|Lithograph by Charles Russell showing the Battle of the Little Big Horn, from the Indian side.|
"Can You Send Us
--Settler plea to U.S. Army Expeditions
in the Northern Black Hills, 1876-1878.
In 1877, following the defeat of Lt. Col. George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn [June 25, 1876], military operations against raiding bands of Lakota, or western Sioux, Indians in the northern Black Hills were greatly overshadowed by army activities in the Yellowstone country of southeast Montana.
To post-civil war army commanders, the occasional raids by small roving bands of Indians were of minor importance when compared to the task of subduing the large hostile bands under leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Nevertheless, Black Hills settlers and miners considered their situation desperate, and troops were dispatched to the Black Hills several times in 1877.
Although military operations like the Deadwood Expedition and the subsequent Crow Creek fight played a minor role in the closing chapters of the Great Sioux War, they indicated the need for a permanent post in the Black Hills and contributed to along-lasting military presence in the region.
During the months after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, sizeable numbers
of Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes who had not participated in the battle
quit their assigned agencies, swelling the numbers in the hostile northern
camps. As a consequence, large armies under Brig. Gen. George Crook and
Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry spent much of the summer and fall of 1876 plodding through the Yellowstone and Powder River regions—without engaging the northern Indians in a decisive battle.'
|Gen. Geo. Crook, USA|
Spurred by reports of gold, thousands of non-Indians had entered the
Black Hills following Custer's exploration of the region in 1874.
Contemporary newspapers commonly claimed a population of eight thousand persons by the summer of 1876. Reports of Indian depredations grew rapidly as well, mainly because there were simply more outsiders in the Hills to attack. The isolated farms and ranches established along the stream-fed foothills to meet the growing demand for meat and dairy products made particularly tempting targets for indian raiders.
At the same time, mining activity in the southern Hills shifted northward
to the gulches and rough country around Deadwood and Central City. Because the forest immediately adjoining these settlements did not produce adequate forage for livestock, large herds of cattle and horses became concentrated in the grassy meadows along lower False Bottom Creek and the Redwater River.
Settlers who pastured their animals in the large open area
northwest of Deadwood known as Centennial Prairie escaped the exorbitant prices charged for forage in the camps. In addition. Centennial Prairie accommodated transient draft animals from the large wagon trains that hauled freight from Sidney, Nebraska, and from Fort Pierre and Bismarck, Dakota Territory.
This livestock and the isolated settlers in the northern foothills became fair game for roaming warriors from the northern Indian camps. While
one report characterized the raiders as "after stock more than anything else," deaths of herders and travelers grew alarmingly frequent.''
The prospectors and settlers who entered the Black Hills in 1876 and early 1877 did so in defiance of the United States government, which had
banned civilians from the region under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
With title to the Hills still held by the Lakotas, the intruders could hardly be justified in calling for army protection. One early settler later admitted,
"We were trespassing and [had to] be so regarded." They were willing to take the risk, however, believing that eventually the Indians' title to the Black Hills would be abrogated and military protection would spur development and prosperity.
|Deadwood, 1870s, after gold had been discovered in the Black Hills|
settlers. In lightning-swift attacks, warriors ran off 100 head of horses and killed four residents. Among the casualties was Henry W. ("Preacher") Smith, Deadwood's first clergyman, who was killed on the road to Crook City. Two days later, four more men were killed near Rapid City and on the road to Deadwood. Scores of panicking miners fled to the relative safety of Rapid City. All told, about forty settlers were killed in 1876, although some estimates ran as high as one hundred deaths.''
The arrival of Crook's Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition in September 1876 brought hope for relief, and the harried residents of the
Northern Black Hills greeted the soldiers as saviors, "cheering, yelling, and prancing around as if the day of jubilee had come."
Their relief was short-lived, however.
The troops that reached Deadwood were weary and hungry after spending weeks in frustrating pursuit of the Indians and capturing a small village at
Slim Buttes, nearly 100 miles north of the Black Hills. While in
Deadwood, Crook received a petition signed by more than 600 residents
urging the establishment of a military post to protect them.
