Battle of Little Bighorn: 11 – Disasters in the White World, 1873

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

Since the end of the American Civil War the United States had experienced what seemed to be a permanent economical boom. Then, disaster struck in a three-prong attack that, in a few years, would be directed towards the wilder Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of the west.

On September 18, 1873, the banking house of Jay Cooke failed. This bank failure was quickly followed by other such firms, including, ironically, the company of the father of George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell would later be widely known for his knowledge and writings concerning the Cheyenne Indians. Had it not been for this banking failure, young Grinnell possibly never would have gone west to ‘seek his fortune’ thus depriving history of much of its knowledge of the Cheyenne people.

Grinnell worked his way west, and as he did, once-trusted eastern bank officers and corporations began to disappear with money belonging to institutions. The stock market dissolved to fragments and closed its doors. The common people understood little of what had happened, and what was to happen as the “Panic of 1873” dragged on until 1877.

In the mid-western areas, actual cash had always been a scarce item with considerable day to day business being transacted on the barter system. In places such as Kansas hopes were still high, in 1874, for a very good farm year. That summer, though the weather was typically hot and dry, crops were coming along well. By August, wheat and oats were mostly in shock, or topping out at normal, and the pastures were green, adding a promise for healthy herds of cattle.

Then a “great, white glistening cloud” began to blanket the western sky towards nightfall as millions of grasshoppers descended to devour homesteader hopes. The grasshoppers covered every inch of ground, every plant and every shrub. Tree branches snapped under their weight. In a matter of a few days, for hundreds and hundreds of acres, nothing even remotely green existed, except for a blanket of gorged grasshoppers some two feet deep.

Throughout the land, to the east greenbacks did not glimmer and to the west green crops did not flutter in the dry prairie wind. All that glimmered through out the land were the shimmering rumors of gold, gold that shone brighter and more abundant with each telling of these fabled riches hidden within the dark forest, and secured by Sioux hands, in the Black Hills of the Dakotas.

Railroad construction came to a screeching halt from lack of funds. Wages fell, if indeed a man was lucky enough to have and hold a job. Crime reached an all time high. Tramps wandered the land, wondering what had happened to their lives and their country. And Yellow fever was on the rise.