Out of the Past
History Lessons 

The Black Hills Expedition

Soldiers of an expedition commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer discovering gold in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory in 1874.
Soldiers of an expedition commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer discovering gold in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory in 1874.

A U.S. Army expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer with a mission to explore the previously uncharted Black Hills country scouting suitable locations for a fort, a route to the southwest, and the possibility of gold mining, the Black Hills Expedition prefaced the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 and the Battle of the Little Big Horn in which Custer and his command were annihilated.

Setting out on July 2, 1874 from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory (near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota), Custer's 7th Cavalry arrived in the Black Hills 20 days later.

The expedition set up a camp at the site of the future town of Custer. While Custer and his military units scouted for a suitable location for a fort, civilians searched for gold and found clear evidence in a creek near the camp. This prompted a mass gold rush in the weeks that followed, antagonizing the Sioux Indians had been promised the land (which they considered sacred) by the US government.

The entire expedition was photographed by William H. Illingworth, an English photographer who accompanied Custer after selection by the then-Captain William Ludlow. Ludlow, the engineer for the expedition, financed Illingworth's photography and paid him $30 per month to provide photographic plates for the US Army, of which he made 70 in all.

Seeking confirmation of the Black Hills’ true natural resources, the U.S. Geological Survey sponsored two experts in geology to subsequently survey the region, accompanied by a small army attachment. The expedition spent six months detailing the topography, geology and mineral deposits, traveling from Fort Laramie, Nebraska, to Belle Fourche to Sheridan, Wyoming. Records of the expedition confirmed the presence of gold, but the geologists attempted to discourage individual miners from seeking a new “El Dorado.”

In A Brave Soldier & Honest Gentleman: Lt. James E.H. Foster in the West, 1873-1881 - a transcription of a journal discovered by curator at the Nebraska History Museum - the 1875 geological survey of the Black Hills is documented is documented in sketches and watercolors.

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 Jay Cooke's Gamble
Jay Cooke's Gamble
The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873
by M. John Lubetkin

Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane
The Woman and the Legend
by James D. McLaird
University of Oklahoma Press, 2012

“When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt Egan on recovering, laughingly said: 'I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.' I have borne that name up to the present time." – Calamity Jane

Life and Adventures

Nice story, but probably all fiction according to this biography of Calamity Jane (aka Martha Canary). The only Capt. Egan on the Plains at that time suffered no injuries during his duty in the West and his only encounter with Canary was when he ordered her and a female companion to leave Fort Laramie after impersonating soliders in the barracks.

"Her career may offer the best case study of legend-making in the history of the American West simply because there was so little on which to build; she arrested no outlaws, robbed no banks, and killed no Indians,"
McLaird points out. "Instead, hers is a bleak story of poverty, alcoholism, and an unsteady domestic life. She worked as a dance-hall girl, prostitute, waitress, bartender, and cook; she lived with various men she called husbands and expressed affection for her children. Rather than displaying legendary ingredients, her life illustrates a part of western history not often told, the existence of the poor."

A Brave Soldier & Honest Gentleman
A Brave Soldier & Honest Gentleman
Lt. James E.H. Foster in the West, 1873-1881
by Thomas R. Buecker

Nebraska State Historical Society, 2013

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