Battle of the Little Bighorn, Montana

The advance of the Northern Pacific railroad survey diverted for a time the hostilities of the Sioux from the people of the territory to the exploring expedition. Red Cloud had said that the railroad should not be laid across is country, and he meant to maintain his word. Accordingly, when the surveying party, with a force of 1,500 men and an abundance of ammunition and supplies, appeared on the Yellowstone about the middle of July, he was there to resist their progress. The expedition was commanded at this time by Gen. D. S. Stanley, the 7th cavalry companies being under General Custer, they were met at the mouth of Glendive Creek by steamers loaded with subsistence and the material of war. A strong stockade was erected fifteen miles above this point, and garrisoned by one company of the 17th infantry and two of cavalry under the command of Captain E. P. Pearson. The remainder of the force proceeded up the river, Custer generally in advance with a portion of the cavalry, looking out a practicable road for the supply trains and artillery. The expedition had proceeded as far as Tongue River without encountering the Sioux, and had begun to feel that relaxation from apprehension, which the Indian knows so well hew to inspire. ‘Where there ain’t no Injuns you’ll find ‘em thickest,’ was the caution of Bridger the mountaineer to the military in 1866. Absaraka, 183.

On the 4th of Aug. Custer, with two companies of the cavalry, numbering ninety-five men, guided by a young Arickaree warrior, left camp at five clock in the morning. At noon, while taking a siesta, they were attacked, and an attempt made to draw them into an ambush, which failed, Custer being rescued from a perilous position by the main body. After that the Indians moved on up the Yellowstone, Custer following with 450 cavalry to punish them. On the 9th he found where they had crossed the river on rafts, but the stream being too wide and too swift for swimming the horses, the pursuit was abandoned on the l0th. That night his camp was discovered, and the next morning attacked by 800 Indians, who fired across the river. After several hours of exchanging shots, 300 warriors effected a crossing, and endeavored to gain the bluffs in the rear of Custer’s command. The cavalry were dismounted and received them bravely. After they had been engaged fur some time a charge was ordered, the troops driving them for eight miles. In the mean time the main column came up, and the artillery opening on the Indians across the river dispersed them. This battle took place with in two miles of the Bighorn River. General Custer and Adjutant Ketchard had their horses shot under them. Lieutenant Brogen was severely wounded, and private Tuttle, Custer’s orderly, killed. The loss on the part of the Sioux was about forty killed and wounded. After this second fruitless attempt to intercept the movements of the expedition, the Indians did no more than to hang upon the trail of the troops to annoy them. After reaching Pompey’s Pillar, on the l0th of September, the expedition turned north-ward to Fort Peck, whence it returned home.

Other expeditions traversed the Yellowstone country in 1873, one of which was composed of 149 mountaineers, seventeen wagons, and a thorough out fit, under Colonel Brown, the object of which seems to have been to prospect for minerals and fight the Sioux. The history of this expedition was never published, and the few facts I have are gathered from a letter printed in the Bozeman Avant Courier, Oct. 18, 1877. It is called in that communication the “best managed Indian expedition of the west.” It descended the Yellowstone as far as the Bighorn River, having a skirmish with the Sioux a short distance below, and crossing the country to the Rosebud River, “had several days” and nights’ terrific fighting with many hundred Sioux and Cheyennes, and thoroughly defeated them.” A gun accompanied the expedition which had been used on a march from the North Platte to Bozeman in 1870. It was loaded with horse-shoes cut in fragments for the purpose, and performed deadly work among the Indians, who followed and fought the expedition from the Littlehorn, later called Custer River, back by Fort Smith and the Bozeman road to the Yellowstone, losing but one man. This piece of ordnance, known as the Bighorn gun, “all the mountaineers nearly idolize,” says the letter referred to. It was the only gun in Fort Pease, below the mouth of the Bighorn, and was burned in it by the Indians, after a year of guerrilla fighting, in 1876. It was afterward mounted on a rough carriage of Cottonwood, and placed at Black’s landing, below the Bighorn.

