We got up this morning with great anticipation. We were looking forward to exploring Mount Rushmore and the Sitting Bull Memorial. However, when we looked out of our big front windshield, this is the view we had.
Ugh. Lots of fog.
We decided to wait for a few hours in hopes the fog would dissipate so we just hunkered down and played cards. By 11 AM the fog had lifted but we now had a thick low-ceiling cloud layer that was still blocking our view of the mountains around us. As you can see, there was improvement to our visibility but not enough to warrant trips to the monument and memorial. Sigh.
We instead decided to explore the town of Custer. I needed to post a letter at the Post Office and Mary Margaret wanted to shop for some Black Hills gold jewelry. While in town, we discovered the Custer Courthouse which was now a museum. We love exploring museums so we went to it.
Once inside, we discovered a wonderful little museum, filled with lots of exhibits and history. We were given a 10-minute introduction by the docent which was very interesting. Two of the most interesting things we learned was about the origins of Custer back in the 1870s and the American Indian Movement riots that occurred here 100 years later in 1973.
In fact, a woman that was also visiting the museum and who was listening to the docent with us, shared that she lived here during the riots and was 7 years old at the time. She remembered it well because her mom opened up a door in their living room floor and then placed her and her sister in the little hidey hole and covered them up with rugs to hide it. The Indians were running by their house with torches and had lit a couple of stores on fire and threw a Molotov cocktail into the Courthouse. The docent pointed out areas of the courthouse hallway that still showed scorch marks of the fire. She said that a number of residents of the city were killed that night but the research that I have done on this incident shows that no one was killed. There were about 20 injuries, all of them either Indian protesters or police.
The Indians were part of the American Indian Movement or AIM. I remember hearing about the movement because a few weeks after the Custer incident, they took over the town of Wounded Knee, SD and held the town for 71 days. The Indians were protesting against the racism and discrimination they faced and the return of Indian lands that the US government took through a series of broken treaties over the years.
The broken treaties brings me to the history behind the founding of Custer. After the Civil War, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in 1868 between the United States and the Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brulé bands of Lakota (Sioux) people, Yanktonai Dakota and Arapaho Nation, following the failure of the first Fort Laramie treaty. That treaty was signed in 1851 after the 1849 California gold rush bought miners into the Black Hills. The 1868 treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation including ownership of the Black Hills, and set aside additional lands as unceded Indian territory in areas of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and Montana. It established that the US government would hold authority to punish not only white settlers who committed crimes against the tribes, but also tribe members who committed crimes and who were to be delivered to the government rather than face charges in tribal courts. It stipulated that the government would abandon forts along the Bozeman Trail and included a number of provisions designed to encourage a transition to farming.
Unfortunately, shortly after the signing the of the treaty, miners kept pour into the Black Hills and many of them were killed by Indians. The US Army was charged with keeping the miners out and sending troops into the Black Hills to find and boot out miners. However, in 1873, President Grant decided to see if there really was significant gold in the Black Hills because the US was in a recession and he thought an infusion of gold into the US Treasury will help end the recession the same way the 1849 California gold rush did. He sent in Lt. Col. George Custer with 1000 troops, surveyors and geologists to determine if there was any significant gold in the Black Hills. They set up camp in what is now the town of Custer and did find panning gold in the creek that flowed nearby.
This motivated President Grant to renegotiate the treaty and he tried to offer a settlement of $6 million for the Black Hills. The Indians refused to give up their sacred lands so, in 1875, President Grant decided to abandon the treaty obligation of the United States to preserve the Lakota Territory. In a letter dated November 9, 1875, to General Terry, General Sheridan stated that he had met with President Grant, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Secretary of War, and that the President had decided that the military should no longer try to keep miners from occupying the Black Hills: “it being his belief that such resistance only increased their desire and complicated the troubles.” These orders were to be enforced “quietly,” and the President’s decision was to remain “confidential.”
On December 6, 1875, the U.S. Commissioner on Indian Affairs ordered the Lakota onto the reservation by January 31, 1876, threatening to treat them as “hostiles” and have them arrested if they did not meet this deadline. The Sioux bands were scattered during this harsh winter, some didn’t get the order; others were hunting or camped in the unceded Indian Territory (which was their right). On February 1, 1876, the Secretary of the Interior relinquished jurisdiction over all so-called “hostile” (non-agency) Sioux – those Indians lawfully hunting in the non-reservation territory – to the War Department. The Army was ordered in and the Indian Wars began. Eventually, Lt. Col. Custer was killed during the resulting Indian Wars which this breaking of the 1968 Treaty caused. We will be driving to the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Wyoming this weekend so I will talk more about that battle then.