Little Bighorn, Montana (1876 AD)
The Battle of Little Bighorn was arguably the most famous engagement in the centuries-long series of wars between the United States and its predecessors and the Native American tribes who populated the North American continent. Featuring two of the Indian Wars’ best known antagonists, Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse, it was also the greatest Native American history in the wars, though in the end it failed to put a stop to the relentless drive of pioneers and settlers arriving in the American west. The Battle of Little Bighorn made Crazy Horse a household name, and in the end he became a hero not only among the various western indian tribes but among all Americans. The battle is now commemorated by the descendents of both sides.
The history of the Indian Wars in the United States traces its roots back to the arrival of the first settlers in the 17th century, but the conflict west of the Mississippi did not begin in earnest until the mid-19th century. In the years before, during and after the American Civil war, settlers from both the East Coast and Europe began swarming into the Great Plains in search of land for farming and grazing, as well as to make fortunes searching for mineral wealth.
In the area now encompassed by the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, native American tribes including the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe were well established. These tribes in their remote territories avoided involvement in the wars that previously had engaged their eastern brethren. However, by the late 1870s, despite a treaty in which the American government recognized the automony of these lands, white pioneers began encroaching in the areas. This process was accelerated by the discovery of gold in the black hills, which encouraged the arrival of thousands of well-armed prospectors.
From 1868 to 1875, the two sides managed to maintain a semblance of peace; but in 1876 open hostilities broke out in what became known as the Great Sioux War. Thousands of Nativa Americans, led by such luminaries as Sitting Bull, arose in defiance of the broken treaties and set out to protect their land. In response, the United States began sending in large military forces to deal with the rebellion. Most notably, they sent in the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under the command of civil war hero Colonel Armstrong Custer. In June Custer’s cavalry set out to crush the native forces. However, he seriously underestimated his opponents, especially the indian war chief Crazy Horse, and foolishly divided his forces.
Thanks to this tactical blunder, and to the vastly superior scouting on the part of Crazy Horse’s forces, Custers troops found themselves divied and outnumbered at every turn. Eventually cornered on what is now known as Custer Hill, a large part of the Seventh Cavalary made their last stand. The American forces present suffered nearly 100 percent casualties, including Custer who was killed, and this accounted for nearly half of the 7th. This victory was the greatest moment of glory for the native Americans in the Indian Wars, but in the end only put off the final day of reckoning for a little while.
There are several sites along the Little Bighorn River associated with the battle. These have been incorporated in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This area includes the large exposed field where Custer’s Last Stand took place, and the cemetery where most of the fallen from the battle are buried. A large, obelisk-like monument stands in the cemetery to commemorate the battle and the fallen. Also of related interest is the Crazy Horse Monument located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which commemorates the battle from the victor’s stand point.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield is located on the Montana prairie, approximately seventy miles east of Billings. It is an open site. There is no charge for admission. Website: www.nps.gov/libi (official website).