Battle of Little Bighorn: 01 – Introduction

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

When men such as Emanuel Henry Custer headed westward to Ohio, native inhabitants of that area were gradually forced even further west. Arriving on the Great Plains, the Sioux, as well as the Cheyenne and others, encountered an area that extended from the Missouri River to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, north to the later established United States and Canada border, and southward into Texas.

The Sioux were one of the last major tribes to arrive on the Plains. But this occurred long years before the birth of noted Sioux warriors such as Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull. But once the Sioux were established on the Plains, and had obtained the horse and the white man’s gun, they soon became the rulers of the Plains.

The horse gave the Sioux wealth in that they could more successfully hunt the buffalo and other large animals. Being better equipped to fell the buffalo allowed the Sioux to provide more meat for their families and to have larger and better homes. The horse also allowed stronger transport of the larger homes. Maintaining larger homes, in turn, required more helping-hands. The obvious solution was for a warrior to have more than one wife, which meant double or triple the amount of children in the tribe, thus the wealth of the tribe increased in numerous areas.

Like their red brethren to the west, the eastern whites were advancing, their population increasing, and their minds turning ever westward beyond the next hill. And they were already pondering the possibility of a long ribbon of rails crossing America from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Native American progress was still in full swing in 1835 when Emanuel Custer, a blacksmith and farmer, lost his first wife and gained another. Maria Viers, a widow, brought three children to this marriage adding to Emanuel’s three children. If, in no other way, this couple was wealthy in children. Their wealth increased in 1839 when the first child of their union survived beyond infancy. Four more followed, but this first one would be called George, though among other childhood nicknames he would be called Curly. He would also be called Autie, a childish mispronoucement of his middle name of Armstrong. When barely reaching his twenty-third year, he would be called General George Armstrong Custer as he led his forces against Southern Confederates.

Like the Custer’s of Ohio, the Sioux on the Great Plains also considered themselves wealthy in children, though in a sense, as single individuals, no Sioux was wealthy. True, every man needed a horse for the hunt and to ride against the tribe’s enemies. But the key to the wealth of these ‘savage’ Sioux was to provide for all of its people. Even when a man could be excessively wealthy, he was not. If he was a true man of the tribe, he gave away his excess possessions to those in need, showing his true wealth by being poor.

This sharing extended to all aspects of the life of these Indians. The women shared the tasks of curing hides and raising and lowering their tepees. The children were looked upon as belonging to all of the tribe. In essence, the entire tribe was an extended family, whether or not they were related by blood. The strong provided for the old, while the old shared their wisdom with all and taught the children many things they would need to survive in the harsh world they lived in.

Among the Oglala division of the Sioux there was born a male child in 1841 who would grow to be a leader among his people. He was born to a Brule woman whose husband was an Oglala holy man. His birth took place at the foot of Bear Butte, just north of the sacred Black Hills. In time he would be given his adult name, but as a child, due to his unusual curly hair, he was called Curly. From the time his father bestowed his own name upon his son, the son was known, by whites as well as Indians, as Crazy Horse. And he would always be poor because he gave his possessions and food away to his lesser kindred.

Another source of Sioux wealth was something that belonged to all, and not just one single person. It was the land: the hills and mountains, the rivers and lakes. They were all revered, just as a child reveres his parents, and one just does not sell their mother or father.

This was the free, wild, and natural world that men such as Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Touch the Clouds, Young Man Afraid, and Little Big Man were born into on the Great Plains. It was a far different world from what George Custer knew. George’s world was one where children were taught to follow the rules and respect other people’s property, and that one class of people was better than another. The children of George’s time learned that it was near sacred to plow the earth and make it fruitful and that anyone who didn’t or wouldn’t work, by white definition, wasn’t not Christian. They were taught one other important lesson, that it was honorable to kill Indians.

Eventually, on the Great Plains and as young men, the two who had both been known as ‘Curly’ met, though it is doubtful that either realized the warrior they faced. Ironically, at this brief meeting, the two were attired in similar fashion. The red warrior presented his bronze glory in nothing more than an unadorned breechcloth while the white warrior was displayed in his underwear.

Fate would bring these two men, George Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse, together again in a few years, but in the meantime there was much that was destined to happen. In both of their lives much had already happened that would bring them together.

In the years that Crazy Horse was learning to be a warrior, a hunter, and a leader of his people, Custer progressed his merry way through the U.S. Military Academy. There, Custer and his fellow classmates would graduate early so they could take their places of leadership in a long and bloody event called the American Civil War. And while Custer became the youngest general in American History, Crazy Horse assisted Red Cloud in his fight with the soldiers occupying Fort Phil Kearney out on the Plains.