Lacking authority to defend settlers who trespassed into the
northern Black Hills. Brig. Gen. George Crook disbanded the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition and left the area in September 1876. The general sympathized but could do little for the trespassing settlers. The summer expedition disbanded, and Crook quickly left for Camp Robinson and Fort Laramie to prepare for further campaigning.
The editor of the Deadwood newspaper warned readers that the departing
soldiers were being replaced by "a horde of their enemies, who . . . camp
within a short distance of our homes." Fearing a resumption of Indian depredations, alarmed residents called for military protection. Such requests fell on deaf ears, for government officials did not favor establishing a major military presence in the Black Hills merely to save settlers "from the results of their own folly and disobedience."
Army commanders were, nevertheless, instructed to provide protection for any whites "leaving" the Hills.'" The prime concern of military officials was ending the Great Sioux War. The failures of the spring and summer campaigns made the defeat and return of the northern bands from the Yellowstone country back to the agencies the army's chief preoccupation.
Military commanders believed that renewed operations in the field would "afford better protection [for the Black Hills] than the permanent location of a detachment at any one point."" The 1876-1877 winter campaigns of Crook and Col. Nelson A. Miles ultimately led to a string of victories for the hard-pressed soldiers. Even so, army manpower in the Departments of the Platte and Dakota was badly strained, further precluding any permanent stationing of troops to protect the Black Hills.
Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who commanded the Military Division of the Missouri, reported having only one soldier for every 75 square miles in
the sprawling northern departments, not nearly enough troops to go
Despite these limitations. Crook could dispatch relief units from Fort Laramie or Camp Robinson if pressure on the Black Hills settlements so dictated. Soldiers from Camp Robinson, located in northwestern Nebraska, could respond rapidly to calls all along the Sidney-to-Deadwood Trail, a north/south road that cut through the center of the Black Hills. In early 1877, the camp had the largest garrison in its three-year history.
By the end of January, nine companies of cavalry and four of infantry—more than 1000 men—were stationed at the post. It also served as headquarters for the District of the Black Hills, an administrative subunit of the Department of the Platte.
The district commander was Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, who had been instrumental in Crook's recent success against Dull Knife's Cheyennes. A short distance from Camp Robinson lay Red Cloud Agency, where thousands of Oglala Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes adjusted to reservation life under the watchful eyes of the nearby troops.
During the second week of February 1877, a series of Indian raids erupted
in the northern Black Hills. As usual, the raiders avoided settlements, targeting instead the isolated individuals and stock along the Redwater River and False Bottom Creek. On Whitewater Creek, Indians captured a horse herd, wounding its owner, a man named Wigginton, and killing his herder, Thomas Waiden. Two men, known only as Fletcher and Meyers, had mules taken near Crook City, and an attack on two travelers outside of town left one dead. Raiders made off with a freighter's cattle near Bear Butte.
Near the fledgling settlement of Spearfish, horses were run off and a herder wounded. The number of animals lost soon grew to 25 horses and 300 head of cattle. In response to the thefts, a party of 20 men set out to
recover stock stolen along the False Bottom.
Contrary to local perceptions that the perpetrators were Indians from the
reservation who were moving between the agencies and the northern camps, the February raids were actually forays from the Yellowstone camps."
February, about the time the raids occurred, a Minneconjou named Eagle
Shield told the soldiers at Cheyenne River that the Minneconjous were on
the Tongue River, near the mouth of Prairie Dog Creek. Eagle Shield reported that several war parties had left camp before he departed to return to the agency. "I believe one left after we did," he added, "for we saw a party behind us two days after. . . . We hid until they passed. We counted thirty in the party. They went in the direction of the Black Hills."'^
The latest raids struck considerable fear into northern Black Hills residents. The Deadwood newspaper editor tried to rally the community, writing, "The question naturally presents itself to every intelligent man and woman at present residing here—'are we safe from the attacks of these marauding savages; or, are we entirely at their mercy?'"
He then endorsed the idea of organizing a home guard for protection, a suggestion Crook had put forth the previous September. The settlers, however, viewed themselves as completely surrounded by raiding bands and in absolute need of army protection for survival.
On 15 February, E. B. Farnum, mayor of Deadwood, and Thomas Burns,
mayor of South Deadwood, telegraphed a terse, frantic appeal to both Crook and Sheridan: "We are attacked by Indians. All our stock captured. Can you send us immediate relief"' Crook received the message at Fort Laramie, where he was busy preparing for new operations and for the Indian surrenders anticipated at the agencies.
After asking Farnum for more information and assuring him that troops would be sent from Camp Robinson Crook telegraphed Sheridan that troops had been ordered to Deadwood.
Crook next directed that three Third Cavalry companies be sent "to protect
the citizens in the vicinity of Deadwood from hostile Indians."' On 16 February, 61 men of Company C, under the command of 2d Lt. Joseph F.
Cummings, were quickly dispatched. Cummings, an 1876 graduate of West
Point, had arrived at Camp Robinson in November and was assigned to
Company L. Due to a shortage of officers, he became temporary commanding officer of Company C on 5 January 1877.
The young West Pointer, eager for field service, was ably assisted by the company's first sergeant, William Riley. Cummings's superiors ordered him to proceed rapidly to Custer, leave his supply wagons there, and push through the snow-clogged interior of the Hills to Deadwood, carrying supplies on horseback.'"
Crook clearly understood the Indians' tactics and anticipated what would
happen next. "Probably the Indians have simply made a raid and would be
gone before troops could arrive," he informed Sheridan. "I have sent one
company from Red Cloud. This I consider sufficient." On 17 February, Farnum sent a second appeal for help, adding, "Indians seen in every direction."
By this time, Cummings was on the way. Farnum also informed Crook that a party of area residents had left Deadwood the day before to pursue the raiders. The balance of Crook's deployment, Companies B and L under the
command of Capt. Peter D. Vroom, left with a supply train on 22 February.
Vroom's departure, a week after the initial alarm, was delayed while extra
wagons were procured to haul forage, rations, tents, and other field supplies.
The second contingent took the easier route to Deadwood along the east
edge of the Black Hills. The total strength of the Third Cavalry battalion that constituted the "Deadwood Expedition" numbered three officers and nearly 220 enlisted men.
Company C arrived at Deadwood after five days of hard marching. On
the morning of 22 February, the soldiers marched another 18 miles
north to Martin Boughton's ranch at the mouth of False Bottom Creek,
where they camped for the night. Boughton had been a heavy loser in the
raids and was anxious to recover some of his stock. What followed had all
the makings of a good John Ford movie or Charles King novel.
On the twenty-third, the soldiers moved south up the False Bottom,
searching for the raiders' trail. Fifteen miles up the valley, they were rejoined by a volunteer named "Captain" Bradley, one of a party of eight civilians accompanying the soldiers, who told Cummings that an Indian camp had been sighted six miles to the west.
Lieutenant Cummings led his command to the top of a divide, where they saw a dozen Indians encamped along Crow Creek. He attempted to take a detachment of 15 men forward to surprise the camp, but they had difficulties descending to and crossing the creek.
Meanwhile, the Indians sighted Cummings's party and quickly fled west into more broken country. On reaching the Indians' abandoned camp, Cummings sent one man back to hurry the rest of his company along. He then pursued the fugitives west for another four or five miles
Acting Assistant Surgeon Valentine T. McGillycuddy accompanied the expedition as its medical officer. Because the men were to be stationed in the Hills for an unknown period of time, McGillycuddy's wife, Fanny, was permitted to accompany him. As a civilian contract surgeon, McGillycuddy picked up extra income doctoring miners and settlers in the Hills.
