Thieves’ Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to the Little Bighorn, by Terry Mort, Prometheus Books, Amherst, N.Y., 2018, $18
Countless books deal with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s ill-fated “Last Stand” at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Much less ink has been expended on Custer’s venture into the Black Hills in the summer of 1874. There may have been less shooting during that expedition, but it laid the groundwork for the scrapping of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes, which ultimately led to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the end of the Plains Indians’ way of life. Thieves’ Road retraces those exploits, whose history-changing outcome came down to one word: gold.
As author Terry Mort explains, however, more factors were in play than a legion of greedy prospectors dying (sometimes literally) to sneak past hostile Sioux war parties or equally hostile U.S. Army troops enforcing the 1868 agreement (so long as it remained on the books, anyway). Among other things, by the time of Custer’s expedition the national debt in the wake of the Civil War stood at $2.25 million (in 1874 dollars)—about 24 percent of the gross domestic product. Add to that such items as widespread corruption climaxing in the economic Panic of 1873, and one may notice considerable tarnish on the Gilded Age. Amid all that, news of “gold in them thar hills” was welcome by everyone from President Ulysses S. Grant on down as a potential panacea—which, for all the treaty breaking and bloodshed, it ultimately proved not to be.
Add further factors, such as the Northern Pacific Railroad, troubled times in Custer’s military career and, at the bottom of it all, a mutual misunderstanding between peoples and their aspirations, and one has a more nuanced appreciation for the makings of what may have been, under any circumstances, an inevitable tragedy.