The Union Pacific railroad had also an expedition in the field under Captain W. A. Jones of the engineer corps, to look out a route to the Yellowstone park and lake, in order to secure the travel of tourists to this wonderland, besides making a more direct road to the already developed mines of Montana, and competing with the Northern Pacific railroad. The survey began at Fort Bridger, on a branch of Green River, in Wyoming, and travelled northeast to Camp Stambaugh, a two-company post on one of the sources of the Sweetwater; thence north to Fort Brown on Little Wind River, the agency for the Shoshones; thence to the main Wind River, in a course a little west of north, crossing which, and passing mountains and streams in the same course, to the south fork of the Stinkingwater; thence up the north fork and over the divide to Mud Lake and Gardiner River; thence to Fort Ellis for supplies, returning by the Firehole basin and Yellowstone Lake, whence it crossed the Snake River divide, the Yellowstone and Wind River divide, and passed down Wind River to Fort Brown and home. This expedition reported that nothing worthy of notice in the way of minerals was found on the whole route, and advised miners not to waste their time prospecting in these regions, but the route for a road was declared to bo practicable. Helena Rocky Mountain Gazette, Oct. 12 and Nov. 30, 1873. The first public conveyance of any kind to enter the Yellowstone park was the stagecoach of G. W. Marshall’s line of Virginia City, on the 1st of October, 1880. Strahorn’s Montana and Yellowstone Park, 158.

It was found in the course of explorations that the Crow reservation occupied some of the most desirable agricultural and mineral lands in Montana, and that lying in the track of great thoroughfares it was an obstacle to the development of the country, besides surrounding the Indians with temptation. Accordingly, when the commission appointed to examine into the condition of the Indians, consisting of Felix Brunot, James Wright, General E. Whittlesey, and Thomas K. Cree, visited the country, an agreement was entered into with the Crows to remove to a reservation in the Judith River basin, one third the size of that on the Yellowstone, which contained over three square miles to every individual in the tribe. For the exchange, a fair compensation was promised. Their removal was not effected; but in 1882 the government purchased a tract on the western end, forty miles in extent along the Yellowstone, and sixty in breadth, embracing the mineral region of Clarke fork.

The success of an effort made to ascend the Yellowstone with steamboats in 1873 determined the citizens of Bozeman, early in 1874, to send an expedition down the river for the purpose of opening a wagon-road to the head of navigation, and making connection with the advancing line of the Northern Pacific by means of this road and a line of steamers on the Yellowstone, and also to prospect for the precious metals. The expedition failed of its purpose, being harassed by Indians after getting into the Bighorn country, and was short of supplies, though its reports were of some use to the country. It had four engagements with the Sioux, lost one man and seventeen horses killed, and had twenty horses wounded. They found the Indians to be armed with breech -loading rifles, as well as every other firearm, bows and arrows; they were well supplied with ammunition, and mounted. But in a battle they aimed loo high, and the white men, being better marksmen and courageous fighters, killed fifty for there one. B. F. Grounds was captain; William Wright, Lieutenant; E. B. Way, adjutant; Hugh O’Donovan, signal-officer; B. P. Wickersbam, secretary; councilmen, F. B. Wilson, T. C. Bums, William Langston, Addison N. Quivey, D. A. Yates (killed in battle), George Miller, A. B. Ford, James Hancock, Joseph Brown, and 133 others. There were 22 wagons, 28 yoke of oxen, over 200 horses and mules, 2 pieces of artillery, arms of the best description, and provisions for months. A large portion of these provisions were furnished by the citizens of the Gallatin Valley, who much desired to open the proposed road, and were greatly vexed by the return of the expedition without having accomplished its purpose. Delegate Maginnis had asked congress for an appropriation for the removal of obstructions to navigation hi the Yellowstone.

Year after year the troubles continued. In 1875 a government expedition was set on foot to further explore the Yellowstone River with reference to its navigability, and also the selection of sites for forts in eastern Montana. It was commanded by Gen. Forsyth, and left Bismarck, Dakota, with one company of infantry. May 23d, in the steamer Josephine, arriving at the Yellowstone River two days later, and taking on two additional companies at Fort Buford. The mouth of the Bighorn was reached June 2d. Above this point, navigation to within twenty miles of Clarke fork was accomplished with more difficulty, though proving the feasibility of steamboat navigation for a distance of 400 miles up the Yellowstone. No Indians were encountered on the expedition except a large party of Crows, going on their summer hunt, who had a three days’ fight with the Sioux in the Bighorn country in July. Sites for military posts were selected at the mouths of Tongue and Bighorn Rivers.

