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Local historian gives material to BHSU Case Library

The history of the Black Hills is unique because it is so recent says local history buff Bob Lee as he talks about his love of the past and some of the historical documents he is donating to the Case Library at Black Hills State University.

Lee was on campus recently to speak to a history class about the role of Indian scouts in the death of Crazy Horse. He also turned over some of his personal historical documents to the Case Library for Western Historical Studies. In addition to newspaper clippings, he gave the library a legal document dealing with Poker Alice's murder of Fred Koetzle in 1913. At the time of his death, Koetzle—a member of K Troop of the 12th Cavalry—was visiting a brothel.

Lee turned over to the Case Library an 1864 letter from Col. Joseph Kargi to Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis and a contract with physician William Sturgis (1862), signed by R. L. Wood who was the appointed surgeon general of Illinois. He also gave the library his Fort Meade research papers and the fort's post returns, photographs, and drafts of his book Fort Meade and the Black Hills.

Lee said he has been gathering material since 1946 when he went to work for the Rapid City Journal. It's now time to “downsize” he said and get rid of some of the historical memorabilia. His material comes from years as a reporter, a press aid for Gov. Joe Foss, numerous books he has authored, and historical papers presented at local, regional and national conferences.

As a field historian for the Case Library, Lee says his job was to find historical material—“Now I'm providing my own material.”

Recalling the past, his intense interest in the history of the West is visible. He recalls names and places as if it were just a few days ago.

“The Black Hills are a microcosm of the Western story,” he explains. “There were the cattle drives, timber, cavalry, mining, and boom towns, all part of the Western experience.”

As a young reporter visiting Pine Ridge he had the opportunity to meet and interview primary historical sources such as Dewey Beard, a participant in the battles of the Little Big Horn (1876) and Wounded Knee (1890).

“Did you know Crazy Horse enlisted in the Army as a scout with the rank of first sergeant in Aug. 31, 1877, and was killed Sept. 5 at Fort Robinson, Neb.?,” he asked, as the story of the West unfolds. “There was an inordinate amount of jealousy and treachery among his own people. He was killed by a white sentry as an Indian scout held his arms.”

And so the story goes—Lee recalling historical anecdotes about Black Hills history. He is still actively involved with several historical societies founded by Leland Case, including the Black Hills Corral of Westerners.

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Local historian Bob Lee presented all of his Fort Meade historical research papers to Colleen Kirby, special collections librarian at Black Hills State University. The papers, dealing with the fort and Black Hills history, will be placed in the Leland Case Library for Western Historical Studies. Lee recently completed a follow-up volume to Last Grass Frontier: The South Dakota Stockgrower Heritage, 1964-1999. The first volume, co-authored with Dick Williams, covered the 1881-1964 time period.

 

“It was number eight in over 200 chapters (worldwide),” he said. “Watson Parker and I are the only two living charter members.”

Currently, there are two other corral chapters in western South Dakota: Jedediah Smith chapter in Hot Springs and Badger Clark in Custer.

Today, much of Lee's interest focuses on Fort Meade in particular and the Black Hills in general.

“The average longevity of western forts was 22 years,” said Lee. “Fort Meade lasted 66 years (1878-1944)—through the plains wars to the space age.”

It's interesting to note, he says, that the Black Hills area has been developed with five legs of support: ranching, lumber, mining, tourism and government. These were all significant factors in this region's growth. Government's role came about through irrigation projects (Belle Fourche and Angostura), the state cement plant, local colleges and the Black Hills National Forest.

As he speaks of this region's history, his eyes focus inwardly behind dark rimmed glasses to a pristine past as if concentrating on the most diminutive of details. In a flurry, the information pours out as matter of fact, as if it were common knowledge. As a hunter of the past, stalking primary sources of history, he has become to contemporary historians a primary source in his own right.