In 1874, decades after the California Gold Rush of 1849, an expedition led by General Custer confirmed that there was also gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The resulting Black Hills Gold Rush caused people to flock to the Midwest, establishing the infamous town of Deadwood, among other things. But was gold actually found in South Dakota?
In 1887, Louis and Ivan Thoen stumbled upon an object that throws the entire timeline of gold discovery into question. On March 14, the brothers, Norwegian immigrants, were collecting sandstone on Lookout Mountain near Spearfish, South Dakota. During his search, Louis came across a flat stone with an inscription on it, half-buried by dirt. Though layers of grime made it difficult to read, Thoen could make out the words “Indians hunting me” and decided to take the slab home to decipher. Once it was cleaned up, this is what words etched into the stone said:
Came to these hills in 1833 seven of us
All ded but me, Ezra Kind. Killed by Ind[ians] beyond the high hill got our gold June 1834.
Got all the gold we could carry our ponys all got by the Indians. I hav lost my gun and nothing to eat and Indians hunting me.
The discovery was amazing—a little too amazing, maybe: Locals and scholars alike have doubted the stone’s authenticity since the Thoens found it. It was a little suspicious, they pointed out, that Louis Thoen, a stonemason, just happened to find a piece of sandstone with extremely legible script etched into it.
According to historian Frank Thomson, however, the claims made on the stone are absolutely true. Thomson conducted extensive research on the circumstances surrounding the stone and was able to verify that a group of men left Independence, Missouri, in the spring of 1833, intending to open a route to Santa Fe. Somewhere along the way, they met a member of the Crow Tribe who told them about the gold tucked away in the Black Hills, which inspired the group to change their plans. Thomson was able to trace most of these men to their modern-day descendants, who confirmed that they did, indeed, have ancestors who had disappeared after heading west in 1833. Kent’s descendants even said their ancestors told stories about receiving letters from him in the 1830s that said he had all of the gold he could possibly want, and would be returning home shortly.
Did the deaths of these early prospectors keep the Black Hills gold a secret for another four decades? Or was the whole thing a hoax carved up by a bored Black Hills stonemason? The next time you’re in the Deadwood area, decide for yourself: What remains of the Thoen Stone is now at the Adams Museum in Deadwood, and you can hike up Lookout Mountain to view the actual spot where the stone was found. Some even believe that Kind stashed “all the gold we could carry” somewhere in the vicinity before he died, and that it’s still waiting to be found by intrepid treasure hunters.