The Native Americans – who considered Paha Sapa (direct translation: hills that are black) to be too sacred to be inhabited and therefore roamed the surrounding plains – always knew there was gold there. They also knew it was worthless: it was too soft to fashion utensils out of. It was too soft for use as weapons. What good was it? So they let it lie in the streambeds and dry washes where it had been accumulating for centuries as the granite fastnesses of the Black Hills slowly weathered.
Likewise, the French fur traders plying their trade on the northern plains learned of the probable existence of gold in the nearby mountains. But they were too busy snaring their own gold: the beaver pelts that were so highly prized early in the 19th century. They passed on panning gold – at least for the time-being.
When Lewis and Clark brought their traveling medicine show to the West in 1804, they undoubtedly heard the rumors of gold. After all, they had many a long winter’s night at the Mandan Villages on the upper Missouri to listen to tales of golden wealth in a place called Paha Sapa. But they too were so focused on the task at hand that they were not tempted to take a side trip to investigate.
But what if they had?
For a number of reasons, the Black Hills were one of the last places on the continent to be settled. The Teton Sioux, as stated before, considered the region to be sacred, and penetrated only its foothills (and then only during daylight hours). Explorers and settlers for the most part followed the major rivers West, thus bypassing the plains of what would become western South Dakota. It was not until a restless former boy general decided to prove the existence of gold that the area was finally settled (1874) in direct violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
After the initial rush, the rest of Dakota was settled slowly and actually spent 27 years in territorial limbo before reaching the minimum population for statehood.
If Lewis and Clark had acted on the rumors they heard about the existence of gold in the Black Hills – or even if they had included such rumors in their official report back to Washington – the Black Hills and South Dakota could have been settled as many as seventy years sooner.
What difference would this have made to subsequent events? How would it have affected the settlement of the West? Remember, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento created a nearly instant state of California prior to the Civil War. What if Dakota* were discovered and settled as early as 1810?
If Dakota had entered the Union as a northern state, could it have tipped the balance to the north and perhaps prevented the Civil War? Would the discovery have accelerated other gold rushes around the West, or delayed them?
* the two subsequent states of North and South Dakota would undoubtedly have entered the Union as one state had they been deprived the contentious territorial period, but that’s another story!