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A Toast to Charlie Collins
If South Dakota Irishmen are looking for someone to toast this St. Patrick's Day, they might consider Charlie Collins, the most irrepressible wearer of the green ever to swing an editorial shillelagh in the territory.
Sioux Indians and Britishers are excused from the party, though, because Collins certainly would never qualify as their most lovable character. Charlie, you understand, was a newspaperman and an unmitigated promoter who wouldn't have won any prize for veracity or humility. He could stretch the truth like a giant rubber band; and pure, unadulterated blarney was his stock in trade.
He claimed to have established 113 newspapers throughout the West. Not true! He bragged that he had begun the first daily in every territory in the Union except Montana. Not true! What he did do, however, was launch a flamboyant campaign to open the Black Hills to gold miners — Indian treaties be damned! — and as a result he was largely responsible for the heated jurisdictional problem which has nagged Congress, tribal leaders and private citizens ever since.
Born in Ireland in the mid-1830s, Collins gave his age as 35 in 1870 when he appeared in Sioux City as the new owner of the Weekly Times. A natural tub-thumper, he couldn't wait to tell the world that the Iowa river port on the fringe of Dakota Territory was the ideal outfitting point for the argonauts and other adventurers whom he stirred up with his unrelenting publicity — true or otherwise.
When Father Pierre Jean DeSmet passed through Sioux City in 1871, Collins interviewed him, and the peripatetic priest confirmed the promoter's belief that the Black Hills would be America's next great bonanzaland.
With unbounded energy and glowing editorials, he championed the cause of invasion of the treaty forbidden land.
Early in 1872 he organized the Black Hills Mining and Exploring Association of Sioux City with himself as president. It was to become the sponsor of the historic Collins-Russell Expedition (also known as the Gordon Expedition) of 1874, which sneaked into the Hills and established the Gordon Stockade near present-day Custer. Annie Tallent, the first white woman to enter the region, was in the party of 28 — but Charlie Collins stayed safely behind to stir up more gold fever in the columns of the Times.
Meanwhile, unknown to many of his readers, the Irish schemer had another even more grandiose dream. He was an avid member of the Fenian Society, the organization of militant Sons of St. Pat pledged to restore the freedom of Ireland and to bedevil the British wherever and whenever possible.
He envisioned the establishment of an Irish colony on the Missouri across from the mouth of the White River (not far from today's Chamberlain.) As he told fellow Fenians at a convention in St. Louis, the settlement would become the headquarters for a patriotic army of Irishmen that would invade Canada when the appropriate opportunity came.
In the meantime, Brule City could also be a key part of the Sioux City route to the Hills where miners would switch from steamboats to wagons for the final overland leg of their journey to riches. (Collins just happened to control a major share of the best building lots in the proposed town.)
History tells us, of course, that the wild Irishman's pipedream to drive the hated British out of the continent was never realized. On the other hand, his persistent efforts to open the Black Hills eventually paid off. Even though the Army removed the “sooners” at the Gordon stockade, he and other boomers kept the pressure on until the military and the federal government simply gave up and permitted the tidal wave of incursion to begin.
Collins himself didn't immediately join the Gold Rush of '76. Instead he went to the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that year with a plan for escorting European visitors on a tour, which included Sioux City, Brule City and the Black Hills. No doubt he also was hoping for lots of Irish recruits in the process.
That was another idea that fell through, though, and Collins returned to the Midwest, acquired another printing outfit (he had sold the Times before he went East) and followed the crowd to Deadwood Gulch where he established the Black Hills Champion at Central City.
Inveterate promoter that he was, he soon came out with The History and Directory of the Black Hills, the first book published in the gold country. Strangely, though, the opening of the Dakota El Dorado seemed to come as an anti-climax for him. Could it have been that the challenge meant more to him than the realization?
After brief appearances in Sturgis and Bison, he turned again to his ultimate dream in Brule City. With renewed fervor, he left the Hills and announced plans for the publication of the Brule City Times. In typical fashion, Collins issued an advance prospectus, proclaiming that the Times would begin with a million copies in its first issue — the largest paper in the United States or Europe!
How he proposed to achieve such a volume production with the limited and generally crude equipment of the era apparently was known only to the garrulous publisher himself. The same was true of the 125,000 firm subscription orders he purported to have in hand.
Needless to say, his gigantic bubble finally burst. The Times, with a limited circulation, existed only briefly. The Irish Army never materialized, and Collins set off for California, where it is said that he made a fortune in real estate ventures before fading into the cobwebs of history.
As it turned out, Charlie Collins doesn't exactly go down in the history books as one of South Dakota's greatest citizens. But — sure and begorra! — when the Irishmen among us raise their glasses this March 17, his memory might just be a good excuse for an extra tipple or two.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the March 1986 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.