THE BLACK HILLS
In 1864, after graduating eighth in
a class of 27 from West Point, William H. Ludlow went south as chief engineer of the newly
formed XX Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. He saw action in the Atlanta
campaign, on Sherman's march to the sea, and in the Carolinas during the closing weeks of
the war. Within less than a year, Ludlow had advanced from brevet captain to brevet
lieutenant colonel for his distinguished service.
In late 1865 Ludlow began his first assignment at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri,
where he organized and took command of the Engineer Depot and Company E of the Engineer
battalion, a company of Topographical Engineers. On this assignment Ludlow learned
firsthand the topographical needs of commanders who were fighting hostile Indians in
unmapped territory. With a commission as captain of engineers, Ludlow returned east
in March, 1867. As assistant to General Quincy A. Gillmore until November 1872, he
worked on coastal fortifications and civil works projects on Staten Island and at
Charleston, South Carolina. In 1872 Ludlow traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to
become chief engineer in the Department of the Dakota and portions of Montana and Wyoming.
When Ludlow arrived at
department headquarters, he found a challenging task before him.
The Army was attempting to maintain order and protect American citizens
as the Sioux Indians responded with increasing hostility to the white
man's incursions into their territory. The Northern Pacific
Railroad was pushing its lines deeper into Montana territory.
Settlers and fortune hunters flooded the region to exploit the new
opportunities for trade and the abundant game population and to search
for gold. Little regard was given to Indian land rights supposedly
secured by treaty in 1868. Anticipating more difficult times,
including full-scale war, the Army needed maps of the territory,
descriptions of its topography, and recommendations on sites for new
forts. Knowledge of sources for wood, water, and grass was
particularly important to the cavalry on campaign
Custer with the first grizzly he killed. Identified from left, are: Indian Scout Bloody
Knife, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, Private Noonan, and Engineer Captain William
During his four years in the Department of the
Dakota, Ludlow made two major expeditions. On the first in July and August 1874, he
accompanied Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, commander of the 7th Cavalry and a
friend from West Point days, into the Black Hills, home of the Sioux. The region was
believed to be rich in gold. Custer's assignment was to obtain military
information. The mere presence of a military force was enough to stir up Indian
resentment. The inclusion of gold hunters in the reconnaissance party and Custer's
haughty attitude made matters worst.
The Black Hills expedition was an eye opener for
Ludlow. In his report on the trip, he evidenced a marked sympathy for Indian treaty
rights and disdain for those who sought to exploit the region. Believing that the
reports of gold in the hills were highly exaggerated, Ludlow thought it folly to allow
prospectors to flood the area when increased tensions would certainly result. The
Indians would never allow white men to occupy their territory. Were they to do so,
he wrote, "settlements there could only be protected by force and the presence of a
considerable military power.
Custer differed sharply. He found the
discoveries of gold "exceedingly promising" and urged further
investigation. As for the rights of settlers, he stated bluntly: "The title of
the Indian should be extinguished as soon as practical." And why not, he
argued, since his expedition revealed that the Indians actually occupied only a small
portion of the hills? Ludlow's advice counted for little in the climate of gold
fever and land hunger.
Accompanying Captain Ludlow in the engineer
detachment was Sergeant Charles Becker, a solemn old German soldier who rode a two-wheeled
odometer cart to measure the miles. On a terrible July day two years later, he would
have the sad duty of riding the jouncy cart about the battlefield at the
Little Big Horn, charting on paper the last hours of General Custer's
command during the investigation of that disaster. Now he was
simply charting his way to the Black Hills, and this assignment made him
a much-sought-after man. The first question the soldiers asked
when camp was made: How many miles today? If Becker's horse
had not run away during the march and fouled up his calculations, he
could give the answer to the last tenth of a mile.
Following a different
trail, but roughly paralleling the route of Sergeant Becker, was another
engineer in an ambulance also carrying odometers. An odometer was
an instrument in a stout leather case, strapped to the wheel of a cart
to measure the revolutions. At night the readings of the
instruments were averaged and converted to miles. If the route had
been level, no correction factor was applied; if the country had been
rough the reading was reduced from 1 to 3 per cent.
Typical odometer cart, circa 1872.
The instrument is visible just above the hub of the wheel.
Becker and another sergeant carried
prismatic compasses and kept a full record of compass readings.
When these distances and directions were committed to paper, the result
was a "meander line," the simplest kind of mapping technique. When
checked against astronomical observations for latitude and longitude,
and augmented by barometric readings for altitude, these calculations
became the raw material for the maps that Becker would draw when he got
back to the drafting room in Department headquarters in St. Paul.
Each sergeant had an assistant to help
with compass readings. A fifth man carried two chronometers in a
basket to minimize jarring, and the sixth member of the detachment was
equipped with a thermometer and aneroid barometer. Besides these
enlisted soldiers there was a civilian topographer, W. H. Wood, who
helped Colonel Ludlow with transit and sextant reading during the day,
and made night observations whenever practical.
Obviously, Colonel Ludlow was not
conducting a sophisticated topographic survey; he knew that his work
must be done over by men with more time and better equipment. He
was meticulous, however. The position of most of the camps he
determined astronomically. Now that he was in rougher country,
where points of reference were available, he was doing some
triangulation - checking points in the hills from a measured base by
means of trigonometry. But mathematics and the tricky workings of
the aneroid barometer would lead him astray at least once. He
would record the altitude of Harney's Peak as 9,700 feet, a mark some
2,500 feet higher than later measurements.
The records of Ludlow's observations are
still on file, with a manuscript copy of his final report, in the
National Archives. He made his calculations on printed forms,
ruled off with thin red and blue lines and bearing such headings as
"Determination of the Latitude by the Observed Double Altitudes of
Polaris off the Meridian."
Although he was not considered a fighting
soldier, and was classed with the bug hunters by the troops, Ludlow had
the respect of the line officers. He was, as Samuel Barrows said,
"an officer who was not afraid of getting sunburnt." He had known
Barrows and most of the Seventh Cavalry officers since the Yellowstone
expedition, when he had surveyed the Yellowstone River from its mouth at
Fort Buford to a point ten miles above the Powder River.
Ludlow was thirty-one, the son of a
distinguished Civil War general William Handy Ludlow. He was a
West Pointer, class of '64, and as chief engineer of the XX Corps
he had been breveted three times for gallantry during the war. A
long career lay ahead. Eventually he would command a brigade in
the Spanish-American War and serve for a time as military governor of
Paul K. Walker, Introduction to Exploring Nature's Sanctuary:
Captain William Ludlow's Report of a Reconnaissance from Carroll, Montana Territory, on
the Upper Missouri to the Yellowstone National Park, and Return Made in the Summer of
1875, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1876).
Donald Jackson, Custer's Gold, The United States Cavalry Expedition
of 1874, (University of Nebraska Press, 1966).