Another expedition, a government geological survey, consisting only of Colonel William Ludlow of the engineer corps of the army, four other persons, including Grinnell and Dana of Yale college, and half a dozen raw recruits, without arms, from Camp Lewis, on Judith River, garrisoned by two companies of the 7th infantry, under Captain Browning, left Carroll on the Missouri, which at that time was a town of twenty-five log houses, and made the journey to Fort Ellis, just avoiding a meeting with the Sioux after their three days’ battle with the Crows, the former having gone north through the Judith gap two days before the geologists reached it going south. They Found at Camp Baker, on Deep Creek, later Fort Logan, two companies of the 7th infantry. Major Freeman commanding; and at Fort Ellis, Gen. Sweitzer in command, only two of its five companies unemployed, one being at that moment escorting Secretary of War Belknap through the Yellowstone park, to which the expedition was bound. Ludlow’s Recon, to Yellowstone Park, 1-17. This book contains a zoological report by G. B. Grinnell, a geological report by E. S. Dana and G. B. Grinnell and the itinerary of the route by Ludlow, with maps and illustrations.

The accounts brought back of the resources of the Bighorn country, by the citizens’ exploring expedition of the previous year, determined a company, led by F. D. Pease, late agent of the mountain Crows, to establish themselves in that country, and to lend their aid to all persons following their example. Four mackinaw boats were built, and loaded with artillery, arms, tools, and supplies for the founding and maintaining of a settlement in a new country. Misfortunes attended the expedition. Two boats were swamped by overloading, in the rapid stream, and a large portion of the supplies, tools, and ammunition lost. The new settlement was located in a piece of fine bottomland on the east side of the Bighorn, near its junction with the Yellowstone, where another party in 1863 had laid out Bighorn City. Here a rude but strong fort was erected, the famous Bighorn gun mounted, and for a short time affairs progressed favorably. But this deceitful calm was not of long duration. On the night of the 10th of July the place was attacked, and the savages were with difficulty kept at bay until relief came from Bozeman.

The time had now arrived when the government, having exhausted its resources of treaty, determined to take active measures to obtain by force what could not be purchased with friendship and money. The order had gone forth that all Indians should be at their agencies by the 3lst of January, 1876, or take the alternative of war. From the forts all over the Rocky Mountain country troops were marched into the field. Montana furnished 5 companies 2d cav., 1 of 7th inf., and 1 citizen co. from Fort Ellis under Maj. Brisbin; 5 cos of 7th inf. from Fort Shaw, commanded by Capt. Rawn; and 1 co. of the same reg. from Camp Baker; the whole to be commanded by Gen. John Gibbon, in command of the district of Montana. Wyoming furnished 10 cos of the 2d and 3d cav., under Gen. Reynolds, Col of the 3d. From forts Laramie and Fetterman 6 cos of the 4th inf. were drawn; and Gen. Crook commanded the whole. Dakota furnished the 7th cav. under Gen. George A. Custer. Helena Herald, March 16 and 23, 1876.

The campaign opened by General Crook leaving Fort Fetterman March 1st with a force of 750 officers, soldiers, and guides. Crook’s experience in Oregon had confirmed him in his estimation of the importance of winter fighting in Indian wars. North of Fetterman 150 miles the wagon transportation was dispensed with, and the infantry sent back with it to Fort Reno. With the cavalry only, and fifteen days’ rations, he proceeded to Tongue River, the weather being intensely cold. Scouting commenced under Col Stratton, who discovered the village of Crazy Horse, one of the bravest of the Sioux chiefs, consisting of over 100 lodges, on the Powder River, ten miles above the confluence of the Little Powder; and also that Sitting Bull, the most noted of all the Sioux since Red Cloud, was encamped on the Rosebud River.

Sitting Bull first became famous in white circles, in the Sully and Sibley expeditions of 1863 and 1864. He fought Sully north of the Black Hills, driving him through the Bad Lands beyond Powder River. He then returned to the Bighorn and drove out the Crows. In 1865 he warred on steamboats, and captured and killed the crews of mackinaws. He attacked one steamer with troops on board and was repulsed. At the peace council opposite Fort Union he wheedled the commissioners out of 20 kegs of powder and ball, and then went for their scalps. They escaped to the steamer, and under a shower of their own bullets, took refuge in Fort Union. He kept Fort Buford in a state of siege that winter. He refused to attend the treaty in 1868, but was present to witness the dismantling of the forts Kearny and Smith. He marched 300 miles to strike the settlement on the Musselshell; but the settlers lay in wait and killed 36 of his warriors. In 1869 he fought peaceable tribes because they were peaceable, and besieged Fort Buford again that winter. The next winter congress appropriated $750,000 to purchase peace with him; and still he was in the field. Epitome of a Speech of Delegate Maginnass on Defenses for Montana.

