Castle Creek Valley Black Hills

The Custer Expedition wagon train descending the Castle Creek valley on July 26, 1874 (photograph by William Henry Illingworth, Devereux Library Archives, Illingworth-809), and the same location photographed by Paul Horsted in 2000 (with permission: page 175, Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted, Exploring with Custer).1 The US Forest Service cleared tree growth in the foreground to make Horsted’s repeat photograph possible.

For many reasons, the 1874 expedition of US Army into the Black Hills led by George Armstrong Custer created an amazing legacy of photography, and then re-photography.  Firstly, this was clearly a case where the camera caught up with massive cultural change. The last Sioux were just leaving the Black Hills, and due to their previous presence virtually no Europeans had entered hills prior to the 1870s. The last of their “lodge trails” are still visible in the old image (see below). Secondly, William Illingworth’s images are of exceptional quality. He had excellent photographic equipment, clearly knew how to use it, and was fortunate to travel during a period of clear weather, with little smoke, which was unusual for dry season the central plains. The quality of the historic images and their potential use for ecological research stimulated an excellent rephotography project by Donald Progulske and Richard Sawell in the 1970s. Their report Yellow Ore, Yellow Hair, Yellow Pine: A Photographic Study of a Century of Forest Ecology was one of the earliest comprehensive repeat photography research projects focusing on ecological changes, and stimulated a host of other studies across western North America and the world. 2 Most recently, Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted have returned to the Illingworth photographs to produce the exceptional book: Exploring with Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition. Grafe’s meticulous historical research, Horsted’s fine repeat photography, and the exceptional quality of design and publishing place this book on a high point above the rest the genre of repeat photography.3 

“Lodge Trails” and Bison Use of the Black Hills

Researchers will find that Illingworth’s image number 809 helps tell an amazing story of the ecological and cultural history of the Black Hills. Surrounded by the windswept Central Plains, the Black Hills provided shelter and sustenance to native peoples for many centuries. As historian Royal Hassrick describes, as the Sioux moved westwards in the late 1700s “their dependence upon the modified woodland environment may have accounted for their determination to wrest the Black Hills country, which they later called their ‘meat pack’ from the Kiowas, the Cheyennes, and the Crows.”4  Here, in this secure location in in the core of their territory, for more than a century until Custer’s arrival, the Sioux would maintain their home camps, sheltering in the winter, and moving out on to the plains in other seasons when conditions were favorable to hunt bison and other wildlife.  The photographic evidence of nearby campsites in the zoomed in portion of Illingworth’s view below are the trails paralleling Custer’s wagon trains (see below). These are freshly used tracks made by people on horseback dragging travois made from the lodge poles also used for tipis. Note the incised center part of the trail, made by horses, and the drag marks from the dragged poles adjacent to them. The Sioux would carry all their possessions and children in the travois. Indeed, historian Ernest Grafe documents several members of Custer’s expedition describing freshly used “lodge trails” as they passed through this area of the Black Hills, and on the same day the photograph was taken, the expedition encountered a small Sioux camp of 5 lodges of men, women and children further down the valley. One of Custer’s fellow-travelers remarked: “How pretty the little village of clean white tepees nestling in the valley below appeared ” but soon after this sighting, a minor skirmish occurred with Custer’s troops, and the Sioux families abandoned their camp and fled into the hills.5

A blow-up of the Illingworth-809 image showing the “lodge trails”, or paths made by horses dragging travois on either side of the wagon train. A potential bison wallow is visible in the central upper right, but the shrubs show no sign of animal browsing or trampling.


