Black Hills National Forest


The Black Hills area has a rich, diverse cultural heritage. Native Americans have lived in the area since time immemorial. Tribes such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota came to the Black Hills to seek visions and to purify themselves. The Black Hills was also a sanctuary where tribes at war could meet in peace.

Exploration of the Black Hills by fur traders and trappers occurred in the 1840s. In 1868, the U.S. signed a treaty recognizing that the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux in perpetuity. The only way that the treaty could be reversed would be if 3/4 of every interested adult male signed away the land. Within four years white miners were trespassing in the area. Rumors of "treasures" in the Black Hills spread through the surrounding white settlements.

In 1874, General George A. Custer led an Army exploration into the area and discovered gold. Custer amplified the discovery, saying the hills were filled with gold "from the grass roots down." This kicked off a gold rush into the hills. Soon, thousands of miners had illegally entered Indian land. The Indians came to call Custer's path into the area "Thieves Road."

Two Sioux Indian chiefs, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, protested to Washington. President Grant sent a commission "to treat with the Sioux Indians for the relinquishment of the Black Hills."

At this time, the Sioux nation was divided between those living at least part of the year on reservations and accepting U.S. government rations—"agency Indians"—and those Sioux who still lived free, completely off the reservation. The two great chiefs among the non-agency Sioux were Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull agreed to meet in council with the Washington commissioners; Crazy Horse refused, sending instead a representative, Little Big Man.

The commission first met with the Sioux on September 20, 1875. Twenty thousand Indians including Sioux and many of their Arapaho and Cheyenne allies had gathered at the meeting place. As the meeting was seemingly about to begin, a band of warriors came galloping over the crest. Then another. Then another. This show of resolve unnerved the commissioners, who had abandoned hope of acquiring the Black Hills outright, but instead tried to negotiate for mineral rights.

The Indians wouldn't hear of it. They wanted white people completely out of the Black Hills; they wanted the U.S. government to honor its treaty.

The government was implacable. More than just the wealth of the Black Hills was at stake. The Sioux insistence on freedom, perceived as impudence by the Indian Bureau, threatened the whole reservation system, which was still in its fragile early years. On December 3, 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs insisted that all Sioux people report to their agency by January 31 for a head count—a demand ironically similar to the Roman demand that all Israelites return to the town of their birth. But this was roadless South Dakota in the dead of winter, not the mild Mediterranean. To travel at this time would have meant the death of many Sioux children and elders. In fact, blizzards and severe cold made it impossible for several of the government couriers to notify many Sioux by the time of the deadline.

On February 7, 1876, the War Department authorized General Sheridan to move into Indian lands and round up the "hostile Sioux." The first attack happened on March 17—sooner than the Sioux were expecting. A surprise. Hostilities escalated, culminating in the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 17—also known as Custer's Last Stand. This was the largest defeat ever of a U.S. force by Native Americans.

Washington pulled together another commission, which met only with "agency" chiefs in September 1876. Rather than a mass meeting, the commissioners went from small group to small group. The commissioners implied they would cut off the Indian's rations if they didn't sign. With their game dispersed and their mobility impaired, this would have meant death by starvation for the Sioux. The agency Sioux signed. The free Sioux, including Sitting Bull, were not consulted. To this day, many Sioux contest the legality of the new treaty, both because it was signed under duress and it did not include Indians living off the reservations.

The U.S. Army secured the Black Hills. Railroad building, mining, and lumbering of the Black Hills commenced in earnest. Many traces of early European settlement in the Black Hills can be found at the Bearlodge Mountain Trail System.

A series of large forest fires in 1893 focused attention on the need to protect the timber resource. On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the Black Hills Forest Reserve. This land was protected against fires, wasteful lumbering practices, and timber fraud. In 1898, the first commercial timber sale on Federal forested land in the United States was authorized in the area of Jim and Estes Creeks (near the town of Nemo). Cutting began around Christmas 1899. In 1905, the Black Hills Forest Reserve was transferred to the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later it was renamed the Black Hills National Forest.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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