Deadwood Magazine
Jul/Aug 1996
The Custer Expedition

General Custer's l874 expedition

By campfire light, the sandy-haired young cavalry officer penned the last few lines of his lengthy messages while "Lonesome Charley" Reynolds mounted up for a precarious ride through Indian territory.

Reynolds picked up a mailbag identified by a tongue-in-cheek message:

Black Hills Express, Charley Reynolds, manager. Connecting with all points east, west, north, south. Cheap rates, quick transit, safe passage. We are protected by the Seventh Cavalry.

Although the card was unsigned, the author was probably George Armstrong Custer, a final witticism for a favorite scout departing on a dangerous mission.

Along with official dispatches, the mailbag contained Custer's garrulous letters to his beloved Libby, awaiting her husband's return to a lonely outpost in northern Dakota Territory.

Bearing electrifying news to the outside world, Reynolds made the 90-mile ride to Fort Laramie in four nights, hiding during the day to escape detection by hostile Indians.

Custer's reports were telegraphed from Laramie to General Alfred H. Terry at his St. Paul headquarters. After wading through poetic descriptions of beautiful valleys, filled with lush grasses, flowing streams of clear, cold water, wild berries and blooming flowers, Terry finally arrived at the substance of the 3,500-word dispatch.

... gold has been found at several places, and it is the belief of those who are giving their attention to this subject that it will be found in paying quantities. I have on my table forty or fifty small particles of pure gold...most of it obtained today from one panful of earth.

It was the news a depressed nation had eagerly awaited.

Two years earlier Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano had set the stage for George Armstrong Custer's 1874 expedition to the fabled Black Hills in Dakota Territory. In a letter written March 28, l872, Secretary Delano, responsible for the integrity of Sioux territorial rights, said:

I am inclined to think that the occupation of this region of the country is not necessary to the happiness and prosperity of the Indians, and as it is supposed to be rich in minerals and lumber it is deemed important to have it freed as early as possible from Indian occupancy.

I shall, therefore, not oppose any policy which looks first to a careful examination of the subject... If such an examination leads to the conclusion that country is not necessary or useful to Indians, I should then deem it extinguish the claim of the Indians and open the territory to the occupation of the whites.

Delano's remarks were in direct contradiction of terms defined in the l868 Laramie Treaty: " persons except those designated herein ... shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article."

The expedition commanded by General Custer set out from Fort Abraham Lincoln, across the river from Bismarck, North Dakota, on July 2, 1874. Officially, it was a military reconnaissance, but most historians agree that, unofficially, Custer was to seek verification of repeated rumors about rich gold deposits. Two practical miners, Horatio N. Ross and William T. McKay, were attached to the scientific corps.

The departure rivaled any modern movie extravaganza.

Clad in rustling silk gowns and carrying parasols, officers' ladies waved goodbyes with dainty gloved hands as the mile-long procession passed. Mounted on his favorite bay thoroughbred, buckskin-clad Custer rode at the head of 10 Seventh Cavalry companies, followed by two companies of infantry. Charley Reynolds and Ree Indian scout Bloody Knife led the retinue of scouts and guides.

A cacophony of bawling steers, braying mules and baying hounds accompanied sixteen bandsmen on white horses playing Garry Owen and The Girl I Left Behind Me. Cursing teamsters hauled on guide lines of six-mule teams pulling the 110 white canvas-topped wagons. Horse-drawn Gatling guns and cannon rumbled through the prairie grass.

In addition to the two miners, the detachment comprised more than l,000 men and one black woman, Sarah Campbell, the colored cook. In the scientific corps were a geologist and his assistant, a naturalist, a botanist and medical officer, a topographical engineer, a zoologist and a civilian engineer.

Never one to neglect publicity, Custer took along a photographer, newspaper correspondents, and Col. Frederick Grant, son of U. S. President Ulysses S. Grant, as well as his younger brothers, Tom and Boston.

Moving southwest, the expedition reached the Belle Fourche River on July 18. Two days later they entered the foothills and turned east into the heart of the mysterious Black Hills. W. H. Illingworth set up his bulky equipment to photograph a string of white-topped wagons stretching along the valley, wagons that would have to be lowered into gulches by ropes and chains that dug deep grooves into sturdy trees.

The regiment rumbled, clattered, jingled and clanked into Paha Sapa.

Unlike most military campaigns, it was a pleasant, relaxing trip. The Seventh Cavalry band serenaded the troops in the mornings as they broke camp and played concerts in the evenings. Troopers leaned from their horses to pick flowers. The large hospital tent served as a dining room for Custer and his staff. Wine bottles visible in Illingworth's photographs indicate they dined in civilized style.

The best ambulance wagon became a wildlife menagerie, filled with owls, sandhill cranes, an eagle, rabbits, prairie dogs, toads, and even a cage of rattlesnakes.

By July 30 the expedition was camped in an open area east of the present town of Custer. Just as he had scaled the 6,000-foot Inyan Kara a few days before, carving his name and date at the top, now Custer set off to conquer an even higher peak.

Late in the afternoon, after a day of struggling across heavily forested slopes and gorges, the small party arrived at the base of Terry Peak, facing the final sheer granite wall that defeated even the adventurous Custer. He left his mark, however. Names of the six explorers were recorded on a small piece of notepaper stuffed into an empty cartridge shell and pounded into a crevice of the granite barrier.

Miners Horatio Ross and William T. McKay made headlines during the week they camped on French Creek, as reported by William Eleroy Curtis in his August 27 story for the Chicago Inter-Ocean:

....all the camp is aglow with the gold fever. ... This is the first opportunity our miners have had to make a really fair test of the "color" and it has yielded them abundantly. ... From the grass roots down it was "pay dirt," ... the two preserving men who will be the pioneers of a new golden State, came into camp with a little yellow dust wrapped carefully up in the leaf of an old account book. ...

At daybreak there was a crowd around the "diggin's," ... Shovels and spades, picks, axes, tent-pins, tin cups and everything within reach that could either lift dirt or hold it was put into service ...

Officers and privates, mule-whackers and scientists, all met on a common level, and the great equalizer was that insignificant yellow dust.

Led by Horatio Ross, 21 men put out their stakes and drew up papers for District No. l, Custer Mining Company before the expedition headed home.

By the time Custer triumphantly returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln on August 30, the rush was on.

In Cheyenne and Virginia City, Sioux City and Sydney, Helena and Bismarck, groups of gold-hungry men began outfitting for prospecting trips into the forbidden Black Hills.

Annie and David Tallent and their nine-year-old son were with the Collins-Russell (or Gordon) party that set out from Sioux City for the new gold field in October. They prospected on French Creek from December, 1874, until the following April when Fort Laramie troopers escorted them out of Indian treaty land.

Despite the army's efforts to keep them out, gold seekers infiltrated the Hills from all directions, playing hide and seek with the military whose permanent camp near Harney Peak was under the command of Gen. George A. Crook.

Unfazed by the risk of Indian retaliation, hundreds of miners poured into the Hills, hell bent to make their fortune.

In the fall of 1875, discovery claims were staked in Deadwood Gulch. A few months later the Custer mining camp was depopulated as eager prospectors rushed north to the newest gold strike.

George Armstrong Custer didn't live to see the results of his 1874 expedition, nor did Tom and Boston Custer, Bloody Knife and Charley Reynolds. Many of the same men who accompanied him into the Black Hills died with Custer at the Little Bighorn two years later.

A television movie Crazy Horse recreates scenes from the Black Hills expedition and the Little Bighorn battle, according to Rapid City artist and photographer Jim Hatzel, who portrays newsman William Curtis in the film

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