Treaty and 1876 to expand their own empire, aggressively attacking other tribes including the Eastern Shoshone, the Crow, and the Three Affiliated Tribes (in modern North Dakota). That is one reason the Shoshone and Crow fought on the American side in the Black Hills War.

The US defeated the Lakota and their allies in the Black Hills War by 1877, to “confine” them to their reservation. Supposedly the seven Lakota bands were restricted to the reduced Great Sioux Reservation (modern West River of South Dakota except for the 50-mile strip on the Wyoming and Montana border up to the Cannonball River just north of the current ND-SD border). However, there continued to be hunting outside the reservation in Wyoming and Nebraska (the Panhandle and the Sand Hills). And there were several sharp, short conflicts.

The first major incident was the Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-1879. Some background is necessary. After the US Army defeat of the allies in 1877, the Cheyenne surrendered, understanding that they would live on the Great Sioux Reservation with their allies, the Lakota. However, in July and August of 1877, about a thousand were transported to Oklahoma to be placed in the Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation with their Southern Cheyenne relatives. In September of 1878, fed up with starvation, heat, and other conditions, the Northern Cheyenne organized an escape, fleeing from Oklahoma across Kansas and Nebraska. Raiding for food, horses, and supplies along the way, the thousand people (the survivors, at least) split into two main groups.

One group made it into Wyoming and then to the Powder River Basin in southern Montana. The other group was captured and imprisoned at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, on the southern edge of the Black Hills, when they found that Red Cloud Agency had been relocated to Pine Ridge. A heroic and desperate escape attempt on 9 January 1879 ultimately failed, though a few Cheyenne survivors made it to Pine Ridge in late January.

The Northern Cheyenne ultimately were allowed to have a reservation on the Powder River in southern Montana, where the growing tribe remains today, relatively close to the Black Hills. This was far from the only major incident.

In the late 1880s, the Piute prophet, Wovoka, began preaching the Ghost Dance. This was to have a significant impact on the Black Hills and both its Lakota and Anglo peoples.

We will continue this history later. Stay posted!