War Papers

A. Ivins Comfort, Brevit Captain, Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers
Wisconsin Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
(May 2007)

It was the current belief among hunters, trappers, scouts and ranchmen plying their avocations along the valley of the Missouri River during the sixties and their subsequent decades that gold existed somewhere on the Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and the Black Hills were usually regarded as the locality. A number of attempts had been made to enter the region for the purpose of prospecting and exploring them, but every effort on the part of the white men for this purpose was most persistently opposed and thwarted by the entire Sioux nation. Lieut. G. K. Warren, of the Engineer Corps U. S. Army, subsequently General Warren, while on duty at Fort Randall, Dakota, made an attempt to explore the Black Hills in the fifties, which was resisted by the Sioux. The Black Hills to the red man were enchanted ground. They were sacred to Wakan, the supernatural, they were the blissful elysium of departed spirits.

It is a singular circumstance that the doctrine metempsychosis as taught by Pythagoras in the eastern hemisphere 530 years before the Christian era, is generally entertained to-day by the aboriginal inhabitants of the western continent. The bears, wolves, elks, deer and other animals inhabiting the Black Hills, in their belief, contain the reincarnated spirits of the ancestors of the aboriginees. For the same reason the fish of the San Juan River in Colorado are scrupulously guarded by the Navajoes.

Father DeSmet knew for many years where gold existed in the Black Hills, but he would not betray the confidence of his Indian informants. In the summer of 1874 an expedition of the Seventh Cavalry, under command of General Geo. A. Custer, entered the Black Hills and discovered the precious metal so abundant as to be found "adherent to the grass roots."

The policy of the administration was to prevent incursions of irresponsible parties into the Black Hills for the purpose of prospecting and mining or hunting; and, although the expedition of General Custer was authorized, a courier arrived at Fort A. Lincoln a few days after the departure of the command with a dispatch countermanding its authority, but the courier, with the recall, was too late, as the expedition was far advanced on the march, and beyond reach, for it was not then safe for a single courier or a small command to venture in the direction of the Black Hills. In the early part of the following winter the trail of a party of immigrants, making their way to the Black Hill region, was discovered by an Indian hunter. He reported at the Big Cheyenne Indian agency that the ashes of their camp fires were fresh, and the coals were still burning. Since his discovery, as he expressed it, he had had only one sleep, implying that he had traveled but two days.

On the 6th of December, 1874, a detachment of thirty mounted men, under the command of Capt. T. M. Tolman, 1st U. S. Infantry, accompanied by Maj. H. W. Bingham, the Indian agent and the writer of this paper, a guide and interpreter, and a number of Indian chiefs and scouts, left the agency in pursuit of the intruders. Passing a few tepees and some dilapidated scaffold sepulchers we were, at sunrise, on the third bench of the right bank of the Missouri. The soil was a dark pulverulent loam, bearing a scanty growth of buffalo and gramma grass, with a little wild sage, cactus and yucca; spots of white incrustation were occasionally encountered in shallow pools, from which the water had evaporated, constituting the much-dreaded "Alkali" of the western stockgrower.

As we advanced, at one time, a covey of grouse startled the leading horses of the command by the sudden whir of their wings; at another a jack rabbit, suddenly alarmed, sprang from his lair and went tripping across the prairie, seeking safer quarters. At another a single coyote went galloping past, casting stealthy glances over his shoulder at our little column. We passed Paha-Ta-Najin-Buttes, and camped at a dry creek bearing the same name. Our tents were pitched, our wagons parked and animals so secured as to render a stampede impossible. While we camped upon the open prairie our Indian allies ensconced their single tepee among the willows skirting the margins of the creek. Scarcely were our tents pitched when the sentinel on post announced the approach of Indians; soon their familiar song, "Heya! Heya! Heya!" uttered with a peculiar wild, weird glide of the voice, was recognized by our guide as the song of some friendly chiefs, who, by previous understanding, were to approach our camp singing, that they might be distinguished from hostiles. Upon their arrival they halted and dismounted, seated themselves upon the ground and passed the red pipe --- stone pipe well filled with kinnikinic, or the bark of the red willow --- from one to one; soon they were joined by other Indians, already in camp, the circle was enlarged and still the pipe passed around. On the following morning, ere it was fairly light, a huge black cloud, standing about thirty degrees above the horizon, was observed, slowly making its way eastward. Watauhala, as the Indians called our guide, and a number of the chiefs resorted to conjuration, or "making medicine," as they term it, to dispel the cloud, and when they had finished, they assured us that we would have a fine day, and as it vanished it proved to be a cloud with a silver lining.

