Thieves' Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer's Path to Little Bighorn

Thieves' Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer's Path to Little Bighorn

by Terry Mort


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In the summer of 1874, Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer led an expedition of some 1000 troops and more than one hundred wagons into the Black Hills of South Dakota. This fascinating work of narrative history tells the little-known story of this exploratory mission and reveals how it set the stage for the climactic Battle of the Little Bighorn two years later.

What is the significance of this obscure foray into the Black Hills? The short answer, as the author explains, is that Custer found gold. This discovery in the context of the worst economic depression the country had yet experienced spurred a gold rush that brought hordes of white prospectors to the Sioux's sacred grounds. The result was the trampling of an 1868 treaty that had granted the Black Hills to the Sioux and their inevitable retaliation against the white invasion.

The author brings the era of the Grant administration to life, with its "peace policy" of settling the Indians on reservations, corrupt federal Indian Bureau, Gilded Age excesses, the building of the western railroads, the white settlements that followed the tracks, the Crash of 1873, mining ventures, and the clash of white and Indian cultures with diametrically opposed values.

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills was the beginning of the end of Sioux territorial independence. By the end of the book it is clear why the Sioux leader Fast Bear called the trail cut by Custer to the Black Hills "thieves' road."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633883338
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/09/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 341
Sales rank: 1,221,153
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Terry Mort is the author of The Wrath of Cochise, The Hemingway Patrols, a book on fly fishing, and edited anthologies of Mark Twain, Jack London, and Zane Grey.

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction

In the summer of 1874, Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer led some one thousand men—cavalry, infantry, civilian teamsters, and scientists—on an exploration of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The expedition consisted of ten companies of cavalry, two companies of infantry, an artillery detachment to service three Gatling guns and a three-inch-caliber rifled artillery piece. Officers included Custer’s brother Tom, as well as a number of others whose names would appear on the “killed in action” list two years later at the Little Bighorn. Youngest brother, Boston, went as a civilian guide even though he knew nothing of the country and spent most of his time wandering away and getting lost. He, too, would be killed at the Little Bighorn. Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fred Grant, son of the president, went as an “acting aide” to Custer and an observer for General Philip Sheridan. He had apparently inherited his father’s taste for alcohol, if not his ability as a soldier. But he was a good companion, and Custer liked him. Custer also surely understood that a solid relationship with Fred made very good political sense. ... 

The expedition left from Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, a rough-hewn town on the upper Missouri River, and the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. They would be gone two months: July and August. The troops and their civilians would travel some three hundred miles southwest across the Plains and Badlands before reaching the Black Hills, which by the time they arrived seemed like an oasis, as indeed they were, of a kind. Given the size of Custer’s force (larger even than the one he took to the Little Bighorn), he felt he could handle anything that came along. But he knew he was going into potentially hostile territory. (In a letter to Terry he said: “I am confident the Indians do not intend to strew flowers on our pathway.”) And he knew he might very well be outnumbered if it came to a fight. Trying to understand the odds before he left, Custer communicated with a regional Indian agent who told him the best estimate of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne in the different agencies of the North Platte and Missouri was more than three thousand warriors, most of whom were armed with “one or more pistols, exclusive of other arms. All have bows and arrows. About one-half of the warriors remaining at the agencies have repeating rifles, all others breechloaders. I have known Indians at the White River Agency to have as many as 3000 rounds of ammunition for a single gun . . . fully three fourths of all enumerated are hostile.”

Apparently, Custer might need all the men he had and, perhaps, then some.The stated objective of the expedition was to explore the area and find a location for a permanent military installation—a fort. The proposed fort was a response to Sioux and Cheyenne attacks on the settlements to the south—settlements below the boundary of the Sioux reservation (essentially the southern border of South Dakota). The army needed a post near the Nebraska border to interdict, or discourage, warriors heading from the reservations to the southern settlements and travel routes. As General Sheridan put it: “by holding an interior point in the heart of the Indian country we could threaten the villages and stock of the Indians, if they made raids on our settlements.”

Custer had another objective, however, one that was unstated (and even officially disavowed) by the army but well understood by the civilians (and troops)—both those on the expedition and those watching and cheering the effort. That was to determine whether there was gold in the Black Hills. For decades there had been rumors and stories about potentially rich gold deposits in the Hills, but no one knew whether those stories were true—or, more accurately, whether there was enough gold to justify the risks of looking for it. The remoteness and inaccessibility of the Hills coupled with Sioux enmity had been historical barriers to thorough investigation. But Custer’s expedition was probably strong enough to deal with any war parties, and his practical miners were there to determine whether the rumors of gold had some basis in fact.

