Little Big Horn
The Sioux war of 1876 was more like the wars between civilized nations, in its inception, than any conflict that ever occurred between the whites and the Indians. There were the same violations of compacts on both sides, the same diplomatic skirmishing, and the same deliberate preparation for wholesale killing, that the civilized world has decided to be proper when two nations have reached so belligerent a feeling that peace is no longer satisfactory to either. On paper, our relations with the Sioux remained as they were established in 1868, when we abandoned the Montana road. There was then set off to the western tribes, as a reservation, all of Dakota Territory west of the Missouri River and south of parallel 46 practically, the southwest quarter of the territory. This reservation, by the treaty, "is set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named, and for such other friendly tribes or individual Indians as from time to time they may be willing, with the consent of the United States, to admit amongst them; and the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons except those herein designated and authorized so to do, and except such officers, agents, and employ& of the government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article, or in such territory as may be added to this reservation for the use of said Indians; and henceforth they will and do hereby relinquish all claims or right in and to any portion of the United States or Territories, except such as is embraced in the limits aforesaid, and except as hereinafter provided." The subsequent provision referred to is Article 16, as follows:
"The United States hereby agrees and stipulates that the country north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn Mountains shall be held and considered to be unceded Indian territory, and also stipulates and agrees that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same; or without the consent of the Indians, first had and obtained, to pass through the same." The land covered by this article is "the Powder River country," and the article closes with the agreement that the Montana road, and all the posts along it, shall be abandoned.
During these eight years material changes had been taking place in other respects which altered the relations of the two races. The completion of the Pacific Railway, and the wonderful advance of minor lines into the plains, had carried an enormous population into the West. Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Eastern Dakota were filling up rapidly, and assuming the appearance of long settled countries. The whites were strong in their numbers and their facilities for transportation. They had grown used to the Indian as the loafer and drunkard, and had no great fear of him in any character. Among the whites were many mind's who looked with longing eyes on the Black Hills (a literal translation of the Sioux name, Pah-sap-pa), which lay wholly within the reservation. This tract of mountain country was almost unknown. It was partially surrounded by the Bad Lands, which formed a barrier that the emigrant shunned. The Indians went into the Hills but little. They considered it a "medicine" country, inhabited by their supernaturals, and not to be rashly invaded, though they occasionally hunted in its borders, or cut lodge poles in its pine woods. Lieutenant Warren (afterwards a Confederate general) attempted to go into it in 1857, but when in the neighborhood of Inyan Kara, a peak on the western side, he was met by a delegation of Sioux chiefs and warned back. They said it was sacred ground. It was commonly believed that there was gold in the Black Hills, even before gold was discovered in California. In 1847, Parkman recounted how his trapper friend, Reynal, had stood on one of those mountains and said: "Many a time, when I was with the Indians, I have been hunting for gold all through the Black Hills. There's plenty of it here; you may he certain of that. I have dreamed about it fifty times, and I never dreamed yet but what it came out true. Look over yonder at those black rocks piled up against that other big rock. Don't it look as if there might be something there? It won't do for a white man to be rummaging too much about these mountains; the Indians say they are full of bad spirits; and I believe myself that it's no good luck to be hunting about here after gold. Well, for all that, I would like to have one of those fellows up here, from down below, to go about with his witch hazel rod, and I'll guarantee that it would not be long before he would light on a gold mine."
No one knew whether there was gold In the Hills or not, but there grew up that strong faith in its existence which miners always have in regard to a country difficult of access. Man ever hopes for much from the unknown. Imagination furnishes the only statistics by which it may be judged, and imagination is liberal. The first recorded discovery of gold in the Black Hills was made by Toussaint Kensler, a half-breed who had worked in the placers of Alder Gulch, Montana. He had been under arrest for murder, but escaped, and for a long time was not seen in the haunts of men. He then reappeared at the agencies on the Missouri, with several goose quills full of gold dust, and a fossil skull which he said he had found in the Bad Lands, when returning from these diggings that he had discovered. He was rearrested, convicted, and hung for the murder, but he left a map which shows a full acquaintance with the country he claimed to have examined. He said he found the gold on what is now called Amphibious Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Cheyenne, about ten miles above its mouth. The Indians sometimes brought in pieces of rock, bearing gold, and trappers occasionally reported discoveries of the metal. It is quite probable that Wetmore, the man who started the story of the "Lost Cabin," that great ignis fatuus of the miners, obtained the gold, which he brought home, from the Black Hills.
