While the Custer Expedition of 1874 confirmed the presence of gold and shared the finding with the world, there are other accounts that lead some researchers to believe a gold discovery by white miners or traders may have taken place long before 1874.
Depending on the interpretation of their journals, the first European men to see the Hills may have been the French explorers, Francois and Joseph Verendrye. The sketchy journal seems to indicate they entered the Northern Hills on New Year’s Day, 1743. The Verendyres may have done a little gold prospecting, but their real search was for the mythical Northwest Passage.
Jedediah Smith and his party traveled through the southern Hills in 1823, and may have done a little prospecting as Smith recovered from his run-in with a grizzly along the Cheyenne River.
The Rapid Creek Trading Post, owned and operated by Tom Sarpy, was located at the confluence of Rapid Creek and the Cheyenne River from 1830 to 1832, and by virtue of its proximity to the Hills may have been involved with prospecting endeavors. The explosion of the post’s gunpowder supply hastened the end of this outpost.
Jeremiah Proteau, a fur trader with the American Fur Company, recorded that he and his party reached the northern Black Hills foothills in 1854.
Later Black Hills residents have also challenged the notion that Custer’s expedition was the first white group to explore the Black Hills and search for gold.
Seth Bullock, the pioneer sheriff, rancher, and businessman in the Black Hills from 1876 until his death in 1919, reported in his diary that:
“Shortly after the close of the Civil War, Father DeSmet, the heroic missionary, stated at a dinner party in the home of General Ewing at Columbus, Ohio, that he had repeatedly seen gold dust in the possession of the Sioux Indians. They told him that they got it in the Black Hills and that there was “heap plenty of it.” Where and how the Sioux got the gold which they had from time to time, is a controversial matter.” Father DeSmet was “around the Black Hills in 1848 and again in 1851, 1864 and 1870.”
Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, the noted physician, Indian agent, and pioneer resident of the Hills wrote a letter to the editor of the Rapid City Journal in 1927 that detailed evidence of earlier explorations.
McGillycuddy related that he was attached to a military exploration unit in 1875. “We found a very old, abandoned cave near what would later be Rapid City,” wrote McGillycuddy. In that cave were found “…a rusted frying pan, an old shovel with the handle decayed, and rusted frame of a pair of spectacles.” McGillycuddy also found a decayed and moss-covered log cabin on a peak near Sundance. A similar cabin was found on Elk Creek, but with a pine tree growing through the roof. These signs of exploration appeared to easily predate Custer’s visit.