Notes From The Frontier
Custer's Black Hills Expedition of 1874
Updated: Apr 20
The country's youngest Civil War General led this biggest expedition West. His fancy parade was the precursor for what happened two years later...
It was perhaps the grandest military display of the 1800s. 1,200 men. 110 wagons. Nearly 1,000 head of cattle and two months’ worth of supplies and food. And enough howitzer cannonades to mow down the entire Sioux nation.
The Black Hills Expedition of 1874 was a massive entourage led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer into Dakota Territory. The mission was multi-faceted: explore the previously uncharted Black Hills--the sacred land of the Lakota Sioux, scout for a suitable location for a new fort, assess the Indian threat, find a route to the southwest, and investigate the rumors of gold in the hills.
But, Custer, ever mindful of the public relations end of his career, also brought a contingent of journalists and a photographer who would send ongoing reports back to national newspapers and magazines, updating the country on the expedition’s progress. And that’s not all. With a stroke of panache extravagant even for Custer, he employed a full 16-piece brass band mounted on white horses, plumed, corded and garbed in glorious red regalia to celebrate the occasion, inspire the troops and provide the requisite pomp for such an occasion.
The country’s youngest Civil War general, the oft-decorated and valorous George Armstrong Custer, was now a Lieutenant Colonel after the war (it was customary to advance officers during wartime but, when the war ended, they reverted back to their peacetime ranks). In 1868, Custer had led another attack on the famous Cheyenne peace chief, Black Kettle, who had escaped the massacre of his tribe four years before in the horrific attack by Colonel John Chivington. Almost four years later to the day, Custer would attack the chief again, this time shooting the fleeing chief and his wife in the back, massacring much of the remaining tribe members and killing nearly 700 of the tribes horses in a blood bath.
Although the battle was really a slaughter, Custer’s published accounts of the Washita, dramatically embellished, were featured in newspapers across the nation, and he was quickly catapulted to fame as America’s most celebrated Indian fighter. He would hence be honored with one of the most heralded missions after the war, for the Black Hills held nearly mythical lore of mineral riches and exotic terrain. The country was hungry to learn more about this magical land that was so sacred to Plains tribes.
Custer was in his element on the expedition and gloried in the adventure. He wrote copious notes and authored many articles for Eastern newspapers. His photographer, the Englishman William H. Illingworth, took numerous photographs. Custer was especially interested in the spectacular flora and fauna of the area. His entries to the New York World were augmented by pictures of frontier settings: panning for gold, hunting parties, men standing holding bouquets of flowers in a field blanketed in blooms. Custer was so enamored of the prairie flowers, he had his entire column––even the crusty mule packers––pick bouquets for a picture. One soldier from New York City was quoted in the World article that he had been to Central Park a thousand times but “its beauty cannot compare with this.”
Custer captured many exotic frontier animals, which he kept in ambulance wagons to later gift to the Central Park Zoo, as good will and good politics. Of course, very few survived. During their descent into a broad valley, the men spotted a young great white crane that they vowed to capture. They bagged the bird, which had a wingspan of seven feet, but it lived only two days. The nestling’s male parent followed the contingent two entire days, croaking and putting on a display of great anxiety until Custer finally shot the fretting father.
On the expedition, Custer, an inveterate hunter, vowed to shoot his first grizzly. Custer’s top Indian guide, Bloody Knife, sighted a huge old bear and pointed it out to Custer. The Lieutenant Colonel was exuberant as a little boy.
Custer aimed and shot the beast, which roared but did not fall and lumbered away toward the nearby timber. Bloody Knife and Captain Ludlow, afraid their general would not get his prize, fired into the animal multiple times, finally downing him.
Custer was jubilant. Illingworth took pictures of the men posing over the bear’s massive carcass, Custer in front with his loyal assistant––who had actually brought the bear down––behind him in the background. He immediately wrote to Elizabeth: I have reached the highest rung on the hunter’s ladder of fame. I have killed my grizzly!”
Bloody Knife knew, however, that the bear was not a grizzly at all, but a big, old cinnamon bear––a brown-colored black bear. But he remained close-lipped and allowed his boss to bask in the victory of the kill. Bloody Knife shrugged at the façade. He was used to his leader’s grandiose interpretations.
The dashingly-mustachioed Custer thoroughly enjoyed exploring and when they came upon Mount Harney, a mountain named after a white man but never scaled by one, Custer resolved to do so. (The mountain would later be declared South Dakota’s tallest point and renamed Black Elk Peak.) He and his principal officers rode up the grueling 7,500 feet mountainside but, for the last several hundred feet, all but Custer tethered their horses and climbed on foot, the terrain so rocky and sharded. But Custer spurred his mount to the very top and then down again, the horses legs bloodied to the hocks from the sharp rocks and his ribs heaving with such extreme exertion.
On the first day of August 1874, , several weeks into the expedition, Custer’s men found gold. They panned for gold in a creek that yielded a vial of golden dust. And days later, Ree scouts came back with their arms sparkling in gold dust and their horses’ bridles decorated with it. Custer sent a dispatch off to Fort Laramie. Decades of rumors about gold in the Black Hills were finally proved to be true. The confirmation of gold reverberated between the two coasts and newspapers heralded the discovery with great fanfare, arguing enthusiastically that any Indian rights could not stand in the way of progress and God’s ultimate plan. Pandora’s box was opened.
Later on, in a public proclamation strangely remorseful for the often bombastic Custer, he posted an unvarnished and achingly honest dispatch to the New York World about his expedition, with a prophetic twist:
“We are goading the Indians to madness by invading their hallowed grounds and throwing open to them a terrible revenge whose cost would far outweigh any scientific or political benefit possible to be extracted from such an expedition.”
Less than two years later, Custer’s prediction would come true—at The Little Bighorn.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Who Killed Custer?
-Amazing Little Bighorn Ledgers
"Custer's Black Hills Expedition" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on May 13, 2020
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