The interest in the country grew so strong that influence was brought to bear on the government, and an exploring expedition was ordered. It consisted of over twelve hundred men, with four Gatling guns and a large supply train, accompanied by sixty Indian scouts, all under command of General George A. Custer. The movement was called a military reconnaissance, and said to be a military necessity; but the expedition certainly devoted more time to investigating the mineral and agricultural resources of the region than to anything else. It was accompanied by a number of miners and prospectors, who carefully examined the country along the lines of march and exploration. Custer mentions one instance in which they excavated to a depth of eight feet in their exploitations. They demonstrated the existence of gold beyond all reasonable questioning, but owing to some controversy that arose afterwards, the government sent another party to the Hills, in the following year, for the express purpose of investigating the gold indications. If this fact does not lift the thin disguise of military necessity from the first expedition, one could hardly imagine what would. The Custer expedition did not return until September, and the reports from it were so golden hued that the excitement grew feverish. Parties were organized to go into the Hills, treaty or no treaty, and some of them did go. The Indians complained, and threatened to attack them if they were not removed. The military authorities denied for a time that anyone had gone in, but on December 24 it was conceded that one party of twenty-one had evaded their watchful eyes. A company of cavalry was sent after them, but returned, after almost perishing from cold, without finding them. They remained in the Hills all winter and greeted many others in the spring. There was no little dissatisfaction among the Indians over this invasion, and war was seriously contemplated. The farsighted Red Cloud sent men to ascertain the probable number of buffalo, and their report showed that no reliance could be put on this food supply for any great time. The slaughter of buffalo in the past six or eight years had been prodigious. Careful investigators have estimated it at a million a year. It may have been less than that, but it was enormous. The buffalo had disappeared from the eastern side of the mountains altogether. The plains of Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Dakota, which had once been alive with them, no longer shook beneath their migrations. The valleys of the Arkansas, Platte, Cheyenne, and their tributaries were deserted. The buffalo range was limited to the Powder River country. Red Cloud took in the situation. He decided for peace. In January, 1875, he and Spotted Tail expressed a desire to visit Washington and make arrangements for selling the Black Hills. To this request the government acceded. In the spring, miners began to flock into the Hills. The Interior Department called on the military to put them out. The troops made several trips for this purpose, brought out the gold hunters, and turned them over to the civil authorities for trial. The civil authorities turned them loose, and they went back. Each time they went back their numbers were greatly increased. During the summer Professor Jenney made his exploration of the Hills, to settle the question of the existence of gold. He had no difficulty in learning that there was gold, from the miners who were there extracting it. The Hills contained probably a thousand miners in the fall of 1875. Custer City had been laid out, and people were coming in, with but little show of resistance.
It has often been claimed that the Black Hills question had nothing to do with the Sioux war of 1876, but the claim is partisan and untrue. In June, 1875, a commission was appointed by the President to secure from the Indians the right of mining in the Black Hills. They met with all the Teton tribes, the Northern Cheyennes and Arapahoes, and representatives of the Yanktons and Yanktonnais, September 17, 1875, at the plain north of Crow Butte, eight miles east of Red Cloud agency, on White River. They found the Indians in two parties, as to the sale. The larger party favored sale, but demanded sums ranging from thirty to fifty millions in payment. The smaller party, nearly all young men, opposed selling, on any terms. Their dissension became so bitter that a fight would probably have ensued but for the efforts of Young Man Afraid of his Horses, the leader of the "soldiers," or police force. The form in which the Indians who were willing to sell put their demand was, "Subsistence for seven generations ahead, or so long as we live." Their argument, as repeated by all the chiefs who spoke, was substantially as made by the Cheyenne chief Little Wolf. He said: "You are