The condition of the weather was a matter of extreme solicitude to Itancian, as the Indian chiefs called our captain, as well as to the whole command, for should we be caught in a snow storm without wood and water or encounter a Dakota blizzard it threatened death to a large per cent of the command. Near midday as Watauhala and I were ascending a hill considerably in advance of the command, he thrice repeated the word, whist! whist! whist! in a whisper so familiar to Indian hunters in quest of game, dodge behind his horse, dismounted and passed me the reins. I made a slight descent of the hill, the better to conceal myself and the horses. With rifle in hand and without a word of explanation he made a rapid detour around the hill and disappeared. After waiting some time in suspense, I observed a wolf scampering across the prairie a mile or more distant, presently another appeared within a few yards of me, and at last, a third; finally Watauhala himself returned and informed me that the last wolf had alarmed a single antelope, lying in a ravine; he had crawled four hundred yards to obtain a shot; and but for the wolf would have secured his prey.

On the evening of December 8th we encamped on Plum Creek, with an abundance of wood and water, our circumstances presenting a marked contrast with the numerous dry camps of our previous journey.

Our Indian allies had anticipated our arrival at camp and having been fortunate in securing a number of antelope were feasting on venison roasted on the live coals. On the following day near the Pegan Battle Creek we passed the site of a deserted Indian village, and a number of objects of aboriginal art were obtained. During the day's march, we encountered a snow storm, our guide lost his direction and he command went swinging around in a circle; by a small pocket compass the error of our course was corrected and a direct line of march maintained. Upon their arrival in camp, the hunters had driven from his lurking place a porcupine, which, finding himself attacked, proceeded to attack in return the advancing column of the command. The horses, unaccustomed to such a foe, shied off, one by one, bearing his trooper from the contest with his porcupineship as he proceeded down the column, not particular whose feet he came in contact. He next proceeded to attack the ambulance, steering clear of the wheels, however, but directing his steps to the heels of the mules. During this period of belligerency he erected his quills upwards and forwards, presenting a moving ball, bristling with barbed quills; a shot from a revolver dispatched the rodent and probably prevented a night stampede amongst the mules and horses, and afforded a delicate breakfast, for a number of the Indians.

