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Roger Weller, geology instructor


Black Hills Gold
by Vicki Larkins
GLG 102 Spring 2005

                            The Legend of the Black Hills Gold Discovery

The first European explorers to see what is now known as the Black Hills were probably Francis and Louis-Joseph Verendrye. These French explorers were traveling through South Dakota near the Missouri River. The exact route they were using is unknown, but according to Louis-Joseph's journal, on New Year's Day in 1743 they were on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River and were " sight of mountains". It was reported that their American Indian guides would not take them any closer to the mountains because hostile bands of Indians were known to live there.

            Lewis and Clark heard tales about the Hills from other traders and trappers, but it wasn't until 1823 that Jedediah Smith and a group of about 15 traders actually traveled through them. While fur trade was at its peak, the Black Hills were explored to some extent by adventuresome trappers, but because the hills were considered sacred by the Lakota, most trappers avoided the area. Several reports of the discovery of gold in the "Black Hills" were heard during this time. However, exactly where the gold was discovered was often confusing because the Laramie Range in Wyoming was also occasionally called the "Black Hills".

            The Lakota never welcomed the white man to his hunting grounds and as immigration increased there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The Army established outposts nearby, but they seldom entered the Hills Black thinking that to do so would surely cause trouble.

            Trouble, however, was already brewing. Bands of Lakota reportedly raided settlements and then retreated to the cover of the Hills. Because of this, Lt. G.K. Warren was assigned the task of making a thorough reconnaissance of the plains of South Dakota, including the area known as the Black Hills. The study of the area was supplemented by another reconnaissance in 1859-60 by Capt. W.F. Reynolds and Dr. F.V. Hayden.
In 1861, residents of what is now Eastern South Dakota were organizing groups of miners and explorers to investigate the Hills and reports of gold there. In 1865 they asked Congress for a military reconnaissance to do a geological survey on the Black Hills. The military recognized the importance the Lakota Nations attached to the area and in 1867 Gen. William T. Sherman stated the Army was not in any position to investigate to the Black Hills and would not protect any civilians who did so.

Pressure to move into the Hills was temporarily halted in 1868 when the land west of the Missouri was granted to the Lakota in an effort to bring about a lasting peace with the tribes of the plains. The treaty prohibited settlers or miners from entering the Hills without authorization, in return the Lakota agreed to cease hostilities against pioneers and people building the railroads.

         In 1870 stories continued to circulate in Eastern South Dakota about gold and other wealth to be had in the Hills. The citizens of Yankton again pressed for an expedition. The Army and the Department of the Interior tried to discourage any entry into the Hills.

         American Indian raids and constant pressure from the citizens of Yankton caused General Phillip Sheridan to propose an expedition to investigate the possibility of establishing a fort in the Black Hills. The Army suggested a fort to aid in controlling the bands of American Indians who
would raid settlements and then return to the Hills to hide. The expedition, led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer left from Fort Lincoln rather than Fort Laramie because of the large concentration of American Indians at Fort Laramie and the trouble that such an expedition would have caused.

         The purpose of Custer's expedition was to find a suitable location for a fort. However, for unexplained reasons, a geologist and miners were included in the party. The miners occupied their time searching for gold and on June 30th, near the present day town of Custer, their efforts were rewarded.

        After Custer's report of gold in the Hills, the citizens of Yankton again petitioned the government to open the Hills. The government held firm to the position that the Hills belonged to the Lakota. This did not stop the rush of hopeful miners. The first group to reach the Hills was the Gordon Party. Originally lead by Thomas Russell and later by John Gordon, the party consisted of 28 adventurers including Annie Tallent (Tallent is credited with being the first white woman in the Black Hills). They were soon forced to leave by the Army. During the winter of 1874 and 75 the army tried to keep miners and settlers out, but by spring they found the task to be impossible.

        In 1875 another expedition organized by the Army entered the Hills to determine its true mineral value. Walter Jenney reported gold could be extracted with sophisticated equipment, but individual miners would have a hard time of it.

         By 1875 Col. Richard I. Dodge estimated 800 white men were mining or residing in the Hills. Mining camps were established near Custer, Hill City and Deadwood. As old claims played out, new ones were found and towns died or were born almost overnight. By 1876, approximately 10,000 people populated the Hills.

         In the spring of 1875 the federal government attempted to solve the problem of ownership of the Hills by inviting American Indian leaders to Washington D.C.. The American Indians refused all offers and would not relinquish ownership of the land. Some of the Indian wars that followed were a
result of these problems.

         The ownership of the Black Hills is still in question. The Supreme Court decision that attempted to settle the issue by paying the Lakota tribes for the land was not accepted by all of the tribes. Many of the Lakota are still trying to gain ownership of a land sacred to them.

Jewelry creators soon emerged in the booming hills of Dakota Territory.  Innovative designers brought an intriguing style of jewelry with them to the Black Hills.  The distinctive three-color configuration of grape and leaf designs traveled through the gold rush camps of the western frontier before arriving in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  History recalls that Black Hills gold jewelry was made and sold by S. T. Butler in Deadwood, South Dakota as early as 1878.  It wouldn't be until the late 1950's before Stamper Black Hills Gold Jewelry Inc. would be born.

                   The Process of Making Black Hills Gold


 The process of making Black Hills Gold jewelry begins with pure 24 Karat gold. It is alloyed with exact percentages of other metals to achieve a more durable karat quality of 10K, 12K or 14K. The traditional pink and green color gold used for leaves and other details is made when copper or silver is combined with the pure gold. The resulting gold bars are then readied for rolling.


24 Karat BarsAlloyingRolling

The alloyed gold bars are rolled by presses to different thicknesses for different types of jewelry. Component parts are carefully stamped, one at a time, out of the rolled gold sheets using patterns and dies. The solid gold leaves and other patterns are now ready to be added to a cast jewelry base, created using a method called "lost wax casting." Lost wax casting begins with an original metal model of a jewelry item. A vulcanized rubber mold is made from the metal model. A wax model is then made from the mold when hot wax is injected into the mold.

Stamping 1Stamping 2Removing Wax Model

The wax model is removed from the mold and mounted to a wax stem called a sprue, which creates an airway for casting. Investment compound (casting plaster) is poured around the wax patterns in a steel cylinder. After it hardens, the cylinder is baked in an oven for several hours, melting the wax away. The cavity inside provides an exact duplicate to be cast and is filled with molten gold. The cylinder is quenched in cold water, shattering the plaster and exposing the gold jewelry. After grinding and polishing, these cast pieces are ready for the stamped components.

Casting Grain and Molten Gold

The stamped components are individually hand-soldered to the cast gold frame using torches and karat-gold solder. The jewelry is cleaned in a mild acid bath, and then inspected for quality. Pieces that meet the high quality standards are then electro-plated with 24 Karat yellow gold. A finishing method known as wriggling removes the plating from the pink and green leaves, creating a textured or frosty effect. Each leaf vein is then hand-engraved for a brilliant, light-catching finish.


Each piece is polished in several different steps to bring out its brilliant luster. If the item has gemstones in its design, it is sent to the stone setting department. Finally, a careful inspection completes the process that began with pure 24 Karat gold and finished with a truly unique and beautiful, handcrafted jewelry item -- Black Hills Gold.

                      The Final Products of Black Hills Gold


Works Citied