In October 1873, Gen. Phil Sheridan, commander of the US Army’s forces in the American West, was concerned about the fate of South Dakota’s Black Hills mountain range. He worried that gold-seeking prospectors were skirmishing with the region’s Lakota people. Vital national interests were at stake, and Sheridan was determined to act—but not as a peacekeeper. A few weeks earlier, Jay Cooke & Company, one of the country’s leading investment houses, closed its doors after a series of speculative plays in railroads had soured. The financial markets responded predictably: with an all-out panic. The banking sector collapsed, businesses failed and thousands of people suddenly found themselves thrown out of work. The pine-covered Black Hills, said to be rich with untold minerals, began looking to canny observers like the American economy’s lifeline. That the Lakotas who lived there, a “warlike people,” in Sheridan’s opinion, stood in the way of tapping such wealth represented a considerable inconvenience.
Sheridan’s options were constrained by President Grant’s “peace policy,” the culmination of years of lobbying by Indian reformers coupled with a deepening sense among federal officials that the West’s Native peoples could be conquered only at tremendous cost. Another impediment for Sheridan was the Fort Laramie Treaty, signed just five years earlier, which guaranteed that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakotas. Accordingly, Sheridan trod lightly, suggesting that a peaceful expedition be sent into the Hills to study the local flora and fauna and to scout a location for a fort. Should the reconnaissance mission also happen to discover signs of precious mineral deposits, or that the Hills boasted resources enough to sustain permanent white settlement, well, so much the better. Largely uninterested in the niceties of diplomacy but well versed in the bloody realities of waging war, Sheridan expected that the government would then allow pioneers to claim the territory, dispossessing its Native inhabitants. He had history on his side: with big money on the line, the government regularly ignored the compacts—even with the ink still wet upon them—that it had forged with indigenous people.
Sheridan tapped George Armstrong Custer to lead the campaign into the Black Hills. Custer, like Sheridan, had won lasting fame during the Civil War, and after the war ended he had become renowned as an Indian killer, stacking piles of corpses at Washita and in other fights across the Great Plains. In an age of national celebrity buoyed by a booming mass culture, Custer groomed his image as a heroic warrior by letting his long blond curls cascade across his broad shoulders.
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In June 1874 Custer set out with approximately 1,000 men for the Black Hills. Once there, he quickly lived up to his reputation as a publicity hound. After meeting with miners who recounted stories of good fortune, Custer sent word back to his commanding officer: the Hills contained not only beautiful valleys, plenty of fresh water for irrigation and “unlimited supplies of timber,” but also gold. By late August, the news had been splashed across the front pages of newspapers as far east as Chicago. Custer had done his job well; he had amplified the local clamor over the Hills into a national din. Because the Sioux supposedly did not use the land, the argument went, they had no claim to it. As Custer said, the “region is not occupied by the Indians and is seldom visited by them.” The Lakotas, who had burned the prairie in advance of Custer’s column so that his stock couldn’t graze there, would have disagreed, but nobody bothered to ask them.
In November of the following year, President Grant called a private meeting in Washington with the secretaries of war and the interior, as well as with several leading generals, including Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman, then commander of the Army. At that gathering, Grant abandoned his peace policy, explaining that because of the Fort Laramie Treaty, he had to maintain the fiction that American miners would be barred from entering the Black Hills. But he would no longer enforce that edict. Instead, federal authorities would stand by as speculators flooded into the region. The Army, meanwhile, would prepare for the inevitable reprisals from Native people, who, as they defended their land, would be put down by US troops. Having been chastened, the tribes would then be offered a clear choice: either sell the Black Hills outright at the government’s price, or, bound to their reservations and unable to pursue the fast-shrinking bison herds upon which they depended for survival, face imminent starvation. Regrettably, there’s no way of knowing if Grant twisted his mustache as he laid out his nefarious plan.