High Impact Hardrockers: Valentine McGillycuddy

Valentine T. McGillycuddy

This mini-biography of Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy, first to hold the title of President of the South Dakota Mines, was authored by Mines alumnus Dr. Donn Lobdell, (ME 58).  It’s part of our High Impact Hardrockers series looking at Mines alumni who have had an impact on history.

Valentine T. McGillycuddy was born on February 14th, 1849, in Racine, Wisconsin, to an Irish immigrant couple who met on the ship, bringing them to the USA. In the tradition of the Irish and the times, he was christened for the Patron Saint of his birthdate. We know little of his early life other than he had education well beyond the average of the time. He was to go on to become one of those larger-than-life characters who seem to have been more places, known more people, and done more things than most.

He attended university and qualified as a physician at the age of 20. He worked for several years as an attending physician at a municipal hospital in Detroit. His health suffered, and doctors recommended that he find outdoor work to recover it.

He had taken some engineering courses during his university training.  He joined the Great Lakes District engineering staff just in time to work on the rebuilding of Chicago following the great fire. His work being of high order, he was given the opportunity to join the Northern Boundary Survey (NBS). This was probably because he represented a “double-dip.” As both a capable surveyor and a medical doctor, he had higher value. For a survey party of perhaps 50 persons in a remote location, having a qualified physician on board was highly desirable, but an individual qualified solely in medicine might be a budget-breaker.

The NBS was a joint British and United States endeavor that resulted directly from the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. It was to establish an agreed-upon border between the USA and Canada in that portion of the frontier between the Lake of the Woods and the continental divide. The definition of the boundary was the 49th parallel of latitude. Locating that latitude on the ground was the issue. Both the British and the US surveyed the route and reconciled their respective markers and lines. It seems to have been a highly cooperative endeavor on both parts.

McGillycuddy joined the NBS in 1873. Initially, he performed junior surveying and topographic duties. He worked in the field until late in the year. The majority of the field crews were “paid off” at the end of the season. However, he was retained to reduce field notes into calculations and preliminary topographical maps during the winter.

For the 1874 NBS summer fieldwork, he was promoted as one of three topographic survey party leaders and is prominently mentioned in the 1878 Report of the NBS. The NBS, from 1873 to 1875, was provided US Army protection by units of Custer’s 7th Cavalry. McGillycuddy became acquainted with Major Marcus Reno during the 1874 NBS.

At the close of the 1874 NBS field activity, the survey parties were returned to Bismarck, DT, by boats. A well-known artist, William Cary, had been in the field with the NBS to provide illustrations for publications. A number of his paintings and lithographs are now in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, including several of the NBS. In one, the doctor is depicted as part of a group running a boat through rapids. McGillycuddy later obtained some of Cary’s works from this voyage down the Missouri.  At the arrival of the party at Bismarck, DT, he had an audience with General G.A. Custer, who had recently returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln from his expedition to the Black Hills. This meeting probably was McGillycuddy’s first exposure to the area, albeit second hand.  

He then went to Washington DC to work through the winter on reduction of the field notes and creation of maps relating to the NBS. However, the Custer expedition had raised an important issue. It stated that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills. Such had long been rumored. On the other hand, the Hayden Survey of 1856 had stated that there was no gold of paying quality there. The US Geographic and Geologic Survey determined that it was essential to have a third opinion.  

Thus, the Black Hills Expedition (BHE) was created, popularly known as the Newton-Jenney expedition after the scientific leaders, both geologists of high reputation. Determining the prospective value had a good deal of importance since there was pressure developing as would-be miners were illegally entering the area despite its treaty status with the Lakota people. It was a matter of pride to McGillycuddy that in the spring of 1875, he was appointed to the position of BHE chief topographer by the renowned director of the USG&GS, John Wesley Powell. Indeed, from his start with the NBS as an assistant slightly over two years earlier, he now had a leading role in a significant undertaking.  He began selecting and ordering equipment suitable for the task.  

Given the surrounding situation, military support was imperative. Colonel Richard I. Dodge was assigned to provide escort protection and logistic support for the BHE. The military escort was 450 men plus nearly 100 civilian employees. It also included a wagon train and 160 cattle. The scientific group numbered 17. However, the military contingent had several West Point graduates, well trained in mathematics and engineering. McGillycuddy had two officers working with him, and the astronomer had another. In addition, Dodge had appointed Lieutenant John Bourke as military topographer. This appointment could have resulted in rivalry between the civilian and military topographers; in the event, the two became cooperative friends. Bourke, a hero of the Civil War and later a prolific author, was to figure in the doctor’s future.

