Sell or Starve: Seizure of the Black Hills

In 1868, the United States Government signed a treaty with various tribes of Lakota and Arapaho Indians in which they “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” the region known as the Black Hills.  However, less than a decade later the government formally seized this land.

Prior to 1868 it had long been suspected that the Black Hills were rich in mineral resources, in particular, gold.  In the years following the Sioux Treaty of 1868 the U.S. government had either been unable or unwilling to prevent prospectors from entering the region.  By 1873, General Phil Sheridan determined it was time once in for all to examine the Black Hill’s topography, flora, fauna, and most important, geology.  Assigned to this task was General George Armstrong Custer.  Upon entering the Black Hills in 1874, Custer and his expedition was met with dissension from Lakota tribes, but Custer assured the Lakotas that he was merely passing through and would obtain no title to their lands.  Though Custer’s expedition recorded few results of mineral findings, Custer declared that the Hills were a veritable Garden of Eden.  National newspapers trumpeted the news reporting that rich mines of gold and silver had been found.  The Black Hills gold rush was on.

Enthusiasm by miners at the news of gold far outweighed the army’s lackluster efforts to evict miners from the region.  By August 1875, there were an estimated fifteen hundred miners in the Hills.  By this time seizure of the Black Hills seemed inevitable and Americans began to rationalize such action.  For instance, some argued that the Lakotas seldom used the Black Hills and therefore the land should not be left in their hands.  Others argued that a new gold rush would create an immediate economic infusion that would stimulate business and bring hard times to an end.

As tensions mounted, the government decided to send officials to Lakota country in order to negotiate the sale of the Black Hills.  The initial attempt was led by Iowa Senator William B. Allison and was known as the Allison Commission.  On September 20, 1875, the commission opened a council attended by five thousand or more Lakotas, Yanktons, Santees, Cheyennes, and Arapahos.  After more than a week of deliberating, the commission made a proposal to buy the Hills for $6 million or to purchase mining rights for $400,000 per year.  Both offers were rejected.  Fumed by the Indian’s rejection, Allison suggested the government make a final offer that, if refused, would arrest all appropriations for their subsistence in the future.  Put bluntly, they would have to sell or starve.

The following summer there occurred the Battle of the Little Bighorn in which General George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment suffered a major defeat at the hands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.  This embarrassing loss created a thirst for revenge that added urgency to efforts to take the Black Hills.  As such, Congress passed legislation on August 15, 1876, which required the Lakotas to give up all claims to the Black Hills.  If they refused, Congress would make no further appropriations for their support.  This was followed by the establishment of the Manypenny Commission led by humanitarian spokesman George W. Manypenny.  The Manypenny Commission traveled throughout the Lakota agencies pleading with the Indians to sign the agreement selling the Black Hills while accepting rations, clothing, farm equipment, and schooling.  Though they were reluctant sign, many Lakota leaders reached the painful conclusion that if they failed to sign, Congress would carry out its threats and make survival for the Indians almost impossible.  By the end of October, the Manypenny Commission had gathered 230 signatures from various Indian bands.  This was just ten percent of the Lakota men living at the agencies.  According to the 1868 treaty at least three fourths of all adult male Indians were required to sign any future treaty ceding land.  But, Congress gave little thought to this treaty violation and on February 28, 1877, the United States officially seized the Black Hills.

Article Source:  Jeffrey Ostler, The Lakotas and the Black Hills:  The Struggle for Sacred Ground.  The Penguin Library of American Indian History:  New York, 2010.