Nearly all of South Dakota’s gold-bearing deposits are concentrated in one area— the 65 mile wide by 125 mile long Black Hills National Forest. In addition to gold, this scenic recreation area is filled with forests so thick they look black from a distance (hence the name), rugged rock formations, cool caves, rushing rivers, and an abundance of national memorials and parks. The wildlife is plentiful, too—thousands of free-roaming buffalo, spry pronghorns, shaggy bighorn sheep, and even shy prairie dogs. Besides the outdoor beauty, this region is best known for the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876, which began in July 1874.
Sent by the federal government to scout locations for military forts and to investigate rumors of gold ore, General George Armstrong Custer led his famous expedition into the Black Hills in July 1874. The party consisted of 1,000 men, including a military band, 2,000 animals, and 110 wagons. While camping on French Creek near present-day Custer City, Horatio Ross, a prospector along on the expedition, discovered gold. General Custer reported the find, and almost immediately the Black Hills Gold Rush was on! General Custer and many of his men, though, never saw the full impact of their find. They died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn two years later.
The Black Hills Gold Rush should never have happened. In 1868, a treaty between the U.S. and the Sioux Nation called for the abandonment of military posts in Indian territory, and set aside the region for Native Americans only. The Black Hills, then and now, is considered sacred to the Lakota Sioux. But it took just one powerful word — Gold! — to change history forever. By the end of 1875, thousands of miners, cattle ranchers, railroaders, and businessmen had violated the treaty and settled in.
Custer City was one of the first mining camps in South Dakota to spring up in 1875. The town enjoyed a short boom, until the following spring. A rich strike was made near Deadwood Gulch, and within a short time, Custer City was almost abandoned. Soon, placer claims were staked throughout the entire area and the prospecting population swelled. Many of these early claims played out quickly, but then fortune-seekers turned to hard rock mining. One particular lucrative gold mine was the Homestake.
On April 9, 1876, Moses Manuel liked what he saw in an outcropping of ore, referred to as a lead (pronounced "leed"), and so he and his brother Fred established the Homestake Gold Mine near the present-day town of Lead. Little did these brothers know, but they had found the richest source of gold in the area and that the mine would go on to produce more than 40 million ounces of gold in its 126 years of operation. In June 1877, a consortium of San Francisco investors led by George Hearst (father of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst) purchased the four and one half acre claim from the Manuel brothers for $70,000. Talk about a great investment! No stranger to mining, Hearst had interests in California’s ‘49 gold rush, the Comstock Lode in Nevada, the Anaconda Copper Mine in Montana, and many others.
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