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W. H. Illingworth - 1874 Custer Expedition Photographer
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W.H. Illingworth
Images Courtesy 1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer, SD
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The Black Hills Expedition began on July 2nd 1874 at Fort Abraham Lincoln near the town of Bismarck, Dakota Territory.

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The Expedition was led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a Civil War hero whose assignment was to make the west safe for settlement.

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The Army provided Custer’s 7th Cavalry with a thousand wagons, a herd of cattle for food, surveyors, engineers, newspaper reporters, geologists, a photographer, and not the least, two photographers.

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When the expedition traveled, it stretched out for nearly two miles with 2,100 horses, 110 wagons driven by more than a thousand soldiers and teamsters.

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The expedition became the most photographed undertaking in history, with daily activities recorded by an English photographer, William Illingworth. The original glass plate film collection is presently housed at the South Dakota State Historical Society.

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The trip was a surprise in many ways. Colonel Custer managed to shoot a grizzly bear, which were common in the Black Hills in the 1870’s.

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Ostensibly, the purpose of the expedition was to look for a suitable location for a military fort and to find a route from the Northern Missouri River to the southwest.

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But all that changed when miner Horatio Ross and his partner discovered gold on French Creek located in the present town of Custer, South Dakota. When this discovery was made, assayers estimated that an ambitious miner could earn $150 per day panning for the precious metal.

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Once gold was found, Custer sent a messenger rider southwest to Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory. The message he carried was “Gold Discovered in the Black Hills”. This created the biggest gold rush since the California gold discovery 25 years earlier.

Meanwhile, Custer and his officers explored the region in the Southern Black Hills, climbing Harney Peak, which had been named decades before in honor of another Civil War general.

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While Custer, who did not allow alcohol to be consumed on the Expedition, was away exploring, several 7th Calvary soldiers enjoyed a party at the urging of President Ulysses Grant’s son, Frederick, (front row right) who accompanied the expedition.

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Photographer Illingworth took over 150 photographs of every natural landmark along the way, including Bear Butte in the Northern “Hills”.

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100 years later, a contemporary photographer re-took that photo from the exactly same location, as was photos of many of the historical scenes, recaptured by 20th century photographers.

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Today, visitors to the Black Hills can enjoy the same beautiful scenery witnessed on those on the expedition, and also have the opportunity to seek the photographs and many artifacts of that historic exploration as well as viewing a hunting rifle owned by George Custer housed in the historic 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer City.