Reconnaissance mission into the Black Hills in 1874 — North Dakota State Quarter Coin

Today, the North Dakota State Quarter Coin remembers when Custer led an expedition out of Fort Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1874 to explore the Black Hills.

From the Pahasapa Quarterly of February 1921:


The Custer Expedition, by command of Brigadier General Terry, was organized at Fort Abraham Lincoln, “for the purpose of reconnoitering the route from that post to Bear Butte in the Black Hills, and exploring the country south, southeast and southwest of that point.”

Lieutenant Colonel G. A. Custer, of the Seventh Cavalry, was assigned to the command.

In view of the fact that the Black Hills seemed likely to become a strategic point in the control of the Sioux Indians, Custer, later known as General Custer, arranged in so far as possible to connect his route with the reconnaissance route earlier laid out to the Hills from Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

The party consisted of ten companies of Cavalry, two companies of Infantry, scientific observers. a detachment of Indian Scouts, together with the necessary guides, interpreters and teamsters, in all about one thousand men, together with one hundred ten wagons and ambulances, three gatlings and a three-inch rifle.

They left Fort Abraham Lincoln, situated on the Missouri River, near the present city of Bismarck. N. D., July 2, 1874.

They went southwestwardly, crossing Heart River, north and south forks of the Cannon Ball, thence nearly westward to the north fork of Grand River, thence southwest to the Cave Hills.

From the Cave Hills their route lead southwesterly between the Short Pine Hills to the Valley of the Little Missouri.

The following day, July 19, they reached the Belle Fourche River, having marched two hundred ninety-two miles, an average of eighteen and a quarter miles per day.

They entered the Hills on the following day and the official report records their feeling as follows:

“The change from the hot dried up landscape north of the Belle Fourche was wonderful, the temperature was delightful, the air laden with sweet wild odors, the grass knee deep and exceedingly luxuriant and fresh, while wild cherries, blue berries and goose berries abounded as well as many varieties of flowers. All of these advantages, combined with that of an abundance of pure cold water. were ours, with rare exceptions, until the final departure from the Hills.”

They passed up Red Water Valley and over toward Inyan Kara, which peak they ascended July 23.

From here the expedition travelled southwest, passing through what they called Floral Valley along an old voyageur pack trail and Indian Lodge trail; continuing in a southwesterly direction, they passed down Castle Creek, crossed over to French Creek and reached the vicinity of the present site of Custer, July 30.

Here the party remained for one week.

General Custer and others ascended Harney Peak, the prospectors hunted for gold, and one party made a side trip to the southwest, reaching the Cheyenne River, near the present town of Edgemont, while another party went southeasterly along French Creek, intending to reach the Cheyenne River in that direction.

They encountered difficulties along French Creek Canyon, and returned without having reached the river.

Camp was broken August 6 for the return trip.

Retracing their route to near the limestone escarpment, they turned northward across Elk Horn Prairie, now known as Reynolds Prairie, across the south fork and the north fork of Rapid Creek and the head branches of Boxelder to the head waters of Elk Creek, designated by them as Bear Creek, thence back again to Boxelder Creek and out into the Red Valley.

Concerning the many streams they had seen, the report says:

“We were continually looking for trout in these streams, which seemed as though made expressly for that fish, which requires an unfailing flow of cold pure water. There could be no finer trout streams in the world than these were they once stocked. As it was, we found nothing but some small chub and a species of sucker of perhaps a pound weight.”

Going northward for a few miles along the Red Valley, they turned eastward through the Hog Back Ridge to the prairie on the east and then northward toward Bear Butte, camping on the evening of August 14 on Bear Butte Creek.

On the following day, August 15, a party ascended Bear Butte. This Butte, even in that early day, was a well known land mark.

Lieutenant Warren had spent a week here in 1859, during which time several members of his party, ascended it, and Professor Hayden, the Geologist, had climbed the peak as early as March 9, 1855.

On August 16, passing to the east of the Butte, and in a nearly north direction, the expedition crossed the Cheyenne River on the return journey.

They reached Fort Abraham Lincoln on August 30, the sixtieth day of the trip.

The wagon train had travelled eight hundred and eighty-three miles. and, adding the various reconnaissances, the total number of miles surveyed was twelve hundred and five.

The Indians on more than one occasion hindered by burning over large areas of prairie, and the grass-hoppers, then so prevalent, threatened at times a serious interference.

We must bear in mind that the expedition was in the days when Indian trouble was impending and when the broad prairies, undulating like the sea, were wholly devoid of white habitation.

The report gives little encouragement for the thousands of ranches and farms which now contribute their wealth to the country’s progress, but much is said concerning the exquisite beauty and evidence future value of the Black Hills.

Frequent allusion is made to the luxuriant grasses of the mountain streams, the gorgeous floral covering of the numerous stream valleys, and the abundance of game of various kinds.


The North Dakota State Quarter Coin shows with an image of the Custer Expedition’s camp on Hiddenwood Creek, circa 1874.

North Dakota State Quarter Coin