“It is an island...there in this vastness of the great Plains. But it is rich...full of timber, full of game. It's a place where thunder resounds more than in other places, and so it's thought to be the place of the deities. When you see the Black Hills you understand something about the spiritual aspect of it.”
In the summer of 1874, an army of more than 1,000 soldiers left Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory and marched straight into the Black Hills -- the Lakota's most sacred ground.
Officially, they were looking for a site on which to build a new fort. Unofficially, they were looking for gold.
At the head of this expedition rode the army's most celebrated Indian fighter, George Armstrong Custer, commander of the Seventh Cavalry.
An Ohio blacksmith's son who graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point, at 23 Custer had become the youngest general in the Union Army. Impulsive and high-spirited, he had led the charge at Gettysburg, Winchester, Five Forks.
Oh, could you have but seen some of the charges...we made!...I never expect to see a prettier sight....While thinking of them I cannot but exclaim, “Glorious War!”
was a self-promoter ...a man who rode to the top over the backs of fallen
comrades... and a lot of men fell...because Custer was leading them into
situations that he shouldn't have been leading them into.”
In the West, Custer wore a distinctive buckskin uniform, meant to catch the eye of reporters. And he caught the eye of his enemies as well, who began to call him "Yellow Hair."
But during his first campaign against the Cheyenne in 1867, his career had very nearly come to an end. Out hunting one day in the heart of Indian country, he galloped after a buffalo, aimed his revolver -- and somehow shot his own horse through the head. On foot, bruised and totally lost, he had to be rescued by his own men.
Then, in 1868, he mounted a surprise attack on Black Kettle's camp along the Washita River that re-established his reputation as a hero.
Now, Custer was again in the heart of Indian country, leading an army into the Black Hills.
And I have reached the hunter's highest round of fame...I have killed my grizzly.
In the Black Hills, Custer's men fished, hunted, played baseball -- and found gold; not a real bonanza, but more than enough to inspire wild-eyed stories of pay dirt "from the grass roots down."
From every corner of the country, gold-hungry whites rushed in and soon banged together a dozen mining camps -- Deadwood, Blacktail, Golden Gate -- and Custer City.
But the miners' invasion violated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which had brought peace to the Northern Plains after years of bitter warfare. In the treaty, the Lakota had agreed to stop harassing travelers, raiding settlers, attacking army units, and in exchange, the United States had promised that the Black Hills would be Lakota land forever.
many times, the Indians were promised that they could keep the land...and
so many times those promises were broken....I think that the Indians understood
the meaning of the treaties. And wanted very much to live by them. But
the cumulative effect was one of distrust. Betrayal.”
The whites who followed Custer's path into the Black Hills called it the "Freedom Trail." The Lakota called it "Thieves' Road." Either way, it would lead to disaster.
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