Further, what does the detailed photograph tell us about bison use? Well first, there are not numerous deep, braided parallel trails indicating abundant, routine bison use. Moreover, there is little sign of wallows, or deep depressions made by bison rolling in the soil, that would occur if bison used the area routinely in summer.  Perhaps one wallow is in the scene in the upper center right area near the wagons. Also, the willows and other shrubs along the streams show no signs of intensive browsing or trampling damage from bison or other large herbivores such as elk. However, the streams were occupied by numerous beaver, and the reason Illingworth even got this photograph is that he had time to ascend the hill above the valley while the wagon drivers built corduroy bridges across streams swollen with beaver dams.6. The observed low bison use within confines of the Black Hills is in good harmony with many historical accounts that large groups of bison were generally found out on the plains, not in wooded hills routinely used by humans for shelter and to hunt other species such as deer.7 However, the Black Hills did provide a secure location for relatively high numbers of Native Americans, and their periodic forays out on to the plains would have partially altered bison behavior over a broad area. So, that the Sioux called the Black Hills their “meat pack” is likely in reference to its central location in buffalo country, not that the hills themselves were important  bison habitat8

Fire, People and Bison

The historical photograph clearly shows the effects of the long-term fire regime. Fire ecologists Peter Brown and Carolyn Seig tallied numerous fire scars collected from Black Hill’s ponderosa pine.9 Burning was most frequent along the edges of meadows, with average fire intervals of 10-12 years, and the position of the fire-scars in the annual tree growth rings indicated that most these fires occurred in the dormant season (late August to May). This is a sign that many of these fires were outside the lightning season, and thus human-ignited. From the historic view, we can also see that many of these fires were relatively low intensity “maintenance burns” that burned the meadows and their edges, but did not advance far in to the adjacent forest. In fact, Brown and Seig observe that fire was twice as frequent in more open grasslands as the interior forests. This high fire frequency occurred throughout the Sioux’s occupany period of the Black Hills, and continued during the onslaught of the Black Hill’s gold rush. However, by the 1890’s the amount of burning began to decline. After one large-area fire in 1910, burning almost ceased entirely. This predates efficient fire suppression, and indicates that cultural change could be an important factor.

What does the fire frequency tell us about bison use of the Black Hills? Similar to the evidence of few bison trails and wallows, and dense stream-side shrubs described above, frequent historic fires supports the idea that bison numbers were usually relatively low. If high numbers of bison did routinely occur, they would have herded in meadows and valley bottoms and reduced the grass cover that allows for frequent burning. This doesn’t appear to have routinely occurred in the past. In contrast, modern high bison numbers in Yellowstone National Park have reduced grass and shrub cover (for example, see images of the Lamar valley or  Yellowstone’s Madison valley), and thus may have reduced fire frequency in valley bottom grasslands.10 Along Castle Creek, several decades of harvesting hay, intensive cattle grazing, and possibly high winter elk use are likely factors in the disappearance of  the stream-side shrubs visible in 1874.

Footnotes and Map   

  1. Grafe, Ernest and Paul Horsted. Exploring with Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition. Custer, SD: Golden Valley Press, 2002. Thank you Paul for use of  your photograph, and your prompting the Forest Service to clear out the trees!
  2. Progulske, Donald R. Yellow Ore, Yellow Hair, Yellow Pine: A Photographic Study of a Century of Forest Ecology. Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 616. Brookings: South Dakota State University, 1974.
  3. Grafe, Ernest and Paul Horsted. Exploring with Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition. Custer, SD: Golden Valley Press, 2002.
  4. Hassrick, R.B. The Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964: p.
  5. Grafe and Horsted, Exploring with Custer, p. 46-51
  6. Grafe and Horsted, Exploring with Custer, p. 49. Contrast the shrub condition in this area with an area where bison use is intense such as Yellowstone’s Madison valley
  7. Binnema, T. “A Fur Trade Historians View of Seasonal Bison Movement on the Northern Plains.” Chpt. 6 In: G. Cunfer and W. Waiser, eds., Bison and People on the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016.
  8. Hassrick, The Sioux, p. 171-187 describes the annual round of the Sioux peoples and bison hunting patterns.
  9. Brown, P. M. and C. H. Seig. 1999. Historical variability in fire at the ponderosa pine – Northern Great Plains prairie ecotone, southeastern Black Hills, South Dakota. Ecoscience 6:539-547.
  10. Kay, C.E. “Are Lightning Fires Unnatural? A Comparison of Aboriginal and Lightning Ignition Rates in the United States.” Pages 16–28 in R.E. Masters and K.E.M. Galley (eds.). Proceedings of the 23rd Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference: Fire in Grassland and Shrubland Ecosystems. Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, FL, 2007.
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