Crook divided his command, retaining but two companies, and sent Reynolds with the main force to attack Crazyhorse, while he pursued the trail to Sitting Bull’s camp. Reynolds surrounded and surprised the village of Crazyhorse. Captain Eagan of the 2d cavalry obeyed his orders and charged the Sioux. But Captain Webb of the 3d cavalry, who was to have charged simultaneously from the other side, failed to meet him halfway, and instead of a victory there was a defeat. Crook, on learning the manner in which his orders had been disobeyed, ordered a retreat, and returned to Fort Fetterman, and thence to Omaha, preferring not to encounter the now exasperated Sioux with a command which could not be depended upon.

There seems to have been an effort made to cover up the conduct of the guilty officers, and there were directly opposite reports published in the news journals concerning the affairs; but the evidence is against them. The Indians lost their lodges and the contents, among which was a large amount of ammunition, but otherwise their losses were trifling. Reynolds loss was ten killed and wounded.

Toward the last of May Crook once more marched against the Sioux with about 1,000 men. At the same time Gibbon, who had been since the 1st of March in the field watching the enemy, and making roads and brides, was encamped opposite the mouth of Rosebud River, and General Terry with Custer’s cavalry was marching from Fort Lincoln, in Dakota, to cooperate with the other divisions. On the 13th and 17th of June Crook came upon the enemy in large numbers on the upper Rosebud, and in a hard battle lasting for several hours put them to rout, losing nine men killed and twenty wounded.

General Terry, who had arrived at the mouth of Powder River on the 7th, discovered the location of Gibbon’s command, and held a conference with him on the 9th, when it was decided to establish a supply camp at Powder River, where the supply steamer Far West was lying, and to operate from this initial point. Six troops of cavalry under Major Reno were sent to scout up Powder River, which reached the forks and crossed to the Rosebud, following it down to its mouth without encountering Indians. On the 2lst General Terry held with Gibbon and Custer a final conference, when a plan of campaign was adopted. Gibbon was to cross his command near the mouth of the Bighorn, proceeding up the stream to the junction of the Littlehorn, and thence up the latter; but to be at the junction on the 26th. Custer was to proceed up the Rosebud to ascertain the direction of an Indian trail discovered by Major Reno, and if it led toward the Little Bighorn, it was not to be followed, but Custer was to keep south for some distance before turning toward the stream, in order to intercept the Indians should they be coming that way, as well as to give Gibbon time to come up. Crook was supposed to be advancing from the south, and with so large an army, commanded by experienced generals, nothing but the complete humiliation of the Sioux was anticipated.

Custer left the mouth of the Rosebud on the 22d, with twelve companies of the 7th cavalry, striking the trail reported by Reno. On the 24th his scouts discovered fresh trails twenty miles up the Little Bighorn. The following morning a deserted village was discovered, and the scouts reported a large village two miles or more down the stream, and that the Indians were fleeing. This last information determined Custer to risk an attack without waiting for Gibbon. At this time Reno was on the west side of the river with a battalion of seven companies of the cavalry, and Custer’s adjutant was sent to bring him over to the east side when the attack was planned. Reno was ordered, at half past twelve o’clock, to recross to the west side and attack from the upper end of the camp, while Custer would strike the lower end and meet him half way.

The village was located in a valley, on a narrow strip of bottomland, backed by woods, which extended up the bluff. It was arranged in four rows of lodges, and extended with one narrow street in the middle for three or four miles. Reno, at the time appointed, leaving a reserve of four companies under Capt. Benton as directed by Caster, enter the valley and rode rapidly after the Indians, who made no resistance until the troops had almost gained the village, thus decoying them into a trap set for them there. As they came near the lodges, warriors seemed to start up oat of the earth in swarms on every side, and Reno saw that instead of attacking he must defend himself. His men were dismounted and fought their way on foot to and through the woods to the summit of a high bluff, whence he sent Captain Weir with his company to open communication with General Custer. But finding it impossible to reach Custer, being surrounded immediately, Weir retreated, and Reno, dismounting his whole force, hurried the pack animals and cavalry horses into a hollow between heights and prepared to be assaulted in position.