The continuous stream of freight traffic passing through Deadwood and neighboring settlements during the gold rush provided easy targets for Indian raiders. At one point, the Indians dismounted for a fight. Cummings sent out ten skirmishers and advanced cautiously, but the raiders escaped before the soldiers could fully engage. The men then returned to the abandoned camp to take stock of plunder and prepare for the night. The camp was large for the mere ten or twelve individuals sighted. Along with ten lodges, the Indians had left behind all their equipment and provisions and fourteen horses.
At dusk, troops observed a group of 11 warriors approaching the Crow
Creek camp from the south. Leaving Sergeant Riley in charge. Lieutenant
Cummings rode off with fourteen men to give chase. His detachment pursued the band seven miles to what he identified as the Belle Fourche River.
At one point, the soldiers had "quite a lively brush" with the raiders, wounding one or two in the fight. Although the Indians escaped in the darkness, the soldiers recaptured and brought back seven head of cattle, two horses, and six hundred sheep. In Cummings's absence, a large party of warriors had also descended upon the camp. Sergeant Riley threw out skirmishers and repulsed the attack, killing at least one warrior. Upon returning, Cummings posted strong pickets, and the tired soldiers retired for the night.
At 4:30 am (24 February), the camp again came under attack, but the assailants were driven of in short order. By daylight, Cummings and a strong detachment started off to recover several hundred cattle reportedly run off on the 22nd or 23rd. The soldiers trailed the livestock west to the Bear Lodge Range, stopping about 75 miles northwest of Deadwood when the men noticed what they thought were the signal fires of Indian pursuers. Fearful of meeting a force larger than his men could handle, Cummings decided to quit the pursuit and return to the Crow Creek camp. By this time, the soldiers' horses were worn out and the men were out of rations but subsisting on meat captured in the Indian camp.
On 26 February, Cummings marched his company and the captured stock through a severe snowstorm toward Spearfish Creek. Having left most of their camp equipage at Custer one week before, the soldiers suffered on the journey. The exhausted men were met at Spearfish with a wagonload of provisions and grain from the grateful residents of Deadwood.
Cummings planned to sell the captured horses in Deadwood
(Martin Boughton had identified and claimed one horse), and he made arrangements for the other captured stock. The soldiers remained at Spearfish for several days.
The local ranchers and settlers, who were, in Cummings's words, "very enthusiastic over what little I have done," hailed the young lieutenant as a conquering hero. In his report to his superiors, Cummings strongly hinted that his troops should remain in the northern Black Hills, adding, "Before coming up here I had an idea that this Indian difficulty did not amount to much but I have changed my mind very quickly.""
Crook passed on word of Cummings's success to Sheridan at division headquarters. While the Crow Creek fight is one of the lesser-known incidents of the Great Sioux War, it was heralded as a victory in the Bismarck, Minneapolis, Omaha, and Yankton papers as well as the Army and Navy Journal. One editor declared, "A few more
men of Lieut. Cummings' stamp would soon put an end to Indian raids."
Crook also approved of Cummings's actions and directed that the lieutenant and his men be cited in department orders. "For an officer so young in service," the citation read, "Lieutenant Cummings has evinced high qualities of energy, skill and courage and to himself and the soldiers and residents who accompanied him, the Department Commander returns his thanks for the valuable service performed."
The fight was subsequently listed in Sheridan's Record of Engagements with Hostile Indians within the Military Division of the Missouri and in the adjutant general's Chronological List of Actions with Indians. The Crow Creek fight thus became the only officially recognized Indian War engagement involving a force composed solely of soldiers from Camp Robinson. It was also the only pursuit from the post that met with a major success—the capture of a hostile camp and recovery of stock. In spite of these known facts, however, confusion reigns over the exact location of the conflict.
First Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren [a Civil War hero for the Union], who mapped the region in 1857, identified Crow Creek as a stream that flowed southeast through open, rolling country into the Belle Fourche River well north of Deadwood. Cummings's reports, however, clearly stated that he doubled back toward his original location, traveling up, or south, along False Bottom Creek, a move that placed him in the vicinity of Deadwood. From there, the party went largely north and west. Instead of taking place 40 or 50 miles north of Deadwood, as was commonly reported in newspaper accounts, the fight probably occurred on another Crow Creek, one that drains into the Redwater River west and north of Spearfish. This stream did not appear on a published map until 1884, but its name was probably known among the local population at the time Cummings and his men were scouting the area. Moreover, Cummings's repeated comments about the rough terrain support the Spearfish location.