December 11th at 3:00 a.m., the weather became so intensely cold that sleep was impossible, the animals became so restless and impatient that a stampede was feared and the whole command hovered around their respective camp fires. We left camp at daylight and at 10:30 a.m. reached the trail of the emigrants, as they were then called, but subsequently they bore the cognomen of Black Hillers. Their transportation consisted of six ox teams, and at this stage of their journey they were, like ourselves, out of water and were making for the south fork of the Cheyenne River, where we camped at night at the mouth of Elk Creek, having passed two of their camps during the day's march. On the following morning at daylight we were again in pursuit of the trail, which was attended with some difficulty, in consequence of the ground having been frozen when the emigrants were passing. Itancian, as the Indians called our captain, and I ascended a hillock by the wayside and obtained our first view of the Black Hills; they appeared to be about sixty miles distant, lying in a direction west of south, and to subtend an angle on the horizon of forty-five degrees. Their color, as their name implies, when viewed from the distance, is black, owing to their heavy growth of pine. The most southern butte of this interesting range bears the name of Harney's Peak, after General Harney, formerly of the Regular Army. The most northern, an apparently isolated mound, bears the name of Bear butte. A growth of pines extends from its summit half way down its sides, enveloping it, as it were, in an apparently black mantle. The sun was about an hour high, the sky was a bright azure, and as we stood transported with this charming winter landscape, suddenly there loomed up a little more distant, but intermediated to these peaks, a snow-clad mountain, destitute of vegetation, named Inyan Kara. Our little command had reached the foot of the hill on which we were standing, Watauhala had announced to Itacian the discovery of another camp of the emigrants, yet we were loath to leave the enchanted spot. As we glanced into the adjacent ravine we observed a black-tailed deer advancing towards us, lured by the novelty of our appearance, within easy rifle range; he would have been an easy victim, but unfortunately our rifles were with the command. Having satisfied his curiosity; he trotted off and we descended the hill and joined our passing column. During the day we passed the abandoned site of an Indian lodge, with its broken lodge poles, its broken travois, a stone tomahawk and other implements of aboriginal art. Suddenly, as we were advancing, we caught a glimpse of a moving object, peering at us from behind a knoll. "What is that?" inquired Itancian hurriedly, "It looks like a skulking Indian," I replied, for I fancied him dressed in a dirty, gray coat, creeping upon his hands and knees, with the free corners of a dirty, triangular handkerchief projecting behind his head; the words were scarcely uttered when we loped to the spot whence the object had disappeared. A short distance off a large timber-wolf was seen trotting leisurely away, casting suspicious looks behind him. Later in the day our guide and scouts had temporarily left the command in quest of game. A few miles in advance of us loomed up a number of objects, supposed, at first to be Indian ponies. But they were not ponies, for they were without hopples or saddles or larriats, neither were they elks, not were they deer, for the prairie was not the natural habitat of the deer or the elk. Soon they became fully alarmed and moved off at their characteristic lope, in a zigzag direction, presenting the usual white line beneath and behind them. It was now evident, that within the sphere of a mirage we had alarmed a herd of antelope, twelve in number. Under the influence of a mirage also, at one time as we advanced, Harney's Peak appeared to be surmounted with an inverted cone, an exact counterpart of its summit and the serrated outline of its contiguous hills loomed up as a monstrous broken black wall in perpendicular interspaces at irregular intervals; such fantastic shapes did they present at various times that one could with difficulty distinguish between their fictitious and real form. When within six miles of the Black Hills, three warriors emerged from the timber, at the utmost speed of their horses, whether friend or foe we were too far off to determine; we could not tell whether they were our scouts, or the advance of a hostile party. Instead of riding directly to the commanding officer, they circled one to the right and the others to the left, and placed themselves by his side. Swan and the Indians hunting and scouting on the flanks of this column, came galloping in as fast as possible, uttering with shrill tones of voice, "Kua! Kua! Kua! Come! Come! Come!" The scene was an animated one, in a perfect keeping with the uncivilized character of the Indian, and the wild aspect of the country. The whole party soon seated themselves in a circle and the red pipe-stone pipe passed from one to another, each exhaling the smoke from his nostrils. The braves proved to be Red Skirt and two other scouts, who had been ordered two days before, to follow the trail, overtake the miners, if possible, and return and report. Red Skirt reported that they had followed the trail of the emigrants for the past two days, that it passed Bear Butte, recurved upon itself, contained four camps and entered the Black Hills, where Custer came out, and though they did not actually see the emigrants, they approached so near to them, about midnight, that the tracing of the animals was remarkably fresh and the bank that the cattle ascended after crossing a stream was still wet. He was of the opinion that the miners had gone into winter quarters, as they had evidently turned aside from Custer's trail. He and his party heard a strange sound during the night, which they took to be the sound of a white man's voice; but of this they were not quite certain. I afterwards learned that Red Skirt and his party became terribly frightened during the night, as they share the common belief of the Indians that the Black Hills are the abode of the every form of supernatural being, and at midnight they made a hasty retreat and camped at the outer edge of the foot hills, to await the dawn of day and the approach of the command.

Having left our wagons in charge of a guard at the foot hills, we struck Custer's trail at sunset, where it emerged from the mountains and commenced their ascent, soon daylight had disappeared, but the sky was cloudless, the stars never shone brighter, and the moon, though only in its second quarter, afforded us essential aid in following the trail. Passing through a narrow defile, formed by almost perpendicular walls of massive rocks on either side, at 9 p.m. we reached Mini Dusa; beyond this our Indian scouts on the previous night had not penetrated. We pursued the trail, however, till it seemed to terminate in one of General Custer's old camps. During a halt, incident to the loss of the trail, we enjoyed a moonlight scene in the Black Hills, whose grandeur beggars description. Looking back into the defile through which we had passed, a number of overhanging rocks, partially obscured by the moonlight shadows of the forest trees, assumed the form of a gothic arch; from my left arose a rectangular mass of rocks, resembling medieval walls in ruins. The trunks of huge pines stood like giant statues, seeming to breathe a soft, still voice not elsewhere heard. The waters of the Mini Dusa coursing joyfully over its rocky bottom, suggested a neighboring cascade; suddenly our march was resumed in the valley of the Mini Dusa, crossing and recrossing its waters, until at midnight, the moonlight ceased, and we bivouacked in an abandoned camp of the emigrants, spread our blankets and robes and rested on the same pine boughs on which they had slept, and awaited the return of daylight. We slept scarcely an hour during the night, on account of an intense cold, breakfasted at an early hour on venison, hard bread and cold water, and on the morning of December 15th followed the trail; halted in one of Custer's old camps, observed a number of localities where parties had been prospecting for gold, and at 11 o'clock we made a final halt at the head of Custer's Gulch. We were ten days' journey from Fort Sully and the Big Cheyenne agency, our winter quarters. We had but five days ration and forage remaining, consequently further pursuit of the fugitives was impossible. At this halt, the terminus of our advance, was observed two stately pines, standing conspicuously alone, remarkable for their symmetry and beauty, designated in the Dakota language as Wazi Tonke Washta, and Wazi Honska, the Beautiful Stately Pine and the Tall Pine, appellations which the chiefs subsequently applied to our captain and our guide respectively. These titles, applied by an Indian war-party, correspond very nearly to a brevet in our military service. Indian children are not named at birth, but from some eventful circumstance in later years; hence, such names as Mato Nompa, or Mato Topa, Two Bears or Four Bears, from the circumstance of a hunter having killed, at some time, two bears or four bears.