The BHE left Fort Laramie on May 24th, 1875, and spent a little over four months surveying the Black Hills. It entered along the west edge turning into the hills near Castle Rock and southeast to Black Elk Peak (then known as Harney Peak), the highest mountain in the Black Hills. The 1874 Custer expedition had made several attempts to reach the peak’s top without success. Colonel Dodge and his staff also attempted. On July 25th, 1875, McGillycuddy became the first European person recorded to have attained the top of the peak. It was used to create large scale triangulations for the mapping. The party carried up sufficient wood to build a celebratory bonfire at the summit and touched it off at night.

Colonel Dodge reported seeing several large groups of miners in the hills. Some miners laid out a town on French Creek amid a controversy over the naming. Southerners were for Stonewall, with northerners holding firm for Custer.   

The BHE egress from the hills was down Rapid Creek to the Cheyenne River, overland to the White River, and then to Camp Robinson, Nebraska. When it passed through the present site of Rapid City, Dodge observed that it would be an excellent location for a military cantonment.

This expedition was a turning point for McGillycuddy. He had carried out a large-scale, mostly independent project requiring planning, diligence, perseverance, and cooperation with other sections of a greater undertaking. It was quite an accomplishment. Bourke and Dodge regarded him as both capable and dependable; these officers were on General Crook’s staff in the Department of the Platte. He had also made acquaintance with Calamity Jane (naming a peak for her) and California Joe Milner, who had been a guide in the 1874 Custer expedition.

McGillycuddy had the field notes to reduce and maps to make.  On his way to Washington, DC, he stopped in Detroit to visit his family and, most importantly, to wed his fiancé, Fanny Hoyt. In the spring of 1876, while creating the BHE maps, he received what he termed a summons to join General Crook’s command as a civilian surgeon. This command was part of the Government’s campaign to bring the the Lakota into the allotted reservations, which was later determined by the US Supreme Court as a complete violation of the treaties of 1868. Powell assured him that others could and would complete his maps.  This decision would send his career into an entirely different path. The map was completed and is known as the McGillycuddy Topographic Map of the Black Hills of Dakota Territory.

McGillycuddy was proud that General Crook had requested through the US Army Surgeon General that they employ him as a civilian surgeon in the planned 1876 expedition. Since Crook had no direct knowledge of him, this, almost without doubt, occurred because Crook’s subordinates, Col. Dodge and Lt. Bourke, had worked with McGillycuddy during the 1875 Black Hills Expedition and had formed a very favorable opinion of him. Having accepted this summons, he transferred his work at the USG&GS, returned his new bride to her parent’s home, and set off in early June 1876, for Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory near the present town of Buffalo.  

On his travel from Detroit to Medicine Bow Station WT, McGillycuddy met both W. F “Buffalo Bill” Cody and J. B. “Wild Bill” Hickok. The former going to join another Army contingent as a scout; the latter on his way to Deadwood, DT.  From Medicine Bow, it was two days to Fort Fetterman. When he arrived there mid-June, he found that the Crook expedition had left, and he was to wait at the Fort until supply troops shuttled to their location.  In the event, he was at Fort Fetterman when some of Crook’s troops arrived for medical treatment following the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876. After victories by the Lakota and Cheyenne at both Rosebud and Little Big Horn, the Crook expedition was refitted for additional field operations. In many respects, these did not go well.  At the campaign’s close in September 1876, after marching through Montana and western Dakota Territories, the expedition limped into the Black Hills from the north. History remembers this as the “Starvation March” or the “Horsemeat March.” Because of his familiarity with the region, the Doctor also served as a guide to navigate the expedition through the Black Hills to Camp Robinson. He performed his duties, medical and guidance, in exemplary fashion; hence he was asked to remain at Camp Robinson as a civilian physician contracted to the Army Medical Corps.

Camp Robinson, later Fort Robinson, was near the present town of Crawford, Nebraska.  The Red Cloud Agency was also located at Camp Robinson –this was the principal purpose of the camp. The Spotted Tail Agency was located at Camp Sheridan near present Hay Springs, Nebraska. McGillycuddy treated Lakota at both agencies as well as soldiers as parts of his responsibilities. In May 1877, Crazy Horse led his band into the Red Cloud Agency. The Doctor treated Crazy Horse’s wife for tuberculosis. In September 1877, he attended the dying Crazy Horse after the chief's bayoneting during a highly questionable arrest by the Army at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Later that year, the two Lakota agencies were moved from western Nebraska to the Missouri River in winter’s harshness.  McGillycuddy went with the relocated Red Cloud agency to near present Chamberlain, SD.

