The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to Little Bighorn
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2015, 336 pages
Book Review published on: May 25, 2017
“They may, more correctly, be denominated domestic dependent nations. They occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will.” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s comments perfectly capture the schism between America’s western expansion in 1870 and the Native Americans who owned the land and were also in the way. Terry Mort’s well-documented and well-written book tells the compelling story of Gen. George Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills against the backdrop of the Grant administration’s need to repay war bonds to revitalize the economy, government corruption and the Northern Pacific railroad, and the white settlers who eventually encroached on the Sioux Indians and their cherished Black Hills.
Mort’s scholarly work begins with the United States struggling under the weight of debt following the Civil War. He describes newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts to pay off bonds issued during the war. Advised by the Treasury Department to use “greenbacks” to repay government bonds, Grant rejects their advice in favor of maintaining the gold standard in order “to protect the national honor every dollar of government indebtedness should be paid in gold” to “go far to strengthen a credit which ought to be the best in the world.” Grant’s insistence on backing U.S. currency by gold and discovery of gold in the unsettled west set the conditions for Custer’s foray into the Black Hills.
The most compelling part of Thieves’ Road is Mort’s account of the Custer expedition’s discovery of a Lakota Sioux village in the midst of what accompanying Chicago Inter Ocean correspondent Samuel Barrows described as “paradise.” Mort uses this part of his book to juxtapose the importance of the Black Hills to white settlers and Native Americans. For settlers, possession of the Black Hills was “the next step in the advance of civilization and its agreed-upon values of labor and wealth.” For the Lakota (Sioux) the Black Hills “represented nature’s bounty and were therefore perfect as they were and needed no help from humans.”
In between Mort’s description of the Grant administration’s economic woes and Custer’s travels in the Black Hills is Mort’s account of corruption that plagued Congress and the federal Indian Bureau. Both events are important to understanding how the United States encouraged white settlers to move west. As white settlers encroached Indian Territory, increased attacks on settlers led to increased protection by the military. This gave the government an excuse to build forts in order to protect settlers, leading to increasingly more settlers trespassing on Indian land. Additionally, the same series of forts provided Custer a base of operations to launch his expedition to find Black Hills gold.
Scholars of American and Native American history and Custer would find this book both informative and engaging.
Book Review written by: Michel E. Weaver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas