Battle of Little Bighorn: 42 – Spring Migration, Sioux Style

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

After the Treaty of 1868 was signed, the Sioux had slowly began moving toward the agencies. By the year 1875 the hostiles’ number had dwindled from well over ten thousand to less than three thousand, resulting in the reservation’s population doubling and redoubling. However, by February of 1876, this trend had began to reverse its course. The agencies lost more than half of their populations. Those remaining were mainly old men, women, and children all under the leadership of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail who refused to join the hostiles.

Red Cloud

Some of these Indians had always wintered on the reservation, but with the first signs of spring they made for the unceded territory to hunt. But in 1876 many Indians left the reservation earlier than usual. This was happening mainly because, though the government had directed all Indians to come into and stay on the reservations, food was not being sent to feed them.

Other Indians, mostly the young warriors, such as Jack Red Cloud, son of Red Cloud, who had yet to be in a fight, left the agencies because they had the strong and age-old desire to test their powers against the Crow, do some scalping, and steal some horses.

Others who had obtained white man’s goods joined the hostiles to trade for robes and furs that brought high prices at the agencies. And of course, some were just curious to see and meet such notables they’d heard wonderful tales about, such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other great ones.

Sitting Bull

But there was also another reason for the Indians leaving the reservations—one very big reason. Until the past winter when General Crook had attempted a winter campaign against the hostiles, these Indians had thought they were at peace with the whites. The demand that they come into the reservation that past winter had not been taken seriously. Most of the hostiles had seen it as more of a social invitation, one that was impossible at the time to commit to.

When, on April 9, a Miniconjou from Sitting Bull’s camp brought word to the Cheyenne River Agency about the fight with Crook, talk on the reservations began. The talk concerned striking back at the whites. This situation could not have pleased anyone more than Sitting Bull. When Crook had made his winter march, with him was Frank Grouard. It was due to Grouard’s knowledge and ability as a scout that allowed Crook to locate the hostiles. Grouard had been the man that Sitting Bull had rescued from an Indian attack some years previously and befriended—in his Sioux way.

Frank Grouard

When Sitting Bull realized that it was Grouard that had led Crook to them, Sitting Bull declared that “One time that man [Grouard] should have been killed and I kept him, and now he has joined the soldiers. He is no good and should be killed.” If there was a big fight between the Indians and the whites, Sitting Bull well knew it just might be his chance to kill Grouard.