Trudell-Witcher Party Finds More Indians Than Gold in Black Hill

Louis Trudell Tells the Story of His Boyhood Adventure.

With the the permission of “The Sioux City Sunday Journal“, September 12, 1920

Trudell-Witcher Party Finds More Indians Than Gold in Black Hill

Louis Trudell Tells the Story of His Boyhood Adventure.

By Gertrude Henderson.

THE SPRING breakup of the Missouri river occurs in these days without comment. Even those who cross the river daily scarcely note when the ice goes out and as for the majority of those living in Sioux City, should one approach them with the news that the ice had gone out, they would ask with wonder: “What of it?”

But 5O years ago the ice was a topic of interest to young and old. Early in the spring the old timers would be heard to predict either that the ice would or would not go out by the first of April. For in those days the opening of the river was an event long anticipated, when the icebound little village at the edge of the world emerged from its winter’s sleep to the hustle of river boats at the levee.

In the spring of 1876 the river was watched with more than the customary interest. Parties were gathering in Sioux City bound for the Black Hills, hoping to start late enough in the season to avoid the bitterness of winter on the plains but not so late that the crossing of the Missouri river could not be made on the ice. The preceding winter had been mild, but the 1st of March found snow drifting deep enough to block the roads leading into Sioux City. A few days, of unreasonable warm weather followed and it was predicted that a few more as warm would open the river.

This news was not so welcome to the sons of Joseph Trudell. The four boys, Joseph, Edward, Albert and Louis, were getting ready to strike out for the Black Hills and they hoped to get their outfit ready and to cross to Covington before the river broke up. They had three good horses, two for the wagon and one to ride, and they were stocking up with supplies to last for several months

Missouri Crossing Made Safely

They were getting ready to pull out as quickly as possible and to join a party gathering at Covington that was to make the journey under the guidance of Eph Witcher. One day word came that a team had broken through the soft ice at Ponca. The next day, under a cold snap, the ice stiffened, and teams crossed safely, but within 24 hours it had thawed again, so that one of the outfits crossing to Covington had a wagon break through. The Trudell boys were watching the river, planning to cross at the first favorable moment. On Thursday morning, March 16, 1876, at a little after 4 o’clock, the crossing was made with safety but by so narrow a margin that by 10 o’clock in the forenoon a fissure appeared in the ice near the government warehouse, stretching from bank to bank so that Joseph Trudell, the father of the boys, crossed the river in a rowboat to see his sons. The day was chilly and darkly lowering. In the middle of the afternoon rain and snow began falling. By night it turned cold and the snow fell all the night through, leaving deep snow, which the party had to wade, or at times to dig their way through.

First Lap of the Journey

A letter from Eph Witcher to his mother, which was published in The Journal at the time, describes the first three weeks of the journey:

“April 3, 1876. –Elkhorn River at a point eight miles east of O’Neil City. We are getting along first class, all in good spirits now, but it was fearful on us at the start, as the weather was very bad, snowing pretty much every day, thus compelling us to travel around on the prairies without roads, for we could not follow them on account of the snowdrifts. We shall lay here for two or three days yet, waiting for a party of 50 men who are now below us one day’s drive, and also for a party to catch up with us from Sioux City. We will then have a company or 90 men abundantly able and competent to go anywhere or through any Indian country this side of kingdom come. I will write to you again and tell you when we leave civilisation, also the road we travel, whether up across the Niobrara river or otherwise. Nat and Frank (brothers of Eph) are fixing a pot of beans, and the way they make them hump is a caution’’.

Niobrara Crossing Difficult

The teams as well as the men needed the rest at O’Neil City. While in camp at this point the Trudell boys rigged up a three-horse harness and put all three of their horses to the wagon. The men themselves took turns walking to save the horses. The route taken from O’Neil City was northwest to the Niobrara, where there was a ferry crossing. However, when the party arrived at the bank of the Niobrara no ferryboat was in sight. They leaned that the owners of the boat have been scared out by the Indians and had abandoned the boat to its fate. It was located by some of the party several miles below the crossing, where it had drifted upon an island. With a great deal of time and labour the ferry boat was rescued and the party crossed the river, further delayed by having a team go off the boat into the river. The team was saved, but not without a great loss of time. This, however was the last bit of bad luck, which the party encountered before their arrival in the Black Hills. They saw, once or twice, bands of Indians passing along the horizon, but none approached the party.

