The Black Hills Expedition and its Impact on Native American Relations

The Black Hills Expedition set out on July 2, 1874, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and may well have been the catalyst for a chain of events that inevitably led to the slaughter of Custer and nearly 300 of his men during the Great Sioux War of 1876–a defeat that would go down in history and make a national hero out of the man (although not forever). How did the expedition get going, what was its purpose, and what was its impact on the Great Sioux War?

When the expedition first set out, the Black Hills region of South Dakota was still a great unknown in the ever-growing America, and remained uncharted. The United States Army was looking for ways of expanding its strategic arm in the region at the time, and founded the expedition as a means of doing that. It’s purpose was simple: scout the region to find a good tactical vantage point from which they could build a fort, discover and map new routes to the southwest and, if possible, locate areas where gold ore veins could be mined.

Although these endeavors were each somewhat successful, the results were disastrous.

It is not technically accurate to say the Black Hills Expedition found much of what they looked for–that is, gold. Accounts vary wildly, and we really just don’t know with any degree of certainty that they found any large quantity. What we do know from records at the time is that civilians were looking for gold while Custer’s men worked on the project of finding a location to build their fort upon. Therein lies the problem: civilians were looking for gold. They weren’t part of any organized military operation, and therefore word inevitably got out that the expedition was on the hunt for gold, perhaps even having found some.

Consequently, there was a massive rush to the region as people looked to strike it rich.

It didn’t happen immediately, but it didn’t take long either. The United States government initially had a policy to remove trespassers from the area but, as tensions with the Indians in the region rose, the policy was abandoned. President Grant put an end to diplomatic proceedings with the Sioux and other tribes inhabiting the region, and began an overtly aggressive approach that sought to subjugate Native Americans living in the Black Hills region. The ultimate goal was their removal.

Treaties had previously been formed with the Sioux Indians, guaranteeing that their sacred lands would forever remain out of reach for non-native peoples currently living in other regions to the east. When masses of people began to migrate into the Black Hills region, the Sioux felt that the United States government had reneged on its end of the deal, betraying a promise that had been given.

The Sioux were right.

The Lakota and Sioux tribes were soon “ordered” to return to their reservations by early 1876–even though winter weather prohibited travel. They were told that military action would be taken if they stayed beyond the deadline given. Since leaving was impossible, the United States followed through with its threat.

This was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Great Sioux War, also sometimes called the Black Hills War, that would last until 1877–although conflicts would extend for many more years. Although it had many lasting ramifications, Custer’s defeat is still the best known among them.