In the early 1860s, disillusioned with the government's reservation policy, aggrieved Indians inhabiting the Great Plains took to the warpath. Some Indians resisted outright any limits to their hunting grounds. Other tribes, willing to accept the government's boundaries, felt betrayed whenever whites infringed on their designated lands. A series of hostile engagements ensued between Indians and soldiers throughout the West during the next three decades.
Militarily handcuffed by fierce Sioux resistance in the Powder River region of southeastern Montana Territory and northern Wyoming Territory, the government sought negotiation. The resulting Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 called for the United States to abandon its guardian forts (Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith) along the Bozeman Trail; awarded to the Sioux all of present-day South Dakota (including the Black Hills) west of the Missouri River; and allowed the Indians to continue hunting buffalo within the expanse stretching from the western boundary of the Black Hills to the summit of the Bighorn Mountains (referred to as the "unceded territory"). Essentially, the Sioux could choose to live on the Great Sioux Reservation and draw provisions from the government, or roam freely throughout the Powder River Basin to hunt wild game. Either way, there was to be no significant interference from whites. In lieu of chasing buffalo, the government promised the reservation Indians oxen, plows, wagons, and other farming necessities. Education for Indian children up to 16 years of age was also provided under the treaty.
Red Cloud (Mahpiua Luta) and Spotted Tail (Sinte Gleska) led some 15,000 Sioux to the reservation. A smaller group of about 3,000, Crazy Horse (Tashunka Witco) and Sitting Bull (Tatanka Yotanka) among them, continued to resist all ties to the United States government and remained in the unceded country. (About 400 Northern Cheyennes mingled there, as well.) Sitting Bull chastised his Sioux brethren who succumbed to the lure of free rations offered on the reservation: "You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee." The fact is that practically all the Sioux spent some amount of time on the reservation because the treaty itself tacitly encouraged a constant flow of Indians between the abundant unceded country, where the free life of the buffalo hunt could be enjoyed during the summer, and the Great Sioux Reservation, offering the security of free agency rations throughout the harsh winter months.
The Indians shuffling back and forth between reservation and unceded territory were difficult for the government to manage. In addition, their movement provided excellent opportunities to conduct periphery raids against settlers near the fringes of Indian land and to harass the railroads (the Indians had pledged in the Fort Laramie Treaty to permit the iron horse to pass unmolested through their lands). The Sioux typically defended these violations by claiming that the treaty had not been properly explained to them.
During the summer of 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was assigned to lead an enormous expedition through the Black Hills. Its dual purpose was to determine a suitable location for a military fort (to better supervise the Indians) and settle the question of gold in the Hills. The mission was a clear breach of the Fort Laramie Treaty. So within just six years after the treaty was drawn, both the Sioux and the United States had broken their agreements.
The expedition's confirmation of gold in the Hills made whites immediately covetous of the region. One newspaper editorial after another clamored for settlement. Army patrols tried half-heartedly to keep prospectors out while geological survey parties were sent into the Hills to confirm the presence of gold. One thing was for certainit was just a matter of time before the government would bow to the influx of settlers.
In 1875, the United States began to apply pressure on the Indians to sell the Black Hills. The situation caused a political split among the Sioux. The largest faction was headed by Red Cloud and Spotted Tail. It consisted primarily of reservation Indians who favored selling the Hills (the land would eventually be taken anyway, they reasoned). A second group was led by Young Man Afraid, who earlier had admirably abandoned the warpath in order to work toward some degree of accommodation with the whites that would allow the Sioux to live in peace while maintaining their culture. He was unwilling to sell, but equally unwilling to fight. The third bunch, championed by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, vehemently opposed selling the Hills, even if it meant bloodshed. Most of their followers were belligerents living in the unceded country and young bucks residing on the various reservation agencies. Their position was not so much based on principle, but rather on the possibility that they might one day soon have the opportunity to satisfy their intense desire to strike a blow against the white man.
A commission traveled from Washington to meet with the Sioux and discuss terms of sale. The Indians balked at the government's offer of $6 million and negotiations ceased. Frustrated, the government decided that since it was primarily the hostiles of the unceded territory who were standing in the way of a deal, the obvious solution was to clear them from the region.
An increasing number of the reservation Sioux were growing restless. Especially infuriated by prospectors searching for gold in the Black Hills, the approaching crews of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the rapidly declining buffalo herds on the Great Sioux Reservation, many of the Indians moved to the unceded territory, thus augmenting the hostiles already there. Then, along with their Northern Cheyenne allies, the massive Indian league headed north to Montana Territory. Now unquestionably outside the parameters of the Fort Laramie Treaty, they were directed to return to the reservation by the end of January 1876. The summons was ignored. The ultimatum had given the militant Indians only a month to respond, and in the dead of winter moving such a great distance was a perilous and slow process. For this limited timetable of compliance, the government has been criticized; nevertheless, most of the renegades had no intention of complying with the orders.
In mid-May of 1876, the War Department ordered General Alfred Terry to proceed from Fort Abraham Lincoln in northern Dakota Territory to the Powder River region. Terry's mission was to intercept the Indians there and force them back to their assigned reservations. With Terry was Custer, in command of the 7th Cavalry. According to plan, the Terry column would act in chorus with those of General George Crook (advancing northward from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory) and Colonel John Gibbon (coming from Fort Ellis in western Montana Territory) to converge on the renegades.
Having rendezvoused with Gibbon near the huge Indian encampment, Terry dispatched Custer to the headwaters of Rosebud Creek so as to block the Indians' probable escape route; once in place, Custer was to wait for the Terry, Gibbon, and Crook forces to arrive. But instead of swinging well to the south and then doubling back to block the Indians' escape as instructed, Custer turned his march almost directly toward the Indian village. It appeared as though he was preparing to attack with the other columns still far away! (Crook's force, unbeknownst to Terry, Gibbon, and Custer, had been halted several days earlier by Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Rosebud.)
On the morning of June 25, Custer divided his already vastly outnumbered troops. He dispatched Major Marcus Reno with three companies to cross the Little Bighorn and attack the Indian village from the south. Captain Frederick Benteen was assigned three companies and given vague orders to sweep the bluffs southeast of the valley. One company, under Captain Thomas McDougall, stayed to guard the vulnerable pack train. Custer and the five remaining companies would engage the Indian encampment from the northeast.
The formidable Indian alliance, numbering at least 2,000 strong (some estimates go as high as twice that amount), was led by Crazy Horse, the preeminent Sioux warrior chief, and Sitting Bull, spiritual emissary of the Sioux. Other notables present were Gall and Rains In The Face, both courageous Sioux chiefs, and Two Moons, a daring Cheyenne leader.
The result was disastrous. The mighty Indian army took less than an hour to obliterate Custer's much smaller main force of barely over 200. (The reputed sole survivor was the horse of Captain Myles Keogh.) Reno's troops were routed due to his questionable command; Benteen stalled when a messenger arrived with clear orders from Custer to come quickly as reinforcement. Consequently, neither Reno or Benteennearly two-thirds of the 7th's total strengthreached Custer during the fight. When the Indians learned of the advancing forces of Gibbon and Terry, they hurriedly evacuated their Little Bighorn encampment. Their dead were removed from the field, hence no precise count of the Indian casualties is possible. Most estimates place the number near 50.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, most of the country was immersed in summer-long festivities celebrating America's centennial. When the devastating news of the Little Bighorn debacle and Custer's death reached eastern newspapers over the Fourth of July weekend, the federal government was embarrassed and humiliated; the public was shocked and horrified. A giant Plains thunderstorm had rained on America's biggest party of the century! For the Indians the victory was bittersweet. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, the most decisive defeat of the Army during the Plains Indian Wars, alienated many of the Indians' white sympathizers in the East and moreover, the government became bent on avenging Custer's defeat. Within just a few months, the Indians had surrendered to revamped forces under Terry, Crook, and others. They were returned to their reservations and forced to sign documents relinquishing the Black Hills to the United States government. At that point, for all practical purposes, the Plains Indian Wars were history.
Custer's lopsided defeat was due to a combination of circumstances, still debated by historians today. His underestimation or disregard, whatever the true case may be, of the Indian strength was certainly a factor. Apparently, scouts had warned Custer of the enormous Indian force assembled at the Little Bighorn. In spite of this information, Custer decided to split his already vastly outnumbered troops, which under most circumstances would be considered pure and simple error in military tactics. (Did Custer think back, once the instant arrived when he realized his fate, on his rejection of Terry's offer to send an additional 300-plus troops of the 2nd Cavalry along with the 7th?) Nevertheless, Custer's overconfidence was partially a product of his past experience; more than once, he had defeated a large Indian force with a surprise attack by his light and mobile cavalry. And almost certainly, had Reno and Benteen acted appropriately, the battle would have played out much differently. (Did Custer wonder, at the moment of truth, where were Reno and Benteen?) Though some analysts feel that Custer, even with reinforcement from Reno or Benteen, would have been ultimately defeated because of his failure to gain the high ground, a crucial military objective in any engagement, perhaps complete annihilation could have been avoided. Any prediction about the survival of Custer himself is pure guesswork.
While historians know with high degree of accuracy the events leading up to the Little Bighorn Battle, piecing together the details of the battle itself is a much more difficult task since there was no white survivor to tell the story. The questions that linger have served as fodder for myth and legend about Custer and his so-called "Last Stand." Almost overnight Custer was transformed into national martyrdom by numerous plays, novels, poems, biographies, and paintings. Terry and President Ulysses S. Grant were not so generous to the fallen hero. Two months after the battle, Terry stated that if Custer had survived he would have been court-martialed for disobedience. Grant told a New York Herald reporter: "I regard Custer's massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary."
This excursion is a three-day affair involving overnight stays. Cost includes transportation, lodging, and major meals (payable to instructor prior to departure). Since some of the activities take place outdoors, careful attention to the weather forecast is important to determine appropriate outer wear. Occasionally, rattlesnakes appear; caution and closed-toe shoes are essential. Students are expected at all times to practice good manners and common courtesy. Please click here for a complete description of this activity.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument lies within the Crow Indian Reservation, halfway along the 135-mile stretch of Interstate 90 between Sheridan, Wyoming, and Billings, Montana. Entry is one mile west of I-90 (take Exit 510) off U.S. Highway 212. A visitor center, museum, and cemetery are on site. There is a small charge to enter the battlefield area; no fee is assessed to visit the cemetery only. A self-tour enables motor vehicles to stop at a dozen or more panoramic viewpoints, each with informative placards, along the five-mile route from where Custer readied for battle by dividing his command to the infamous Last Stand Hill. The park is open every day except New Year's, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Summer hours are from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm; closing time is somewhat earlier during the rest of the year. No camping or picnicking facilities exist. As with all federal and Indian land, metal detecting is prohibited.
Within days after the battle, the 7th's casualties were hastily buried where they lay, the shallow gravesites marked with wooden stakes. A year later, the remains of Custer, 11 of his officers, and two civilians were transferred to eastern cemeteries (Custer's body was reinterred at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York). The other soldiers' remains were exhumed in 1881 and reburied in a mass grave on Last Stand Hill. In this vicinity Custer and about 40 of his menremnants of the five fragmented companies under Custer's direct commandshot their horses to create breastworks for a final, desperate stand in the midst of a ferocious swarm of Indian braves. The spot is memorialized by a granite shaft bearing the entire list of officers, troopers, scouts, and civilians killed at the Little Bighorn. It is surrounded by a black iron fence. In 1890, the Army positioned 249 white headstones throughout the battlefield where Custer's men were slain. (Their scattered distribution illuminates the 7th's mad scramble of June 25, 1876.) In 1999, the National Park Service similarly placed three red markers where Indian warriors fell, honoring Lame White Man (Ve´ho´enohnenehe) and Noisy Walking (Nestonevahtsestse), both Cheyennes, and Long Road (Cankuhanska), a Sans Arc Sioux. As of 2008, there are over 20 warrior markers (some on the Custer battlefield plus others at the Reno/Benteen defense site).
Through the years, officials have gradually accepted the idea that the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument should commemorate all the brave menIndian warriors and Army soldiers alikewho fought there. Early requests by Indian groups for such recognition were ignored. The most substantial headway came during the 1990s. President George Bush approved the entire monument site's name change from "Custer" to "Little Bighorn." In addition, Public Law 102-201 authorized construction of a special memorial for the Indians. In 1997, a panel of artists, historians, architects, scholars, and other aboriginal experts judged a nationwide competition for the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial. From over 550 entries, John and Alison Collins, landscape architects from Pennsylvania, were chosen as the contest winners. Their plans called for a large circular "earthwork" with a "metaphorical gateway" as the entry. The inner walls of the open-air structure would be inscribed with words and images unique to each of the five tribes that participated in the great battleArapaho, Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, and Sioux. Now finished, it is located directly across the road from the 1881 monument to the 7th on the crest of Last Stand Hill, just a few steps from the visitor center.
An important part of the memorial is the Spirit Warriors sculpture. In 2002, Colleen Cutschall, an Oglala-Sicangu Sioux artist and professor originally from South Dakota, then of Canada was commissioned to design and oversee this portion of the memorial. Her finished artwork is a bronze piece measuring 12 feet high by 35 feet long. It features "three Plains warriors on horseback" in pictograph style so the viewer can peer through the outlined figures to the battlefield and sky beyond. The leading Indian wears a headdress implying a great leader; the riding style of the middle brave suggests the fine horsemanship of the Plains Indians; the trailing warrior is being aided by a woman, indicative of various battle assistance provided by females.
The American Indian Memorial, completed at a cost of $2.3 million, was dedicated on June 25, 2003. Unfortunately, despite numerous design adjustments, some tribal groups were displeased with the final version and refused to participate in the ceremonies, thus blemishing the memorial's overall theme of "Peace Through Unity," meant to foster historical reconciliation and cultural respect between American Indians and whites.
Students begin with a base of 100 points. Additional points can be accumulated relative to successful completion of the following activities. Please consult instructor for due dates.
• Complete the Crazy Horse Memorial Preliminary Study Guide (75 points).
• Complete the Little Bighorn Excursion Study Guide (50 points).
• View the movie Son of the Morning Star at the Elks Theatre (50 points).
• Attend the Park Service film/lecture presentation (40 points).
• Tour the battlefield and walk the cemetery (30 points).
• Browse the museum (20 points).
• Complete the Fort Phil Kearny Supplementary Study Guide (25 points).
• Complete the Trail End Supplementary Study Guide (25 points).
• Complete the Sheridan Inn Supplementary Study Guide (25 points).
• Complete the Devils Tower Supplementary Study Guide (25 points).
• Wear a cowboy hat on the bus trip (10 bonus points).
Select the best response for each item according to information learned during the excursion as well as through preparatory lectures and reading assignments.
Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).