It was not too soon. A furious attack took place, in which he lost eighteen men killed and forty-six wounded. The battle lasted until 9 p. m., when the Indians retired to held a war-dance, and Reno devoted the night to digging rifle-pits, having abandoned the hope that Custer would be able to get through the Indians to his assistance. No suspicion seems to have occurred to any one that the general had met with any disaster worse than their own, and knowing that Gibbon would soon arrive, the troops kept up good courage, though much suffering was experienced for want of water, a want which was not relieved for thirty-six hours, or until evening of the 26th. A few canteens full were obtained, which cost one man killed and seven wounded. The thirst of the fighting men was terrible, their swollen tongues protruding from their mouths.

At half-past two on the morning of that day the attack on Reno’s position was renewed with great fury. The noise of the firing was compared by a Crow scout to the snapping of threads when a blanket is being torn, so rapid and continuous was it. At least 2,500 warriors surrounded Reno’s 700, who fought from rifle-pits barricaded with dead horses and mules, and boxes of heard bread, and being picked off by skilled marksmen, whom that officer believed to bo white outlaws.

At 2 p. m. the grass was fired in the bottom, causing a dense smoke to obscure the movements of the Indians, and it was not discovered until sunset that they were removing from their village. At that hour they filed away in the direction of the Bighorn Mountains, moving in almost military order, and taking as long to pass as the cavalry corps of a great army. The meaning of this movement was explained when news was brought that evening that Gibbon’s command was only six miles away, and would come up in the morning.

Reno was still looking for Custer to make his appearance, when a lieutenant of Gibbon’s scouts dashed into camp with the astounding information that Custer and every officer and man who went with him into the valley on the 25th was lying naked and lifeless upon the field where they had fought. Custer’s body escaped mutilation or even scalping, probably through the hurry of the Indians, the absence of the Sioux women who were busy with Reno’s dead, and the circumstance that Custer’s rank was concealed by a hunting-suit of buckskin. About half of Custer’s dead were scalped. Report of Lieut Bradley, in Helena Herald, July 27, 1876. Bradley discovered the battlefield, and his account, although it does not agree with newspaper stories of mutilation, I take to be correct. Reno’s dead, says the same authority, were frightfully cut in pieces. Custer was accompanied by his brother Captain Custer, a citizen brother Boston Custer, a brother-in-law Lieut Calhoun, two nephews Capt. Yates and Mr Reed, besides Capt. Keough and lieutenants Cook, Smith, Harrison, Porter, Sturgis, and Riley of the 7th cavalry, and Crittenden of the 20th inf., Dr Lord, Mark Kellogg, a correspondent of the N. Y. Herald, and 207 men, all of whom were killed. Reno lost Lieut Hodgson and McIntosh, and surgeon De Wolf; Capt. Benton and Lieut McIntosh were wounded. Charles Reynolds, a citizen, was killed. About 50 unlisted men were killed, and as many more wounded, some of whom died. In July 1877 the bodies of Custer and his brothers were removed east, by Col Sheridan of the 7th cavalry and buried at Fort Leavenworth. The graves had been disturbed, most of the bodies being unearthed.

The remainder of Reynolds were ‘brought away in a handkerchief.’ Bozeman Avant Courier, July 19, 1877.

When Custer separated from Reno he proceeded with his five companies around the base of a high hill overlooking the valley through a ravine only wide enough to admit a column of fours. No Indians were in sight among the bluffs on that side of the river, and nothing impeded the progress of the troops until they had passed around the hill and come in sight of the village. The bugles sounded a charge, and Custer waved his hat to his men to encourage them. As they came to the ford leading across to the village, a sharp fire was opened on them by the enemy concealed in a thicket on the opposite side of the stream, which checked the advance. A portion of the command were dismounted and thrown forward to return the fire of the Indians, but as they now began to pour out of the village in hordes, and to deploy across his front and to his right as if with the intention of surrounding him, Custer withdrew toward the hills on his right, the Indians following, and his men fighting dismounted and leading their horses. By marching in a circle, taking advantage of the ground, and keeping the horses in the rear, a little time was gained, but it was impossible to avert the end. The Indians also dismounted, and completely surrounded Custer’s command, which fought bravely but hopelessly as long as their ammunition held out. The scene which followed had no witnesses on the side of the troops, for within two hours every one of the command had met a bloody death. Reno’s officers surveying the country from high points toward the close of the afternoon encountered only illimitable silence.

