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Arriving in the Dakotas in 1874, she was among a group of ‘trespassers’

While strolling the streets of Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, in the summer of 1875, Annie Tallent spied a man in a broad-brimmed hat headed in her direction. He suddenly stopped, doffed his hat and spoke to her: “Madam, I hope you will pardon my seeming boldness, but knowing that you have recently returned from the Black Hills, I take the liberty of asking a few questions in regard to the country, as I expect to go there myself soon. My name is Hickok.” Tallent recognized the name. After a few pleasantries Wild Bill remarked that Annie had a lot of “sand” for her part in entering the hills. Soon he took his leave, parting with the words, “Perhaps I may yet die with my boots on.” Tallent didn’t hear of Hickok again until the following summer, when the cries of “Wild Bill is shot!” echoed through Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

A year earlier, in July 1874, Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s troops had found gold on French Creek in the Black Hills. By late December the Collins-Russell Expedition (aka the Gordon Party) had arrived and set up camp just east of present-day Custer, S.D. The group included Annie Tallent, the first white woman to enter the Black Hills; her husband, David; their 9-year-old son, Robert; and 25 other men.

Along the trail party members shared stories and music around the campfires. Some discussed the fact their trek was in violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. As Tallent recalled in her 1899 memoir and history, The Black Hills: Or, The Last Hunting Ground of the Dakotahs [sic]: “Storytelling being more in my line, I would sometimes rehearse a tale calculated to ‘harrow up the soul, freeze the young blood,’ etc.—usually one in which tomahawks and scalping knives conspicuously figured.…It was truly glorious out under heaven’s dark canopy, with its myriads of bright stars twinkling lovingly down upon us like a very benediction— more especially so in that we realized that we were soon to become trespassers and outlaws without the pale of civilization.”

The opening pages of Tallent’s book evince a sympathetic bent toward the plight of Indians and include an overview of the history of forced migration and broken treaties. The balance of the tome relates her observations on contemporary happenings in the Black Hills and her recollections of the region’s general history. It is one of the most complete histories of the Black Hills from that era.

Today teachers, community activists and politicians of a certain stripe vilify Tallent’s writings, though she recorded the prevailing sentiments of the time. In a few instances she disparaged Indians, writing of her fear of being scalped or taken captive. During the 78-day journey she recounted only one close encounter with Indians, when five braves from a larger band entered the camp. The Indians coveted Winchesters and, when they were denied, asked in turn for food staples. Recalling the event, Tallent referred to them as “the most inveterate of beggars.” The proverbial nail in the coffin came when she quoted the saying there are “no good Indians but dead Indians.”

Annie Fraser was born in York, N.Y., in 1827 and educated at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, N.Y. She married lawyer David Tallent in 1854. Eleven years later Robert was born. At some point the family moved to Elgin, Ill., where two of Annie’s brothers lived. It was in Elgin that Annie and David connected with Charlie Collins and Thomas H. Russell, who were organizing a gold-seeking venture to the Black Hills. Collins was the editor of the Sioux City (Iowa) Weekly Times. An experienced frontiersman, Russell had heard of the proposed trip by moccasin telegraph. Collins and Russell opened an office on Clark Street in Chicago to enroll adventuresome individuals.

When reports from the Custer Expedition reached Chicago in 1874, the August 28 edition of the Daily Inter-Ocean featured the headlines: THE GOLD FEVER. INTENSE EXCITEMENT IN THE CITY YESTERDAY OVER THE NEWS FROM THE BLACK HILLS. That was all Collins and Russell needed to finalize their plans. The expedition, with six oxen-drawn covered wagons, five horses, two greyhounds and the trappings for mining gold, set out from the Missouri River on October 6.

The trip was difficult. Leaving in late fall put them at risk for terrible weather, which they encountered. They packed their feet with gunny sacks for protection against the snow and cold. The cattle were emaciated, their hooves worn to the quick, and the party fashioned leather shoes to relieve them.