While Company C had charged to glory, the balance of the Deadwood
Expedition slowly journeyed north on the Sidney road. On 3 March, CaptainVroom's battalion reached Crook City, making camp five miles away on Centennial Prairie. Vtoom investigated the raids and found that most had occurred near Crook City and northwest toward Spearfish. On 6 March, Lieutenant Cummings's command joined the rest of the battalion.
As Crook had suspected, the depredators were nowhere to be seen by the time all of the soldiers reached the northern Black Hills, especially since Cummings had probably scattered the main raiding band at Crow Creek.
The united campaign remained in camp awaiting reports of further Indian activity. Captain Vroom's operations became somewhat complicated by the movement of peaceful Indians in the vicinity, particularly those of a delegation under the Brule chief Spotted Tail, who was negotiating with Crazy Horse's band to return to the Red Cloud Agency. In order to avoid a possible clash between Vroom's force and any friendly Indians, Crook instructed the captain to remain in camp and refrain from pursuing any Indian bands unless actual depredations were committed. On 20 March, after a couple of weeks of idleness, Vroom received orders to return to Camp Robinson. Because of inclement weather, the command did not set out until the 24th.
Two days later, a courier met the south-bound column with orders from Crook to return north. Apparently, sightings of Indian bands moving toward the agencies had made settlers in the northern Black Hills uneasy, and the troops marched back to their Centennial Prairie campsite. In early April, Vroom reported that some 1,500 Minneconjous, Hunkpapas, and Two Kettles were near Bear Butte on their way to surrender at Cheyenne River.
While in camp, Vroom's command patiently endured several winter
storms, including one that dropped 15 inches of snow. The captain occasionally went into Deadwood to purchase supplies and check for correspondence. On one trip, he and 2d Lt. James F. Simpson, commander of Company B, evidently caroused with the locals. Upon their arrival back at camp, Fanny McGillycuddy, wife of medical officer Valentine T. McGiliycuddy, noted that Vroom and Simpson "returned in high glee a little the worse for whiskey," adding, "but it is all right—Army Officers."
Vroom received orders on 5 April to send two companies back to Camp Robinson. Two days later, the troops under Cummings and Simpson started on the long trail back. On 10 March, Company L also broke camp and returned to the post, ending the 1877 Deadwood Expedition.
The soldiers returned without any reported battle losses, but there were
casualties. In Deadwood, one man was shot in the foot by a drunken citizen
on March 4, and another received a knife cut in the face during a fracas on the 13th. Ten men deserted, seven of them while the command was encamped near Deadwood and Crook City. Cummings's company reported six horses lost: one to disease, one in a stampede, one abandoned and shot, and three to deserters. While life in the camp itself may not have been entirely peaceable, the presence of soldiers reassured apprehensive settlers, and no Indian depredations were reported during their stay.
Shortly before his men left the area, Vroom forwarded to headquarters a
formal petition from settlers requesting that troops be stationed at Crook
City. Like the petition Deadwood's residents had presented to Crook in
1876, it declared that further Indian attacks were imminent and protection was an absolute necessity.''' Vroom also reported that the stage line wanted troops stationed along its route to the northern Black Hills.
Crook, however, had too many other demands on his manpower to commit a force to the region. Maintaining such a troop presence was an expensive proposition; the difficulty of transporting food and forage certainly could not be offset by purchasing commodities locally at the high prices Black Hills merchants charged.
northern warriors were returning. Finally, the expedition had had 18
mules stolen "by the people in the Black Hills whom he [Vroom] had been
sent to protect." Such treatment did not endear the local population to either the army or General Crook. Black Hills residents next turned to Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, commanding general of the Department of Dakota, under whose jurisdiction the Black Hills properly fell. Like Crook, Terry politely refused, stating that his men were needed for final operations in the Yellowstone country. Only the complete, forced return of the northern warriors would bring security from the feared raids, he replied.
