Battle of Little Bighorn: 34 – You All Come Back Now, To the Reservation

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

The order, addressed to the Powder River Indians, for all Sioux to be on the reservations by January 31, 1876 arrived at Red Cloud Agency just prior to Christmas, 1875. Runners were sent from the reservation to notify the wild bands.

Sitting Bull

Out in the unceded territory ,Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapas were wintering on the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Powder River. Further west, on the Tongue River, were the Miniconjous, Sans Arcs, and Cheyennes. By early March 1876, all of the hunting bands were scattered in small camps somewhere along the Powder River as well as its eastern tributaries.

Some of these bands had received the government’s ‘Invitation’ to come to the reservation by January, a date now past. Many of them had received no word of such and had no idea of the government’s threat against them.

Of those who had been reached and given the message, the white man’s date of January, 1876 meant little or nothing. Besides, they reasoned, the whites could not be serious, wanting them to travel such a distance in the dead of a Plains’ winter. They ignored the invitation, and considered it merely an invitation—not an order: Not that an order would have made much more sense or be considered important.

Most of the runners that were sent to deliver the message brought back no answer. One who did bring back an answer said the message was received in good spirit and without ill feeling. The ‘hostiles’ sent word that they were now hunting buffalo and that it was not convenient at this time to accept the invitation. They would, however, come in to trade their robes in early spring. They were being peaceful, they said, and had no intentions of warring with the whites.

Indeed, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Black Twin considered the order to come in as a good joke. Crazy Horse let Black Twin explain that it was too far and that the village couldn’t move in the deep snow and cold. This sounds reasonable, however, Crazy Horse’s band were camped less than one hundred miles from Red Cloud Agency. After the runner who had brought the message left, Crazy Horse and Black Twin moved “in a northerly direction, going almost twice as far as the distance to Red Cloud Agency.” There they joined forces with Sitting Bull.

General George Crook

But Crazy Horse wasn’t the only one ‘not being’ exactly truthful and honorable. Before there had been time to receive any reply from the ‘hostiles’, Major General George Crook went to Fort Fetterman on the North Platte River, west of Fort Laramie. There he began to organize a column. Its purpose would be to drive the Sioux out of their winter camps on the Powder River.

Fort Fetterman

The dreaded date, or anticipated time, of January 31, 1876 came and went. There was no sign of the Indians from out in the Powder River country. On February 1, an old friend of George Custer had something to say about the situation.

William Belknap

Secretary of the Interior Zachariah Chandler notified Secretary of War William Belknap that “Said Indians are hereby turned over to the War Department for such action on the part of the Army as you may deem proper under the circumstances.” War and a winter campaign had begun.