Though Tallent referred to herself as “a delicate woman” (which her photo seems to reinforce), she was a hardy soul. She traveled on foot for the much of the trip, but for a two-week illness when she rode in the wagon. In order to not overtax the animals, it was common practice for any able-bodied person to walk alongside. The wagons, laden with supplies, traveled between 15 and 20 miles each day. By trip’s end Annie had worn out two pairs of shoes. Knowing she would be bereft of reading materials, she had surreptitiously cached two books, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mary Jane Holmes’ comic romance The English Orphans.

In her own book Tallent reveals the men sometimes dismissed her opinions out of hand. Early in the party’s travels, when the men were shooting for recreation, she questioned the wisdom of wasting ammunition. After a sharp retort, she wrote, “I meekly yielded the point and referred no more to the subject.” Later, when one of the men decided to return to Sioux City, Annie wrote, “A council was called that night…at which a preamble and resolution were adopted,” but, she added, “I was never admitted to their conferences.”

Though Tallent had no say in it, the council’s resolution forbade individuals from leaving the expedition. One man had earlier returned to Sioux City, and a second would die along the route, leaving 26 to reach French Creek on December 23, 1874. By mid-January 1875 the pioneers had constructed the 80-square-foot Gordon Stockade and, within its walls, seven log cabins. Tallent spent her days within the stockade, which felt akin to a prison. She ventured forth by herself one time and was so convinced she saw Indians lurking behind every bush, she didn’t go out alone again. It was during these months she practically memorized her secreted books.

During an early April snowstorm four horsemen, including two U.S. cavalry lieutenants, arrived to inform the Collins-Russell group it was under arrest for trespassing and had 24 hours to prepare to leave for Fort Laramie under escort. A temporary camp 12 miles away was their first stop. Tallent was granted a saddled government mule, but it would not cross the first ford of French Creek. Annie praised and cajoled the mule, kicking her spurless heels into its side, to no avail. She resorted to a willow whip. On the first blow the mule reared and leaped across the creek, and Annie stayed on. These antics were repeated at every crossing.

Two days after arriving at Fort Laramie, the civilians were released and journeyed on to Cheyenne. The Tallents remained in that city for a year, awaiting official permission to legally enter the Black Hills, which was granted in May 1876.

The family spent four years in Deadwood then moved to Rochford. With Annie’s college training as a teacher, she was welcomed as one of the first teachers in Pennington County. She organized several schools, teaching in Rochford and later atTigerville and Hill City, after which the Tallents moved on to Rapid City.

Bert Shedd, a student of Annie’s in Tigerville from 1884–85, recalled his teacher: “Her method of teaching was thorough. She required her pupils to demonstrate their lessons in arithmetic, geography and grammar on the blackboard. If a pupil could not do this, he must work until he could.…She possessed the quality of teaching without anger or impatience. In appearance she was dignified and attractive. I never saw her punish a pupil.”

When Annie and her son went to visit relatives in Elgin in 1887, husband David deserted her and never returned. Annie was Pennington County superintendent of schools from 1891 to 1895, after which she served on that county’s board of education for three years. Annie was one of 153 charter members of the Society of Black Hills Pioneers [www.blackhills], whose membership was exclusive to those who had arrived in the Black Hills before December 31, 1876. She died in Sturgis, S.D., in 1901 and was buried at the Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin.

In 1924 Black Hills officials erected a monument near the site of the Gordon Stockade, with a plaque inscribed in part: IN MEMORY OF ANNA DONNATALLENT,TEACHER AND AUTHOR.…THE FIRST WHITE WOMAN TO ENTER THE BLACK HILLS. In 1954 the South Dakota Education Association formed the Annie D. Tallent Club to honor the state’s women educators, pronouncing: “In an evaluation of Mrs. Tallent, all the evidence shows that she was a woman of dignity, refinement, and she contributed to the advancement of culture in the hills.” The club name was changed to Honored Women Educators in 1993 when Annie’s book fell into disfavor because she had written things like, “They [Indians] rarely took the provisions of their victims, and indeed they had no need to, as those graceless wards of the government were amply provided with rations.”

In 1950 Rapid City opened the Annie Tallent Elementary School, but 40 years later a vocal minority forced the board to change the school’s name. Fortunately, such attempts to obliterate Annie Tallent from history have not succeeded.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.