Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was busy in the summer of 1874. General Phil Sheridan had selected Custer’s Seventh Cavalry for an expedition to the Black Hills to scout out a possible site for an Army fort. Custer’s men were stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln, across the Missouri River from Bismarck in Dakota Territory. Sheridan had first considered sending the expedition from Fort Laramie in Wyoming territory, but decided against it based on perceived hostilities from Native Americans.
Custer may have acquired the mission through his friendship with Sheridan. The sacred Black Hills had been set aside in the new Fort Laramie Treaty for the Great Sioux Reservation, but government officials were allowed to perform duties there.
Around eight o’clock in the morning on this date in 1874, Custer’s Black Hills expedition left Fort Abraham Lincoln. Most of the soldiers had already been camped south of the fort, spending a week getting used to camp life.
Custer led an expedition of a thousand men and one woman. It included ten companies of his Seventh Cavalry, sixty Native American scouts, one hundred wagons, and hundreds of horses, mules and cattle, as well as a battery of Gatling guns and a cannon. Officers’ wives waved goodbye as the men marched to the southwest. The band played “The Girl I Left Behind me” as the soldiers left the fort.
The first day on the trail was hot and sticky. The men were happy to be on the move after fighting off mosquitoes on the bivouac grounds. About five miles in, the wagon train stopped for water on the north branch of the Little Heart River. The crossing took longer than expected as many of the wagons got stuck. Four wagons had to be unloaded to get out of the muck. One wagon’s contents were left behind. The men used extra mules and ropes to pull the wagons out. It was five hours before all the wagons passed through the creek. Despite the delay, the expedition covered fifteen miles on the rolling prairie of Heart River country. It was familiar territory where the soldiers had hunted pronghorn, and was close enough to the fort to still receive mail later that day. Still, the day was hot, and about a dozen men “gave out.”
The expedition made camp about five miles northwest of present-day Saint Anthony, North Dakota. They killed and ate some cattle and hunted pronghorns. Supper was ready by ten o’clock. Some men ogled a comet in the sky. Everyone was asleep by midnight. Wake-up was set for two o’clock in the morning.
A photographer accompanied the expedition. We’ll hear that story on July 6th.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Robbins, J.S. (2014). The real Custer: From boy general to tragic hero. Regnery Publishing: Washington, DC
Horsted, P., Grafe, E., & Nelson, J. (2009). Crossing the plains with Custer. Golden Valley Press: Custer, SD