Discover Field Overcrowded

Arriving finally at Custer City, the Trudell boys were disappointed at the reports heard on all sides. According to Louis Trudell, 1628 Palmer Avenue, they learned that there were already hundreds ahead of them and that they had small chance to stake a claim, which would be worth anything to them. From Custer City Louis Trudell wrote home that the boys were going on the Hill City and if they did not find conditions there more favorable they were going to sell out and return to Sioux City. He also speaks of having met the Pecaut party, who were planning to return inside of two weeks, being convinced that there was nothing to be gained by the small prospector. In a letter written to Sioux City and published in The Journal, Louis Trudell, writes as follows: “Custer City, April 26, 1876. -I arrived here after a very hard trip, and l am afraid to no purpose. There are thousands of men here and none of them making anything, People are going back as fast as they come. Yesterday 140 started back. The Indians are getting worse every day. They killed a man only an hour ago and that not more than a quarter of mile from town. Old timers say they will be a thousand times worse when the grass gets long.”

More Indians Than Gold

Also published in The Journal is a letter from Joseph Trudell brother of Louis: “There is not much gold at Custer. At least, not enough to pay a man to risk his life for. Indians are plentier than gold. Fears are entertained that the Cheyenne mail carrier has been killed. He ought to have come in two days ago. Old Sitting Bull has sent word to Washington to have the miners taken out of the Black Hills or he would make a graveyard of them. We met Mr. Pecaut. He and several others are starting back in two weeks.” On May 1 Eph and Frank Witcher and the Trudell boys left Custer City on the homeward trail. Just out of Buffalo Gap they came upon the body of a man by the side of the trail. He had been killed by the Indians, his clothing removed, an arrow thrust through his body, and his scalp taken. The men stopped to bury the body, though to do so was to risk a similar fate. They buried him at one side of the trail and carried stones and heaped them up until the grave was well marked. Later the man was identified as Jack Wood, from LeMars.

Trudells Take a Short Cut

Soon after leaving Buffalo Gap the Trudell boys decided to strike out by themselves on what they believe to be the shortest route home. Mr Trudell states that by this time they were thoroughly tired of camp life, of bacon and pancakes. Not the least of the disagreeable things, which they had to endure, was sore feet caused by wearing high boots constantly without a change. By the time they were on their return journey Mr Trudell states that every step was punishment. When the Trudell announced their intention to leave the party and to come home alone by the shortest route, they met with opposition. They were reminded of he fate of Jack Wood and others who had gone alone on the prairies. The Indians were constantly on the watch to catch a lone outfit, attacking and murdering whenever they could.

But the Trudell boys did not want to spend a single unnecessary day on the trail. They wanted to get back to Sioux City and they wanted to get back quickly. They left the rest and struck out alone heading straight east for the Missouri river. They crossed the river at White Swan. Here Louis traded his gun to an Indian for a pair of moccasins and considered the comfort of their soothing softness on his sore and blistered feet cheaply bought.

Find a River Boat at Yankton

When the boys arrived at Yankton, what should they see but a steamboat, a boat for Sioux City. Do you remember the food they used to serve on those boats? Each boat used to boast the best food on the river, and each captain chose his cook as carefully as his pilot. The Trudell boys, you remember, had been dining for weeks on bacon and pancakes, the food of the trail. They left their outfit, wagon, horses, and all, in care of a friend in Yankton, and boarded the boat for home, arriving safely about the 20th of May.

Mr. Trudell states that while he values the experience and the adventure very highly, and more as the years go by, it would have taken more than a chance to find gold to induce himself and his brothers to repeat their journey overland to the Black Hills.

The Sioux City Sunday Journal September 12, 1920