Though this objective was kept sub rosa, there is no doubt that Custer was intent on making the discovery, if there was anything to discover. As Lieutenant James Calhoun, Custer’s adjutant and brother-in-law wrote: “The Commanding Officer of the Expedition has expressed a desire on many occasions to explore the Black Hills, believing that it would open a rich vein of wealth calculated to increase the commercial prosperity of this country. Having this object in view, he made known his impressions through the recognized military channels—which were favorably received.” The “which” in this case of course refers to Custer’s recommendations, not those of the military channels. So it’s fair to wonder whether the idea for the expedition originated with Custer or Sheridan. Given their close personal relationship it’s likely that they were of the same mind about the expedition’s goals, stated and otherwise. Two birds with one stone.

There was some difficulty about the whole project, though—the Black Hills were part of the Sioux reservation, granted by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Under the treaty, no whites other than “officers, agents and employees of the government” assigned to, or servicing, various agencies were permitted to enter the reservation. In fact, the army was responsible for intercepting or evicting any civilian individuals or outfits that entered the Hills or any part of the reservation. And in the period after the 1868 treaty until Custer’s expedition (and even afterward), the army did just that. As General Terry warned in a letter to the Sioux City Times, any enterprise heading for the Black Hills would be illegal and “the consummation of which it will be my duty, under the law, and my instructions to prevent by the use, if necessary, of the troops at my disposal.” The very idea that US troops would use force to prevent US citizens from exploring useful land, given away to hostile Indians, raised more than a few hackles among western politicians and editorialists—to say nothing of regular citizens. Nor did the army have much sympathy for this assignment. But they did it. Note that the army prevented white settlers from going into the Black Hills even before the treaty. In 1867 General William T. Sherman wrote to Terry: “I agree with you perfectly that we are not in a position to permit an invasion of that region, for no sooner would a settlement be inaugurated than an appeal would come for protection. . . . You may therefore forbid all white people going there at present and warn all who go in spite of your prohibition, that the United States will not protect them now, or until public notice is given that the Indian title is extinguished.” Sherman was simultaneously worried that the “invasion” would stir up the Sioux and that his limited resources would be stretched by a called-for additional post. Note, too, that Sherman refers to the Indians’ “title” to the land, and this was before the treaty legalized that title. ...

National and international economics and politics were some of the driving forces behind Custer’s expedition—to the extent that looking for gold was an unspoken objective. The United States and most of Europe were in the grips of a terrible economic depression. The economies of these countries had recently become intertwined through a combination of trade and international finance. (Odd as it may seem, it is possible to trace the connections between the 1873 collapse of the Russian wheat market and Custer’s mission—as will be described later.) If Custer could find gold in the Black Hills, there would be a significant and positive ripple effect throughout the sagging US economy. But as importantly, the US Treasury was still trying to dig out from under the mountain of debt incurred during the Civil War—debt that was denominated in gold and would therefore have to be repaid in gold. In short, gold mattered to more than just the rough-and-ready prospectors who found it. They would sell it, one way or another, through the banking system, and the gold would be bought by the Treasury, monetized, and then used to pay federal debts. The availability—and possibility—of gold therefore affected national political and economic decisions. Consequently, the Black Hills Expedition was more important than just a reconnaissance in force, and there was more to be looked for than just a site for a fort. There were also reports that the Hills contained other valuable resources, beyond the gold. The land was said to be ideal for agriculture, ranching, and timbering. It was well watered and wooded, with broad meadows for grazing or farming. Game animals were plentiful. As a result of these circulating stories, the Hills were a source of continuing and violent frustration among white westerners, who were enduring the difficulties of the depression, like their cousins in the east. Plains farmers whose crops were devastated by hordes of grasshoppers thought longingly of the reported fertility of the Hills. Town builders on the treeless Plains thought with equal longing of the vast timber resources. That such a magnificent combination of natural resources should lie undeveloped and unused, except by the occasional Sioux hunting party, outraged the western settlers. ...

In short, the western press and population hated the treaty and warmly endorsed Custer’s expedition. They saw it for what it was—the thin edge of the wedge.

To say that looking for gold (and other resources) was an unpublicized objective is not to suggest that the stated military objective was a fiction to cover a gold-hunting expedition. On the contrary, the military and economic objectives were, in this case, perfectly congruent. That congruency was typical of this period in which the federal government and private enterprise cooperated closely on a number of projects deemed to be in the national interest. If people managed to get rich in the process, so much the better. Further, the army’s role in settling the west went well beyond battles with native tribes. It involved mapping and collecting scientific information about the largely unknown territories. Officers who had been trained at West Point—especially those who did well academically—were primarily engineers, surveyors, and scientists, since that was the primary focus of the Academy’s curriculum. The best performers were well prepared for scientific and topographical missions. Militarily, the story was slightly different. Officers were trained in the traditional Napoleonic tactics: artillery preparation followed by a massed bayonet charge with cavalry waiting to exploit defensive gaps or lapses, or to block enemy maneuvers. The carnage of the Civil War was to a very real extent the result of the Academy’s tactical curriculum, which was hardly different from those of the European academies. The Academy prepared the professionals for war between nation-states, and although the tactics were wasteful and suicidal, the officers at least could tell themselves they were following the rules. Unfortunately, the Academy graduates were totally unprepared for the task of finding and fighting Indians. That subject was considered a waste of time at the Point. As a result, there were no rules to follow.

