On the Trail of Little Bighorn

Between 1865 and 1877, as American Indian Tribes
desperately tried to hold on to their lands and culture,
US Army soldiers strove to enforce governmental orders.
Many battles took place in a region known as “Warrior Trail.”

One of the most famous involves




Little Bighorn lies 65 miles southeast of Billings

It’s namesake river and creeks and tributaries
snake through the Yellowstone River region.

The wind-swept landscape switches from
sage-brush prairie to sudden hills and dales

Threatening skies accompanied us on the day we visited.

Blustery winds and shapeshifting clouds
never rested.  But in the relative solitude…

…the fact that few visitors were about
made the experience especially moving.

Sitting Bull, Spiritual Leader of the Sioux

The clash that occurred on June 25, 1876
comprised three different battles with
Sitting Bull’s village of Sioux and Cheyenne.
One was fought by Custer, another by his
second-in-command, Major Reno, and
the third by Captain Benteen.

The backstory begins when the Sioux and their allies
left their government-imposed reservations in 1876
to join forces with the most-talked about leader.

This leader they flocked to,
a medicine man known as Sitting Bull,
had never signed a treaty with the United States.

His wisdom was cited when the
US government breached its treaty obligations to
its native peoples, chronically breaking its promise
of regular delivery of goods.

Thanks to theft and exploitative practices of Indian agents,
warriors were virtually forced to leave the reservations
to roam and hunt to feed their starving people.

But from the US government’s
land-hungry perspective,
Indian defiance meant war.

One is struck by the undulating terrain
and vastness of the plains.

Further complicating the matter
was the infighting between tribes,
which explained the Indian scouts who
worked with US Cavalry commanders
against their sworn enemies…

During the heat of battle,
Bloody Knife, Custer’s favorite Indian Scout,
happened to be standing next to Major Reno.

At one point, a bullet whistled past
striking Bloody Knife in the head,
spraying his life’s blood on the Major.

No wonder Major Reno reacted
as he did shortly thereafter…

Seen after a bear hunt, Custer
and Bloody Knife pose with their kill.

Historical accounts say it was not
uncommon for Custer to sneak off
on impulsive hunting trips while
supposedly on a military clock.

One of his lesser transgressions.

Bloody Knife with horse and carbine.

After paying our respects to the memorials, we drove through the surrounding area,
stopping at roadside markers to read about the many “skirmishes” and “routs”
and how these desperate stories tragically merged on July 25 and 26, 1876.

Picturing any clashes across the varied landscape
one understands how vulnerable the combatants were.

The hilly heights and sudden valleys were dicey traps and
the sparsely timbered grounds offered few areas of cover.

Rifle pits frantically dug out by doomed soldiers
remain in the landscape, now poignant landmarks
protected by the Park Service.

At one time, Little Bighorn Valley had been the Crow Indians’ homeland,
before the Sioux had forced the Crows to retreat further west.

Oglala Black Hawk observed, “These lands once belonged to [other tribes],
but we whipped those nations out of them and in this we did what the
white men do when they want the lands of Indians…”

Fragrant sage brush covers the region.

Three days after the battle,
hasty burials took place –
shallow graves dug wherever
a soldier’s body had fallen.

Taken one year after the battle, a photograph memorializes
a makeshift grave for Lieutenant Sturgis, 7th Cavalry.

At 22, Sturgis was the youngest officer in the regiment.

At the time, over forty percent of US Cavalry soldiers were
new immigrants, some of whom barely spoke English.

Thrown into the American Plains Indian War,
they found themselves fighting raw
desperation and a people’s
passionate struggle to survive.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer
His innate arrogance and need for
grandeur doomed to hubris.

Leading to the tragic deaths
of the men who looked to
him for leadership.

Saddled with polarizing views,
historians once wrangled over
the controversial commander.

With time and fresh perspectives
a more complex view is unearthed.

Although his motivations and
tactics are ever under fire,
no one ever disputed his bravery.

From the Crow’s nest, a vantage point 14 miles away in the Wolf Mountains,
Custer’s Crow and Arikara scouts saw evidence of the massive
Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment.

Convinced he was discovered, Custer abandoned plans for a recon and delayed attack.  Impulsively, he divided his forces into four groups along Reno Creek, and fatefully decided to strike the village before it could scatter…

What he didn’t know was that he had barely seen one-third of the village.

For nearly six winding miles, the broad valley along the stream could not be seen from where Custer got his first view of the village.  What he did see, he misinterpreted — huge clouds of dust, nervous horses, horsemen making a run for it, and down along the village, turmoil and confusion as teepees were taken down quickly, and women and children fleeing the carnage to come.