During the spring of 1877, thousands of Lakotas wearied of the constant
army pressure and returned to the agencies to surrender. Earlier in the year. Congress had ratified the Agreement of 1876 in which the Sioux formally ceded the Black Hills to the United States. Sheridan, viewing the situation from his vantage as commander of the Division of the Missouri, believed that peace was at hand: the Indians were tired of fighting, and the large bands in the north country were breaking up.
The editor of the Bismarck Tribune,among others, parroted the general's optimism, writing, "Now that Crazy Horse has surrendered. Sitting Bull escaped to the British Possessions, and large numbers of hostiles are surrendering to General Miles, there is little prospect for a collision between the troops and Indians this summer."
In the Department of the Platte, Crook held the more guarded view that the level of hostilities would decline from the preceding year but it was unlikely that all depredations would end. After all, the commission charged with obtaining Indian approval for the Sioux Agreement had collected far fewer than the three-fourths of adult male signatures required, and many Lakotas actively opposed the agreement.
In June 1877, depredations were reported once again in the northern
Black Hills. In response, Vroom's company was sent to scout along the Belle Fourche River to the Redwater. Although he saw no signs of raiders, Vroom investigated the body of a white man killed on the False Bottom. The victim had not been scalped or stripped of clothing, but his gun and horse were gone. Curiously, the man's money (one hundred dollars) had not been taken.
Vroom reported, "The people in Crook City were divided in opinion if the
outrage was committed by white men or Indians. On the line of traveled
roads depredations by horse thieves are constantly reported." The captain returned with his command to Camp Robinson on 10 July having covered 420 miles, most between the post and the northern Hills."
In mid-July, northern Black Hills residents experienced another series of
raids and killings aimed at isolated travelers, herders, and hay cutters in the open lands north and northeast of the Hills. One of the more notorious incidents happened just north of Bear Butte on 16 July, when Indian raiders killed Frank Wagnes, his pregnant wife, and her brother on the road to Bismarck. A hay cutter hiding in a nearby haystack witnessed the incident.
As fear once again gripped settlers, the number of killings, real and purported, quickly rose. "At short intervals since yesterday morning," the Omaha Daily Bee reported on July 27, "horsemen have been arriving from the different towns and hayfields in this vicinity bringing details of fresh murders and outrages by savages who seem to have broken loose from the agencies in large numbers and are infesting the country in all directions."'
By late July, reports claimed that 20 men had been killed, and every
ranch along the Redwater River and Spearfish Creek Valley was "devastated."
A large war party had actually charged the supply wagons of a survey
team marking the boundary between Dakota and Wyoming near the Belle
Fourche River. By the time its cavalry escort had chased off the attackers, two of the soldier guards were reported missing and presumed killed. Both men managed to hide and made their way back to Spearfish a week later, but the main cavalry detachment pursued the band 50 miles north toward the Little Missouri River before returning. Blame for these incidents was placed on members of Lame Deer's band of Minneconjous, one of the last holdouts of the Sioux war.
On May 7, soldiers under Colonel Miles had attacked and
captured their camp on the Tongue River, killing Lame Deer and 13 of
his warriors in what became the last major battle of the Great Sioux War.
Conceivably, these warriors had perpetrated some of the Black Hills killing
to avenge their defeat and to replace the hundreds of horses they had lost."
During the July depredations, John L. Pennington, governor of Dakota
Territory, telegraphed Sheridan for troops and learned that Crook had already sent Third Cavalry companies from both Fort Laramie and Camp Robinson. On 22 July, Company H under Capt, Henry W. Wessells left Robinson to scout the vicinity of Spearfish, and Company C under Capt. Deane Monohan departed Laramie for Deadwood. Additionally, Company A was later sent from Fort Laramie into the northern Hills.
