The Dakotas


French explorations of North America, beginning in 1534, was a result of the efforts of Jacques Cartier along the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.  Cartier called in Nouvelle-France.  At its peak in 1712, New France consisted of five colonies, each with its own administration.  The most developed colony was Canada, with districts in QuébecTrois-Rivières, and Montréal, Hudson’s Bay, Newfoundland, Acadia, and La Louisiane.  The territory of New France was massive, extending from Newfoundland to the Canadian prairie, from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, and it included all five of the Great Lakes.

Louisiana,  was named in honor of King Louis XIV by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle.  It originally covered most of the Mississippi River drainage, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the western Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.  Louisiana was divided into two sections: Upper Louisiana (la Haute-Louisiane) began north of the Arkansas River, Lower Louisiana (la Basse-Louisiane) included everything south of the Arkansas River.  Present-day Louisiana is an infinitesimal section of the original French colony.

The French experienced the same difficulties in New France as did the Spanish in their administration of New Spain.  France claimed sovereignty over this vast territory, but the scarcity of human settlements left the territory undeveloped.  Without human settlement, without some number of people to administer, France could not claim that it controlled much of anything in this vast territory.

Young George Washington

LtCol George Washington

On 28 May 1754, a 22-year-old British militia lieutenant colonel by the name of George Washington ambushed a small force of French mercenaries at Jumonville Glen near present-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania[1].  This rather obscure incident was the catalyst for hostilities between Great Britain and France that eventually culminated in the Seven Years’ War.  One might argue that the Seven Years’ War was actually the first world war because it involved all five of the great European powers, several of the middle powers, and extended to confrontations in the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippine Islands.  Moreover, the Seven Years’ War split Europe into two coalitions, one led by Great Britain, allied with Prussia, Portugal, Brunswick-Luneburg/Hanover and France, who allied with Austria-Holy Roman Empire, Saxony, Russia, Spain, and Sweden[2].

The Seven Years’ War ended in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris, which involved a complex series of exchanges of land.  France ceded to Spain its Louisiana colony and to Great Britain[3] the rest of New France (Canada, Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, and Acadia) (less the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon).  The French were motivated by the prospect of either giving up territory that produced little to nothing, or its Caribbean colonies that produced money-generating sugar and molasses.  Spain lost control of Florida but gained French holdings west of the Mississippi River[4].  The exchange benefitted Great Britain because it gave the British control of all North America east of the Mississippi.  More than this, however, with the French navy crippled, the Seven Year’s War ended all French influence in India, and this in turn opened the door to British hegemony and in time, control of the subcontinent.  It was only after an ambitious and expensive rebuilding campaign that France and Spain would again be positioned to challenge Britain’s command of the sea.

The favorite object of speculation in North America before the era of big business was public land.  Investors could buy public lands cheaply and in large quantities until rising prices brought substantial profits.  Memories of high land values in the Old World and of the social prestige enjoyed by landowners produced an almost insatiable lust for land.  Land speculation began in Colonial America, not only because of its potential for profit, but also because it suited government’s purposes to increase human populations in areas that it wished to control.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the United States inherited Great Britain’s North American territories east of the Mississippi River and north of the city of New Orleans.  The key to westward migration was unrestricted access to the Mississippi River; nothing short of that would serve the interests of landowners, the government, or the settlers (who were also potential land buyers) who, of course, would need the Mississippi River to move goods to downriver market towns or to New Orleans.  We cannot know whether this notion was intentionally placed into the heads of westward moving settlers, but most of these people did believe that the United States would one day acquire Spanish Louisiana and gain unrestricted access to the Mississippi River.

Anglo settlers moving into Spanish territory found themselves in conflict with hostile Indians, who the Spanish often incited against them.  For years, Spanish officials attempted to influence frontiersmen against the policies of the Washington administration, and with some success.  See also: James Wilkinson: Image of Respectability[5].  Realizing that the power and influence of Spain was weakening after 1790, the United States sought concessions on questions relating to border disputes, navigation rights, and Anglo settlement in Spanish Louisiana.  In 1794, President Washington sent Thomas Pinckney to Spain to open negotiations with the Spanish government.  The Pinckney Treaty (also, Treaty of San Lorenzo) (1795) ended the dispute between the United States and Spain over these issues.  Subsequently, American merchants were granted the “right of deposit,” or the use of Spanish ports and storage areas in New Orleans.  Spain revoked the Pinckney Accord in 1798, but it was later reinstated by a new colonial administrator.