We know now that the men running westward were the young men rounding up the horses.  And behind those sheltering bluffs were thousands of fierce warriors eager and ready for George Custer and his men…


Born to Oglala Lakota parents, Crazy Horse became
one of the most respected warriors during the Plains War.

Adding to his legend, he’d never been photographed.

Using a family member’s description
his likeness was drawn by a Mormon missionary.

Crazy Horse had suffered a gunshot wound to his face
which left him with a permanent scar across his cheek.
Courtesy of the jealous husband
of the woman he’d fallen in love with
and run off with…

In the years since that scandal,
he rededicated himself to what he did best.

It was Crazy Horse’s turn to
lead his people in battle.

As Custer’s battalions approached the Little Bighorn Valley
he ordered Major Reno with his soldiers and scouts to cross the river.
Benteen was ordered to scout the bluffs to the south,
while Custer, with about 225 soldiers and four scouts,
veered to the northwest…

Could this be a rare photo taken on the scene?

The caption tells us Reno’s men are in retreat.
Men and horses in frightened huddle.

*      *      *

From a ridge, Custer actually watched Reno’s attack in the valley.
When Reno realized the size of the warrior camp, he hastily called a retreat.
Pursuing warriors charged in among the troopers, killing about 40 soldiers
as they tried to reach the safety of the bluffs beyond the Little Bighorn River…

Sent out in advance with the Indian scouts,
Lieutenant Hare’s view of the valley was no better than Custer’s.

As Custer pestered them for information, Hare remembered ominously,
“Custer…. seemed very impatient.”

Major Marcus Reno, 7th Cavalry

Because of his retreat during the initial charge,
and desperate wait for reinforcements,
Reno was severely criticized, and even
openly blamed for Custer’s defeat.

Charges of cowardice, and dereliction of duty compelled Reno
to request a court of inquiry that opened in Chicago in 1879.
Although he was cleared of all charges, the criticism continued,
the controversy haunting him for the rest of his life,
where he “turned to drink.”

In 1967, after efforts from descendants and interested parties,
Major Reno was eventually cleared of all charges and
issued an honorable discharge posthumously.

On September 9, 1967, his body was exumed and
reburied in Custer National Cemetery
with full military honors.

After a series of deadly skirmishes, some three miles northwest of Reno’s position,
Custer and his command had advanced to the area called Greasy Grass Ridge.

Coming under heavy fire, Company C was forced back to the ridge where most were killed.

On Calhoun Hill, Custer’s command briefly reunites in the dusty heat and piercing sun
where Lakota and Cheyenne soon overrun and stampede the cavalry horses huddled in a ravine.

At this point, a devastating charge led by Crazy Horse and White Bull
cut down retreating soldiers of Companies C and I,
who are trying to join Custer’s command on Last Stand Hill.

Custer and his men are now surrounded.

Toward the end of the battle,
some soldiers charge or flee toward Deep Ravine,
but are quickly overwhelmed and killed.

On this knoll, Custer and approximately 41 men
shoot their horses for breastworks and make a stand.
Approximately 10 men, including Custer,
his brother Tom, and Lt. William Cooke,
are found in the vicinity of the
present 7th Cavalry memorial.

Unbeknownst to Major Reno, and Captain Benteen,
whom Custer has sent a message to join him and “be quick,”
Custer and his men have all been killed
after being encircled in a ferocious battle,
some three miles northwest of the two battalion leaders.

According to Indian accounts, the battle and
standoff lasted from one to three hours.

Although Custer’s precise movements after separating from Reno
have never been fully tracked, even with archaeologist’s help,
vivid accounts by Indians describe the fierce fighting.

Northern Cheyenne Chief Two Moon recalled,

“Some of the soldiers were down on their knees, some standing…
The smoke was like a great cloud, and everywhere the Sioux went
the dust rose like smoke.  We circled all around him —
swirling like water around a stone.

We shoot, we ride fast, we shoot again.
Soldiers drop, and horses fall on them.”

Winner of two Medals of Honor in the Civil War,
Col. Tom Custer fought and died alongside
his brother in Little Bighorn Valley.

So respectful was he of his brother Tom,
George Custer once notably said:

“I think he should be the general and I the captain…”

Haunting words in retrospect.

Other Custer family members died at Little Bighorn
including his youngest brother, a nephew and brother-in-law.

Custer’s 1868 pocket diary with cloth cover

Custer was known for his flamboyant dress.

In contrast to their soldiers and the typical Cavalry uniform
Custer, Tom, and his right-hand men, Cook and Keogh,
enjoyed dressing alike in buckskin jackets,
broad-rimmed scouting hats, and
long leather riding boots.