The little that is known of Custer’s fatal fight was related to Gen. Terry after his first report was made up, by a half-breed Crow scout, called Curley, who accompanied Custer, and who escaped by drawing a blanket around him after the manner of a Sioux. But being hidden in a ravine, he could not have witnessed the closing scene. As he did not see Custer fall, it is probable he was not killed until near the end. Helena Herald, July 20, 1876. Visit Little Bighorn Battlefield

Thereupon the troops retreated to the Yellowstone, where a fort was being erected at the mouth of Tongue River, which was named after Capt. Miles W. Keough, one of the slain officers of the 7th cavalry. A fort erected in the Bighorn country in 1877 was called Fort Custer, and the Montana legislature changed the name of Bighorn County, calling it after the lamented general who had given his life in the service of the territory; and the Little Bighorn River also was called thenceforth Custer River.

Terry’s division, under Gen. Gibbon, remained at the mouth of the Bighorn, to which several steamers ascended during the summer, fighting their way with the Indians on the banks. Toward the last of July, Crook’s force, encamped on Goose Creek, near Fort Philip Kearny, was reinforced by cavalry, and increased to 1,174 men, and Terry’s to 1,873; but although Sheridan had ‘stripped every post from Manitoba to Texas,’ there were still not troops enough to give battle to the Sioux in a body in their chosen position. But a fair fight was not what Sitting Bull desired, and the delay in concentrating troops furnished him the opportunity of dividing his force into several war parties, going in different directions, and making war in detail.

Early in August, Gen. Terry, having been joined by the other infantry regiment under Gen. Miles, and six companies of the 21st infantry under Col. Otis, moved up the Rosebud River to form a junction with Crook, but only to march down again, Sitting Bull evading a meeting, and going north of the Yellowstone, whither he was followed by Terry. All through the remainder of the summer the United States forces marched up and down, from the Missouri to the Black Hills, having numerous skirmishes, and occasionally doing material harm to the enemy, as when Miles with 150 men surprised a village of forty lodges, on the road to the Black Hills, and captured their winter stores and a large number of horses.

Indian Battlefield of East Montana
Indian Battlefield of East Montana

Persistent warfare, in their own fashion, began to tire the Sioux in September, who sent begging parties to the agencies, where they received nothing, and soon a few made propositions of surrender. Sitting Bull, however, still held out, and after the troops, excepting the garrison on the Yellowstone, under Gen. Miles, had returned to their posts for the winter, kept up a show of being master of the situation. On the 10th of Oct. he intercepted a supply train of ninety-four wagons on the way from Glendive Creek to the cantonment at the mouth of Tongue River, and forced it to turn back for assistance. On returning, five days later, with an escort of nearly 200 men and eleven officers, the train was again attacked, and advanced with difficulty, fighting the Indians, who had set fire to the grass around it. On the day following. Sitting Bull sent a despatch to Col. Otis, demanding that he should leave the train in his hands, and retreat to Glendive. But as no notice was taken of this command, the chief pretended to repent of his arrogance, and sent a flag of truce, with a request for a council. This also was declined, unless he would come within the lines, which he refused to do, sending three subordinates instead. To these ambassadors Otis said that they must come to Tongue River, to Gen. Miles, if they wished to open peace negotiations; and giving them some food, dismissed them.

In the mean time Miles had become alarmed at the unaccountable delay in the arrival of the train, and had come out with his whole regiment to do whatever fighting might be needful. Pursuing Sitting Bull, he came up with him on Cedar Creek and opened a parley; but as the Sioux autocrat would only have peace on his own terms, and showed a disposition to renew the fight. Miles engaged him, driving him more than forty miles, and capturing a large amount of provisions and other property, besides killing a few warriors. This blow crushed the war spirit in two thousand Sioux, men, women, and children, who surrendered to Miles on the 27th. Sitting Bull himself escaped with a small following to the north side of the Missouri. But hostilities were by no means ended. Prospecting parties continued to be cut off, and travel to be unsafe. In December a portion of Miles’ command, under Lieutenant Baldwin, found Sitting Bull, and pursued him across the Missouri. A fortnight later the same detachment again discovered him on the Bedwater, a small creek on the south side of the Missouri, and destroyed his camp, the Indians fleeing south. Miles, meantime, was fighting the Sioux and Cheyennes under Crazyhorse, who had escaped from Crook, in the Tongue River Valley, having a number of engagements with them between the 1st and the 8th of January, 1877, in which he overcame them and sent them to their agencies. Finding that he could expect no succor from Crazyhorse, Sitting Bull returned northward, crossing the boundary into the British possessions.

