The strange and mysterious Black Hills were mentioned in journals kept by trappers and explorers as early as the 1600s, but none admitted their desire to examine them more closely.

Likewise, Lewis and Clark made reference to the Black Hills in their journey to locate a passage to the “Western sea” in 1804.

Custer Expedition Stereograph:  This expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 began the first documented history of the area. Lt. Col. George A. Custer poses with his first grizzly bear in this William Illingworth photo. See our PastPerfect page to see the whole series of stereographs.

Custer Expedition Stereograph: This expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 began the first documented history of the area. Lt. Col. George A. Custer poses with his first grizzly bear in this William Illingworth photo. See our PastPerfect page to see the whole series of stereographs.

Lt. Colonel George A. Custer and a party of 1,000 soldiers and civilians made a reconnaissance of the county for surveying and mapping purposes in 1874.

Things did not look good in 1874; a financial panic the year before ruined many—plunging the country into monetary crisis and depression. Midwestern families were destitute and nearing starvation from a scourge of grasshoppers that destroyed their crops and livelihoods. Desperate times were still ahead for these people—many of whom were immigrants who landed on America’s shores with little but a dream of better times.

Railroads had been inching across the continent—competing with each other. They hoped to unite speculators with the lucrative Far East shipping trade supplying California’s gold rush. Gold was subsequently found in Nevada, Colorado and Montana, and railroad companies, hoping to cash in on this bonanza, pushed on along northern, central and southern routes.

The financially-burdened Northern Pacific Railroad reached the new settlement of Bismarck, Dakota Territory about this time. Fort Abraham Lincoln had been recently constructed nearby to keep law and order on the new frontier, and the railroad hoped to recover its losses by shipping tons of supplies to both sites, and to makeshift towns along the way.

Finding gold where railroad tracks could reach suppliers was a dream realized, when Indians at Fort Laramie unwittingly displayed gold nuggets they claimed were found near the Black Hills. Within weeks, a cash-strapped government that had railroad connections sent Custer and company exploring.

As the cry of “Gold!” echoed around the world, thousands flocked to the Black Hills. Tent cities appeared overnight, bringing the innocents and the usual number of card sharks, shootists and unsavory characters.

Seth Bullock:  The first Sheriff of Lawrence County, Dakota Territory. This Derringer pistol was a gift from Bullock to James Halley II, who was the first telegraph operator in the Black Hills.

Seth Bullock: The first Sheriff of Lawrence County, Dakota Territory. This Derringer pistol was a gift from Bullock to James Halley II, who was the first telegraph operator in the Black Hills.

At Deadwood, Custer City and Hill City, bustling communities had been established. Smaller camps sprouted overnight throughout the Black Hills, as eager miners followed creek beds they hoped would make them rich. On August 2, 1876, Rev. Henry Weston Smith was killed outside of Deadwood by unknown assailants.

Lawlessness was rampant in many parts of the Black Hills. Parties who were known to be traveling with money and valuables were son relieved of them by gangs of “highwaymen.”

Rapid City, founded February 25, 1876 along Rapid Creek, had a small population at first, though it was already being hailed as “the new Denver.” Primarily a stage coach rest station and hay-producing district, hotels and businesses sprung up to serve the needs of travelers on their way to mine for gold the Black Hills.

News of nearby Indian raids in mid-August, 1876 emptied a panicked Rapid City from 208 souls to just 19 overnight. Those who remained constructed a 30 foot by 30 foot blockhouse in the center of town and pressed on. Months passed, however, before the “new Denver” would regain its former population.

Fort Meade was built near Bear Butte in 1878 to keep law and order on the frontier. The army protected the citizenry from themselves, and also from the now irate Sioux, who resented encroachment onto lands that had been part of the Great Sioux Reservation ceded to them in 1868.

Cattle empires were created on the prairies surrounding the Black Hills during this period and lasted until the early part of the 1900s. The Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad first reached Rapid City in 1886, with shipping points for cattle along the way. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad arrived in Rapid City from the east in 1907, bringing carloads of homesteaders who shortly afterward began fencing off range-lands. The days of South Dakota’s cattle kingdoms were soon over.

Branding Scene on a Stock Ranch

Branding Scene on a Stock Ranch

Be a part of this genuine Western experience while you straddle a specially-rigged antique saddle at the corral. Pretend you are riding the range with a roundup crew or hunting rustlers with a sheriff’s posse. Learn more about the legends of the Old West when you travel through The Journey Museum & Learning Center.