Crook was confident his deployment was "sufficient to cope with Indians probably in the Black Hills."
Part of the problem was resolved in September 1877 with the surrender of the remainder of Lame Deer's band at Spotted Tail Agency.
Although the closing of the Sioux War by 1878 released hundreds of soldiers from major field service, other demands competed for Crook and Terry's manpower. During the summer of 1877, labor riots in eastern states drew heavily on troops in western garrisons. At the same time. Chief Joseph and the Nez Percés broke away from their agency in the Department of the Columbia.
By summer's end, troops from the departments of the Platte and Dakota would join in the pursuit. Col. Luther P. Bradley, commanding officer at Camp Robinson, commented rhetorically on the situation, writing in his diary, "You need a larger army, gentlemen."
With many of his troops heading east. Crook saw himself hard-pressed to
deal with continued raiding in the Hills, but "by rapid movement, all that
could he was done to have them at all points when needed." His late summer deployment followed the already established routine; a quick march to the northern Hills, a reconnaissance in the vicinity of Crook City, Deadwood, and Spearfish, followed by a return to post several weeks later.
Though Indian scouts went with the companies, all returned to their stations reporting that no Indians had been seen. To northern Hills residents, it was the same old story; by the time soldiers arrived, the raiders were long gone.
As Crook knew, however, at least some of the raiding occurring in and
near the Black Hills in the summer of 1877 was due to non-indian horse thieves who robbed both the indian Black Hills residents and the non-Indians living at nearby agencies.
In fact, outlaws regularly herded agency horses into the Black Hills and sold them to non-Indians. In several instances, soldiers captured both the outlaws and the stolen herds, but civil authorities released the thieves on technicalities. Military officials grew impatient with the cries for protection that came from a citizenry who lacked proper civil control and allowed the perpetrators to remain in their midst. As Crook plainly stated to a superior, "The thieves of such property, it is believed, are sustained and supported by many people in the Black Hills.""
Even so, the problem of providing Black Hills settlements with even modest protection from roving groups of Indians was proving expensive for the
army. Over time, some observers surmised, building a permanent fort in the area would be more cost-effective than continually sending in troops from distant posts.
The army had long seen a strategic need for a post in the Black
Hills, beginning with then1st Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren, who explored the region between Fort Laramie and the Missouri River in 1857, through Sheridan, who had ordered Custer to search the Black Hills for a suitable site in 1874.
By mid-1877, the large-scale conflicts with the Sioux were over, but
General Terry recommended in his annual report for the year that a post be established in the vicinity of Bear Butte to protect the Black Hills settlements, which constituted a "new frontier" along the western boundary of the reduced Great Sioux Reservation. Local settlers echoed his call, clamoring for both the security and the economic benefits a military post would bring.
With Indian title to the Black Hills finally extinguished under the Sioux
Agreement, the way was clear for a permanent post to be built.
In June 1878, Congress authorized the construction of two permanent
posts, one on the Milk River in Montana and one in the Black Hills. In July,
a large force of Seventh Cavalry and several infantry companies under the
command of Col. Samuel D. Sturgis set up camp at Bear Butte, anticipating
another round of raids sparked by Indian dissatisfaction over the relocation of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies.
General Philip Sheridan also arrived at the camp to view the surrounding area and select a site for the new permanent post. He chose a spot on the plains near a gap in the foothills five miles southwest of Bear Butte. Initial construction on Fort Meade, named for Civil War general George G. Meade, began in early fall and was completed in 1879.
Military officials addressed the manpower shortage by closing three
other posts in the Department of the Platte.
The soldiers engaged raiding warriors, captured their camp, and recovered stock stolen from white settlers. The expedition and others of 1877 further demonstrated the need for a permanent army post in the Black Hills at a time when the Lakotas were being restricted to the confines of the Great Sioux Reservation. The raids of 1876-1877, which grew large in the lore of early Black Hills settlers, were, in fact, one small part of the closing chapter of the Great Sioux War.
SOURCE: South Dakota State Historical Society.
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