About the 1st of March Gen. Brisbin was ordered to take the cavalry from Fort Shaw and Fort Ellis and join Miles. The combined command left the cantonment on the 1st of May, marched up Tongue River, and struck a village of fifty-seven lodges on the Rosebud, capturing it, with the herd of horses and all the Indian supplies. The Indians fled to the hills, were pursued, and after a hard fight, in which they lost heavily, surrendered. Toward the last of the month Crazyhorse made a formal surrender at the Red Cloud agency. Camp Robinson, Nebraska, and the Sioux war seemed about to be ended. But this mischievous chief, continuing to make trouble by drawing the Indians away from their reservations, was arrested for this offence and his followers disarmed. He escaped, was rearrested, and refusing to give up his arms, was wounded so severely in the struggle that he died September 6th.

While the Sioux war was in progress, the Montana tribes, awed by the display of the military power of the United States, and, so far as the Crows were concerned, afraid of being captured by their hereditary enemies, remained at peace, except the Flathead and other Indians west of the Rocky Mountains, who had for some time been uneasy to such an extent that a military post had at length been ordered to be established in the Bitterroot Valley, called Fort Missoula, which was garrisoned by a single company under Captain Rawn. And, as if Montana had not enough of hostile Indians within its borders, an irruption of warring Nez Percé was forced upon it from the neighboring territory of Idaho, in the month of July, at which time the regular troops were in the field endeavoring to overtake the Sioux still at large and committing depredations.

Becoming much alarmed by the advance of the Nez Percé along the Lolo trail toward the Bitterroot Valley, the inhabitants of that region petitioned Governor Potts for more troops; and not knowing what else to do in the absence of an organized militia, the governor telegraphed the president for authority to raise 500 volunteers. The secretary of war, on being consulted, referred the matter to General Sheridan. General Sherman, however, who happened opportunely to be upon a visit to Montana, encouraged the governor to furnish volunteers, and it was determined to place 300 men in the field, and 240 were really raised. Missoula raised 64 men, Stevensville 38, West Side 32, Corvallis 35, Skalkaho 37, Frenchtown 24, in all 240; 160 guns were issued. Bozeman Avant Courier, Aug. 9, 1877. The narrative of the Nez Percé war in Idaho and Montana has been given, and need not be repeated here. A large number of persons were murdered, a great amount of property destroyed, and several severe battles fought during this raid. In the battles with the Nez Percé, generals Gibbon and Miles won the commendations of Montanians and of their brother officers. The people of Idaho named, or renamed, the town of Dahlonega, on the north fork of Salmon River, Gibbonville. Miles’ popularity was already attested by the founders of a town at the mouth of Tongue River, to which and to the organization of Custer County he had given encouragement, the new metropolis of an excellent grazing region being named Miles City in his honor.

The pressure brought to bear upon the government by the advocates of peace led to the appointment of another commission, whose duty it was to visit Sitting Bull in the British dominions, and prevail upon him to accept life annuities and the friendship of the United States, with a home at one of the agencies. The commissioners were Terry, Lawrence, Smith, and Corbin, who, late in September, left Fort Shaw on this errand. They were met with much ceremony at the boundary line, and escorted by McLeod, of the dominion police, to Fort Welch. On the day following their arrival an interview was and with Sitting Bull and his suite, in which the utmost unconcern was displayed for the commissioners and their proposals. Nothing was left for them but to return and report their defeat.

Not long afterward depredations were resumed on the Bighorn and Yellowstone and in the region of the Black Hills, causing Terry to order another winter campaign. But Sitting Bull cautiously remained in the British possessions, and about the 1st of May, 1878, sent a courier to General Miles to learn on what terms the United States would make peace, intimating that he did not expect to be required to give up his horse and gun. These overtures were simply toying with a power he both dreaded and despised. In July Montana again became the prey of hostile bands, adventurers from the Sioux, Nez Percé, Blackfoot, and Gros Ventres, who, making sudden descents upon wood-cutters, cattle-herders, teamsters, or other isolated camps, murdered the men and drove off the stock. At the same time the Bannack war was in progress in Idaho, and not a few outrages were due to this outbreak, and to the return of White Bird’s band of Nez Percé through the Missoula Valley to Idaho. These Indians were pursued by a detachment from Fort Missoula under Lieutenant Wallace, 3d infantry, who killed six and wounded three, capturing and killing a large number of horses; but the principal portion of the band escaped and joined the Snakes.

