The Black Hills (Ȟe Sápa; Moʼȯhta-voʼhonáaeva; awaxaawi shiibisha) are a small and isolated mountain range rising from the Great Plains of North America in western South Dakota and extending into Wyoming, United States. Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak), which rises to 7,244 feet (2,208 m), is the range’s highest summit. The Black Hills encompass the Black Hills National Forest. The name “Black Hills” is a translation of the Lakota Pahá Sápa. The hills were so-called because of their dark appearance from a distance, as they were covered in trees.
Native Americans have a long history in the Black Hills. After conquering the Cheyenne in 1776, the Lakota took the territory of the Black Hills, which became central to their culture. In 1868, the U.S. government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, establishing the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri River, and exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. However, when settlers discovered gold there in 1874, as a result of George Armstrong Custer’s Black Hills Expedition, miners swept into the area in a gold rush. The US government took the Black Hills and in 1889 reassigned the Lakota, against their wishes, to five smaller reservations in western South Dakota, selling off 9 million acres of their former land. Unlike most of South Dakota, the Black Hills were settled by European Americans primarily from population centers to the west and south of the region, as miners flocked there from earlier gold boom locations in Colorado and Montana.
As the economy of the Black Hills has shifted from natural resources (mining and timber) since the late 20th century, the hospitality and tourism industries have grown to take its place. Locals tend to divide the Black Hills into two areas: “The Southern Hills” and “The Northern Hills”. The Southern Hills is home to Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Black Elk Peak (the highest point in the United States east of the Rockies, formerly and still more commonly known as Harney Peak), Custer State Park (the largest state park in South Dakota), the Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, the world’s largest mammoth research facility.
Attractions in the Northern Hills include Spearfish Canyon, historic Deadwood, and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held each August. The first Rally was held on August 14, 1938, and the 75th Rally in 2015 saw more than one million bikers visit the Black Hills. Devils Tower National Monument, located in the Wyoming Black Hills, is an important nearby attraction and was the United States’ first national monument.
Although the written history of the region begins with the Sioux domination of the land over the native Arikara tribes, researchers have carbon-dating and stratigraphic records to analyze the early history of the area. Scientists have been able to utilize carbon-dating to evaluate the age of tools found in the area, which indicate a human presence that dates as far back as 11,500 BC with the Clovis culture. Stratigraphic records indicate environmental changes in the land, such as flood and drought patterns. For example, large-scale flooding of the Black Hill basins occurs at a probability rate of 0.01, making such floods occur once in every 100 years. However, during The Medieval Climate Anomaly, or the Medieval Warm Period, flooding increased in the basins. A stratigraphic record of the area shows that during these 400 years, thirteen 100-year floods occurred in four of the region’s basins, while the same four basins from the previous 800 years only experienced nine floods.
Early-Modern human settlement
The Arikara arrived by AD 1500, followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Pawnee. The Lakota (also known as Sioux) arrived from Minnesota in the 18th century and drove out the other tribes, who moved west. They claimed the land, which they called Ȟe Sápa (Black Mountains). The mountains commonly became known as the Black Hills.
François and Louis de La Vérendrye probably traveled near the Black Hills in 1743. Fur trappers and traders had some dealings with the Native Americans.
European Americans increasingly encroached on Lakota territory. After being defeated by the Lakota Sioux, the United States government made peace under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, establishing the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri River and acknowledging their control of the Teton range. In this treaty, they protected the Black Hills “forever” from a European-American settlement. Both the Sioux and Cheyenne also claimed rights to the land, saying that in their cultures, it was considered the axis mundi, or sacred center of the world.
Although rumors of gold in the Black Hills had circulated for decades, it was not until 1874 that Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer of the 7th US Cavalry led an expedition there and discovered gold in French Creek. An official announcement of gold was made by the newspaper reporters accompanying the expedition. The following year, the Newton-Jenney Party conducted the first detailed survey of the Black Hills. The surveyor for the party, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, was the first European American to ascend to the top of Black Elk Peak. This highest point in the Black Hills is 7,242 feet above sea level.
During the 1875–1878 gold rush, thousands of miners went to the Black Hills; in 1880, the area was the most densely populated part of the Dakota Territory. Three large towns developed in the Northern Hills: Deadwood, Central City, and Lead. Around these were groups of smaller gold camps, towns, and villages. Hill City and Custer City sprang up in the Southern Hills. Railroads were quickly constructed to the previously remote area. From 1880 on, the gold mines yielded about $4,000,000 annually, and the silver mines about $3,000,000 annually.
American conquest of the Black Hills
The conflict over control of the region sparked the Black Hills War (1876), also known as the Great Sioux War, the last major Indian War on the Great Plains. Following the defeat of the Lakota and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies in 1876, the United States took control of the Black Hills. The Lakota never accepted the validity of the US appropriation. They have continued to try to reclaim the property, and filed a suit against the federal government.
20th century land claims
On July 23, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken by the federal government and ordered remuneration of the initial offering price plus interest, nearly $106 million. The Lakota refused the settlement, as they wanted the Black Hills returned to them. The money remains in an interest-bearing account, which, as of 2015, amounts to over $1.2 billion, but the Lakota still refuse to take the money. They believe that accepting the settlement would allow the US government to justify taking ownership of the Black Hills.