Item #8356 [Autograph letter, signed, from a Dakota Territory miner to his sister on life in the Black Hills region.]. John L. Miller.
[Autograph letter, signed, from a Dakota Territory miner to his sister on life in the Black Hills region.]

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[Autograph letter, signed, from a Dakota Territory miner to his sister on life in the Black Hills region.]

Hill City, [Dakota Territory], 23 February 1887. Bifolium, 7.9” x 5.1”. 4 pp. in ink. CONDITION: Good, some scuffing to the letter, a few tiny punctures along the old folds, but no losses to the text.

An evocative letter by an early settler of Hill City on traveling in Dakota Territory, a dance in Spring Creek, the presence of missionaries, the scarcity of women in the region, prospecting, and more. 

Writing to his sister, John L. Miller begins this letter by noting that “this has been the worst winter I ever experienced in any country. For steady cold weather and deep snow it cannot be beat.” Commenting on his recent travels and business dealings, Miller writes that he has 

spent most of the time [during] the last two months down on Squaw & Dry Creek Valleys in the Foot Hills to the east of the main Black Hills Range. I had a very pleasant time while down there. I went down on a visit and to try and collect some money which I had loaned out & [did] not collect the cash but I could have taken cattle for the amt. But as I was not fixed to take care of the stock I thought I would wait for money, but I think if this awful winter lasts much longer all the cattle in the country will die. 

He discusses a dance he recently attended:

I was at a dance down there on the 4th inst. and froze my nose & ears in riding two miles. I was at a dance last night on Spring Creek [present-day Todd County, South Dakota] about 2 miles from here. We had a very pleasant time. There was about forty persons in attendance about 15 ladies and twenty-five men—so you will see one drawback in this country is the scarcity of the fair sex. But we had a good time all the same. We danced until day-light. & now I suppose I could make this more interesting if I only could describe to you how the different ladies dressed but that is something which I am not posted on, so you will just have to imagine them all handsome. And let it go at that. 

He comments at length on a certain Christian missionary man he knows who has taken up dancing, much to Miller’s surprise:

There was a young man [who] came out here a year ago from the States. I suppose he must have come to do missionary work for he had a Y.M.C.A. badge. Well shortly after he arrived here I met him at our Sunday School and as one of my friends was going to give a dance that week. I invited the Y.M.C.A. [missionary] to attend but he only shook his head and said no no my friend, dancing is very ungodly (but one short year will make great changes). Last night he was at the dance. He[’s] done more dancing and put on more scallops [i.e., decorative articles of clothing] than any of us. 

Miller discusses his mining activity in Dakota Territory, and suggests he may venture to Alaska to mine:

I expect to go to work at the Golden Summit [Mine] in a short time again [a quarry located near the town Hill City]. Tin mines are very quiet at present. If I do not realize something out of my mines within another year I shall go to Alaska for I think that is a rich mineral country & prospectors life is like a bad habit. Once acquired [it is] hard to give up. It is only fit for a single man, as the big riches are like a phantom always in sight but not always within the grasp…This leaves me in the best of health as I hope it may find you.

Hill City in Pennington County was first settled by miners in 1876—who referred to the area as “Hillyo”—and constituted the second (illegal) settlement in the Black Hills after Deadwood (some forty-two miles away). Hill City was first laid out as a gold camp in February 1876 by Miller, Thomas Harvey, and Hugh McCullough. However, the rich gold strikes in the northern Black Hills made it nearly a ghost town by May 1876. Hill City’s deserted cabins had many transient occupants, and a post office was constructed and opened in 1877. In 1883, tin was discovered nearby and the population rebounded. The Harney Peak Tin Mining, Milling, and Manufacturing Co. made its headquarters on Main Street in Hill City. The company was backed by British financiers and acquired 1,100 prospecting sites around the area. As mining grew, the city became known for its wild living and was once referred to as “a town with a church on each end and a mile of Hell in between.” At one time, some fifteen saloons were located on Main St. as well as the Harney Peak Hotel, built by the company to entertain its management and executives. After realizing the tin market was unsustainable, the company ceased operation in 1902.

While the original envelope for this letter is no longer present, an earlier description maintains that Miller sent it to his sister Mary Mather (née Miller, 1846–1936) of Joliet, Will County, Illinois, who was married to the British immigrant Joseph Mather (1826–1914).

An evocative letter by one of the founders of a Black Hills mining town.

REFERENCES: “Hill City, South Dakota” at Hill City Economic Development Corporation online; “South Dakota State Historical Society Markers” at South Dakota State Historical Society online.

Item #8356


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