War for Paha Sapa (Black Hills)


Black Hills


In 1872, rumors abounded that there was gold in the Black Hills. Miners, wagon trains, and cavalry led by General George Armstrong Custer beat a trail known as Thieves’ Road to the area. Custer was also knows as Squaw Killer because of his massacre of Black Kettle and his people on the Washita river in 1868.

Paha Sapa was sacred to the indigenous people. In the summer they went there to commune with the Great Spirit and seek visions. This was the center of the world, the point from which the hoop of the world bent in four directions.

Just four years before, in the Treaty of 1868, that land had been given to the Sioux forever. Now the government tried to get the Black Hills through treaty, but the Sioux refused. The Peace Commissioners then recommended that Congress decide on a “fair equivalent value” and present it to the Indians as “finality.”


The United States offered the Sioux six million dollars for the Black Hills. The Sioux rejected the offer for good reason: just one Black Hills mine would eventually yield five hundred million dollars. By February 1876, the War Department authorized General Sheridan to begin military actions against the “hostile Sioux,” including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.


Crazy Horse joined forces with Sitting Bull; they made their camps on the banks of the Little Big Horn. There were ten thousand people with three to four thousand warriors, their camps spreading for three miles. On June 24, 1876 General George Armstrong Custer came looking for the Sioux. He had split his forces into three columns. The Sioux, defending their women and children along the Little Big Horn, wiped out Custer and over 180 of his men. It was the worst military defeat that the U.S. government had ever suffered in the wars with the native peoples.


The whites viewed the defeat as a massacre. More soldiers hunted down the Sioux. For over a year Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse kept the soldiers at bay. Finally, Sitting Bull took his people to Canada while Crazy Horse continued to fight. In 1877, after a long winter, the United States offered Crazy Horse and his people a reservation in the Powder River country, the most precious of territory to the Sioux. Crazy Horse brought his people to the fort and waited for the promised territory. After four months he decided to take the land and marches his people to the Powder River.

Eight companies of soldiers rode out and arrested him. During the arrest procedure, Crazy Horse balked at the prison cell after he saw men in chains. Glad for an excuse to kill him, one of the soldiers ran his bayonet through Crazy Horse’s stomach

The Sioux mourned his death for weeks. His parents finally took his bones and heart and buried them in a desolate spot on their trek to Canada, near a creek called Wounded Knee. The U.S. military had never defeated Crazy Horse in battle.

More and more whites flooded into Sioux and Cheyenne territory, and the U.S. government tried to wrest more and more land from the tribes. In 1889, they “legally” stole land out in the middle of the Sioux reservation. The state was set for the end of the frontier and the way of life the native populations had known for millennia.

That end came in 1890 at Wounded Knee. It was the final large-scale military massacre committed by the whites against the indigenous. Many more deaths of native peoples would follow due to poverty, despair, injustice, but not until the 1970s would the big guns again be fired on the Sioux.


See additional sources at:

George A. Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn

Massacre At Wounded Knee, 1890

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