Battle of Little Bighorn: 06 – Depredations, White and Red

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

From about 1854 to 1864, several events added considerable fuel to the fire that would rage at the Little Bighorn in 1876. One event, in 1854, may have served to set his attitude towards the whites in the mind of one thirteen-year-old Oglala boy who would play an important role at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The boy’s name was Crazy Horse.

In 1854, at Fort Laramie, a cow strayed from an emigrant Mormon train. After an Indian killed the bovine to feed his family, Lieutenant John L. Grattan with thirty men marched into the village of Conquering Bear and demanded that the thief surrender. Conquering Bear offered his best horse to replace the decrepit cow but Grattan turned down the offer and ordered his men to open fire. Conquering Bear was mortally wounded, but the Indians wiped out Grattan’s entire force.

Then Little Thunder’s Brule village was attack by soldiers. This was the first time the Sioux saw women and children slaughtered by American soldiers—but not the last. Crazy Horse also witnessed this attack.

General Sibley

More recently, in 1863, following the 1862 Minnesota Uprising of the Eastern Sioux, General Sibley, with a force of nineteen hundred, marched to North Dakota, chasing the Eastern Sioux while General Sully advanced up the Missouri River. They planned to trap the Sioux between them. This plan did not quite work out, but Sibley did involve the Sioux in three skirmishes before they escaped. When Sully’s troops arrived Sioux warriors trapped one battalion but Sully rescued them, resulting in three hundred dead Sioux and twenty-one dead whites.

General Alfred Sully

The following year Sully had another go at these Sioux, and after seeing to the building of Fort Rice near present-day Bismarck, moved on to the badlands where he again tangled with the Sioux.

But the atrocities were not all performed by the whites. The Cheyenne and Arapahos were becoming harder to control. Repeatedly, they attacked stations on the main roads up the Platte, Smoky Hill, and Arkansas Rivers, often being joined by Sioux, Kiowas, and Comanches. In western Kansas and eastern Colorado settlers were scalped and mutilated. White women were kidnapped and violated while ranches were burned.

The Kansas Prairie

Of course one good attack deserves a reprisal, so the Army destroyed Indian villages, including all the household goods and food needed for winter. In return, the Indians caused severe delays of freight delivery to Denver, which meant that the mail had to be rerouted by way of San Francisco.

Chief Satank

A lot of the time the whites had little notion as to which Indians did what, but it was clear who caused one incident. At Fort Lyons in Colorado, Chief Satank of the Kiowas got into a shooting match with a sentry, resulting in the post’s horse herd stampeding. The Indians involved fled with them to the Texas Panhandle.