In 1874, the Custer Expedition, led by Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, was the first to broadcast the discovery of gold in the Black Hills to the American public. At the time, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had without question declared all of the lands contained within the Black Hills to be part of the Great Sioux Nation. White settlement was not to be allowed. The discovery of gold, however, changed everything.
As miners snuck into the region and set up small illegal mining camps, the military initially attempted to keep them out, going so far as to destroy mining camp supply caravans when they discovered them. But the flood of prospectors to the hills was unstoppable.
Political forces in eastern South Dakota and in Washington, thinking that the Indians had no use for gold, decided to reopen negotiations with the tribes with the intent of taking back the Black Hills. When their offers to purchase the hills and alternate offers to lease the mining rights to the hills were rebuffed, the American government’s response was to withdraw the cavalry from the area, essentially giving free access to the miners and suppliers invading the territory.
By March 1876, an estimated 10,000 people had made their way into the hills. While the miners were busily and illegally engaged in seeking their fortunes and staking out communities, the Sioux were fighting for their lands. The cavalry was back and this time the military skirmishes were not efforts to keep white settlement out of the hills—but instead were efforts to subdue the native tribes. By late 1876, the Sioux were forced to sign a new treaty giving up the hills.
Spearfish was never a mining community. Most of the mining in the region was concentrated within a 10-mile radius of Deadwood to the south and east. But the gold rush brought people. And people need supplies and housing and food. And, at some point in the history of all gold discoveries, the rush to find gold turns into the industry of mining it.
People coming to the region after the first few years found the mining camps primitive and lawless and opportunities to strike it rich were slim. Many who started out for the gold camps turned back and established communities of a different sort. Such is the story of Spearfish. While the first settlers of Spearfish were originally destined for the gold camps, several men dropped out of the party, electing instead to find gold in the fertile land of the Spearfish Creek river valley. Farmers first, followed by cattle and horse ranchers and the timber industry, slowly created this community rich in natural resources.
Staked out in 1876, the same year as Deadwood (and equally illegal), this quiet community had grown to around 900 residents by 1890. By 1893, the two diverse regions of the Northern Hills, the agricultural and ranching community of Spearfish and the mining town of Lead, were connected. The Grand Island and Wyoming Line Railroad installed track from the town of Spearfish through Spearfish Canyon to the Homestake Mine in Lead. A short time later, the train was sold to the Chicago Burlington Quincy Railroad.
Tourism in the canyon became possible and common—the train stopped anywhere along the way to drop off folks for a day of fishing or picnicking, and then picked them up on the return trip. One of the thrills of the ride was to view the thunderous waters of Spearfish Falls from a quaking train trestle above the creek.
Today, Spearfish is a community of about 10,000 residents—plus the students of Black Hills State College. Graced with great natural beauty, Spearfish is located at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon and is surrounded on three sides by the Black Hills National Forest. Spearfish Creek winds through the heart of the city. With easy access off of I-90, art galleries, coffee shops, great dining, and easy access to the canyon, it’s the recreational and cultural heart of the Northern Hills.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition