The first American geologist to visit and document the Black Hills for the U.S. military was Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, who explored the region as a member of General Harney’s reconnaissance in 1855. Ten years later he reported to the Dakota Historical Society “the lowest Silurian period, or gold-bearing strata, are well developed in these hills.”
Two additional military expeditions to the Black Hills region in 1857 and 1859 did little to dispel the rumors and notions that gold was present in the region. G. T. Lee and Toussaint Kensler also claimed to have found gold in the Hills on individual trips during the Civil War. But, the Black Hills region remained as a mysterious and generally unmapped part of the Great Sioux Reservation of the Northern Plains until after the end of the Civil War in 1865, with few documented travels in the region.
After the financial panic of 1873, the American economy was in a state of near depression. Gold was seen as the best, fastest way to help the nation recover financially and psychologically by some highly placed advisors in the government and within President Grant’s administration. Knowing that the metal was somewhere in the Black Hills, General Phillip Sheridan authorized an expeditionary force into the Black Hills in the summer of 1874.
George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 reconnaissance of the Black Hills was organized as a military survey to scout locations for forts in the center of the Reservation. It is speculated that Custer’s unofficial orders also contained a directive to locate and confirm the presence of gold and other valuable minerals that might spur the nation out of the panic. Custer’s expedition played a crucial role in the final determination of gold’s existence in the Hills, and in broadcasting that news to the nation, and the world. This incursion into Sioux lands would have numerous other implications as well.