In mid-1878, the Doctor received appointment as the physician of the Red Cloud Agency.  In the fall, the Agency was moved west to its new location in south-western Dakota Territory. In January 1879, he went to Washington DC to testify in an investigation regarding the treatment of Cheyenne prisoners at Fort Robinson.

McGillycuddy was offered the appointment of Agent for the Red Cloud Agency at the close of January 1879. This was something of an unusual appointment as he had no political influence. In this period, Indian agents had often been appointed on the spoils system and were thus sometimes able to receive considerable additional income. The Red Cloud Agency was one of particular focus as it was thought highly likely to be a source of unrest. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz was a reformer and was determined to change the Bureau of Indian Affairs from a reputation of the dual taints of corruption and mismanagement to one of professionalism. The rivalry between the War Department and the Department of the Interior over which should have responsibility for and thus control of the western reservations predated this period and would last several more decades. While not known to be the case, it is quite probable that General Crook was influential in recommending the Doctor for this role.

McGillycuddy accepted the appointment and immediately began planning the organization of the Agency and ordering supplies. Most of the Agency buildings were in the planning stage, and most staffing was still to be hired. However, there was a difficulty; the previous Agent, whose resignation had been announced to him, was refusing to withdraw. It took several months for the actual transfer of the Agency property to complete. He had already begun his stewardship of the Agency. He issued regulations banning all non-Indians from entering the reservation without express authorization of the Agent and prohibiting the sale of alcohol. From an administrative standpoint, he organized a police force drawn entirely from tribal members and, in the most notable break from tradition, did not have a military contingent based at the Agency.  During McGillycuddy’s tenure as Agent, the military support remained at Fort Robinson, a two day march from the Agency. This resulted in the Agency police force becoming more professional and more responsible for serving the Pine Ridge agency than in those agencies that relied on a military presence to maintain order.  He established a court system with due regard to the traditional Lakota structure.  

The role of an agent in the transition from a nomadic buffalo hunting life to the subsistence farming envisioned by many was not trivial in its demands.  By 1879 the buffalo slaughter, which some believe was an effort to control the Great Sioux Nation, had so severely reduced the once vast herds that the nomadic lifestyle of a decade earlier was no longer possible. Unfortunately, the government favored mode of subsistence farming was not feasible in the area provided. This meant that the Dakota Territory reservations and, in particular, Pine Ridge could not function in the manner envisioned by government policy and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As Agent, McGillycuddy was responsible for the welfare of about 10,000 persons. The exact population of the Agency was long a matter of mystery and even intrigue. While the buffalo still ran, some agents inflated the number of inhabitants so that extra supplies could be justified and the excess corruptly sold. The buffalo supplied some of the subsistence, and the inflated numbers explained the excess provisions.  Later, in particular, when McGillycuddy was agent, the excessive numbers resulted in enough necessities to maintain the health of the agency inhabitants. The supplies were provided on the basis that each family head would be raising crops to provide subsistence.  In practice, the land at Pine Ridge was not suitable for much farming, so the inflation of the agency population was necessary to obtain enough supplies to maintain the legitimate number. Such a system was bound to create fictions, factions and frictions.

The factions created at Pine Ridge were long-lasting. They resulted in McGillycuddy becoming “the most investigated man in the nation” according to his own (and other’s) estimate.  Chief Red Cloud had a good deal of patronage and desired recognition as the leader of the Agency. He was not without his detractors within the Lakota themselves. McGillycuddy had many adherents and supporters in this group. In addition to considerable tribal support, Red Cloud had backing from several political figures whose goals seemed to range from placing the reservations back into the spoils system to transferring them from the Department of the Interior to the War Department. McGillycuddy had the support of the Interior Department, several civilian organizations devoted to Native Americans, and the aforementioned tribal progressives. Notably, he had the endorsement of the military establishment of the region. It was a delicate balancing act, and he was able to maintain it for seven years. To his credit, he supported day school education as contrasted to the boarding school approach used in many reservations.