But the key point is that Custer’s expedition was by no means unique or unusual in combining military and scientific/geographic objectives. The army did not see them as separate missions. If you were going to fight over a ground, you needed to know what it looked like. And if your country had acquired vast new territory—even if it was uninhabited and uncontested—it was your job to map it and discover any indications of natural resources. As an example, the five initial surveys of potential transcontinental roads (initially stagecoach and ultimately railroad) were conducted before the Civil War by junior officers of the army. And well conducted, too. Finally, most of the West was federal territory. Who but the army was available to survey and evaluate it? Until Custer’s expedition, the Black Hills were mostly terra incognita, as far as white settlers and the army were concerned. The Hills are a mysterious island rising from the Plains. They appear from the Plains to be a citadel with no access points. And it is a mighty citadel, at that; they cover more than forty-five hundred square miles and sit along the border between southwestern South Dakota and Wyoming....

The Sioux had a particular regard for the Hills as a hunting ground and, for some, as a sacred place. Indeed, Francis Parkman called the Hills “a hunter’s paradise.” When the buffalo in their mysterious ways made themselves scarce, the Sioux could retire to the Black Hills where elk, deer, and antelope were plentiful. Indeed, the Sioux called the Hills their “meat pack.” (In fact, the Sioux preferred deer to buffalo for flavor and for the softness of its skin, but of course the buffalo herds were vast and provided almost everything the Sioux required—food, clothing, utensils, lodge coverings, sinews for rope, even glue.)

As far as the Sioux were concerned, the Black Hills belonged to them, originally—and most legitimately to the Sioux—by right of conquest, and more recently under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the whites granted to the Sioux something, in their eyes, they already owned. If the white man wanted to put something on a sheet of paper, well, that was no substitute for grim and obvious reality, for the unwritten laws of war. But if the treaty meant a cessation in the troubles, then fair enough. And if it could keep greedy miners and frontiersmen out of the Hills, so much the better. Like other native tribes anywhere, the Sioux dreaded the discovery of precious metals in their territory. They knew a gold strike would release a torrent of white miners. And what had been a pristine wilderness, rich in game animals, would be degraded by miners grubbing around in the placers and sluice boxes and returning at night to wretched muddy mining camps offering gambling, whiskey, and loose women. To the Sioux this would be a tragedy of multiple dimensions—economic, aesthetic, environmental, and spiritual. It was unthinkable. Black Moon, a Hunkpapa Sioux, reportedly said that any Indian who showed the gold fields to white men should die.

But the rumors would not die. Lt. Calhoun wrote: “I have read in a newspaper of an Indian squaw going into one of our forts some years ago (I believe it was Fort Laramie) and offering to barter or sell a lump of gold about the size of an egg, which she said was obtained from the Black Hills.”

Without the help of any Sioux informers, however, Custer’s expedition did find gold. There were no egg-sized nuggets, and it was not a bonanza. But it was enough. It was the news the westerners wanted to hear. It was the political and economic leverage they needed. And from the moment of Custer’s first reports of the discovery, Sioux ownership of the Black Hills was doomed, just as they feared it would be—but not before a fight, for Custer’s expedition was also a significant cause of stirring up, or reigniting, the hostilities of all the Sioux tribes, hostility that resulted in the battle at the Little Bighorn two years later. It was said that George Custer dug his grave—and, as importantly, the graves of 262 men—when he led an expedition into the Black Hills of South Dakota in the summer of 1874.

Is that true? And if so, how did it all come about?

Table of Contents

Introduction 7

Chapter 1 War, Taxes, Debt, and the Resultant Lure of Gold 21

Chapter 2 Gold in Montana, Disaster in Wyoming 43

Chapter 3 The Adversaries 61

Chapter 4 The Gilded Age 97

Chapter 5 Politics, Philanthropy, and Corruption 111

Chapter 6 The Northern Pacific Railroad 131

Chapter 7 Custer Agonistes 143

Chapter 8 The Yellowstone Expedition 155

Chapter 9 The Yellowstone Battles 171

Chapter 10 Anatomy of a Crash 185

Chapter 11 Build-Up 201

Chapter 12 Soldiers, Scouts, and Scientists 215

Chapter 13 Alkali and Comets, Grass and Stars 229

Chapter 14 In the Moon of Black Cherries 249

Chapter 15 Homeward Bound 263

Chapter 16 Invasion 279

Epilogue 291

Notes 305

Bibliography 323

Index 325

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