Indian War in the West: Prelude to the Battle of Wolf Mountains

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As Indian War in the west drew to a conclusion, Crazy Horse prepared to do battle with Colonel Nelson Miles in the harsh conditions of a Montana winter.

In 1876, the final chapter of the Indian Wars was nearing its climax. Years of bloodshed over land disputes and broken treaties had left an Indian population roaming over Wyoming and Montana with fewer numbers and scarce resources. Since the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Dakota Column of the US army had fruitlessly scoured the northern plains in search of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne villages involved. By August, most of the army packed up and left the area in frustration and to avoid the harsh Montana winter. Only Colonel Nelson Miles and 1000 men from the 5th, 17th, and 22nd Infantry remained to clear the plains of hostile Indians that refused to be confined to a reservation.

Colonel Nelson Miles and His Winter Campaign

Miles ordered a cantonment be built at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Tongue Rivers. Rather than riding out the winter in camp, Miles instead used the harsh weather to his advantage. In October and November, he attacked Sitting Bull and his band. With winter preventing him from resupplying, Sitting Bull was forced into Canada.

Crazy Horse, the leader of the other large hostile band in the area, decided to send a delegation to meet with Miles at his cantonment to discuss peace. As they rode towards Miles’ camp, the delegates were murdered by his Crow scouts in retaliation for previous hostility between the tribes. Upon hearing the news of their deaths, Crazy Horse and his counsel devised a plan to lure Miles and his men back into the field so that they could be destroyed in a surprise attack.

Outcome of the Battle of Wolf Mountains Likely Changed by Premature Attack

Warriors hit a mail train and forced the closure of mail service to the cantonment on December 18, 1876. On December 20, they stole 250 cattle almost within sight of it. On December 28, Miles led a column of 436 men in pursuit of the thieves and the camp of Crazy Horse. They would travel southwest along the Tongue River under the harassment of warriors, dozens of river crossings, deep snow and bitterly cold weather.

On January 7, 1877, Miles’ scouts captured several women and children heading towards Crazy Horse’s camp. He decided to halt the column and bivouac in a defensible position along the Tongue River, assuming that the enemy camp was close. Miles planned to locate it the next day by taking only the part of his force that could travel fast.

The warriors harassing the column, thinking the captives would be killed, attacked Miles’ scouts and raised the alarm to his camp. Miles set up defensive positions against the assault that he mistakenly thought was coming from Crazy Horse’s main force. Ironically, Crazy Horse, not knowing that he would be walking into an enemy prepared to meet him, was leading his large band of warriors down the Tongue for an ambush attack. His hopes for surprise would evaporate the very next day.

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