The power and influence of France returned after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who secretly induced a reluctant King Charles IV of Spain to cede Louisiana back to France.  In this negotiation, Spain insisted that France agree never to alienate the territory to a third power[6].  The Treaty of San Ildefonso (1801) gave France the commercially significant port of New Orleans and control of the mouth of the Mississippi River.  When existence of the treaty became known, it sparked unreasonable fear and distrust of France generally, and of Napoleon Bonaparte in particular.  Some Americans even feared a French invasion, or that Napoleon would free Negro slaves and/or incite a slave revolt.  It did not help matters that President Thomas Jefferson favored France in all things.  It created quite a stir in the United States.

Louisiana Purchase 1803

Louisiana Purchase, 1803

After discovering France’s re-acquisition of Louisiana, Jefferson sent Robert Livingston to Paris and gave him the rather extraordinary power to purchase Louisiana from Napoleon.  Opening the negotiations was all Livingston was able to accomplish in 1802.  In the next year, Jefferson sent James Monroe to France with two sets of instructions: first, settle the matter of Louisiana with France, and second, should the talks fail, proceed to the United Kingdom and open an Anglo-American alliance.  Today, there are good reasons to believe that the likelihood of a renewed war with Great Britain (and its financial burden), may have prompted Napoleon to sell the entire Louisiana Territory.  The negotiation that followed with Franƈois, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, then serving as minister of the French treasury, proceeded quickly.

The United States agreed to pay $11.3 million outright for the territory, assume responsibility for claims of its citizens in the amount of $3.7 million, and make interest payments incidental to the final settlement —in total, $27.2 million.  Precisely what the United States had purchased was unclear, even to Congress.  The wording of the treaty was vague, and it did not firmly establish any territorial boundaries.  The treaty also did not provide assurances that western Florida was included as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and it did not delineate the southwest boundary.  American negotiators were fully aware of these deficiencies, apparently deciding that ambiguity best served America’s interests.

President Jefferson sought to resolve the issue of boundaries by commissioning the Meriwether Lewis and William Rodgers Clark Expedition[7], which lasted from 1804-06.  Its impact was substantial in matters of geography, science, and relations with native populations.  It opened new territory for the fur and lumber trade, made recommendations concerning the best locations for future settlements, areas most suitable for farming, and set into motion an increase in the number of states within the United States.

The Dakota Territory consisted of the northernmost part of the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the southernmost part of Rupert’s Land, which was acquired in 1818[8].  The name Dakota comes from the Dakota branch of the native American Sioux tribes that occupied the area at the time of its acquisition.  The Dakota Territory was formerly part of Minnesota and Nebraska territories.

Minnesota became a state in 1858.  The land between the Missouri river and Minnesota’s western boundary remained unorganized.  The Yankton Treaty ceded much of what had been Sioux Indian land to the United States later that year.  Three years later, President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s cousin by marriage, J. B. S. Todd, vigorously lobbied for territory status.  When granted, the Dakota Territory included much of present-day Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and a small portion of present-day Nebraska.

Rumors of gold deposits in the Dakotas persisted for many years.  Some of these rumors were connected to Spanish expeditions of much earlier times.  Then, in the 1860s, a Catholic priest named Pierre-Jean De Smet, a man dedicated to taking the word of God to native American populations, reported seeing Sioux Indians carrying gold, and when he questioned them about it, the Indians told him that it came from the Black Hills.

Lakota Sioux 002

Lakota Sioux

In 1868, the United States opened negotiations with the Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brule bands of the Lakota Sioux, Yanktonai Dakota Sioux, and the Arapaho Nation.  It was a re-negotiation of the failed treaty of 1851.  The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 established the Great Sioux Reservation, including ownership of the Black Hills, and set aside additional lands as “un-ceded Indian Territory” in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska.  According to this treaty, the United States government would retain the authority to punish whites who committed crimes against Indian tribes and tribal members who committed crimes against the whites were to be handed over to the United States government.  The US government agreed to abandon forts along the Bozeman Trail, but retained some presence as a law enforcement arm to keep white settlers out of the area.  As with most government treaties with native Americans, this treaty was seriously flawed.  For example, in making its agreement with the Lakota Sioux[9], the US broke an existing treaty with the Ponca people.

