Monday, April 18, 2016

The Summer of Black Hills

Richard Irving Dodge, Colonel, United States Army

As another Lame Cherry exclusive in matter anti matter.

I am fascinated with climate conditions from a historical perspective, as in the 1800's America was frequently rent by savage storms, as George and Libby Custer recorded on the Great Plains.

In Col. Richard Irving Dodge's Expedition to the Black Hills in Dakota Territory in 1875 AD in the year of our Lord, his scientific observations are priceless, due to the fact in what he records in that summer is nothing of what is weather in America, especially the Black Hills region in any of the 20th century or 21st century.

We know from George Custer's diaries of being in the Black Hills in 1874 and the year of his murder in Montana in 1876, that there was not the kind of meteorological activity as that which Dodge writes of. It should be noted that in his personal journal he does not touch on like material, so this published account of horrific lightning storms and tornadoes in the Blacks Hills region, reveal a most puzzling recording of actual history, in pondering exactly what was taking place that summer.

The stories are most interesting and Dodge tells the account best.

Note* July and August are supposed to be the most arid of months on the Great Plains, and the Hills region, and it incessantly was raining.

 A series of observations 
(not 60 regular as might be wished) gave a mean 
temperature of eixty-two degrees, and a daily varia- 
tion of fourteen degrees. A few similar observations 
at Camp Crook, on Rapid Creek, in the latter part of 
July, resulted in a mean temperature of eighty-four de- 
grees, with a daily variation of twenty degrees. On 
the 2ith of July, on Rapid Creek, a severe hail-storm 
sent the mercury from eighty-four to sixty-two 
degrees, twenty-two degrees in half an hour. Camp 
Crook is at least a thousand feet lower in altitude 
than Camp Harney. 

The rainfall in the Hills proper, seems to be suffi- 
cient. Showers were very frequent, and we bad some 
regular storms, during which the rain came down in 
a steady pour for all day, and even for two days. 

The following are the dates on which we had rain ; 
the steady pours are marked x : 
May 35, 26, 29, 

June 1,9,11, )S'd',13, 17, 18 x, 22, 25,26, and 

30 X, 
July 4, 5, 9 X , 10, 12, 13, 16 x ,17, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 

26, 30, 31. 
August 7, 12, 14, 15, 19, 24, 25, 26 x, 27 x, 



September 1, 8 x , 9 x , 12, 30. 
October 4, 5, 6. 

From June 4th to September 15th, we were either 
in the mountains, or so close as to have the same cli- 

Thunder-storms are quite frequent, terrific in force 
and power, and fearful in the Vividness — the nearness 
of the lightning. They are often accompanied by 
wind, and sometimes hy hail. Scarcely a day occurs in 
summer, that there is not a thunderstorm in some 
part of the hills. 

One afternoon, from the top of one of the high 
mountains near Harney's Peak, I saw five separate 
and distinct storms, occurring at the same instant in 
different parts of the Hills. One of these struck a 
portion of our party with very nearly fatal results, 
three persons and several horses having been pros- 
trated by one lightning-flash. Most fortunately only 
one horse was killed, though two of the persons struck 
were seriously injured ; one, the young son of an olE- 
eer of the expedition, did not entirely recover for 
some months. The lightning in this case acted most 
curiously : A heavy rain-storm coming on, two soldiers 
and the boy took refuge under a tall pine. All three 
were seated on a rock about six feet from the trunk 
of the tree, and each held in his hand the reins of his 
horse's bridle. At the flash the three persons and 
horses were thrown to the ground, one of the soldiers 


being pitched quite a distance, alighting on his head. 
The surgeon was promptly on hand. Each person bad 
been struck on the eheet bone, just under the eye. 
The fluid passed down the person of each, going out 
at the bali of the foot, boring a hole in the shoe-sole 
as clean and round as if made by a bullet, and raising 
a large blood-blister on the bottom of the foot. All 
were bruised under the eye and blistered on the foot. 
Neither had any other mark whatever. 

Skipping from the men to the horses, the flash 
prostrated all, striking each just over the eye. Two 
soon recovered their feet, the third, the farthest from 
the tree, was killed. This bolt came down the pine 
tree, cutting a deep groove ia the bark, and entering 
the ground with the roots of the tree, yet, on its way 
down, it parted with sufficient of its power and de- 
structive force to do the damage described. 