In 1886, the Cleveland administration wanted to place party loyalists in government jobs, so they ordered McGillycuddy to replace a Pine Ridge employee with a selected party loyalist.  He refused and was then replaced by an acting agent. Because of allegations that he had mismanaged funds and supplies, McGillycuddy demanded a full review of the Agency accounts. This review took several months. By the end of 1886, the accounting was complete; no discrepancies of any consequence were found. However, he was not reinstated in his role as Agent as a Cleveland loyalist was awaiting. This was the end of the Doctor’s fourteen-year career in various capacities with the federal government.

In the spring of 1886, the McGillycuddys moved to Rapid City. He became an officer of the Lakota Banking and Investment Company as well as the Black Hills National Bank. He started a substantial house at South and 8th Street that was completed the next spring. He also became a member of the Board of Directors of Rapid City Electric and Gas Lighting Company. McGillycuddy was a “mover and shaker,” involved in many community activities and something of an enthusiast for science and novelty. He and his wife were active in several social clubs. Mrs. McGillycuddy, during the time at Pine Ridge, had acquired a buffalo pair, which they pastured with their offspring south of the city.  

The Doctor was appointed Surgeon General of Dakota Territory. He was appointed to the committee developing the state constitution for South Dakota in the prospective event creating two states from a substantial portion of Dakota Territory. All-in-all, with his civic work, his professional endeavors, and the social life, he had a full plate on which he appeared to thrive.

In late 1889, with statehood achieved, he served as a member of the first state legislature and on several committees. He was also appointed Surgeon General of South Dakota. He kept up with happenings at Pine Ridge by hosting visitors from there when they visited Rapid City. He invested in various mining properties. One observer said that he always had many irons in the fire and others in use; he was active in the hydroelectric company well beyond the usual role of a board member.  

In late 1890, the “Messiah Craze,” also known as the “Ghost Dance” movement took root in the reservations in the two Dakotas.  McGillycuddy was appointed as an Assistant Adjutant in the South Dakota National Guard and asked by the Governor to report on the situation at Pine Ridge. He was also contacted by General Nelson Miles for his assessment. He visited Pine Ridge. Even though troops were already in place, the Doctor strongly recommended that troops be withdrawn from the reservation. There was, in his opinion, no danger from the inhabitants. It was probably too late for that, and the Wounded Knee massacre followed in a few weeks. There are numerous articles and books on the tragedy and its aftermath – most recent work supports McGillycuddy’s view, but it did not prevail at the time. 

In April 1891, he joined the South Dakota School of Mines Board of Trustees as President of the Board. He served in this role until 1894 when he resigned from the Board accepting appointment as head of the school with the title of Dean. His duties included the role of Examiner of Mines for the State.  As with all of his responsibilities, the Doctor carried out this latter role with verve and diligence. It is said that he slept on sacks of ore samples on site to ensure that after he had seen them taken from the ore face, they remained unaltered before assaying.

The years 1893 to 1896 were difficult ones as the financial panic of 1893 seriously affected mining and agricultural prices. The School of Mines had a total enrollment of fewer than 50 students, and there was talk in the Legislature of closing the school. It was kept open, and he was appointed as the first President of the college (previous heads had been titled Dean).  He also taught classes - geology is officially listed, but with his background in surveying and topography coupled with his numerous enthusiasms, it is difficult to believe that he confined his reach only to geology. 

In 1897 the doctor began serving as Mayor of Rapid City. He had long been active in state politics. Later that year, Mrs. McGillycuddy suffered a second stroke and died. He decided to leave the Black Hills and accepted a position as a medical examiner for the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York covering the western states, based in San Francisco. He donated his late wife’s buffaloes to the Smithsonian Institution, where they formed part of the nucleus for their herd. He had some land and mining property investments in the Black Hills, the management of which, along with the Rapid City house, was assigned to a local agent. His new career involved substantial travel, but he still found time to investigate and invest in California mining properties.  

In October of 1899, he married the daughter of a former Pine Ridge colleague.  They had a daughter, also named Valentine, in 1905. His second wife, Julia Blanchard McGillycuddy, attended the University of California after their marriage. Their daughter also attended and graduated from that school’s architectural department.

