A brief history of the Black Hills

Inspired by the HBO series “Deadwood,” we headed to the legendary Wild West town, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.


Deadwood was established in 1876. It started as a mining camp during the gold rush in the Black Hills region in 1875. The gold rush brought lots of changes to North America. Towns like Deadwood were put on a map. A few lucky people got rich, but many others lost their fortunes and their lives. Deadwood in 1876 was a lawless place, where whisky in saloons was flowing like a stream, gold changed hands during gambling, and shootouts were common. In fact, there was on average one murder a day in Deadwood during these days.

However, the biggest lost was endured by the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, who lost their homeland, their hunting grounds, their livelihood, and many lives. They were dislodged against their will, starved into submission and deprived of their dignity.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there were people who had lived on the land and lived off of the land before the gold rush came to the West.

Before 1860 the Black Hills region was home to many Indian tribes. The first known people lived here as far as 10,000 year ago. Arikara Indians settled in the Black Hills in 1500 A.D. They were followed by Pawnee, Crow, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. There were herds of buffalo, deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep for them to hunt and feed their families.


The Black Hills is the oldest mountain range in the U.S., formed after dinosaurs went extinct and before the following ice age. Highway 85 winds up between steep mountain cliffs overgrown by thick forests of fir trees and bizarre, erosion shaped rock formations. The beauty of this area is a treat for eyes.


Herds of buffalo and the abundance of deer and antelope attracted the Lakota Sioux tribe to settle in the Black Hills region in the 18 century.   The Lakota drove away all other Indians. They considered the Black Hills sacred and called it Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black” in the Lakota Language.

French Canadian explorers came to the region at about the same time. They began trading with the Lakota for furs and pelts and sent these goods to the East coast. Two French fur traders, François and Joseph La Verendrey, who travelled the Missouri River in 1743, proclaimed this area to be a possession of the French King, Louis XV.

However, in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, South Dakota was a part of the deal. An expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was sent by Jefferson in 1804 to explore and map this vast Wild West region. They travelled through South Dakota along the Missouri River and did not face hostilities from local Indian tribes. While travelling the river the expedition met Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman and her husband Charbonneau, a French Canadian trader. Sacagawea guided the expedition and helped Lewis and Clark to negotiate a peaceful passage, acquisition of horses and food with different tribes, including the Shoshone, on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1823 Jedediah Smith, an explorer and a mountain man, traveled with 15 other traders through the Black Hills. They faced hostilities from the Arikara Indians. In general, white people avoided the sacred grounds of the Lakota’s Black Hills, which was fiercely protected by the Indians.


A military expedition led by Captain Reynolds and Dr. Hayden reconnoitered the Black Hills between 1859-1860 due to increased hostilities between Lakota and white settlers. Lakota raided the pioneers’ settlements and withdrew to the Black Hills.

However, after the Homestead Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1862, pioneers settled on the Great Plains in the Territory of Dakota. They bought 160 acres for a price of $18 per acre, built houses, made of sod bricks, and planted crops. Rumors were circulating among the pioneers about gold in the Black Hills. Organized groups of miners and explorers continued to explore the Black Hills region. The settlers also appealed to Congress for another military expedition.

However, in 1867 General Sherman announced that the Army would not protect anybody, who entered the Black Hills. Moreover, in 1868 the U.S. Government signed the Fort Larimer Treaty with the Lakota. The treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation and stated that all land west from the Missouri River to the Bighorn Mountains in Western Wyoming, which included the Black Hills, belonged forever to the Lakota Indians. The treaty prohibited settlers from entering the Reservation without permission. In return, the Lakota agreed to stop raids and hostilities against the settlers and workers, who were constructing a railroad through the area.

But the temptation of finding gold was irresistible for miners and explorers and they continued to sneak into the Black Hills. In retaliation, the Lakota resumed their raids and violence against encroachers and settlers. These raids prompted another expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, known for his bravery during the Civil War. He was a military leader, who commanded his troops from the front. In fact, he often was ahead of his Cavalry Division engaging in the fight with an enemy. He also had his legendary “Custer’s luck.” He came out unscathed from most of the battles. The expedition explored the possibility of building a fort in the Black Hills to prevent hostilities between the Indians and the white settlers. During this expedition, in June 1874, gold was discovered by members of the expedition.


Miners and prospectors moved into the Indian Reservation in the thousands and a new gold rush began in spite of the treaty and in spite of Federal law.

In 1875 the Sioux tribe sent their chiefs Spotted Tail, Red Cloud, and Lone Horn to Washington D.C.  They tried to persuade President Ulysses Grant to honor the treaty, which was signed in 1868. President Grant offered them $25,000 instead for the land and relocation to Oklahoma Indian territory. He realized that the government would not be able to stop the gold rush and restrain the influx of people, who wanted to get rich. The ultimatum was announced, declaring that all Indians found outside of reservations after January 31, 1876 will be hunted down by the military.