here to buy the gold regions in those Black Hills. There has been a great deal stolen from those Hills already. If the Great Father gets this country from us, it is a rich country and we want something to pay us for it. We want to be made rich too. There is gold and silver and a great many kinds of mineral in that country. The Great Father gets that for the whites. They will live on it and become rich. We want him to make us rich also."They refused absolutely to sell the Powder River country, and it was dropped from consideration on the first day. They dwelt much on the value of Pah-sap-pa. It was their "house of gold." It was " worth more than all the wild beasts and all the tame beasts in the possession of the white people." Said Crow Feather: "Even if our Great Father should give a hundred different kinds of livestock to each Indian house every year, it seems that would not pay for the Black Hills. I was not born and raised on this soil for fan. No, indeed. I hope the Great Father will look and see how many millions of dollars have been stolen out of the Black Hills, and when he finds it out, I want the Great Father to pay us that." They offered to allow one road, and only one, which they designated as "the thieves' road." This, on inquiry, was found to be Custer's trail, over which several parties of miners had gone into the Hills. Little Bear claimed that white men had been in the Hills for four years, and Lone Horn said seven. The commission offered to lease the country at $400,000 per year, so long as the whites should use it, or to give them $6,000,000 in fifteen annual installments for their title, which propositions the assembled Sioux received with derisive laughter. The commission was obliged to return unsuccessful. It reported: "We do not believe their temper or spirit can or will be changed until they are made to feel the power as well as the magnanimity of the government." It recommended that the government set its own price, and force the Sioux to accept it. In justice to the commission, it should be remembered that the same chiefs, who demanded $50,000,00 in the morning, would be begging for a shirt in the evening, and that it was believed that white men had urged them to ask this large sum. However, irrespective of all other questions, it is evident that the Sioux valued the Hills highly, part of them because they desired the country itself, and part of them on account of what they hoped to obtain for it. There appears no reason for supposing that either party would be contented to see it taken by the miners without payment to them, or for a much smaller payment than they considered it worth.
At this time the Sioux nation could hardly be said to have the same divisions that were formerly recognized. The Teton Sioux had become divided into four main bodies after the treaty of 1868, and had mixed largely with the Yanktonnais and Sissetons. Their agencies had all been on the Missouri until 1874, and then, on stated grounds of the contaminating effects of the settlements. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies were removed to the southeast of the Black Hills. With the usual care that marks the transaction of Indian business, both agencies were located in Nebraska, off the reservation. At Red Cloud agency there were supposed to be 9,100 Ogallallas and 3,700 Cheyennes and Arapahoes. There was no such number of genuine Ogallallas. The tribe had been reinforced by other Sioux, attracted by Red Cloud's fame. At Spotted Tail (Whetstone) agency there were reported 8,400 Brulés and 1,200 Minneconjous. At Cheyenne River agency, on the Missouri, there were 7,600 Two Kettles, Sans Arcs, Minneconjous, and Blackfeet Sioux. At Standing Rock agency, on the Missouri, were 7,300, of whom 4,200 were Yanktonnais, and the remainder Oncpapas and Blackfeet Sioux. At Fort Peck agency (Milk River), Montana, were 6,000 Indians, sometimes called Tetons, but not, in fact, for 2,000 of them were Assinaboines, and the remainder Yanktonnais and Sissetons, except about 400 who were Tetons proper. These were all the Tetons except the roaming tribes, which were estimated at 3,000, as follows: Black Tigers, 150; Long Sioux, 200; Shooters, 900; Tatkannais, 700; Oncpapas, 450; White Eagles, 200; Yellow Livers, 350. These Indians lived in the Powder River country, and roamed extensively, all of which they had the right to do, under the treaty of 1868. The most celebrated chiefs of these bands were Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Crazy Horse was an Ogallalla, although the Indians with him, in the spring of 1876, were chiefly Northern Cheyennes and Minneconjous, numbering not more than five or six hundred. Sitting Bulls band was still smaller, consisting of only thirty or forty lodges in times of peace, but in war times increasing rapidly.