At about midday our march was directed homeward; following the trail of the previous night, we passed a bear's den, which bore marks of occupancy, but the creature was probably hibernating in an adjoining apartment; at all events; I had lost no bear. At sunset we emerged from the hills and reached our camp at Box Elder. In a number of places we noticed a red arenaceous soil cropping out of the side hills, resembling in geology, the Jurassic formation, though the super-strata of rocks in the hills proper appeared to be a carboniferous lime stone.

It was a matter of extreme regret that we were obliged to abandon our pursuit of the fugitives. The disappointment over the failure of the expedition was felt more keenly even by our Indian chiefs and braves than by ourselves. While in camp, on the following day about an hour before sunset, I took my gun and pursued some prairie chickens; the birds flying from tree to tree lured me out of sight and hearing of the command; keeping out of gun shot range, until at last a long flight put an end to further pursuit. Having quite lost the direction of the camp, I resolved to follow the course of the stream, but the farther I walked in the meandering course the more bewildered I became, in a few minutes it would be dark, and to be obliged to spend the night alone on the prairie might be attended with serious consequences. In my bewilderment I stopped, fearing to travel in any direction, as I was likely to go from the camp as towards it, when looking behind me I saw and heard our Indian chiefs, who had left us the previous day, return singing towards camp. I was not long in retracing my steps and reaching camp, where an excellent supper of antelope's liver and warm biscuits awaited me.

Not far from the confluence of the north and south forks of the Cheyenne River, on our return home, we met two lodges of White Elk's band of friendly Indians; they had drawn their annuities in the earlier part of November and had been to the Black Hills for the purpose of trapping eagles and for hunting. At the mouth of Elk Creek they had encountered the party of miners, 21 in number, of whom we had been in pursuit. Their transportation consisted of six heavily laden ox teams and six horses. These Indians thwarted the miners, ordered them out of the country, scattered them and turned their course down the Cheyenne River. At the foot of the Black Hills, we observed an abandoned eagle trap of this party; it consisted of a frame work of brush, whose sides were covered with grass and top with willow twigs, so placed as to effectually conceal the trapper within. An aperture about a foot and a half square in the center of the roof admits of the seizure of the eagle by the trapper, while endeavoring to carry off the bait, usually a rabbit or other small animal. The bird, when seized by the trapper, is strangled, without the loss of a single drop of blood. Eagle feathers, secured in this way, are used for decorating the apparel of the warriors and are believed to possess a charm, which renders the warrior invulnerable.

On the 21st of December, after an absence of sixteen days, our little command returned to Fort Sully without death or casualty, but chagrined and mortified that so many weary miles of marching through a country infested with hostile Indians, amid the rigors of a Dakota winter, should have been unattended with success. The result would have been otherwise, had the young Dakota brave truthfully reported the trail of the miners a month old, as it no doubt was, rather than quite fresh, or at farthest only a few days old; our command could have been rationed for thirty or sixty days and followed them, if need be, to their winter camps in the Black Hills. This party of miners was, however, known as Gordon's party, from the name of their leader, the first to make an incursion into the Black Hills, was captured and ejected from the Black Hills by a company of cavalry from Fort D. A. Russell, under the command of then Captain, now General, Guy V. Henry, military commander of Porto Rico.

Visit the Homepage of the
Wisconsin Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States


Comfort, A.I. 1903. FROM THE MISSOURI RIVER TO THE BLACK HILLS IN MID-WINTER OF 1874, War Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Burdick and Allen, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Volume 3, pp. 249-258.

Copyright © 2007 Thomas J. Ebert

Return to Top of Document

Return to MOLLUS Internet Published War Papers

Return to MOLLUS Home Page

Return to MOLLUS Web Site Index Page