Scouting was continued all summer by Miles’ command, which did not, however, prevent the setting on foot of the geological surveying party in the national park, and other enterprises. Much difficulty had been experienced ever since the discovery of the mineral region of Clarke fork, in pursuing mining in that locality, on account of Indian attacks on the workmen, and the Nez Percé had quite driven them away in 1877, causing a large loss of property. In 1878 the reduction-works were once more put in operation, when it became necessary to give them military protection from the Bannacks, thirteen of whom were killed and thirty-seven captured by a detachment under Miles, in which engagement Capt. Bennett was killed.

In September a party of six Sioux arrived at Fort Keough from Sitting Bull, who represented that the Indians who had taken refuge in the British dominion were desirous of returning to the United States, and asking upon what terms they would be received. General Sheridan, being telegraphed to on the subject, relied that he was not anxious to have the Sioux come back from Canada, but if they should, it would only be upon terms of unconditional surrender. The visit was looked upon as a spying expedition.

The winter of 1878-9 was noted for trouble with the Sioux and Cheyennes at their agencies, from which, time and again, they had escaped after surrendering, to return to war. Bad management by the interior department complicated these difficulties, which, however, affected Montana less at this time than the territories adjacent on the east and south. In the spring of 1879 a new post was established in the Milk River country, seventy miles from Benton, called Fort Assinaboine, to which point the 18th infantry were ordered, with six companies of the 2d cavalry, this post being for the protection of the frontier against Sitting Bull. Congress also appropriated $35,000 for a military telegraph between the several posts now in Montana. All these evidences of his power flattered the vanity of the great Sioux leader, who, while he remained safely outside of United States territory, plotted and directed as before. The Canadian government, however, on being informed that the chief would be regarded, after submitting himself to British authority, as a Canadian Indian, and held responsible for his acts, notified him that he would be arrested should he commit hostilities over the border. At the same time British Indians crossed the boundary to hunt buffalo in the territory of the Gros Ventres, who fought them on that account; and seeing that the seven or eight thousand United States Indians at the Poplar Creek agency, for whom an insufficient appropriation had been made by congress, needed the buffalo on their ranges, General Miles attacked the intruders, who were driving the agency Indians, and sent them back in haste to their own country.

The winter of 1879 was notable for a serious outbreak among the Utes, which called away a portion of the troops in Montana; but enough were left for the prevention of general wars, although attacks on life and property continued to be made in isolated localities, and were punished in detail. After six years of voluntary exile, during which his aduerents grew poor and few. Sitting Bull returned to the United States and was domiciled at the Standing Rock agency in Dakota, since which time Indian wars in Montana have ceased. As a reward to the soldiers serving in the arduous and dangerous campaigns of the northwest, the secretary of war declared them entitled to wear distinctive stripes. He selected the campaigns of 1865-8 in Oregon, Idaho, California, and Nevada; of 1868-9 in Kansas, Colorado, and Indian Territory; of 1872-3 in the Modoc country; of 1873 in Arizona; of 1874-5 in Kansas, Colorado, Texas, Indian Territory, and New Mexico; of 1876-7 in Montana and Wyoming; of 1877 and 1878 in Idaho and Montana; and of 1878-9 against the northern Cheyennes. Helena Independent, June 19, 1879. Gen. Gibbon recommended that the volunteers who fought with him in the battle of Bighole should be compensated, and pensions granted to the families of the slain. Helena Herald, Dec. 6, 1879.

The legislature of Montana asked congress to make Montana a separate military department, with General Miles in command; but it was made a separate district instead. Of the forts within this district, Fort Keough, established by General Miles in 1877, is the principal. It has barracks for a large garrison, sixteen houses for the families of officers, a chapel, school, hospital, and other buildings, with a handsome parade-ground, in the centre of which a fountain throws up water from the Yellowstone River. Fort Custer, established by Col Brackett, 2d cav., in the same year, is on the Crow Indian reservation, where it preserves order. Fort Assinaboine, on the Blackfoot reservation, protects and keeps in subjection the tribes on that large reserve; while forts Shaw and Ellis stand at the passes whereby hostile bands could most readily enter the settlements. The peace and security afforded by government protection has imparted new life, and inaugurated a thousand enterprises before impossible. The Indians became more settled, and began to advance, through somewhat slowly, in the industrial habits leading to their ultimate good.



MLA Source Citation:

Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 26 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/montana/battle-of-the-little-bighorn-montana.htm - Last updated on Oct 4th, 2013


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