The Black Hills are a small range of mountains in the midwestern portion of the United States, located in the southwestern part of South Dakota and crossing the state border into the northeastern part of Wyoming. To some, this land goes by another name: the Paha Sapa, or “heart of everything that is.” Allegedly settled as far back as 1500 AD by the Arikara, these hills have been the center of numerous conflicts between various Native American tribes as well as European immigrants as recently as the modern day.
The most significant conflict arose after the land was claimed by the Lakota Sioux, a band of warrior tribes that had migrated west from modern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Winning the Black Hills from the Cheyenne in 1776, the Lakota quickly came to view the Black Hills as a heavily influential part of their spiritual heritage due to the abundance which the land had provided to the Native Americans as a whole.
After the Louisiana Purchase (where we had most of the East cost to the Mississippi River but no Florida) took place in 1803 between the United States and France, famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were sent to explore the uncharted territory. Their presence as well as the westward pioneering of American trappers and traders began an unwelcome trend of encroaching upon sacred Native American land. The Lakota became more aggressive as a result, and relations with American settlers declined. The Lakota even engaged in raids of nearby settlements that threatened their sacred land.
The hostilities between Lakota Sioux and Americans eventually reached a point that required Federal intervention. In 1868, after the American Civil War had concluded, the United States attempted to establish peaceful relations with the Lakota once again in the form of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (not to be confused with the treaty of 1851 by the same name). This treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation and ensured all lands between the Missouri River and the Big Horn Mountains would forever remain under Sioux occupation and prohibit American expansion or exploration, including the Black Hills. However, persistent prospectors and miners continued to intrude upon Lakota land and hostilities continued. As a result of this aggression, the United States military appointed General George Armstrong Custer to lead an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 and explore the possibility of establishing an American military presence with a fort.
During this expedition, American prospectors confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills. This discovery not only spurred thousands of miners to trespass upon Sioux land, but also the Lakota to conflict with the American military. This conflict, the last major Great Plains conflict, would later come to be known as the Black Hills War and would eventually lead to the Lakota’s defeat and forced relocation from the Black Hills to other reservations. Adding and enforcing what many Sioux called “sell or starve” to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 (due to the fact that the United States cut off all food supplies until the Sioux ceded control of the Black Hills), the Agreement of 1877 permanently claimed the Black Hills as United States territory and reestablished reservation borders that were originally set in the Fort Laramie Treaty only nine years prior. Americans were now free to traverse and trade in the Black Hills as they pleased.