Custer City History
November 9, 2020

The history of Custer City is in a large degree that of the southern Black Hills.  Custer City is the oldest established white community in the Black Hills; the “Mother City” of the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

The first recorded expedition to reach the Black Hills was led by Lieutenant G.K. Warren, in September of 1857, when he crossed over from Fort Laramie via the Rawhide but did not penetrate as far as the site of current Custer City.

The beautiful valley of French Creek, in which Custer City is situated, may have been visited by white men previous to 1874, but there is no record of it.  If daring prospectors for gold ever ventured into the region, they probably sacrificed their lives because the Sioux warriors guarded the Paha Sapa from intruders, and persistently refused to give any account of where they obtained their gold ornaments.

The 1874 Custer Expedition, led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer with a thousand Army regulars of the 7th Cavalry entered Indian Territory, now known as the Black Hills.

Leaving from Fort Abraham Lincoln (present day Bismarck, ND) Custer’s command consisted of ten companies of the Seventh United States Cavalry, three companies of infantry, a battery consisting of one Napoleon and three Gatling guns, sixty-five Indian scouts, 100 United States wagons, and eighteen private outfits.  Professors N.H. Winchell, geologist; Donaldson, botanist; Grinnell, paleontologist, and Colonel Fred Grant, President Grant’s son, accompanied the expedition.

As a major federal government operation, also on the expedition were reporters and William Henry Illingworth, a noted photographer whose glass plate photography proved invaluable to show the beauty of the area then, as well as now.

While camping at his southernmost point into the expedition (where Custer City is today), Custer wrote his report – “this valley presents a most wonderful and beautiful aspect, the likes of which has never been seen.”  Perhaps shortly after that, men reported to him that gold had been discovered in what’s now called French Creek a few miles east of present-day Custer City.

Horatio Nelson Ross was one of the private expedition members and miner on the Custer expedition.  Upon their return to Fort Abraham Lincoln, he told the General that he was going to return to the Black Hills to look for more gold.  The General remarked that if Ross attempted to return, he would be obliged to capture him and bring him back.  Ross did return later and settled in Custer City, prospecting there and at one time was a deputy sheriff of Custer County, and also a noted historian of the area.

A historical marker denoting the area where gold was discovered was placed on the north side of Hwy 16A about 150 yards east of the entrance of Wheels West Café and Campground on the way to the Custer State Park entrance.

Within four months of the return of the 1874 Custer Expedition there followed the Gordon-Collins-Witcher party which settled illegally near the former “permanent” camp of Lt. Col. Custer’s troops.  Coming from Sioux City, Iowa, this was the first of many to reach the Southern Hills that fall.  The group, including Annie Tallent and her 9-year-old son, Robert, built a log enclosure for protection in the wilderness calling it Gordon Stockade, and later, Fort Defiance.   

The Gordon Stockade was the magnet that drew the miners to the area. (the authentic restoration is on the original site today and is open to guests) Although there had been French fur trappers and traders in the area by 1796, there was no ‘white’ settlement in the Black Hills until the Gordon-Collins-Witcher party arrived.  The Army made repeated attempts to arrest white invaders and remove them, and the Gordon party was evicted as well from their stockade in August of 1875, but that failed to stop the continuing gold rush.

When it came to naming the town, Confederate veterans took to using the name of Stonewall City, suggesting that the town be named in honor of their Civil War hero, General Thomas Jonathon “Stonewall” Jackson.  Civil War veterans who had served in the Union Army wanted the town named for General George Armstrong Custer.  A vote was taken to decide the matter.  Maybe there were more Union veterans than Confederate veterans, so the name Custer City won – although the actual tally was reputed to be close to half and half.

The town grew to a thriving city with an estimated 10,000 population until early in the spring of 1876 when rumors of rich gold discoveries in the Deadwood gulch began to circulate, and in May the excitement became so intense that a great stampede from the southern Hills was the consequence, and as many as a thousand people left Custer in a single day.  The 1,400 log buildings were gradually torn down and used for fuel.  In 1878 in an actual census taken on September 5th, only fifty-nine persons inhabited the pioneer city of the Hills; thirty-seven men, eleven women, and eleven children.


 


Condensed transcription of the descriptive information about Custer County as found in A.T. Andreas' "Historical Atlast of Dakota", 1884.  Additional information can be found at the Custer Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.



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