In the early 1860s, gold was discovered in the mountains of Montana and Idaho. The Missouri River was the main travel corridor for miners going to and returning from Montana. In July 1863, a Mackinaw boat carrying a couple dozen miners and at least one family was returning from the gold fields, apparently with some amount of gold dust and nuggets on board. While some of the details are fuzzy, it appears that the miners came into conflict with some Lakota who were camped near the Missouri River opposite the mouth of the Heart River. All the miners were killed in the battle and their boat sank. How the battle started, how many participated, how many were killed, and what happened to the gold dust on board the boat are facts that vary depending on the perspective of those who participated.
This battle, often referred to as the Heart River Massacre, reveals the extent of conflict in this two year period in North Dakota’s history. Though there were few settlers in the northern part of the territory at that early date, those traveling through were subject to the anger of Indians who were being harassed by the army and had suffered major losses due to Sully’s policy of destroying household and personal goods, and food supplies after a battle. The battle of the Heart River was an important element in Sully’s decision to push eastward and attack the first Indian camp he found. In his report, he notes that gold dust in the possession of Indians on the battlefield justified his attack.
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