The Rush for Riches: History of the Gold Rush
The Black Hills in South Dakota are abundant with serene landscapes and the sounds of tranquility from the trickling creeks. Today, hikers traverse the hills for some soul-searching, and campers pitch their tents for a peaceful night by an open fire. Visitors leave rich with experience, and the wealth of the land lies within the adventures and the memories they’ve made.
But the hills have another story to tell, one of a different kind of fortune. The Black Hills once held the promise of gold, and the frontiersmen flooded the area with the hopes of building an insurmountable personal estate. With eyes sparkling with the promise of prosperity, miners came from all over the country to pan for the precious mineral: Gold.
History of the Black Hills Gold Rush
Rumors of gold in the Black Hills were prevalent long before the rush actually began. According to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux tribe and were set aside for their exclusive use. But early pioneers were allowed on the land with authorization. Roman Catholic missionary Father De Smet noticed the tribe carrying gold, gold they told him came from the Black Hills. And money talks. When the Sioux and other area Native Americans were said to have the precious mineral in their possession, the pioneers’ eyes grew wide with greed.
The Rush Begins
With rumors of gold in the air, an expedition was established by the U.S. Army and it consisted of over one thousand men, known as the 7th Cavalry. The team was led by Civil War fighter George Armstrong Custer. They set out on July 22nd, 1874 in what is presently known as Bismarck, North Dakota.
The rumors were confirmed when small amounts of gold were found in 1874 in French Creek in Custer, South Dakota. Custer penned a letter on August 15, 1874 to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Dakota and stated that “there is no doubt as to the existence of various metals throughout the hills.” This was later telegraphed to the press, and the world became aware of the riches of the Black Hills.
With the white man’s incessant treaty revisions, unkept promises, and revocation of land that was once ruled by Native Americans, perhaps the Sioux tribe could have predicted what came next. Even though only small amounts of gold were found, people from all over the country flocked to South Dakota to try their hands at panning for fortunes. The land that was promised as Sioux Territory by the Treaty of Fort Laramie was now being hounded, trampled, and taken by the pioneers.
The Flock Continues
In 1865, larger deposits of the mineral were found in Deadwood, located in the northern territory of the Black Hills. Miners set up camp all along the creek banks and extracted all the gold they could find. The most luck was had by a small team of men on April 9th, 1876. The men were Fred and Moses Manuel, Hank Harney, and Alex Engh. Instead of panning for flakes, these men set out to search for a larger outcrop of gold that was producing the smaller bits in and around the creek. They “struck gold” so to say, when they found the larger supply, and they named their settlement Homestake. The Homestake Mines would go on to produce 10 percent of the world’s gold supply over the next 125 years.
The Impact of the Rush
A gold “rush” is characterized by the rapid influx of people to a certain area that may contain gold in an effort to gain riches. Every miner who set out for the Black Hills had high hopes of being one of the first, or one of the luckiest, miners to extract the mineral from the land. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of “quick riches” is elusive for most. A large number of miners went home empty handed, or weren’t able to find enough gold to make even a little fortune.
But the land was good to some, like the pioneers who discovered the Homestake Mine, and they were able to build a lifetime (and more) of fortune. These locations continued to produce the precious mineral until very recently, and the families prospered.
Whenever there is money involved, you can count on there being a large number of people who want to get their hands on it. The Black Hills Gold Rush was no different. Because of the considerable amount of gold being trafficked across the plains in wagons (known as “treasure coaches”), there came about an increase in crime for the region. Robbers would stop the wagons on their way and use violence if necessary to steal the gold.
Where are They Now?
General Custer: The tensions between the Sioux Indians and the early pioneers reached its peak after the Black Hills Gold Rush. What ensued was a deadly battle between the two forces, and the entire 7th Cavalry, including Custer, lost their lives in the Battle of Little Bighorn, or the battle known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.
It is rumored, however, that General Custer lives on. Custer was said to have taken a wife of a Sioux woman named Mo-nah-se-tah, and allegations of having bore Custer’s child still linger in the air. However, some believe that it was actually Custer’s brother, Tom, who is the father of Mo-nah-se-tah’s child.
The Sioux Indians: Even though Sitting Bull led the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes to victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn, bad luck was to come. In 1891, the Sioux lost the Battle of Wounded Knee, which meant forfeiting the land they worked so hard to protect.
Roughly 30,000 Sioux Indians are living today. They mostly still reside in the Great Plains area.
The Miners: Whether or not certain individual miners found fortune in the hills, many of them ended up staying in the area and making a home of South Dakota, and towns sprouted up all over as former miners gathered together. Some residents today are the descendents of the early miners.
Homestake Mine: The Homestake Mine closed its doors in 2002, but until then it was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America. In 2007, the Homestake location was chosen by the National Science Foundation for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which will work on experiments involving dark matter and neutrinos, as well as research for biology, geology, and mining.
The Richness of the Hills
The hills of South Dakota bear many stories. Stories of rags to riches, of the hope and promise for prosperity, and of bloodshed and battles fought for the land. Fortunes were won and lost, and the dream for gold vanished just as quickly as it arrived. The land was stripped and taken. History was made.
The Black Hills may not produce the gold they once did, but they are still rich with beauty and lush with charm. After hiking the trails by the creek beds, through the trees and into a serene and desolate clearing, you’ll find it difficult to imagine the area once bustling with miners and those hoping to strike it rich. But you wouldn’t trade your experience in the Black Hills for anything. No amount of gold can buy the memories you’ve made.