After negotiations with Washington had failed two Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse refused to obey and decided to fight for their native land. Two Cheyenne chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, supported them in many battles. Cheyenne and Lakota tribes had common hunting grounds, where they hunted buffalo. The U.S. was going to take this land from them.

The refused to be cornered in small reservations and to subsist on meager rations, which were promised but not always delivered by the U.S. government, they disobeyed the ultimatum.

This major encroachment of white people into the Lakota’s sacred land and the broken treaty triggered a war between the Lakota Sioux, supported by the Northern Cheyenne, and the U.S. from 1876 to 1877.  There were eleven battles, including four major ones between the U.S army and Indian warriors led by chiefs Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Dull Knife, Little Wolf, American Horse, Standing Elk, Roman Nose, and Touch- the-Cloud.

On June 17, 1876 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse, attacked the troops led by General Crook in the battle of Rosebud Creek. After six hours of bloody conflict the U.S troops had to retreat to their camp in Goose Creek, Wyoming.

During the Battle of the Little Bighorn River Lieutenant Colonel Custer was killed and his 286 soldiers were annihilated by the combined Sioux and Cheyenne forces under the command of Crazy Horse. There were from 900 to 2000 Indian warriors. The battle happened on June 25 1876 on the Little Bighorn River and is known as “Custer’s last stand.”

However, the lack of buffalo, a cold winter, and hunger among the freedom fighters and their families made Crazy Horse surrender. He was killed at Fort Robinson in Nebraska in 1877 upon his peaceful return to the fort after he brought his sick wife to her parents’ home.

Sitting Bull led his tribe to escape into Canada. The Canadian government offered them a refuge, but not food. In 1881 Sitting Bull brought his people, who were starving, back to the Fort Buford agency in North Dakota and surrendered. He settled in the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. In 1890 there was a religious movement called “Ghost Dance” among Indians and authorities were afraid of another resurrection. Sitting Bull was suspected to be the movement’s instigator and General Miles ordered his arrest. During his arrest he resisted and was slain by a soldier.

A shooting started and a few hundred Hunkpapa Sioux Indians fled the Standing Rock Reservation to the Cheyenne River Reservation, where the Miniconjou, another band of Sioux, lived. Red Cloud requested that the Indians come to the Pine Ridge Reservation to avoid trouble. On December 28, 1890, 350 Sioux headed to the Pine Ridge Reservation. They were apprehended near Wounded Knee Creek by 5,000 soldiers and cavalry, along with four pieces of artillery, sent by General Miles. The Indians were ordered to set up a camp. The next day the soldiers were going to disarm the fugitives. Suddenly a gun was discharged. Nobody knows who shot and why they shot. The soldiers showered the camp of men, women and children with a hail of bullets and artillery shells. 150 Indians were dead and 150 were wounded. The wounded were taken to the Pine Ridge Episcopal Church. A government physician, Charles Eastman, took care of the wounded. This is called the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

Charles Eastman worked as a doctor at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. He was half Sioux and knew many of the chiefs personally. He graduated with a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890 and began working in the Pine Ridge Reservation. He wrote a few books about Native Americans and his life among the Sioux.


Resources used

Legends of America. Kathy Weiser. 2017

Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains. Charles A. Eastman 1939. Edited by Kathy Weiser in 1918


  1. Really enjoyed learning all about the history. We’ll be visiting the Black Hills next month and now I feel like I have a better understanding of the people and past that were an important part of the area’s story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you liked it. The history of the Black Hills is very interesting to me. We went to Deadwood and I was going to write about it until I came across stories about Native Americans and their life. I am still working on my article about Deadwood. Enjoy your trip!


  2. So Darcee, my fiance’…soon to be wife, is from Gillette, Wyoming about 15 minutes from Devils Tower up in the Northeast corner just outside of the Black Hills. So I love exploring all this area and we often drive over into Rapid City, Deadwood, Sturgis, & the Mt Rushmore areas to explore the beautiful and amazing black hills of this area. I love all of the history in all the area but Deadwood is definitely a cool place to explore. On top of all the museums the city is a living museum (if you ignore the casinos) in that they often re-enact different historical events that happened in this region of the young American Country! It is also amazingly beautiful all around here. It definitely needs to be on everyone’s bucket list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Congratulations on your future wedding! I’m glad to hear from the fans of the Black Hills. We were first time visitors of Deadwood and we had a great time. We watched almost every street show, the “murder” of Wild Bill in saloon # 10 and the trial of Jack McCall. We had so much fun! You are lucky to live so close to this beautiful region full of history.


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