Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Walking in Custer's Footsteps

On Saturday, Sept. 6, we had a very special treat.  We attended “Walking in Custer’s Footsteps,” The 140th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1874 Black Hills Expedition sponsored by the Custer County Historical Society.   An overview of the Expedition was given at the high school by authors Paul Horsted, Ernest Grafe and Jon Nelson.  Then everyone traveled a couple of miles down the road to visit the site of Custer’s “permanent” camp, which happens to be just a few hundred yards from where our RV is parked at Custer’s Gulch RV Park. 

Re-enactors at the site portrayed members of the expedition.  Here, Jay Red Hawk, a Lakota, portrays a Native American Guide from the Crow Nation and demonstrates some “tools of the trade.” 

Cynthia McCaron portrays Elizabeth Bacon “Libby” Custer.  (Even though Mrs. Custer did not accompany her husband on the expedition, their many letters to each other apparently document much of it.) 

Denny Hickok portrays Charley Reynolds, a scout who accompanied Custer on the 1874 expedition, and who was also killed along with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.  

Mitch McLain, dressed in buckskins, portrays General George Armstrong Custer as he has for the last ten years in and around the city of Custer.

The 1874 expedition, commanded by General Custer, took place between July 2 and August 30, 1874.  From the time of its departure from Fort Abraham Lincoln near the site of present-day Bismark, North Dakota, the expedition was much publicized.  Its purpose was ostensibly to map the Black Hills Dakota Territory wilderness area and to locate a site for a fort where troops could be stationed to protect against Indian raids in the area to the south.  However, the expedition included “practical miners” and several newspaper reporters, who sent back reports of the expedition’s findings. 

The Black Hills were part of a large reservation for the Lakota people that had been set aside by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and it is questionable whether the expedition into their territory was legal.  The Lakota or western (Teton) Sioux previously had fiercely resisted encroachment into their land.  However, a force of near 1,000 men such as Custer’s was large enough to discourage them from interfering.  

Custer’s party, reportedly under orders from Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan and guided by Indian scouts, made its way from Fort Lincoln through the Black Hills to the site of its “permanent camp.”  It was here, while camped on French Creek outside present day Custer, South Dakota, that gold was discovered by one of Custer’s miners and duly reported.  This sparked the last “gold rush” in what is now the the Continental US.  Subsequently, the United States modified or set aside the treaty giving the area of the Black Hills to the native people.  

The photo above shows a tent located almost exactly where Custer’s tent was placed in the “permanent camp.”  The location can be determined because photos were taken by William H. Illingworth, a photographer commissioned to document the expedition.  The rocks in the background of this image are the same ones that show in Illingworth’s photo taken 140 years before.  It feels a little spooky to walk the same ground where General Custer and his men camped 140 years ago.  Though they stayed in this valley only a few days, the expedition resulted in massive changes to the region and its inhabitants.  

If you’re interested in more information on the 1874 expedition, I highly recommend Exploring with Custer, the 1874 Black Hills Expedition by Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted.  It includes maps and personal accounts from journals and diaries kept by members of the expedition.  It also features original photos by William H. Illingworth, along with current images taken from the exact same locations.  In looking at the “then” and “now” images, it’s remarkable how many of them show the same tree or tree stump, hardly changed at all in 140 years.  (Check back in a few days.  I hope to have more images taken from some of the places where Illingworth's photos were made.)

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