In August 1873, an Army column of 1,300 men under Colonel Davis S. Stanley marched into the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party from Lakota war parties.  The Lakota Sioux ferociously protected their lands from foreign encroachment —it did not matter whether it involved white settlers or other Indian bands.  Stanley’s command included the 7th US Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

Stanley camped near the mouth of Sunday Creek, a tributary to the Yellowstone River.  Early in the morning on 4 August, the column moved to the northwest side of Yellowstone Hill along the south fork of Sunday Creek.  Captain George W. Yates led a troop of cavalry to accompany surveyors along the southeast side of the hill along the Yellowstone River.

Custer G A 001

LtCol George A. Custer, USA

Custer, with two companies (88 men, five officers, and a few Indian scouts), scouted to the west, ahead of Stanley’s main column.  Custer led his men along the top of Yellowstone Hill and then descended a steep buffalo trail on to a broad grass covered flood plain.  Custer spotted a wooded area two miles to the west that he believed suitable for Stanley’s main camp.  While resting his men, Sioux scouts from Sitting Bull’s village spotted Custer and sent word back asking for reinforcements.  Within a few hours, 300 Indians hid in a second wood west of Custer’s position.

Custer’s lookouts spotted a small band of Indians approaching the cavalry’s grazing horses and sounded an alarm.  Custer ordered his men to saddle up and led and advance element in pursuit of Indian horsemen.  Custer was not smart enough to realize that the Sioux were leading him into a trap.  He soon found himself galloping away from the wooded area with around 300 Indians in pursuit of him and his meager force.

Reinforced, Custer established a perimeter defense in the woods of his earlier rest; the Sioux laid siege with little effect.  About an hour later, fifty Indians attempted to flank the cavalry’s defense.  Spotted, the Indians drew fire and withdrew.  Then the Indians set fire to the grass hoping to use the smoke as a screen to approach the cavalry’s position, but Custer used the smoke to move closer to the Indian force; the tactic did not favor either side.  The siege continued for another three hours in temperatures approaching 110 degrees.

Known to history as the Battle of Honsinger Bluff (near present-day Miles City, Montana), each side lost one man killed in action.  White true the Lakota made the first move, there can be no doubt that the Army’s actions provoked it.

In the summer of 1874, Custer led a large expedition of about 1,000 troops, scientists, and reporters into the Black Hills.  Ostensibly, he was there to explore the region and establish a military post from which he could control the Indians who refused to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.  His real purpose, however, is revealed by the number of geologists in his party.  It was to discover areas of the Black Hills that were suitable for mining gold.

When geologists finally discovered gold on French Creek, Custer made sure journalists reported the find in their respective newspapers.  In effect, French Creek produced only a smidgeon of gold but that didn’t matter to Custer.  The word was already out: gold in the black hills.  The search for gold continued northward.  Mining camps and towns sprung up along the way: Hill City, Sheridan, Pactola.  A bonanza of gold eluded the men until they quite accidentally stumbled across Deadwood Gulch and Whitewood Creek.

Deadwood 003There is no question that the settlement at Deadwood Gulch was an illegal encroachment on Sioux lands.  The gold-seekers were squatters, but this did not discourage them from fighting among themselves for land that didn’t belong to them.  The mining town established at Deadwood Gulch, later named Deadwood, South Dakota, quickly reached a population of around 5,000; in two years, 25,000 people resided there, and they weren’t all miners.  Some were, of course, but most were businessmen —and they were the only class of resident who made any money in the long term.  Included in the term businessmen were dry goods stores, mining supply stores, flop houses, steak houses, and saloons.  Gathering in the saloons were gamblers, prostitutes, and gunfighters.  The demand for women was such that enterprising madams opened brothels, Dora Dufran[10] and Mollie Johnson among them.

Deadwood became an old west version of Sodom and Gomorrah; it was a den of iniquity where murders occurred every day and justice only an illusion.  During the evening of 1 August 1878, a fellow known locally as “Broken Nose” Jack McCall stumbled into a saloon owned by Nuttal & Mann[11] and began to observe a poker game in progress at a nearby table.  “Stumble” is the right word because Jack was one of many town drunks.  Drinking and gambling is what Jack did for a living.

