Battle of the Little Bighorn – Montana, USA

On our way from Billings to Sheridan we stopped off at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument.  The monument sits in the middle of a huge expanse of prairie land just up from the Little Bighorn River and you can imagine the battle in the day.  As well as the monument there is a Visitor Centre as well as a cemetery.  It was really interesting and the reasons for the battle are similar the world over with the indigenous people being forced to change their traditional habits by the white people.

In the words of Ta Sunke Witko – Crazy Horse “We did not ask you white men to come here.  The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home.  You had yours.  We did not interfere with you.  We do not want your civilisation!”

Th monument memorialises one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their ancestral way of life.  Here in the valley of the Little Bighorn River on two hot June days in 1876, more than 260 soldiers and attached personnel of the US Army met defeat and death at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.  Among the deat were Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and every member of his immediate command.  Although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war against the military’s efforts to end their independent, nomadic way of life.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was but the latest encounter in a centuries-long conflict that began with the arrival of the first Europeans in North America.  The contact between Indian and Euro-American cultures had continued relentlessly, sometimes around the campfire, sometimes at treaty grounds, but more often on the battlefield.  It reached its peak in the decade following the Civil War, when settlers resumed their vigorous westward movement.  These western emigrants, possessing little or no understanding of the Indian way of life, showed slight regard for the sanctity of hunting grounds, or the terms of former treaties.  The Indians’ resistance to those encroachments on their domain only served to intensify hostilities.

In 1868, believing it “cheaper to feed than to fight the Indians,” representatives of the US government signed a treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming with the Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribes of the Great Plains, by which a large area in eastern Wyoming was designated a permanent Indian reservation.  The government promised to protect the Indians “against the commission of all depredations by people of the United States.”

Peace, however, was not to last.  In 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the heart of the new Indian reservation.  News of the strike spread quickly, and soon thousands of eager gold seekers swarmed into the region in violation of the Fort Laramie treaty.  The army tried to keep them out, but to no avail.  Efforts to buy the Black Hills from the Indians, and thus avoid another confrontation, also proved unsuccessful.  In growing defiance, the Lakota and Cheyenne left the reservation and resumed raids on settlements and travellers along the fringes of Indian domain.  In December 1875, the commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the tribes to return before January 31, 1876, or be treated as hostile so”by the military force.”  When the Indians did not comply, the army was called in to enforce the order.

The army’s campaign against the Lakota and Cheyenne called for three separate expeditions – one under General George Crook from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming, another under Colonel John Gibbon from Fort Ellis in Montana and the third under General Alfred H. Terry from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota.  These columns were to converge on the Indians concentrated in southeastern Montana under the leadership of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other war Chiefs.

Custer and his 7th Cavalry were under the command of General Terry and they were ordered to approach the Little Bighorn from the south.  The 7th Cavalry, numbering about 600 men, located the Indian camp at dawn on June 25.  Custer, probably underestimating the size and fighting power of the Lakota and Cheyenne forces, divided his regiment into three battalions.

Custer’s precise movements after he separated from the other two battalions have never been determined, but vivid accounts of the battle by Indians who participated in it tell how his command was surrounded and destroyed in fierce fighting.  In the battle the 7th Cavalry lost about 210 men.  The other two battalions lost 53 men with the Indians losing about 100.  The Indians removed most of their dead from the battlefield.  The tribes and families scattered, some going north, some going south.  Most of them returned to the reservation and surrendered in the next few years.

Tatanka-iyotanka – Sitting Bull 1831 – 1890

Sitting Bull was born between the years of 1831 and 1837, near the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers in present day South Dakota.  During his youth he became an accomplished hunter and warrior.  He rose to prominence within his tribe as both a political and spiritual leader and became a champion of traditional Lakota culture.  He is often characterised as a spiritual leader whose wisdom and eloquence was able to transform people to act together in resisting the encroaching westward expansion.  During the winter and spring of 1876, open warfare broke out between the combined Lakota and Cheyenne and the Federal military forces.  Sitting Bull was a leading voice in combating the US Army’s invasion of what he saw as Lakota way of life.  The premiere battle of this struggle on the northern plains was the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  After Custer’s defeat, Sitting Bull, along with his people, fled north to Canada.  In 1881, he returned to the US to surrender. Sitting Bull was killed by Indian police on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota on December 15, 1890.


George Custer 1839 – 1876

George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839.  After his early education he became a teacher but soon accepted an appointment as a cadet at the United States Military Academy.  He graduated from the Academy in JUne of 1861.  He chose the Cavalry as the Branch he wished to serve with.  Initially Custer was assigned staff duty with the Army of Potomac.  During the Civil War he steadily advanced in responsibility and rank.  In the majority of the battles he engaged in with Confederate forces he was victorious.  He escaped harm in battle having 11 horses hot from under him and incurring only one wound fro a Confederate artillery shell during the Battle of Culpepper Courthouse.  As a result he became known for his legendary “Custer Luck.”  During 1866 when the US &th Cavalry Regiment was created at Fort Kansas, Custer was promoted to Lt. Colonel of the regiment.  Custer and the 7th Cavalry were assigned to accompany General Terry and the Dakota column in the summer campaign of 1876.  In compliance with General Terry’s strategy and orders, he and 262 men met their death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876.

The remains of about 220 soldiers, scouts, and civilians are buried around the base of this memorial.  The white marble headstones scattered over the battlefield denote where the slain troopers were found and originally buried.  In 1881 they were reinterred in a single grave on this site.  The officers remains were removed in 1877 to various cemeteries throughout the country.  General Custer was buried at West Point Cemetery in New York.

The marble headstone with the black emblem on it is where General Custer was slain.

Custer National Cemetery, like Arlington National Cemetery, provides a final resting place for many generations of those who faithfully served in the United States Armed Forces.  Here, Americans of many races and beliefs rest side by side.


This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
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