Black Hills of Dakota and Custer’s Last Stand

I visited the National Parks of the United States of America (not all of them of course) on a coach trip holiday with my parents and brother Richard in 1995.  On the first day after our first generous American breakfast we met our tour guide and were pretty quickly loaded back on to the bus and sped away from the city on Interstate 90 and then Highway 16 towards the famous Black Hills of Dakota.

The Black Hills is an area that is famous for gold, Indian wars and Custer’s last stand on 25th June 1876.  After the discovery of the precious metal in the 1870s, the conflict over control of the region sparked the last major Indian War on the Great Plains of America known as the Black Hills War. Previously the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had confirmed Sioux ownership of the mountain range but this was conveniently overlooked by the authorities when gold was discovered and the native Americans were assigned alternative land ownership on less valuable bits of real estate in order to make way for the prospectors.

This led to real trouble and culminated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the neighbouring Montana territory, where the 7th cavalry under the command of General George Armstrong Custer took on a coalition of Native American tribes comprised of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors led by the Sioux chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall and by the Hunkpapa seer and medicine man, Sitting Bull.  The one thousand, eight hundred Indian warriors outnumbered the army troops by four to one and with superior tactics and a rightful cause as motivation won an emphatic victory and killed all of the four hundred and fifty or so US cavalry troopers and Custer himself who despite his heroic image probably committed suicide in preference to ritual mutilation.  Good choice!

Our first destination was to see the U.S. National Monument Mount Rushmore with its famous granite sculptures of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  The sculptured faces are sixty feet high and are as grand and enduring as the contributions of the men they represent.  Between 1927 and 1941 the sculptor Gutzon Borglum and four hundred workers created the colossal carvings to represent the first one hundred and fifty years of American history and symbolised these particular presidents who were selected for mountain side posterity because of their role in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory.

Crazy Horse

Next stop was the Crazy Horse Memorial about thirteen kilometres away and a sort of alternative ethnic memorial to the great native American warrior chief.  The monument has been in progress since 1948 and is still far from completion.  The sculptor died in 1982 and if and when it is ever finished, it will be the world’s largest sculpture because the head of Crazy Horse will be a massive eighty seven feet high.  The Memorial is on the road to a place of notoriety called Wounded Knee where on December 29, 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This cowardly action is commonly cited as the last major armed conflict between the United States and the Sioux Nation and the massacre resulted in the deaths of an estimated three hundred Sioux, many of them women and children and just twenty five U.S. soldiers.

Later that day in the afternoon we drove along Highway 44 close to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and through the Badlands National Park, which is a strange and beautiful landscape of deep gorges, saw-edged spires and grassy-topped buttes, an eerie world carved out of the prairies by thirty five million years of wind and water erosion and with wonderful names like ‘Buffalo Gap National Grassland’ and the ‘Sage Creek Wilderness Area’ to inspire the imagination.   The term badlands represents a historical consensus in North America, the Indians called the place ‘mako sika’ and Spanish colonists called it ‘malpaís’, both meaning literally bad land, while French trappers called it ‘les mauvaises terres à traverser’ which translates as ‘the bad lands to cross’.  The term is also topographically apt because these badlands contain steep slopes, loose dry soil, slick clay, and deep sand, all of which seriously impede travel.  Luckily we were on an interstate highway in an air conditioned coach and we found the journey rather more straight forward than the early pioneers.  After visiting the Ben Reifel Visitor Centre in the Cedar Pass we rejoined the Interstate at Cactus Flat and turned west back towards the city.

All along Interstate 90 there were hundreds of billboards advertising the Wall Drugstore and I was beginning to wonder what this was all about when we reached the town of Wall and all was revealed.  ‘The Wall’ is actually a rugged topographical strip a half mile to three miles wide and nine miles long with a succession of tinted spires, ridges and twisted gullies which separates the lower prairie from the upper and from which the name of the town of Wall, South Dakota is derived.

This is a small settlement just off the highway that is unremarkable except for the Wall Drugstore.  This small town store made its first step towards international fame when it was purchased by a man called Ted Hustead in 1931 during the great depression.  Hustead was a deeply religious man and a pharmacist who was looking for a small town with a thriving Catholic community in which to establish a business and he discovered and purchased Wall Drug. It was located in a small town that was recently by-passed by a new main road in what he himself referred to as ‘the middle of nowhere’ and he thereafter struggled to make a living and business was very slow indeed until his wife hit upon a brilliant idea to advertise free ice water to thirsty travellers passing by on the nearby highway.  This was an immediate success and began to divert motorists off the main road to take advantage of the offer, to the extent that Wall Drug grew into an enormous cowboy themed shopping mall.  It’s a nice story and the place was busy but full of arcade shops with merchandise that I had no desire to purchase and it wasn’t a place that I would rush back to and I was happy to move on.

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