When a seat opened at the table, Jack plopped himself down and joined the game.  Jack’s problems were three: he was drunk, out of money, and a lousy gambler.  After a few hands, Jack McCall lost all his money.  One of the gamblers at the table took pity on Jack.  He offered McCall some money for breakfast and along with that, some good advice.  He suggested that Jack give up gambling until he was able to cover his losses.  To everyone at the table, this seemed like good advice —but a pearl of wisdom that McCall might have figured out for himself.  The good Samaritan was a professional gambler, sometimes lawman, and a gun fighter by the name of James Butler Hickok, who everyone simply called “Wild Bill.”  Jack McCall accepted Hickok’s money, but according to those present, men who later became witnesses, Jack was embarrassed and felt as if he’d been insulted.

During the afternoon of 2 August 1878, Hickok was again sitting at the table gambling, his back to the door (which was odd because Hickok always situated himself where he could see the doorway).  Still drunk, Jack McCall entered the saloon, walked up behind Hickok and shot him in the back of the head with a single action .45 revolver.  It might have been ruled an accidental shooting had Jack not said, loud enough for other to hear, “Damn you!  Take that!”  McCall then stumbled out of the saloon and attempted to steal a horse tethered nearby.  Jack was so drunk that he couldn’t mount the animal and nearby townspeople quickly apprehended him.

On 3 August, a quickly assembled jury of miners and lock shopkeepers took two hours to listen to the testimony of witnesses.  One might think that the trial might end with a slam-dunk guilty verdict, but a jury of his peers declared McCall “not guilty.”  Wild Bill Hickok was not very popular with some folks in Deadwood, South Dakota.  Ordinarily, a not guilty verdict would have been enough to send young Jack McCall on his way, but there were some folks in town who thought the verdict was a miscarriage of justice.  McCall murdered Hickok, plain and simple.

There was a problem with the trial.  Deadwood, South Dakota didn’t officially exist.  The town was not chartered within the federal jurisdiction of the Dakota Territory, its courts were illegal, and any decision rendered by a Deadwood court was ipso facto null and void.

Jack McCall was many things, but bright wasn’t one of them.  In Yankton, the federal capital of the Dakota Territory, Jack bragged about killing Hickok and getting away with it.  Federal marshals re-arrested Jack and the federal attorney secured a grand jury indictment for murder in the first degree.  There was no double-jeopardy because the Deadwood court didn’t officially exist.  Jack went to trail in a federal court.  It wasn’t a long trial, but it did end in a conviction for murder, as charged.  Jack McCall met his end on 1 March 1877, aged 24.  At the hour of his demise, Jack McCall was stone-cold sober[12].

Following the Battle of the Little Big Horn (late June 1876), where George A. Custer received his comeuppance, Major General George Crook relied upon the shopkeepers of Deadwood as his primary source of re-supply while pursuing the Sioux Indians responsible for Custer’s defeat.  Crook’s expedition against the Sioux became known as the Horse meat March, because his troops were forced to eat their horses and mules.  In August, a smallpox epidemic swept through Deadwood, infecting 60% of the town, with half of those dying from the disease.  The epidemic may also explain why General Crook kept elements of his command away from the diseased town and why his expedition was so poorly provisioned.

In October 1877, the Homestake Mine began extracting gold and continued to do so until its closure in 2002.  Today the mine serves as a popular tourist attraction.  Two years later, in 1879, a fire destroyed more than 300 of Deadwood’s buildings.  Combined with the smallpox epidemic, the massive fire was too much for many folks and large numbers of people started moving away in search of a new beginning.  Those who remembered the fire of 1879 lived through another one in 1959.  This fire destroyed 4,500 acres and prompted a mandatory evacuation of the entire city.  Three years later, for whatever reason, Deadwood, South Dakota was designated a National Historic Landmark.  I cannot imagine why anyone should want to remember the history of such a tawdry town or a people.

Americans tend to think about history as something that happened a hundred or so years ago.  It makes me laugh.  There is a cathedral in Worcester, England (my wife’s hometown) that began construction in 630 A.D.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with this article beyond illustrating real history from a comparatively recent event.  I laugh too whenever I see a welcome sign to some small town in the Western United States: Welcome of Chester, Montana.  Established 1920.


