On the Crow Indian Reservation northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming, along the north bank of the winding Little Bighorn River, we stepped back into history on a flawless day in early September.
Gently rolling hills above the quiet river gave no hint of the terror and bloodshed that enveloped these acres in the summer of 1876. Horses roamed freely over the hills and blocked the road that led across the Little Bighorn Battlefield from end to end, eyeing us warily as we got out of our car to take pictures of this living scenery. But we were soon immersed in the story of the most famous battle of the western expansion movement.
As I mentioned in my post about Deadwood, a large area of what is now eastern Wyoming (and a sliver of western South Dakota) was designated a permanent reservation for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other Native American tribes of the Great Plains by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. This treaty followed decades of intermittent but bitter fighting between Indian and white cultures, as white emigrants moved relentlessly westward and the United States expanded its borders and its influence. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was intended to buy peace, and for a time it was successful. But in 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the heart of the Indian reservation, and prospectors streamed into the territory by the thousands in violation of the treaty and in disregard of the sacred hunting grounds of the tribes.
When nothing seemed able to stem the tide of incursion, the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne left the reservation in defiance of the treaty and began to again raid white settlements and travelers on the fringes of Indian land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued an order directing the tribes to return to the reservation before the end of January 1876 or be treated as hostiles by the U.S. Army. When the deadline had passed and the Indians had not complied, the Army was sent in to enforce the order.
And this is what led up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, an episode in our history that illustrates what happens when myth and reality collide. The Army’s plan was to neutralize the war chiefs, round up the recalcitrant tribes, and confine them to the reservation. The Indians refused to be restricted to the reservation, preferring their traditional way of life as nomadic buffalo hunters. Poor intelligence resulted in the Army’s vastly underestimating the size and strength of the Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River, believing that there were only a few hundred warriors and noncombatants (women, children, and the elderly) when in fact there were 7,000, including as many as 2,000 warriors, led by the charismatic Lakota chief Sitting Bull.
The terrain of what is now known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield makes it easy to see why the Army was at a tremendous disadvantage from the outset. Deep ravines and coulees run down from high ridges to the river valley, providing cover for the Indian warriors familiar with the landscape and accustomed to fighting from concealment, rather than from horseback in the open.
Also, the Army issued only two types of weapons to its troopers: the Colt six-shot revolver and the Springfield single-shot carbine. The Springfield excelled in range and accuracy, but it had to be reloaded after every shot, and the cartridges tended to jam when the barrel grew hot with use. The Indians used at least 41 different types of guns, including modern Henry and Winchester repeating rifles, giving them an advantage at close range.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, an experienced veteran of the Civil War, led the 7th Cavalry (about 600 men) to the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, where the Indian camp had been reported by his scouts to be located. Custer divided his regiment into three battalions and retained five of the twelve companies under his own command, assigning three companies each to Major Reno and Captain Benteen and the twelfth to guard the pack train carrying their extra ammunition. When all three battalions, operating separately, encountered heavy fighting, the story becomes murky. What is not in dispute is the fact that the 7th Cavalry lost all five of the companies under Custer’s command, about 210 men.
The conventional wisdom says that Custer heroically took a stand on the peak of what is now Custer Ridge, surrounded by his troopers, all of whom fought to the death. The Indians removed the bodies of their dead, estimated between 60 and 100, and left the troopers’ bodies on the battlefield, after stripping them and counting coup on their enemies in order to prevent their souls from being released to the afterlife.
When relief troops arrived on June 28, the bodies of Custer and his command were buried near where they were found; later, they were reinterred either in eastern cemeteries or, in 1881, in a mass grave around the base of the memorial erected on Custer Hill. So despite the headstone markers scattered across the battlefield, erected by the Army in 1890, there is no real evidence pointing to exactly where the soldiers died.
But in 1983, a wildfire at the Little Bighorn National Monument exposed the surface of the land on which the battle had been fought, enabling archeologists to trace the movements of the combatants more accurately than had been possible before. Identifying cartridge cases shows where a soldier fired his government weapon and where an Indian fired his Henry or Winchester or one of the other guns used by the warriors. Identifying the bullet itself gives evidence not only of the weapon from which it was fired, but the location of the target. Even more fascinating is what is called “firing pin signature analysis”: the firing pin of each gun leaves a unique mark, like a fingerprint, on the cartridge case as it fires a bullet. By matching the firing pin signatures on cartridge cases at different locations, it’s possible to follow the movements of individual combatants from place to place across the battlefield.
The archeological evidence, combined with eyewitness accounts of Custer’s final battle given by Indians who participated in it (there were no surviving witnesses from Custer’s battalion), tells a different story from the legend. Many of the troopers fled down the ravines from Custer Ridge seeking safety and were killed. The skirmish lines that were designed to give tactical stability (each man five yards away from the next) disintegrated, and the battalion collapsed. Some of the soldiers, probably including Custer, remained on the knoll, shooting their horses to provide a breastwork from behind which they attempted to hold off their swarming attackers. Witnesses described the fighting as fierce and fast, lasting no more than a half hour. One of the Cheyenne chiefs, Two Moons, described the scene: “The shooting was quick, quick. Pop-pop-pop very fast. Some of the soldiers were down on their knees, some standing. The smoke was like a great cloud, and everywhere the Sioux went the dust rose like smoke. We circled all around them — swirling like water around a stone.”
After the battle, knowing that retribution was bound to follow, the Indians scattered, some north to Canada, some to the south. In a few years, though, most of them returned to the reservations and surrendered. Further west, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, after resisting an order to move from his ancestral land to a tiny reservation, finally laid down his weapons in 1877 and said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” His words serve as an epitaph for the traditional way of life once enjoyed by native Americans.
A few more photos of the battlefield, and the Indian herd of grazing horses, are seen here.