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South Dakota in the 1870s


Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer

In 1868, following the establishment of the Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming territories, Dakota Territory was reduced to the area of present-day North and South Dakota, as well as a small area later ceded to Nebraska. Through the 1860s white settlement was sparse, but early in the 1870s immigration increased due to the growth of Sioux City, Iowa, and the arrival of a railroad from Sioux City in 1873. Most of the early arrivals were from northern European countries, mainly Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Ireland. Eastern Europeans began arriving as early as 1869, when Czechs entered Yankton and Bon Homme counties. The first colony of Hutterites (pacifist followers of the Anabaptist Jakob Hutter) was established in 1874.

During the summer of 1874, a military expedition under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer confirmed that the Black Hills in what is now western South Dakota contained gold. At that time, the Black Hills, as well as all of southern Dakota Territory west of the Missouri River, were part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which had been created under the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Initially, the federal government attempted to keep eager miners from entering the region, as it was obliged to do under the terms of the treaty. By mid-summer 1875, however, hundreds of miners had evaded military patrols to prospect in the Black Hills. In September federal officials met with Sioux leaders and attempted to buy mining rights, but the U.S. government considered the price too high, and the gold rush began in earnest after negotiations with the Sioux collapsed.

In October, the federal government withdrew its military forces from the area, giving tacit permission for gold prospectors to enter, and they came by the thousands.

By the spring of 1876, about 15,000 miners had entered the region, and during the next year, the white population of the Black Hills rose to about 25,000. Mining settlements such as Custer and Deadwood were built almost overnight. They were turbulent, lawless communities, attracting such personalities as frontiersman, marksman, and law enforcement officer Wild Bill Hickok and sharpshooter and horsewoman Martha Jane Canary, known as Calamity Jane. Within a few years after the initial gold rush most of the surface gold had been taken, and underground mining was being carried out by mining companies rather than individuals. Although the region’s population declined, the gold rush laid the basis for permanent settlement of western Dakota. "South Dakota" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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