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Grand Forks Men Find Gold Mine


On this date in 1876, a party of 13 men left Grand Forks, followed the Red River south to Fargo and turned west to follow the Northern Pacific railroad, which wasn't operating that winter. They reached Bismarck on March 2nd, and rested for the next three weeks. When they forged on, their group had swelled to 50, including a woman, seven children and a destitute, sourdough prospector from California named "Rattlesnake Jack."

The group's goal was the same as it was for many others - get to the Black Hills to prospect for gold. Their mission was dangerous and for a good reason. The 1868 Sherman Treaty had guaranteed the Great Sioux Reservation full, undisputed rights to the land west of the Missouri River, including their favorite meeting grounds, the Black Hills. Then, in July 1874, Custer and his men were in the Black Hills when gold was discovered in French Creek. Custer immediately sent "Lonesome Charley" Reynolds to Ft. Laramie to announce the discovery to the world.

Historian Erling Rolfsrud writes, "The Indians who saw the ruts cut by Yellow Hair's 110 wagons called his route the ‘Trail of the Thieves'...Despite Army warnings that the Black Hills were forbidden to whites, mining expeditions organized to go there. Sioux City and Yankton newspapers (advertised) Black Hills prospector outfits. By the summer of 1875 about 800 men had eluded the military patrol(s), coming into the Hills from Bismarck, Laramie, and Sioux City."

Meanwhile, several tribal leaders were invited to Washington, where General Grant's request to either sell or lease the Black Hills was turned down flat. The Sioux had no intention of opening their beloved Black Hills to white settlers.

By the time the Grand Forks prospectors approached the Black Hills the following spring, some 25,000 gold seekers had already infiltrated the area. So it was that when the Grand Forks party bedded down near Meadow City, on the night of March 31st, Indians crept into their camp and ran off five of their horses and about 20 head of cattle. The cows belonged to a Bismarck man named Collins, who was going to start a dairy for the prospectors. The next day, about 12 men trailed their missing livestock to a gully about 14 miles away, but when they went in to round them up, they found about 50 Indians waiting for them.

Grand Forks insurance salesman, D. M. Holmes, told a reporter they had to kill some of their stock to crouch behind and that the battle lasted until nightfall. A Bismarck man named Ward was killed, and two others - Jim Williams of East Grand Forks and a Mr. Collins of Bismarck - received arrow wounds to their legs. Holmes, who had an Episcopal prayer book along, presided over Ward's burial the following day but later learned the body was dug up and scalped soon after they pushed on.

On April 18, the group reached Deadwood, which consisted of about 15 or 20 buildings, mostly saloons and gambling houses. A 1922 Fargo Forum story recounted the results of the expedition: "Most of the prospectors were working for placer gold, yet Rattlesnake Jack discovered a vein of quartz. He received $25,000 for his rights to the property, and thereupon entered an orgy of gambling and drinking that did not stop until we (sic) was broke... One by one some of the Grand Forks prospectors straggled home. Some of them never did return. Mr. Holmes was away about four months. He spent about $1,000 and found about $2.50 worth of gold."

Ironically, the Rattlesnake Jack mine was still operating as late as 1922.

(Source: Fargo Forum, February 24, 1922)