GOLD IN THE BLACK HILLS
(Army and Navy Journal, January 9, 1875)
Letter from General Custer
Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dak.
December 13, 1874
To the Editor of the World,
Sir: In your issue of November 18, 1874, which I have just seen for the first time, there is published the annual report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in which there occurs the following statement:
"A military reconnoitering expedition to the country in South-western Dakota, known as the Black Hills, occasioned great excitement among the whole Sioux people. They regard it as a palpable infraction of their treaty stipulations, and were filled with the apprehension that it might lead to their exclusion from a country held sacredly their own, and highly prized their home and last refuge from the encroachment of settlements. The exaggerated accounts of rich mines and agricultural lands given in the dispatches of the commander and explorers and correspondents of the expedition intensify the eagerness of the people all along the border to take possession of this country, notwithstanding the subsequent correction of these exaggerations by statements on reliable information that no indications of mineral wealth were found, and that the lands were undesirable for white settlements, etc."
If the other statements and opinions with which the report of the Commissioner is made up are equally devoid of truth, and I know some of them to be so, the entire document is not worth the paper upon which it was written.
In assailing the correctness of the "dispatches of the commander and explorers and correspondents" of the Black Hills Expedition, the Commissioner endeavors to controvert the statements contained therein regarding the mineral and agricultural wealth of the Black Hills by simply putting forth his individual assertion, based either on ignorance or willful perversion of facts, to the effect that "no indications of mineral wealth were found, and that the lands were undesirable for white settlements."
I repeat that in putting forth the last quoted statement the Commissioner was either guided by ignorance or by a failing even less excusable. He cannot refer to a single statement "on reliable information that no indications of mineral wealth were found, and that the lands were undesirable for white settlements." On the contrary, I assert that the dispatches of the correspondents and the explorers who accompanied the expedition were, so far as they touched upon these points, generally accurate and just. Furthermore, the official dispatches forwarded from time to time while the expedition was in progress, and describing the country of the Black Hills as rich and inviting, and particularly well adapted to white settlements, were in strict accordance with the facts, and were in substance repeated in my preliminary report, made after the return of the expedition, and that these statements have never been contradicted by any person or persons competent to do so, or having knowledge to the contrary.
Lieutenant-General Sheridan, in his annual report also asserts that gold was found in the Black Hills. I fear the Commissioner will have difficulty in naming his "reliable" informant. Professor Winchell (brother of the distinguished geologist of that name), who accompanied the expedition as one of the geologists invited to examine the country, did make a preliminary report, in which he did not say there was no gold found, but that he saw no gold, a statement in which no doubt the Commissioner could consistently join.
Why Professor Winchell saw no gold was simply due to the fact that he neglected to look for it, and why he failed to look for it. I have explained in my report rendered since the return of the expedition, but which I need not repeat here, further than to say that the Commissioner, sitting in his comfortable chair in Washington, might in a similar manner and upon equal grounds, assert that there are no wrongs head upon the Indians at remote agencies by the representatives of the Indian Department; that they have not been deprived of large portions of the annuities intended for them and that they have not been in reality robbed by being forced to trade where ten times the market price of an article is taken from them. That the Commissioner may or may not know of these wrongs, does not affect the truth of the statement that they exist.
If, instead of assailing representatives of other departments of the Government upon false grounds supported by false accusations, the same time and attention were devoted to his own department, which, by the way, is a glass house of huge dimensions, great benefit might result to the Indians. Within the past ten days I have been appealed to by a delegation of prominent chiefs asking that the military would exert its influence to protect them and their people against the unjust demands, as they believed, of their agent. This is but one of many incidents of the same kind.
To this appeal as to others of the same nature, I replied that the military had nothing to do with their grievances, that they must represent the facts to their agent, and ask to have the matter forwarded to the Great Father in Washington. To which they replied that the agent (as might be inferred from the glaring report of the Commissioner based on the statements of agents) only tells his own side of the story, while there is no one to speak for the Indian. I then assured the chief who acted as spokesman that the Great Father had the interest and welfare of the Indians at heart, and in selecting men for agents endeavored to select only good men.
The reply of the chief is well worth considering by the Commissioner.
He said: "The Great Father may choose only good men, as you say, and they may be good men when they leave Washington; but by the time they get to us they are d---d thieves, and we would like a change." I have quoted the chief's reply literally, and have referred to this matter more as an illustration than under the belief that by so doing I would invite the attention of the Commissioner to the affairs of his department. As another illustration of the beautiful working of the Indian Department, by which the Government feeds and clothes during the winter the Indians who make unprovoked war upon its citizens during the summer, a party of 100 men has been dispatched from this post within the past few days to arrest one or more Indians now known to be at Standing Rock Agency, who were engaged in the killing of Dr. Housinger and Br. Batiran during the Northern Pacific survey of 1873.
One of these Indians has been at the agency referred to since last summer, has openly and repeatedly acknowledged his participation in the killing of the two parties named, and has exhibited articles taken from them after having killed them. Yet the agent, who no doubt can see no harm in an Indian killing a white man, has practically kept the matter a secret, and it has only been by accident, and not through the Indian Department, that the matter has been made public. Perhaps the agent remembered the experience of his brother agent in Southern Kansas, recently, who because of his stating that the Indians were in the wrong deserved punishment was at once requested to resign.
Officials connected with or representing a particular department or bureau of the Government have always exercised great care not to meddle with or unnecessarily comment upon the management or details of another department. In this case, however, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, departing from this rule, has seen fit in an official report to call in question the correctness of official statements made in a department with which he is in no way connected and for which he is in no manner responsible.
If he had either truth or justice on his side he might furnish a plausible excuse for his conduct, but he has perverted the truth to the extent of stating in an official document that which is not only not true but which he had no "reliable information" even upon which to base his voluntary misstatements. If the Commissioner will confine his attentions to his own department, and correct such evils as a conscientious discharge of duty might find therein, he will have no time left to interfere with other departments, much less to publish unwarranted, because untruthful statements concerning the official conduct of others.
G. A. Custer
Brevet Major-General, U.S.A.
(Army and Navy Journal, January 9, 1875)
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