The Battle of the Little Big Horn ensured for General George Custer the fame he had always wanted. His death and the destruction of those men in the US Army's Seventh Cavalry who fought with him by the largest gathering of Native American warriors that the country had seen, immortalised Custer in films, books and in the psyche of Americans. Paintings by the likes of Edgar Paxson and Kurz and Allison portrayed Custer as the all-American hero fighting with his men to the death at the Big Horn Valley against vastly superior odds.
But was the real villain of the Battle of the Little Big Horn Custer himself? Did his arrogance and desire for fame lead to the unnecessary death of hundreds of men in the Seventh Cavalry?
Why did a battle between the US Army and tribes of the Western Sioux Nation take place at all?
The battle took place in 1876. For many years before this date, the Sioux and the American government had been in conflict. The Sioux nation was a powerful collection of tribes. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, they had been pushed further and further west as the white settlers expanded into the American heartland from the Thirteen Colonies on the eastern seaboard. By 1850, the Sioux nation had been cut in two by the expansion west of the white settlers. The eastern Sioux had remained in the area near the Great Lakes of America. The western Sioux had been in conflict with the government over land ownership and it was arguments with this group that lead to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
By the 1840's the western Sioux had found good hunting grounds in the high plains of Dakota and in Montana and Wyoming. Here for a while, the Sioux were free from trouble with the white settlers. The worst problems occurred along the North Platte river when the Sioux were disturbed by wagon trains using the Oregon Trail. Then in 1862, gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains in Montana. As with all gold rushes, such a find attracted many prospectors to the area. They needed to be supplied. A supply route was opened up by John Bozeman - the Bozeman Trail - which went from the Oregon Trail to Virginia City, running along the eastern edge of the Big Horn Mountains. The Bozeman Trail ran straight through the hunting grounds of the western Sioux nation. While the Oregon Train was an irritation to the Sioux, the Bozeman Trail was a serious threat to their way of life. For the gold miners, the Bozeman Trail was vital; to the Sioux it was yet another example of the whites affecting their lives in a negative manner.
The most important Sioux warrior at this time was Red Cloud. From 1862 to 1864, he led a campaign against those who used the Bozeman Trail. It was so successful that the government arranged for a peace meeting to be held in 1866 at Fort Laramie between the government and the western Sioux nation. The government wanted to persuade the Sioux to allow the gold miners to use the Bozeman Trail as long as the miners did not disturb the buffalo. During the talks, a detachment from the army turned up with orders to set up a series of forts along the Bozeman Trail so that the miners could use the Trail without the fear of being attacked by the Sioux - therefore, the preservation of the buffalo herds was not relevant any longer. When Red Cloud heard of this move, he immediately withdrew from the peace talks and left the meeting with these words:
|"You are the White Eagle who has come to steal the road. The Great Father (the president) sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road, but the White Chief comes with the soldiers to steal it before the Indian says yes or no. I will talk with you no more. I will go now and fight you! As long as I live I will fight you for the last hunting grounds of my people."|
Red Cloud's War
Red Cloud's War - against the miners and the army - proved to be successful. It also saw the rise of such warriors as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The army built two forts to protect the miners but they were besieged in them. In December 1866, Crazy Horse and his warriors killed nearly 100 soldiers led by a Captain Fetterman. The soldiers had been on a wood cutting expedition. "Harper's Weekly" referred to this event as the 'Fetterman Massacre'. By the spring of 1867, the government put out peace feelers to Red Cloud as it realised that only a major injection of soldiers and money could protect the Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud refused to have anything to do with peace talks. It would appear that his experiences in 1866 led to him simply not believing the American government. Red Cloud refused to leave the mountains. The destabilisation caused by the American Civil War and the fact that a new Indian War would cost money and even more men, led to the government pulling out of the area the troops who were stationed there. Red Cloud and his warriors burned to the ground the forts built by the soldiers.
