Rumors circulated for years about the fabulous wealth to be found in the Black Hills, an area in Dakota Territory, U.S.A., ceded to the Sioux Nation in 1868. Although the Sioux Nation was determined to keep all outsiders out, the U.S. government decided to send an expedition into the hills during the summer of 1874, partly to map them for military purposes and partly to quell rumors about gold and other economic commodities.

The expedition was led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer (1839-1876) of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. Newton Horace Winchell (1839-1914), director of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota, was invited to join as chief geologist. His official reason for participating was to collect geologic specimens together with skins of animals for a newly formed Museum of Natural History. Prospectors also accompanying the expedition purportedly found gold at several places. Their finds were described in official dispatches written by Custer and in unofficial accounts prepared by newspaper reporters accompanying the expedition. Upon his return from the field, Custer emphasised the discoveries and their economic potential. At about the same time Winchell told reporters that the reports and the newspaper accounts were greatly exaggerated and that he had personally seen no trace of gold. Controversy continued over the next several months, mainly in the newspapers. In late 1874, Custer suggested that Winchell never saw gold because he never looked for it. Custer's view prevailed as pressure mounted to open the Black Hills to exploration. In the summer of 1875, the government sent a second expedition to the hills primarily to resolve the differing views of Custer and Winchell. That expedition found considerable evidence for economic quantities of gold, an act that further inflamed the Sioux. Consequently, many fled the reservation for parts of Montana and in January 1876 the Army was ordered to force the Native Americans back onto the reservation. That campaign led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and to the death of Custer and his Seventh Cavalry on 21 June 1876. Although Winchell continued to serve as Minnesota State Geologist for 28 years and lived until 1914, he never again mentioned his role in the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

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