In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills which drew a number of illegal prospectors to the region. They were trespassing on land promised to the Lakota people in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. By 1875, several miners were looking for gold in a gulch near Bear Butte Creek. What they found instead, were veins of galena, a natural mineral found in lead and silver. Now the prospectors worked to mine silver and by March 1876, several claims were filed. Soon, a mining camp sprang up that was called Galena.
One of the first claims filed in the area was by Sarah “Aunt Sally” Campbell, a former slave who was likely the first non-Native woman in the Black Hills. She first came to the area with George Custer’s 1874 Expedition as a cook. She would later buy a ranch in Galena and live there until she died in 1888. She was buried at the local Vinegar Hill Cemetery.
The first houses were built out of dirt or wood. In October 1876, a settler named James Conzette built a cabin in Galena, which he planned to use as a fort against Native American raids, though it never served that purpose. Soon there was an assay shop, a few businesses, a boarding house, and 75 residents in the mining camp.
One of the first and most productive mines was the Cora. Others included the Branch Mint, Gilt Edge Main, Golden Crest, Oro Hondo, and at least three mines named Emma. These latter mines were named for an inspiring young woman who worked at the local boarding house. To meet growing demands for lumber, a sawmill was built. More mines were also established including the Sitting Bull, Florence, Merritt, Washington, and El Refugio. Surrounding these were numerous shafts and tunnels. In December 1876, a local newspaper wrote of the Sitting Bull Mine: “is a new discovery at Bear Butte, and prospects, as well as the best previously located, and from appearances, is a true mine.” The town continued to grow through the 1870s, adding a physician, shoemaker, two hotels, restaurants, saloons, a tin shop, two more sawmills, several retail stores, and an opera house.
By June 1877, Galena supported a population of about 200 and included four stores, three butchers, and livery yard. By the next month, it had grown to about 275 people, 25 of whom were women. At about this same time, a post office was also established. The McDonald Smelter was also built in 1877, making it the first in the Black Hills. By the end of the year, the town had continued to grow to 400 people, at which time it had 75 homes and a mail line that came from Deadwood.
During this time, another fortune-seeker named Thomas Francis Walsh came to Galena to sell tools to those looking for gold and silver. Walsh was an Irish immigrant who came from New England to the Black Hills in the spring of 1876. He first found work in Deadwood as a carpenter before joining up with a man named Jerry Dailey, building sluice boxes for miners. The two men also worked to find their fortunes and staked the Anchor claim northwest of Galena. But, Walsh soon moved on to Leadville, Colorado and later to Ouray, where he became a multimillionaire from his stake in the Camp Bird Mine. His daughter, socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, would become the last private owner of the Hope Diamond. Walsh’s shack home still stands in Galena today.
In 1878, a wealthy businessman named Colonel J.S. Davey arrived in the camp from Chicago, Illinois. He soon began to lease and then purchase several mines including the Florence, the Sitting Bull, and the Yellow Jacket Mines, as well as shares in other mining claims. He then built a new mill. In 1879, the Sitting Bull Mine shipped out $14,000 in silver and lead.
By 1881, mining operations were very successful and Galena experienced another period of growth. That year, many of the older cabins were torn and new ones were built. Also added were a barber shop, grocery stores, a restaurant, a hardware store, and two more hotels were planned. Other improvements included the addition of two more express stagecoach lines from Deadwood, a new stage line between Galena and Sturgis, and a telephone line was installed.
In the meantime, Colonel Davey’s son Frank also got involved in the mining business, partnering with a man named Patrick Gorman in purchasing the McClellan Claim. However, the partnership was short-lived, as they dissolved the partnership after a disagreement. In 1882, when Frank and a mine guard, named Billy Thatcher, were making their way to the post office, they ran into a drunk and disorderly Patrick Gorman. An argument quickly ensued and when Patrick began manhandling Frank, Billy stepped in and shot Patrick, who died minutes later. Colonel Davey spent a large sum for Billy’s legal defense, and the guard was found not guilty. Afterward, Thatcher left town and never returned.
Prior to 1882, school for the area children was first taught in private residences and then in Delong’s Hall. But, in April 1882, the school board decided to take bids to build a schoolhouse. The framed wooden school was dedicated in September 1882. The school continues to stand today. The same year, a Catholic Church and a Methodist Church were also built. However, the Methodist preacher ran off with the church funds, so it never officially opened and was used instead as a dance and social hall.
In 1883, Colonel Davey enlarged his mill to 20 stamps and added a sizable smelter. That year he employed 125 miners and was making about $500 per day, mostly from silver. By that time, the Sitting Bull property, located on the far northeast end of Galena, had produced over $750,000 in silver. But, for Colonel Davey, his success in Galena wouldn’t last. Several years earlier, the Richmond Mine was established near Davey’s Sitting Bull Mine. He soon found himself in a legal dispute with the Richmond Mine owners who believed that Davey and his mining crew were tunneling into their claim. The next year, the case came to trial, which caused all of Davey’s properties to cease operations and the population of Galena suffered.
As the dispute escalated to a trial in front of a judge, the townspeople took sides. Davey and the Sitting Bull Mine claimed the right to follow the ore under the Apex Law, but, after 95 witnesses were questioned, the judge ruled in favor of the Richmond Claim. From legal expenses and other costs related to the trial, Davey lost a good portion of his fortune. After a number of years and a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, Davey was exhausted and gave up, abandoning his Black Hills mining properties and headed to the gold fields of Idaho.