Iowa Gold Seekers Headed For The Dakota Black Hills in 1874. What Did They Find?

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Courtesy Library of Congress

Artist’s wood engraving of prospectors in the Black Hills

For about $100 a man could secure all the necessary articles he needed in Sioux City, Iowa, to outfit himself for a gold digging expedition to the Black Hills in 1874. Items included a rifle, revolver, flour, salt, ammunition, blankets, cooking utensils, a pick, shovel and gold pan.

This was valuable information for a group of 26 men and one woman with her 10-year-old boy, who were preparing to make the trek into the Dakotas in search of riches. Charles Collins, editor of the Sioux City Times, was organizing the expedition, along with an experienced frontiersman named Thomas H. Russell. Eph Witcher and John Gordon were leading the group from Sioux City to the Black Hills. Collins stayed behind, but Russell acted as a guide.

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Organizers advertised the opportunity to join the expedition in newspapers across the country. It wasn’t long before officials from the federal government heard about the plans. Because the government had not opened up the area to settlement yet, officials did not want the Sioux City group to continue with their endeavor. In August an order was given that no “invasion by whites” to the Black Hills was allowed.

After that, Collins told anyone who asked that he was delaying the trip. But he and Russell continued with their plans in secret. They didn’t believe the military would seriously care about a bunch of gold seekers from Sioux City.

On October 6 the group departed Sioux City. It wasn’t until several weeks later that a newspaper announced the departure of the group. And it wasn’t until February 1875 that the public learned details about the gold seekers from Eph Witcher and John Gordon who arrived in Sioux City and shared their story.

On December 28 the group reached French Creek in Custer’s Valley and decided to set up their camp there. Within eight days of their arrival they constructed a stockade, 80 feet square and 12 feet high. It was built of logs laid close together, dovetailed with smaller split timbers. Next they built seven log cabins within the stockade.

Witcher said there was an abundance of wild game for eating—elk, deer, prairie chickens and mountain grouse. He reported the elk and deer were so tame that the hunters came within 30 yards before firing.

At a place known as Custer’s Gulch, the prospecting began. With the first pan washed, the diggers found 15 cents worth of gold. Continuing to sink another 25 holes, the men struck gold in each. They went on to find “numerous gold and silver-bearing quartz lodes.” Witcher claimed the specimens he brought back to Sioux City were “very rich.”

In February Witcher and Gordon were in Sioux City to form another expedition in April. They said organizers had received letters from around the United States from people asking to go on the next trip. And anyone with $200 could join. Sioux City stores were offering special rates for participants. Gun stores agreed to sell firearms for 10-20 percent less than the regular retail price.

Meantime, back in the Black Hills, a cavalry detachment sent by the military had been searching for the Sioux City gold seekers. When they were discovered in early April, they offered no resistance. The soldiers gave them a military escort to Fort Laramie, Wyo. After a short detention, they were paroled. The group arrived in Sioux City by the Sioux City & Pacific Railroad on April 30. They were met at the depot by a crowd estimated at 1,000. The band performed, and the mayor spoke.

A reporter for the Chicago Tribune wrote that the members of the expedition possessed “unconquerable energy and heroic bravery.” The sole female on the journey, Annie D. Tallent, wrote about her experiences in an 1899 book, The Black Hills. She became known as the first white woman to visit the Black Hills.

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Sources

  • “The Black Hills,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, 1875.
  • “Gold!” Inter Ocean (Chicago), Mar. 6, 1875.
  • Kingsbury, George W. “The Sioux City Invaders,” History of Dakota Territory, Vol 1, p 893. S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915.
  • Sanders, Peggy. “The First White Woman to Enter the Black Hills, Annie Tallent Wrote Her Memoirs of That Time.” Wild West Magazine, June 13, 2017.
  • “Sioux City and the Gold Rush: 1874-1877. Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 20, No. 3, p 319. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1922.
  • Tallent, Annie, D. The Black Hills: Or, The Last Hunting Ground of the Dakotahs, St. Louis: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1899.

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