His well-documented brashness and arrogance
clearly played a role in his fateful decision to not wait
for reinforcements before attacking that day.

Apologists point to Custer’s higher command:

General Terry’s heavy reliance and
confidence with Custer’s often impulsive moves
is witnessed by this excerpt from his orders:

“The Brigadier General commanding directs that,
as soon as your regiment can be made ready for the march,
you will proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians
whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since.
It is impossible to give you any definite instructions
with regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so,
the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal,
energy, and ability to impose upon you precise orders
which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy
He will, however, indicate to you his own views of what your action should be,
and he desires that you should conform to them
unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them.”

In the aftermath, many Indians noted that
Custer’s notoriety was lost in frenzied dusty confusion of battle
and no special “counting coup” had been afforded his body.

Although some accounts say the women screwed awls in his ears,
ensuring Custer would hear better in the afterlife, since he
had not heeded his own words eight years earlier,
promising never to attack another Indian village…

Most warriors stated they had no idea who they’d killed
on that hillside now known as Last Stand Hill…

Custer had cut his long yellow hair before the campaign,
so that singular feature no longer distinguished him,
and his balding pate left little to scalp.

Afterwards, the Indians removed their wounded and dead from the battlefield leaving white stones as markers where their warriors had fallen.  No names were etched on these rock cairns, but the families never forgot.

So when you gaze out across the fields and suddenly see evidence of these humble markers, still barely visible through the tall grasses
a shiver runs through you…

So many years later, these family stories helped inform the placement of certain gravestones for Native warriors.

The first request for a warrior marker came in 1925 from a daughter of Lame White Man.  A Northern Cheyenne, she wrote the then superintendent asking that a marker be placed where her father had fallen in battle.  Her request drew no response.

Over 30 years later, a chief historian paired with a Cheyenne oral historian.  They worked on matching as many cairns as they could with a warrior’s name.

But it wasn’t until the late 1980’s and throughout the ’90s that the Custer Battlefield’s landscape experienced a seismic change:

Two American Indians were managing the battlefield for the first time.  In 1991, Congress passed a bill changing the name from Custer to Little Bighorn National Monument.  This same law ordered that a memorial be built to the Indians that fought and died at the battle.

Under the new leadership, the National Park Service built trust with the Indian community, including the Crow, Lakota and Cheyenne.  While the Memorial was a thrilling step, the chief historian had a dream to see warrior markers on the field, and in his position as historian, he had the resources to conduct the proper research.

Before, whenever Natives drove by the battlefield along Highway 212, they would look, but never have a desire to stop,
because there was nothing to honor their people.

*        *       *

Finally, 123 years later, on May 31, 1999, the first red granite markers
for Indian warriors who fell at Little Bighorn were unveiled.

Today, the quest to mount red granite markers at known
Cheyenne and Lakota warrior casualty sites continues.

Today visitors are provided
a balanced perspective and
circumspective interpretation of the
fierce fighting that took place in 1876.


From left to right, an elderly Benteen,
Custer, frozen in time, and Major Reno…

Described as a prematurely white-haired man,
Benteen’s cherubic face and bright blue eyes
belied his keen intelligence.

Eight years before the Little Bighorn debacle,
his dislike for Custer emerged in a public way
when he publicly-outed Custer’s conduct to the press
after an infamous battle called the Washita, in which
Custer’s orders emerged as outright slaughter.

The Washita massacre occurred in a Cheyenne village,
a village whose Chief, Black Kettle, was particularly committed
to ensuring a peaceable relationship with the Whites.

Taking the public slap from his Commander to heart,
thereafter, Custer began making a name for himself
negotiating with the tribes he had been sent to subdue.

Eight years later, no longer would negotiations play a part…

Cheyenne Wooden Leg was 18 when he found himself
caught up in one of the Plains’ most historic battles.

The night before the battle,
as Sitting Bull chanted to the Great Spirit,
Wooden Leg described life as he knew it.

“My mind was occupied mostly by such thoughts as are
regularly uppermost in the minds of young men,” he said,
“I was eighteen years old, and I liked girls.”


A comparison odious to many
Natives and non-Natives alike,
some authors took liberties
with Custer’s motivations.

During the course of his medical duties among the Cheyenne,
Dr. Marquis talked to many old warriors from the Custer battle.
Eventually he moved to the Crow Reservation
to study the actual battle site.

After interviewing Custer’s Crow scouts,
he wrote “Keep the Last Bullet for Yourself,” and
“Wooden Leg, A Warrior Who fought Custer.”

