BLACK HILLS, a group of mountains in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. The hills were formed by an upthrust of rock dating to the Archean geologic eon through the overlying strata to a maximum height of 7,242 feet above sea level. Harney Peak, the highest point, is the granite core of the upthrust. From the surrounding prairie through the foothills to Harney Peak, each stratum rises in regular order, from shales to gypsum, sandstone, schists, limestones, and granite. As they fold back, these layers afford an unusual opportunity to study the geological formations underlying the region.
The major rivers in the area include the Belle Fourche and the Cheyenne. Most of the forest and timberlands in South Dakota cover the Black Hills region and lie within the Black Hills National Forest. In addition, the area contains one of the nation's largest bison herds. The Black Hills region produces a number of minerals, including gold, silver, lead, copper, iron ore, tin, petroleum, salt, coal, mica, and gypsum.
The Black Hills became part of the Great Sioux Reservation by terms defined in the Laramie Treaty of 1868. However, gold was discovered in the hills in 1874 by miners accompanying General George Custer's expedition. The federal government sought to protect Indian rights to the Black Hills until a new treaty could withdraw those rights. When the Sioux refused to give up the Black Hills, the United States opened the region to gold miners, who rushed to Sioux land seeking the precious metal. The miners first assembled at Custer, South Dakota, where fifteen thousand passed the winter of 1875 to 1876. When gold was found in Deadwood Gulch, there was a stampede from Custer to the new diggings early in 1876, and Deadwood quickly became the most exciting and picturesque gold camp on the continent. The diggings at that time were entirely in placer gravel, but before autumn the Homestake gold mine had been established at Lead and had passed into the hands of San Francisco capitalists. The Homestake mine was developed and for over one hundred years yielded fabulous sums.
The invasion of gold miners led to the Black Hills War, the high point of which was the destruction of Custer's army by the Sioux and Cheyenne on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in June 1876. The Indians lost the war, however, and in 1877 the U.S. government forced a treaty of relinquishment and established a civil government in the region.
In 1925 the Black Hills were chosen as the site for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This $1 million enterprise was a massive sculpture carved into granite on the southeast-facing side of Mount Rushmore, northeast of Harney Peak. The memorial depicts the heads of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. It stands five hundred feet above the valley floor, and each president's head stands sixty feet tall. The region is also the site of Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave and Devils Tower National Monuments.
The Black Hills remain an area of conflict today. The Sioux continue to fight to regain lands taken by the United States in the 1870s. In 1973 a group of Oglala Sioux and American Indian Movement (AIM) activists seized the town of Wounded Knee and demanded that the U.S. Senate investigate reservation living conditions and honor treaties made in the past. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that the Sioux be paid about $106 million compensation for the seizing of their Black Hills lands. This has complicated the issue for the Sioux, many of whom reject the reparations because they want the Black Hills returned to them.
Geores, Martha. Common Ground: The Struggle for Ownership of the Black Hills National Forest. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.
Lee, Robert. Fort Meade and the Black Hills. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Parker, Watson. Gold in the Black Hills. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
Peattie, Roderick. The Black Hills. American Mountain Series. New York: Vanguard Press, 1952.