By the mid-1800s, numerous cultural refinements and social gatherings were commonplace in Rapid City and throughout the Hills. Though a new American lifestyle was emerging, European and other influences remained noticeably visible.

During this decade, a flour mill, brick factory, cigar factory and broom factory were going strong not far from Rapid Creek. By 1883, most Black Hills Residents believed a school of mines was necessary to serve the needs of the growing industry. Many, especially those in Keystone or Deadwood, believed the school should be near the mines and mills. Others believed the school would do just as well providing education opportunities for students in Rapid City, away from the negative influence of the mining camps. Both sides battled briefly, laying out their case for hosting the institution. Then, in 1885, the Territorial Legislature awarded Rapid City the school. The institution was to retain elements of the practical mission of furthering the industry in the region as well as education students in a number of subjects including chemistry, engineering, and geology. Tuition was free to “bonafide” residents of the territory - regardless of race or sex - and fees were established for performing assays, analyses and mill tests for the mining industry.

South Dakota School of Mines ca. 1890

South Dakota School of Mines ca. 1890

An early key focus of the School of Mines was to develop better ways to find, mine, and extract gold and other minerals from Black Hills ores. Toward this end, a plant to recover gold by the chorination process was build at the school in 1891, and a custom smelter was added in 1901. Both enterprises soon failed due to poor yields, but despite these early setbacks, “Mines” turned out top notch engineers, and was successful in innovating new mining, milling, and recovery processes that changed the industry.

The South Dakota Stockman’s Association (later called Stockgrowers) was founded in Rapid City’s infancy as one of two cattlemen’s organizations to oversee the industry. A Black Hills Horse Breeder’s Association was begun in 1891. During this period, several quality stallions—primarily of light draft or Arabian blood, were imported into the Black Hills region.

On the frontier, a good horse and a good gun were essential possessions of a life-saving nature, so it came as no surprise when three accused horse thieves were hung be vigilantes on “Hangman’s Hill” in Rapid City one day in June 1877.

As the 1880s drew to a close, many changes had taken place in the Black Hills. Following the death of Custer and his command at the hands of the Sioux and allied tribes at the Little Big Horn on June 24, 1876, the Sioux reluctantly gave up their claim to the Black Hills in 1877, and agreed to return to reservation life in exchange for the provisions promised in their treaties with the U.S. Government.

During this period America was on the move. The Dawes Act of 1887 divided Sioux lands into smaller reservations, promising aid for another twenty years. Further negotiations set aside three million dollars with accrued interest to be held in tribal trust, and the Sioux relinquished another 11 million acres that was now open to settlement.

People flocked to the region. European immigrants arrived by any type of boat that would see them passage for a chance to win land allotments on the former reserve.

In Nevada, a Paiute Indian named Wovoka began a native religious movement called the Ghost Dance, which claimed that military force would fail and the Indian would once more be free. News of this religion quickly reached the Sioux strongholds and caused a frenzy among the people. They put on ghost shirts which they believed would repel soldiers’ bullets, and danced until they fell from exhaustion.

Uncertain of other events surrounding the Ghost Dance—also referred to as the “Messiah Craze,” groups of citizen militia were formed to ease the fears of frightened homesteaders who felt Indian raids were getting bolder. A delegation was sent to arrest Sitting Bull for encouraging the Ghost Dance. The old warrior was accidentally killed during this attempt in December, 1890, causing other tribes to flee south in panic to Spotted Tail Agency. En route, Minniconjou chief Big Foot and his band were intercepted by soldiers. At Wounded Knee Creek, shooting began, killing men, women and children. This signaled the end of armed conflict between the Indian and the white man in Dakota.

Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy and his first beloved wife, Fanny

Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy and his first beloved wife, Fanny

Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy emerged as one of the most important early figures in the Black Hills, and later played a major role in the development of Rapid City. As a 26-year old doctor and mapmaker on the Newton-Jenny Expedition to the Black Hills in 1875, he located warm mineral springs in the southern Hills and was the first known person to climb to the top of Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak). Banker and founder of Dakota Power Company in Rapid City, Surgeon General of South Dakota, President of South Dakota School of Mines, Rapid City Mayor, and representative of the Statehood convention prior to November, 1889, McGillycuddy continued in public service until his death.

The Duhamel Collection of Historic Sioux Indian Art is displayed in the Minnilusa Pioneer Museum section of The Journey Museum. Peter Duhamel came to the United States from Montreal, Canada as a boy and worked his way across the West. By doctoring lame oxen he acquired, he soon had 19 good steers and built a successful freighting business in the Denver region. By 1879, Peter and Kate Duhamel had 1,000 cattle and drove them to Rapid City because grasshoppers had devastated their South Platte range in Colorado.

Duhamel had partners engaged in the cattle business for many years, then became involved in banking. In 1906, the Duhamel and Ackerman Hardware Company was founded, becoming Duhamel Company in 1909. The firm built fine saddles and harness for over half a century. Over the years, the Duhamel family amassed an extensive collection of fine Sioux handwork—much of it received in trade from reservation customers.

Quilled Bag from the Duhamel Collection. This large bag as an unusual row and star pattern and is trimmed with several drops, metal cones and tassels. Pine Ridge Reservation, circa 1900.

Quilled Bag from the Duhamel Collection. This large bag as an unusual row and star pattern and is trimmed with several drops, metal cones and tassels. Pine Ridge Reservation, circa 1900.

In 1985 Francis “Bud” and Helen Duhamel gifted the collection to the City of Rapid City and to the care of the Minnilusa Pioneer Museum.

Competitions were a matter of town pride to any Black Hills settlement. Annual events were usually attended by the entire populace. Fairs, stockmen’s days, Indian dancing, horse racing and parades were all times of anticipated celebration. Rapid City even had an “Alfalfa Palace.” Erected downtown in 1917 and 1918, the huge exposition building was entirely covered in native grasses which promoters felt represented the region’s agricultural wealth to the outside world.

Rapid City Hose, Hook, & Ladder Running Team, South Dakota Champions

Rapid City Hose, Hook, & Ladder Running Team, South Dakota Champions

As towns on the frontier grew, they were often at risk for fire. Thus began the tradition of hose companies, which were responsible for putting out fires in these growing towns. Rapid City’s hose companies were well known in the Black Hills for their speed and competitiveness. It is thanks to these men that many original Rapid City buildings still stand today.

In 1905, South Dakota businessman (later Governor and US Senator) Peter Norbeck made his first arduous automobile trip from the Missouri River to the Black Hills, following portions of the old Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail. Later, he conceived the idea of establishing a state game preserve park in Custer County, and decided to build better roads to and from the Black Hills. Norbeck championed the construction of the Needles and Iron Mountain Highways in the central Hills, personally walking and riding horseback through the area to help design the scenic routes travelers still enjoy to this day.

These scenic highways were later joined by the United States Highway System, as the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925 created a system for highways that increased traffic through and through the Black Hills. Tourism blossomed in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s as the roads and railroads provided easy access to unique attractions and lodgings specifically created to cater to visitors. Travelers came to see the carving known as Mount Rushmore, and all of the wondrous scenery and wildlife available in the Hills.

The landscape and weather of the Black Hills would prove good for more than tourism, however. In the early 1930’s, Major Kepner began investigating and area now known as the Stratobowl as a possible balloon launching site for new high altitude balloon flights. The site he chose, then known as Moonlit Valley, is a depression in the surrounding rocky slopes, with a picturesque flat floor. This spot provided good weather with little rain, and the shelter needed during balloon inflation.

Explorer I

Explorer I

The Stratobowl became a site for significant milestones in aviation and science. Most notable among these was the Explorer balloon flights, launched in the thirties by the National Geographic Society and the Army Air Corps. The Explorer I, a 3 million cubic foot hydrogen balloon, flew to an altitude of 60,613 feet in 1934, although Army Air Corps officers Albert W. Stevens, William E Kepner, and Orvil A. Anderson had to parachute to safety after the balloon ripped apart. In November 1935, the Explorer II, a 3.7 million cubic foot helium ballloon piloted by Explorer I veterans Stevens and Anderson, flew to an altitude of 72,395 feet, setting a world altitude record that would stand for 21 years, and eclipsing a recent record set by a Russian crew that perished in the attempt.

These flights brought back new information from our atmosphere about cosmic radiation, cosmic ray propagation, ozone concentrations, and the effect of high altitudes on living organisms and radio transmissions. In addition to these new findings, the flights brought back many photographs shot by aerial camera. These bold ascents into the stratosphere began the preparations that would eventually lead to a man in space.

The Minnilusa Historical Association traces its beginning to the West River Historical Society founded in 1935. From that era to the present, descendants of Rapid City’s first citizens have held office in the Minnilusa Historical Association. Minnilusa was the name chosen because it means “swift water,” the Lakota name for Rapid Creek.

In 1938, Rapid City government and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) collaborated on erecting a stone building to create a museum in Halley Park. Until both became a part of The Journey Museum, the Sioux Indian Museum was jointly housed with the Minnilusa collection.