Dr. Marquis was trusted by the Indians
who confided in him things they
would reveal to no other non-native.

As for details of the battle itself,
so many books have been written on these events
it’s best to find first-person accounts…

and try to fit the puzzle pieces
together as best you can. . .

Civilian journalists and photographers
often accompanied the Cavalry on their campaigns.

At Little Bighorn,
43-year old reporter Mark Kellogg,
was traveling with the 7th Cavalry.

Three days after the Last Stand,
Kellogg’s body was found,
one of the last to be discovered
along a remote site of the river.

Curly, one of four surviving scouts from Custer’s 7th Cavalry
became something of a celebrity in the aftermath, but
shied from the public’s insatiable curiosity.

One of Custer’s mixed-blood French and Lakota guides, Mitch Boyer,
insisted that the 17 year old Curly leave, telling Curly that,
“We have no chance at all,” and urged him to relay a message
to General Terry that, “All are killed.”

Curly did leave, allowing him to observe the battle
with a spy glass from a ridge about a mile and a half away.

He then eluded the Sioux by crawling through coulees
until he found the pony of a dead Sioux, which he then
rode two and a half days to the Steamboat “Far West.”

Used as a command station and military supply vessel,
the steamboat’s occupants became the first to learn
of the shocking news.

Through sign language and drawing,
Curly was able to relay the disaster.

But because of language difficulties
and many people’s unwillingness to believe,
the extent of the disaster was not fully comprehended.

Indian rawhide saddle

Wooden Leg’s drawing of the Battle.

Women were vital to such a nomadic society.  They ran the camp,
drying meat, cooking, preparing hides, making clothing,
and moving the lodges as their people moved.

Through it all, they reared their children.

*     *     *

Details of the battle continue to be reinterpreted.
Just recently, new evidence unearthed near the Last Stand
sheds new light on the scene, one that offers
tantalizing clues and vivid conjectures…

Archeological discoveries on the battlefield have cast new light and opened the door to new interpretations and, sure enough,
new controversies concerning Custer’s Last Stand.

A previously unidentified cavalry combat position was discovered near Last Stand Hill, the knoll north of the Little Bighorn River where Custer and 40 troopers made a final stand while surrounded.  Artifacts have been discovered on private property near the river.  The exact whereabouts of these newly discovered artifacts remains confidential to protect them from looters, but the location is close to the Little Bighorn River west and slightly north of Last Stand Hill.


Artifacts recovered from this site indicate that a portion of Custer’s command fought at this location.

What is intriguing about this combat position is that, at the very least, it demonstrates that the Last Stand was far more complex than most historians believed or understood.  Unlike many early widely-disseminated descriptions, Custer did not simply ride over the hill to be suddenly surrounded and massacred by thousands of Indians in a few short minutes.

There is no record of dead cavalrymen being found at this location
when burial details were conducted a few days after the battle.
This lack of bodies suggests that the cavalry detachment
was not initially overwhelmed by the Indian warriors
and was able to withdraw from it in good order,
taking any dead and wounded with them.

The fighting that occurred at this newly discovered site,
as well as the movement to and from this location,
suggests that Custer’s Last Stand was a lengthy battle
and one of maneuver, at least part of the time.

We had driven so far that when the ghostly gray-white markers
began to materialize in the distance, only then did we realize
the scope of the carnage…

As the road ribboned through hallowed grounds,
Sari headed north, back to Billings…

We were mostly quiet on the drive back,
the beautifully preserved memorial
haunting our thoughts.

Yet the unvarnished stories of fear and suffering,
courage and calculation, passion and motivation,
will continue to feed the lively debate over

The Battle of Little Bighorn . . .

1926 reunion with Crow and Cheyenne
Indians and the 7th Cavalry

Custer, the “boy general”  during the Civil War
displays his two stars in a now iconic pose.

Chief Red Cloud

Although Chief Red Cloud agreed to
move his people to a government agency,
it did not mean he approved of the government’s war.
His own teenage son had been one of the warriors
making his way to Sitting Bull’s village.

When the generals tried to recruit
an Oglala scout from Red Cloud’s tribe,
they failed to procure a single scout.

Captured in a portrait,
Custer’s image only
temporarily, militarily

Ambitious, rash, and surprisingly,
a teetotaler.

Acquaintances described him as
possessing a nervous energy,
no doubt suited for rugged army life.

Custer, before his meteoric rise, with one of his
faithful companions in Virginia during the Civil War.
In just two short years, at the age of 23,
he would be promoted to Brigadier General after
his fierce fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Remarkable considering he graduated
last in his class at West Point.

But understandable when you consider
his final disastrous battle.






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