[1] Washington was no rabble-rouser.  Beginning in 1688, the French had been urging native-Americans to attack British settlements and trappers along the western edge of the British colonies.  In the colonies, these confrontations were known as Beaver Wars and the French and Indian Wars.  Washington’s mission was aimed at locating and chastising French troublemakers.

[2] In case you missed it, the man who would become the United States’ first president started the world’s first “world war.”

[3] In the Treaty of Paris, Louisiana was divided at the Mississippi River; the eastern half ceded to Great Britain and the western half (and New Orleans) nominally retained by France.  Spain never contested Britain’s control of eastern Louisiana as the Spanish already knew that they would control western Louisiana.

[4] Ceded to Spain in a secret accord known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762.  French colonists, however, did not readily accept this transition and in a rebellion in 1768, expelled the Spanish governor.  The rebellion was suppressed, and the Spanish flag was raised for the first time in 1769.

[5] Wilkinson was on the Spanish payroll —a spy— to keep the Spanish governor in New Orleans informed Washington policies and likely courses of action given one or another set of circumstances.  In 1784, Wilkinson initiated a clandestine effort to separate the Kentucky territory from Virginia and arranged with the Spanish governor to grant Kentucky a trade monopoly on the Mississippi.  All of these things he did to benefit himself, of course.

[6] Spain was fully aware that the United States had eyes on the western territories, including Texas.

[7] Lewis (1774-1809) and Clark (1770-1838), also known as the Corps of Discovery, explored the Louisiana Purchase territory, established trade with native Americans, and claimed the Pacific Northwest and Oregon country.  They also collected scientific data and recorded useful information about native peoples.  For an excellent historical novel of the Clark family and the westward exploration of the Louisiana territory, I recommend From Sea to Shining Sea: A Novel by James Alexander Thom.

[8] Rupert’s Land (also, Prince Rupert’s Land) was a territory in British North America comprising the Hudson Bay drainage basin, operated by the Hudson Bay Company from 1670-1870.  Prince Rupert was a nephew of Charles I and the first governor of the Hudson Bay Company.  A small portion of this land included the Dakota Territory.

[9] In US v. Sioux Nation of Indians (448 US 371) (1980) the Supreme Court held that the enactment by Congress of a law allowing the Sioux Nation to pursue a claim against the United States that had been previous adjudicated did not violate the doctrine of separation of powers and that the taking of property that was set aside for the use of the tribe required just compensation, including interest.  The Sioux Indians never accepted the legitimacy of forced deprivation of the Black Hills Reservation.  The court awarded the Sioux Indians $1 billion in compensation, which they have refused to accept.  Instead, they want their land returned to them.

[10] Dufran was born Amy Helen Dorothy Bolshaw (1868-1934) was a leading and one of the most successful madams of the Old West.  She was born in Liverpool, England and moved with her parents to Bloomfield, NJ around 1869.  She moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1876.  An extremely good- looking young woman, she became a prostitute at the age of 13.  When prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills, Dora moved there, promoted herself to madam, and opened her first brothel.  She was 15 years old.

[11] The original saloon burned to the ground in 1879.  A clothing store was constructed at the site in 1898, later replaced by a beer hall, an inn, and a casino.  Today the establishment is known as “Wild Bill’s Trading Post.”

[12] The murder of Hickok and the capture of McCall is re-enacted every summer evening in Deadwood.  I’m not sure why.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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6 Responses to The Dakotas

  1. Quite a far-ranging informative post.
    I appreciate the effort you put into linking your footnotes.


  2. kidme37 says:

    I bring these up and think – well, this looks like a long one, but I’m usually hooked after a couple paragraphs. What a crazy bunch of people some of these were. I am now imagining people of the future reading stories of crazy LaShawn in the ‘hood’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Thanks, Kid … these tend to be “long” because I want to make sure everyone reading get’s the entire picture and that sometimes demands more detail as a backdrop. But I thank you for your patience and perseverance.


  3. bunkerville says:

    Always wanted to visit the Dakotas… but so far “off the beaten path.” Thanks for the trip and history.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Andy says:

    Very informative and entertaining. While U.S. history may not have the longevity of European countries, I think you’ve shown that the early settlers of the Americas were every bit as colorful and interesting as their ancestors across the oceans.

    Keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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