During this storm, which lasted scarce half an 
hour, more than twenty trees were struck by light- 
ning within a radius of a few hundred yards. An- 
other curious, and to me unaccountable phenomenon, 
attended this and the other storms of the same day. 
I have said 1 was on a high mountain of the Harney 
group. At least three of these storms were, in differ- 
ent directions, within four miles of me in a direct 
line, the clouds being, probably, five hundred or a 
thousand feet below me. Though I could see the 
vivid and incessant flashes of lightning, not a sound 


of the thunder could be heard. Every one of the 
party with me noticed this very remarkable fact, and 
we all spoke of, and tried to account for it. None of 
the explanations were or are satisfactory, and I pre- 
sent the fact to the scientific world in the hope that 
a satisfactory solution of the problem may be arrived 

Throughout the Hills the number of trees which 
bear the marks of the thunderbolt is very remarka- 
ble, and the strongest proof of the violence and fre- 
quent recurrence of these storms. The electric cur- 
rent acts in the most eccentric way. In some eases it 
will have struck the very top of a lofty pine, and 
passed down, cutting a straight and narrow groove in 
the bark, without any apparent U! effect on the tree, 
which remains green and flourishing. At other 
times the tree will be riven into a thousand pieces, as 
if with the blows of a giant axe, and the fragments 
scattered a hundred feet around. The woods are 
frequently set on fire and vast damage done. There 
are many broad belts of country covered with the 
tall straight trunks of what was only a short time be- 
fore a splendid forest of trees, now charred, dead, 
and useless. The largest of these fires occurred on 
the head waters of Box-elder Creek. What was evi- 
dently a beautiful body, of timber fifteen miles long 
by at least five broad, is now only dead trunks, some 
Standing, but by far the larger portion prostrate, 


being in every conceivable direction on and across 
each other, and making travel through them a trial 
sufficient to test the skill, patience, and Christian for- 
bearance of any explorer, more especially as the 
standing trunks, partially decayed, are swayed with 
every breeze, and seem " just tottering to a fall." 

The " park " country already spoken of is almost 
wholly due to fires. A forest is destroyed. In a 
few years another fire destroys the young growth 
which may have sprung np. This happening several 
times at intervals of a few years, effectually destroys 
both roots and seeds, and converts pine forests into 

As if to neutralize to the explorer the effect of the 
fierce and vivid lightning, the rainbow of the Black 
Hills is a marvel of perfection and beauty. Two or 
three times wider than the rainbow of the States, it 
forms a complete and perfect arch, both ends being 
sometimes visible to the beholder, and one so near 
and distinct that there would be little difficulty in lo- 
cating that traditional " pot of gold." Unfortunately 
the bow is only a " bow of promise " with reference 
to water. 

Very frequently the rainbow is doubled, and sev- 
eral times I saw three distinct arches, the third and 
higher being, however, a comparatively faint, reflex 
of the brilliant colors of the lower. 

That curse of the plains, windstorms, are not of 

by Google 


frequent occurrence in the Hills proper. The thun- 
der-storms are Sometimes preceded or accompanied 
by a violent gust which, however, is soon over, Old 
^olns apparently contenting himself with one vigor- 
ous blast. Though we had in the whole summer no 
practical and unpleasant experiences of their power, 
we yet had ample proof of how vigorous these blasts 
can be, in swaths of uprooted trees, in broken 
branches, and wrenched-off tops. Owing to the 
broken, irregular nature of the ground, and the num- 
ber of high points of hills and mountains, these tor- 
nadoes, however violent, do but little damage. They ' 
cannot sweep for miles over the surface, destroying 
everything in their path, as such storms often do in 
the middle and western States, but are broken into 
eddies, turned and twisted through the hills and 
over the gorges, touching only here and there, and 
soon expend their force and power. 

In the wider portion of the Ked Valley, which is 
only a slice of plains sandwiched between the two 
great masses of the '• Black Hills," these tornadoes 
have full sway, and are very destructive. The edge 
of one touched a portion of our camp one afternoon. 
This edge was so sharply defined, that though our 
mess-tent, in which we were taking dinner, received 
a rough but not noteworthy shake, the hospital 
tent not a hundred yards away was completely wrecked 
in an instant, and the "red beds" rendered more 


) by the outpouring cf a large quantity of 
jalaps and salts, and other compounds with which' 
doctors shorten our lives. The doctor himself was, 
I believe, the only mourner over this calamity, and I 
am afraid that our quartermaster positively rejoiced, 
as he was saved the further transportation of a great 
quantity of totally useless stuff.

Besides the triple rainbows, there is the interesting deflection of sounds in the Black Hills. The Hills apparently cause the sound of thunder to change direction, much like a ricochet. This effect was noted in the Civil War in battles not being heard when people were in proximity to a battle, and others further out could hear the conflict.

There are no answers in this to the summer of 1875. There is only fascinating in noting conditions which for some reason have vanished for the era or perhaps appeared then, only for the moment.