In November 1868, Red Cloud signed a peace treaty. By this treaty, the Oglala Sioux, the Brule Sioux and the Miniconjou Sioux would move into the huge Great Sioux Reservation. This covered a vast tract of land in South Dakota. It included the Black Hills of Dakota which was a very sacred place to the Sioux as it was in these hills that the spirits and souls of dead Sioux lived. For their part, the government agreed to:
"all reservations shall be set apart
for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Sioux
"no persons (except government
officers) shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in
"within 90 days of the conclusion of peace with the Sioux Nation, the military posts now established in this territory shall be abandoned....and the road leading to them....shall be closed."
As a result of this treaty the Bozeman Trail was closed and the forts were abandoned. Red Cloud had done what no ever tribal chief had done - won a major victory against the government. In the autumn of 1868, the way of life of the Sioux seemed to be secure.
However, Red Cloud faced problems amongst the Sioux themselves. Many tribal groups followed Red Cloud but a large number also followed Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. They refused to sign the treaty. His followers included the Hunkpapas, the Sans Arcs and some Oglala Sioux. This group continued to live in the old way - roaming the Big Horn Valley and hunting buffalo. They also continued attacking any white settlers who happened to get in their way.
1874, rumours circulated that gold had been found in the Black Hills. In 1874,
an army scouting expedition was sent out lead by Custer. He was hated among the
Sioux and he had a reputation among them as being a ruthless 'Indian hunter'.
His attack on the peaceful tribal village of Cheyenne in 1868 was well known
among tribes. To the Native People, Custer was "Long Hair". To the
Sioux, Custer's presence meant trouble.
(Custer) had no right to be there because that country was ours. They (the
government) had said that the land there would be ours as long as the grass
should grow and the water flow. Later I found that Long Hair had found there
much of the yellow metal that makes the Wasichus (whites) crazy. Long Hair had
told them (the whites) about it with a voice that went everywhere. Later he got
rubbed out for doing that."
Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux.
By 1875, a new gold rush had started right into the heart of the sacred Black Hills. Red Cloud appealed to the government but neither the government nor the army was capable of keeping out those seeking their fortune. In the summer of 1875, the government attempted to buy the Black Hills off of the Sioux. Red Cloud wanted $600,000,000 for the area while Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse would not even be part of the discussions.
does not sell the earth upon which the people walk"
Red Cloud's figure was an impossible one which the government could only refuse. In Washington, there was anger at the attitude of the Sioux and the government swiftly moved to a position whereby their desires could only be enforced by the military. A government Indian Inspector, E C Watkins, wrote:
|"The true policy...is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and to whip them into subjection. They richly merit punishment for their incessant warfare and their numerous murders of white settlers and their families or whitemen wherever found unarmed."|
The government started by trying to persuade the "wild bands" of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to go into the Great Reservation with Red Cloud. They refused and were declared "hostile" by the government. The army, under the command of General Sheridan, was given the task of dealing with them.
Sheridan decided on an attack from three directions. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were in the hills of the Big Horn Mountains so any attack was not going to be easy especially as the Sioux knew their territory well while the US army did not.
The three army columns were led by Generals Crook, Gibbon and Terry. General Terry had brought with him the Seventh Cavalry lead by Custer. Terry had correctly guessed that the Sioux were camped in the Big Horn Valley and wanted a two-pronged attack to trap the Sioux in their camp while they were being attacked leaving no way out for them. His plan needed perfect timing with both prongs - one attacking from the north, the other from the south - arriving at the same time. The only fault in Terry's plan was his underestimation of the number of Sioux in the Big Horn Valley.
In fact, other tribes had joined Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in their stand against the government, including young warriors from Red Cloud's supporters. Over 12,000 Native Americans gathered at the Big Horn River. Many warriors had come to the conclusion that this would be the last time that they would have to make a stand against the government. Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors joined the Sioux.
whites want war and we will give it to them."
On June 25th, 1876, Custer came upon the camp. We will never know exactly what happened on that day as no man from the units of the Seventh Cavalry attached to Custer's command survived and the Native People had no need to write down what happened. Therefore, historians have little primary evidence as to what happened. One of the most detailed accounts of what may have happened comes from John Finerty who worked for the "Chicago Times". He studied the reports from the army investigation and interviewed warriors who fought in the battle.