Montana: Little Bighorn Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument includes the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer National Cemetery, the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, Medicine Tail Ford, and the site of an Indian village.

Site Office

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

P.O. Box 39

Crow Agency, MT 59022

ph.: (406) 638-2621

fax: (406) 638-2623

Web site: www.nps.gov/libi/

Inside the two million-acre Crow Reservation, which encompasses most of Bighorn County between Hardin and the Wyoming state line, stands one of the most important historical sites in the United States. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was one of the last attempts of the Plains Indians to protect their land and traditional way of life against annexation and assimilation by the whites. It also immortalized George Armstrong Custer as a hero to the nation, even though his defeat and death in the battle represent one of the greatest disasters in American military history.

Early History

In the mid-nineteenth century, the presence of about 225,000 Indians on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains seemed likely to impede the westward expansion of the white population. Yet the influx of miners and cattlemen, and the later construction of the transcontinental railroad, rapidly transformed the lives of all the Indian tribes of the West. The traditional hunting and gathering life of the Indians was not compatible with a settled agricultural and industrial economy, especially after white hunters all but destroyed the immense buffalo herds that were essential not only for food but for housing, fuel, and weaponry. The spread of European diseases among the Indians made resistance even more difficult; four epidemics of smallpox between 1835 and 1860 and an outbreak of cholera in 1849 had devastating effects.

The plains, mountains, and deserts of the West presented extremes of topography and climate that the U.S. Army had not encountered in the East and gave the Plains Indians certain advantages during the military confrontations. Their raids and ambushes had to be sporadic since they needed to seek food, and they were vulnerable when they retired to their lodges for the winter. Custer, for one, saw the advantages of launching ruthless dawn raids on Indian villages during the winter months. While the army was less mobile than the Indians, it could feed itself with less effort and could campaign throughout the year.

White Pressure on the Plains Indians

The pressures on the Plains Indians intensified after 1850, when the United States made territorial gains following the Mexican War. Wagon trains of emigrants flooded the plains, destroying the grasslands and making the traditional hunting of the buffalo herds increasingly difficult. The government attempted to bring the situation under control by establishing agencies to feed the Indians, and at Fort Laramie in 1851 government officials persuaded several tribes to move to reservations under new treaties. This change in policy signified the collapse of the “permanent Indian frontier,” as the Indians granted unrestricted transit rights along the main trails and allowed the government to build forts in their territory. In return the Indians were promised fifty thousand dollars’ worth of goods each year for fifty years. This was later reduced to fifteen years by Congress without the Indians’ consent.

The government now intended to keep the Indians away from the white travel routes and settlements by restricting them to reservations. The reservation policy was designed not only to restrict the Indians geographically but to “civilize” them as well through such institutions as reservation schools. The whites’ belief in the superiority of their religion, education, and technology made them unable to respect the traditional Indian way of life or seek any compromise with it. Not even the Civil War could slow the advance westward. Mineral strikes throughout the West brought whites into areas previously considered Indian domain. During the war, the ranks of the prospectors were increased by Northerners evading the draft and by refugees from the destroyed farmlands of Kansas, Missouri, and northern Arkansas.

Events Leading to Little Bighorn

The origins of the 1876 campaign that culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn lay in the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota. The Black Hills, considered sacred by the Sioux and used as a main hunting ground by both the Sioux and Cheyenne, had been granted to these tribes by the U.S. government in 1868 as part of their reservations. In 1873 the Northern Pacific Railroad sent out surveyors to prepare routes in unceded territory, only to run into opposition from Sitting Bull and the Sioux. In 1874 an expedition under Custer found gold in the Black Hills of Wyoming. The U.S. Army tried halfheartedly to halt the flow of miners, but by 1875 thousands were swarming the hills. The miners had violated the treaty guarantees, and the government, not wanting to face a public outcry, attempted to buy the hills from the Sioux. In September government negotiators offered the Sioux six million dollars, which the Sioux rejected. The army then gave up any pretense of trying to prevent the rush of prospectors, and the Sioux and Cheyenne began to move beyond the borders of their reservations and to encroach into the lands of the Crow tribe.

The government proclaimed that those Sioux and Cheyenne who remained outside the reservations would be treated as hostile. The decision was made easier since some of the Indians had already broken the Fort Laramie treaties by raiding white settlements in Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. The Sioux and the Cheyenne failed to heed the government’s ultimatum. In 1876, under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, they had several skirmishes with the army before gathering near the Little Bighorn River in June. By doing so they issued a challenge not only to the U.S. Army but also, once again, to the Crow Indians, for the site of this Sioux and Cheyenne settlement was on their reservation.

Custer’s Seventh Cavalry

Brigadier General Alfred Terry was the officer in overall command of the Third Army sent out to deal with the Sioux and Cheyenne. While he led one column, including six hundred men of the Seventh Cavalry under Custer, west from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, General George Crook led another column north from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming, and General John Gibbon led the third column from western Montana. Crook’s column was pushed back by more than a thousand Sioux and Cheyenne at the Rosebud Valley on June 17, but Gibbon’s and Terry’s columns successfully rendezvoused on June 21. Custer was ordered to take his men into the Little Bighorn Valley from the south, leaving the bulk of the combined columns to come in from the north.

Custer and his men reached the Sioux and Cheyenne settlement on June 25 and began their attack. Intelligence reports had underestimated the number of Indians waiting for them: There were more than ten thousand, including up to four thousand warriors. Custer divided his men into three, with Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederic Benteen commanding one battalion each, leaving Custer with only 225 men under his direct command. The Indian warriors rapidly repelled Reno’s and Benteen’s battalions away from the settlement and up onto the riverside bluff to the south, where they remained under attack through to the evening of June 26. They could hear the gunfire and see the smoke of the battle to the north, but could not prevent it. Custer and his 225 men were surrounded by some twenty-five hundred Indian warriors under Crazy Horse, who killed all of them. Only about fifty Indians were killed in the battle, though a larger number probably died later of wounds they received there.

The Controversy over Blame

Controversy still continues over who was to blame for the massacre on the Little Bighorn. Reno and Benteen were officially exonerated of blame for the deaths of Custer and his troops. However, many historians argue that they could and should have tried harder to move north from the bluff and come to Custer’s rescue. Mari Sandoz has argued quite convincingly in her book The Battle of the Little Bighorn that Custer’s strategy was seriously flawed from the beginning. First, he had been warned by his scouts, Indian and white, that a large council would be held at Bear Butte as in previous summers, bringing together several lodges of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. He gravely underestimated the odds, simply assuming he would be victorious. Secondly, Custer’s column was sent to scout rather than attack; he had no reinforcements of infantry, cavalry, or Gatling guns. To make matters worse, he divided this small force into three parts, perhaps to reserve more glory for himself.

Chief Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader of the Sioux who did not take part in the battle, said that Custer was a “great chief” but also a “fool who rode to his death.” Not surprisingly, the U.S. government and American public opinion could not agree with Sitting Bull’s assessment, and made Custer into a national hero. His remains were interred at West Point in 1877, and a National Cemetery was established in 1879 on the battle site in order to protect the soldiers’ graves.

Government Reaction to the Battle

Meanwhile, the War Department reacted to the humiliating defeat of the Seventh Army by sending one-third of the entire U.S. Army to Montana. In October, 1876, the boundary of the Sioux reservation was altered to exclude the Black Hills. After the eventual defeat of the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne in 1877, they were forced onto a number of cramped reservations. Cattlemen and farmers quickly poured into the vacated plains, and in Montana the Crow, who had trusted the U.S. government and some of whose warriors had fought alongside Custer, saw their reservation boundaries altered too.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a watershed of the Indian wars. By the mid-1880’s there were 187 reservations, covering a total of 181,000 square miles and home to 243,000 Indians. Government bureaucracy grew accordingly; in 1850, the Indian Bureau had only three hundred officials, but by the 1880’s there were twenty-five hundred. The Sioux, who had long dominated the northern plains from the Minnesota River to the Bighorn Mountains and from the upper Missouri to the Platte and Republican Rivers, fought longer and harder than any other Plains tribe, only to succumb to violent defeat at Wounded Knee in 1890, the year when the frontier was officially declared to have vanished.

Modern Preservation Efforts

In 1940 the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service, and six years later the cemetery officially became the Custer Battlefield National Monument. In 1983, a brush fire swept across the battlefield site, and archaeological excavations on the newly exposed land recovered over four thousand artifacts, including large quantities of spent rounds and cartridge cases. Ballistic science and computer technology were combined to analyze the movement of individual weapons taking place during the battle and thus to prove that the Indians repeatedly attacked the soldiers as they stayed in their initial battle positions.

The National Monument was unusual in being dedicated to the losers of a battle rather than to the victors. Indian activists spent decades pointing out this irony, in their attempts to have a monument placed at the battlefield to the Sioux and Cheyenne who died there. (Such a monument has still not been built.) They also campaigned for many years to have the name changed from the Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This change took effect in December, 1991.

Some whites had expressed sympathy for the Sioux and the Cheyenne long before the name was changed. The words of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who had served with Terry as chief army scout, still stand as a statement of the significance of the battle: “The defeat of Custer was not a massacre. The Indians were being pursued by skilled fighters with orders to kill. For centuries they have been hounded from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. They had their wives and little ones to protect and they were fighting for their existence.”

For Further Information
  • Cox, Kurt Hamilton. Custer and His Commands: From West Point to Little Bighorn. London: Greenhill, 1999. A biography of Custer and descriptions of nineteenth century U.S. Army uniforms, equipment, and cavalry. Illustrated.
  • Hagan, William T. American Indians. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. An excellent study of four centuries of white/Indian relations.
  • Lavender, David. The Great West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Provides an introduction to the history of the frontier.
  • Sandoz, Mari. The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. Offers critical insight into Custer’s ambitions, as well as a detailed account of the battle.
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