But, in time, the ‘War Between the States’ ended and the white warrior emerged onto the vast stage called the Great Plains where he became a major player. This western theater had many settings. One of which was the very locale where Crazy Horse first entered upon the scene, the Black Hills of South Dakota.

In the process of the United States Government attempting to civilize and Christianize the Indians, depredations were performed by both sides. Also, treaties were signed and broken. One of the most consequential of those treaties was signed, in 1868 at Fort Laramie, between the U.S. Government and the principal bands of Sioux and Cheyennes of the northern plains. It not only brought to a close the bloody Red Cloud war, but also provided for the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation. This reservation area embraced that part of the present state of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, but more importantly for future historical events, it included the Black Hills that were sacred to the Sioux and Cheyenne.

In addition this treaty also set aside as unceded Indian Territory a vast tract of land vaguely limited to “that country north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn Mountains.” Many of the tribes involved chose to settle near the agencies but others, such as the Hunkpapa Sioux under the leadership of Sitting Bull, chose to remain in this wild unceded territory. This latter case was an arrangement that could have worked except for the white term of ‘westward expansion’ that was an on-going event right through 1872 and 1873, and beyond. In those two years engineering parties, guarded by military escorts, penetrated this unceded Indian Territory to survey a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The Indians well knew the implications of this situation.

Then, in the summer of 1874, an exploring expedition invaded the sacred Black Hills of the southwestern Dakota Territory, on the Great Sioux Reservation. This large group was under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer who, in 1868, had already made a name for himself, amongst both red and white, when he led the Seventh Cavalry in an attack on the Cheyennes camped on the Washita.

A major result of this expedition to the Black Hills was the discovery of gold. Custer saw to it that this discovery was made known to the public even before his expedition had returned to civilization. In a very short time miners were swarming over the Black Hills. The government made a minimal effort to stem this invasion of desecrating gold seekers until 1876 when they demanded that the red owners sell the mountains.

As the miners and speculators invaded not only the Black Hills, but also the reservation, the Indians began to silently slip away to cast their futures with those wilder tribes that resided on the unceded territory to the west. This exodus of reservation Indians increased the population of the wilder tribes to an unknown extent that would have not been believed by the whites, had they known. And, as a combined group, the Indians defended their wilderness home against all invaders.

Because of the government’s failure to purchase the Black Hills legally, and the opposition to all who trespassed on the unceded territory, early in December of 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sent out an order “to notify Sitting Bull’s band and other wild and lawless Indians residing without the bounds of the reservation . . . That unless they shall remove within the bounds of the reservation [and stay there] before the 31st of January next, they shall be deemed hostile and treated accordingly by the military force.”

In other words, in the dead of a Plain’s winter, when the Indians’ ponies were in their worst condition, it was demanded that these people travel the long, freezing, snow-drifted distance to the reservation. It was impossible and the government surely knew it was. It mattered not to the government that few of the messengers bearing this order ever reached the remote camps before the deadline. Of those Indians that did hear of this ridiculous instruction, most scorned the demand. When the multitudes that were absent did not present themselves at the agencies by the deadline, the Secretary of the Interior requested the Secretary of War bring them in by force.

When minor military efforts failed, a more elaborate plan was adopted, calling for three columns to converge on the hostile country from different directions in order to trap the offenders. In April, Colonel John Gibbon led some 500 men of the Second Cavalry and Seventh Infantry east from Fort Ellis, Montana. Brigadier General Alfred Terry led a second column from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, Dakota. Within Terry’s forces was the Seventh Cavalry under Custer. And General Crook, with his command, headed north from Fort Fetterman to march toward the head of Rosebud Creek.

As an estimated 4,000 Indians began to gather in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn River, in present-day Montana, Crazy Horse back-tracked with a large force of warriors and collided with Crook’s troops on Rosebud Creek. Crook claimed it a victory because the Indians got tired and left the playing field, but the fact was that Crook was knocked out of the major game plan of trapping all of the hostile Indians. This was a situation that neither Terry, Gibbon, nor Custer were aware of when the show opened on the banks of the Little Bighorn and its surrounding hills on June 25, 1876. On that day Custer, along with his men, lost their lives. The Indians won the battle but, as many such as Sitting Bull and Red Cloud realized, they were just one step closer to losing the war.

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