Thieves’ Road by Terry Mort

Review by Colin Wilks Auust 2021


I know that strictly speaking this is not a Civil War book but the author blames most of the USA’s woes at this time on the Civil War. The cast of characters will also be very familiar to students of the “unpleasantness between the states.”


This title Thieves’ Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s path to the Little Big Horn made me think I was going to read about the actual Black Hills Expedition in 1874. However, two thirds of this 303-page book is a detailed study of the situation in the United States leading up to the expedition which doesn’t actually start till page 215. Before that page we are given a study of the Plains Indians, the US Army, politics, philanthropy, corruption, the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Yellowstone Expedition and battles and the financial crash. All of these factors argues Terry Mort were the cause of the government’s decision to invade the Black Hills to search for gold and silver deposits. The government’s argument was that the minerals, gold and silver, discovered there could clear the national debt and bring an end to the financial crisis. In fact, the main theme throughout the book is an economic one which, if I’d known about, would probably have put me off buying and reading it. I’m glad I didn’t know as it was, in the end, a worthwhile history lesson!


The Black Hills were Sioux territory, given to them by the 1868 treaty with the US Government. The hills were holy land to the Indians and Custer’s expedition was seen as a direct breaking of the terms of that agreement, which it most certainly was. Terry Mort takes a neutral view of both sides in the conflict and doesn’t fall into the trap of painting the Sioux as being completely blameless but, no matter which way you approach this story, the main villain is the white man. Several of the figures we look up to for their service during the Civil War do not come out of this story looking quite so admirable as they went into it!


As we know, Custer’s party found gold and silver deposits in the Black Hills and, despite an assurance to the Indians that it was purely a scientific expedition, a second expedition, and an invasion of prospectors and miners soon followed. So began the conflict that would ultimately end the life of George Armstrong Custer and so many of his vaulted 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn.


Recommended if you are after the bigger picture in this part of North America at the time of the expedition rather than minute details of the exercise itself. Very readable and accessible.


I also purchased Terry Mort’s book Cheyenne Summer the Battle of Beecher's Island: a history at the same time. Looking at the contents it seems to be the same format as the Black Hills book. 270 pages, battle starts on page 195, first part of the book is setting the scene. Having said that, I am looking forward to reading it as it deals with the conflict with the Cheyenne Indians rather than the Sioux. More history and more knowledge!