When, on May 17, 1876, the 7th Cavalry left Fort Abraham Lincoln no one had a correct idea of how many hostile Indians were actually gathered out on the Plains. There were many who thought they knew, but they were unaware of the numbers who had slipped away from the reservations.
If anyone could come close to the correct number, it was the Indian Agents on the reservations who were reporting higher numbers than were actually present. By reporting a higher number of Indians, more food and other supplies would be sent to the reservations. This was not so the Indians could be better fed.
In fact, these dishonest agents held a considerable responsibility for the large number of hostiles waiting for Custer along the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Most of the food, no matter the amount available, was not being given to the reservation Indians. The food was being sold by the agents to others outside the reservations. The money collected was going in the pockets of the agents. Many of the hostiles were reservation Indians who left the agencies out of a necessity to feed themselves and their families.
A lack of food on the reservations was reason enough to leave the agencies but there was also another very big reason for doing so. The Indians wanted to have one last summer of the old wild life, as it had been since before a time that none of them could recall.
Sitting Bull looked forward to just such a confrontation with the white soldiers and played the chance for a fight for all it was worth. He sent runners into the agencies to tell the Indians there to come on north and have this big fight with the whites. He sweetened the invitation by including the prospects for a tremendous Sun Dance and some real old-time buffalo hunts. Crazy Horse did his part in this ploy as well by making sure the invitation was extended to the Cheyenne.
And so, that spring of 1876, the Indians began to gather, by ones and twos, by family groups, and sometimes by entire bands, all merging where Crazy Horse’s Oglalas and Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapas were camped along Rosebud Creek which flowed into the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana.
Battle of the Rosebud Map
It was later estimated that there was between two and four thousand warriors in this camp by the time that General George Crook entered the area with his portion of the three-prong assault.
The warriors were better armed than they had ever been before. Nearly half of them had guns, though most of their arms were old flintlocks, condemned muskets, muzzleloaders, and smoothbores. Sitting Bull, himself, carried a Hawken rifle that was at least forty-years-old.