When World War I was declared, McGillycuddy attempted to join as a surgeon but was turned down based on his age (68). He also suggested that he could recruit volunteers from the reservation, but was again turned down. But he was not yet finished with serving the country. When the influenza epidemic of 1918 erupted in the USA, he volunteered with the Public Health Service of the Pacific Coast. He went, along with four nurses, to a remote mining area where a significant outbreak was in progress. In addition to the medical issues, there were some significant political matters involved. National Guard troops were in place due to agitation from IWW unionists at the mines.   His experience managing both mines and a large reservation stood him in good stead.  Given charge of both the medical and local enforcement emergencies, he closed the saloons, banished the IWW from the mines, and established a 40-bed hospital.  In a month, the epidemic in this community had passed.

From the California mining area, he went further south to the oil fields in Kern County and on to several other outbreaks. He was then sent to another mining camp in Utah (in the winter). A few months later, he returned to San Francisco. He resigned from the Public Health Service and resumed his work with the Insurance company. Four months later, the Public Health Service asked him to rejoin the influenza team as there was a significant outbreak in Alaska. Since he was highly experienced in influenza treatment and even though aged 70, as a proven leader, he was in charge of a medical team of 25 doctors and nurses. His tour in Alaska lasted another four months.

The aftermath of the influenza assignments was severalfold. One was that the Union Pacific Railway was pleased to give a lifetime pass for him and his family in recognition of his work. Even more pleasing was that the California Medical Association discovered that he was not licensed as a physician because his entry into medical practice had been before physician licensing existed in Michigan or the territories where he had served. The chairman of the licensing board was the head of the Public Health Service, who had several times requested his services. The upshot was that rather than asking him to sit for an examination, they asked that he deliver a lecture on the treatment of influenza and then awarded him California licensure. 

He continued his insurance company work and also his California land development activities. He retained his interest in politics, corresponding with elected federal representatives of several states. He also served as a source for various historians who were researching histories of “winning of the west.”

As he eased into retirement, he became the resident house physician at the elegant and fashionable Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California, where he continued his political and historical interests. His wife began fiction writing, to some extent, based on his memories. He urged her to write the real story, and so she started his biography. He died in 1939 at 90 years of age. His ashes were placed in a crypt in a boulder near the top of the highest peak in the Black Hills some 65 years after he first climbed it. Her biography of him, published two years later, is effectively his autobiography, certainly a joint effort.

McGillycuddy achieved success and a measure of renown in his several chosen fields of physician, topographer, public servant, and business man. He attained these as a result of his merit. He was certainly fortunate in his two marriages.  His first wife Fanny was a devoted companion during his years of professional growth. She rode with him in many of his explorations and was with him in his assignments when many wives stayed east. As a trained teacher, she served as the superintendent of the Pine Ridge Schools and was a welcoming hostess when needed as such. Her diaries are important source books for aspects of western history. He was clearly bereft at her early death–changing his career direction and location. His second wife, Julia, was also a person of capabilities.  She bore his only child and wrote his biography which remains an important source book on the man and the times. It is from her generous treatment of his first wife in this biography that a picture of the McGillycuddy’s domestic life during the years that made his reputation is known. 


There are many books and reference works pertaining to Valentine T. McGillycuddy in some measure.  Some are listed below

  1.  McGillycuddy Agent by Julia B. McGillycuddy, Stanford University Press, 1941.  This has long been out of print.   A reissue under the title Blood on the Moon with introduction by  James C. Olson, 1990,  Bison Books of the University of Nebraska is often available in the used market.
  2. Valentine T. McGillycuddy by Candy Moulton, Arthur H. Clark Company an imprint of the University of Oklahoma, 2011.  This work is more scholarly and has more evident research than McGillycuddy Agent.  The latter work benefits from the direct association with the subject of the biography.  Moulton’s work has more detachment and was able to draw upon the substantial amount of research that has been done on the western USA during the 70 years between their respective publications.
  3. On the Border with Crook by John G. Bourke, Charles Scribner & Sons, 1891, there have been numerous editions of it.  Some remain in print.  Chapter XXV touches on McGillycuddy as the Pine Ridge agent. 
  4. The Black Hills Journals of Colonel Richard Irving Dodge edited by Wayne R. Kime, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.  This is an “unofficial” view of the Black Hills Expedition of 1875.  He also wrote a public semi-official view published as The Black Hills in 1876 well before the official report.
  5. Reports upon the Survey of the Boundary between The Territory of the United States and the Possessions of Great Britain, US Government Printing Office, 1878
  6. Report on the Geology and Resources of the Black Hills of Dakota, US Government Printing Office, 1880
Last edited 9/12/2023 5:57:52 PM

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