Sitting Bull (Ta-tan-kah-yo-tan-kah) was a born fighter. He is said to be a half-breed Oncpapa, though he signed the treaty of 1868 as an Ogallalla. At this time he was somewhat broken by disease, but he was still of fine physique. His hair was brown, his complexion light, his face badly scarred by smallpox. There was probably no other Sioux who could make so proud a showing of individual prowess as he. About the year 1870 a Yanktonnais Indian brought to Fort Buford an old roster of the 31st Infantry, which had, on the blank sides of the leaves, a series of portraitures of the doings of a mighty warrior. They were quite skillfully executed, in brown and black inks, with coloring added for the horses and clothing. The totem in the corner of each pictograph, a buffalo bull on its haunches, connected with the hero by a line, revealed the fact that it was a history of Sitting Bull, who, with a following of sixty or seventy warriors, had been depredating in the neighborhood for several years. The Yanktonnais finally admitted that he had stolen it from Sitting Bull, and sold it for a dollar and a half s worth of supplies. The first twenty-three pictures showed his slaughter of enemies of all descriptions, men, women, and children, Indians, teamsters, mailmen, frontiersmen, railroad hands, soldiers. He was as impartial as death itself. The next twelve show his exploits as a collector of horses, a pursuit in which he displayed good taste and an insatiable craving for horseflesh. He may fairly be considered one of the ablest horse thieves the country ever produced. The last two pictures show him as leader of the Strong Hearts, a Sioux fraternity for war purposes, Knights of the Terres Mauvaises, as it were storming two Crow villages.
In one of these fights thirty scalps were taken. These picture records are usually accurate. Ordinarily they are made on buffalo robes, and kept by the hero for display among his own people, who are acquainted with the facts of which he boasts. In this case the pictorial history was confirmed by knowledge that the whites already had of this doughty warrior.
While, therefore, Sitting Bull was not a chief of any particular prominence during times of peace, he had a record as a fighter, and a reputation as a skilful commander, that made him a loadstone to the discontented Sioux of the agencies. Even the agency Sioux who were not discontented were not averse to the society of their roaming brethren. Every summer they would slip away in small parties for a few months' sport with the bad Indians. Sometimes they would massacre a few Crows, or Blackfeet, or Arickarees. Sometimes they would practice shooting at the miners of Montana. Sometimes they would gather some cattle and horses from the settlers in Wyoming. These statements are not flights of fancy. The official records for seven months, from July 1, 1S75, to the spring of 1876, show seventeen attacks on the whites in Yellowstone Valley alone, nine men killed, ten wounded, and a large amount of property stolen. These depredations caused general complaints from whites and friendly Indians. The Crows, especially, who were trying to adopt civilization, suffered severely from these attacks. We were under obligations to protect them, and all other tribes that had accepted reservations in good faith, but we neglected to do so for many years. It was an established custom of the early days for the whites to stand neutral when two or more Indian tribes were at war among themselves. Each tribe would object to any interference except as an ally to it, and interference could therefore result only in making one or all the tribes hostile. It was clearly politic for the whites to stand back and permit them to enjoy themselves; so the mountain tribes and plains tribes kept up a perpetual warfare, as they had done from traditional times.
As the country became more settled these wars became more annoying. If a band were disappointed in its search for Indian enemies, it was liable to take some lonely settler as a substitute. Many such affairs occurred, one of the most celebrated being the Rawlin's Springs massacre of June 28, 1873. On that occasion a party of Arapahoes went on the warpath against the Crows, but hearing that les Corbeavx were on the alert, they turned to try the Utes. Near Rawlin's Springs they crossed the Pacific Railroad, and chanced to meet a lone teamster driving four mules. They attacked him, but ho fired on them and escaped. A party at once started after the Indians, who, on being overtaken, claimed to be friendly Utes. They would have gone unharmed, on that theory, had they not happened to have some stolen horses which were recognized by the whites. These were demanded, and during the controversy that ensued the Arapahoes undertook to run, firing back with their pistols as they went. The whites opened fire, killed four of them, and returned in triumph with eight captured horses. As we placed the more tractable tribes on reservations and endeavored to lead them into civilized ways, our duty of protection became stronger. The reservation Indian who honestly desired to work had to go to the field with his rifle in one hand and his hoe in the other. They complained bitterly. The Crows said: "We might just as well go out and kill white men as to try to be good Indians, for we get neither protection nor reward for being good." The depredations of the roaming Sioux were infractions of the treaty, justifying hostilities on our part. The only bad looking feature of our sudden resolve to make them behave was that it came so quickly on the heels of the failure of the commission to purchase the Black Hills and the Powder River country. This feature is the more striking because the reservation Sioux refused to consider the sale of the latter, on the ground that the roaming bands would not consent to it. It was also pretty well established that the roaming bands were not guilty of all the depredations, and that Indians from the reservations were doing their share of these misdeeds, yet Sitting Bull's band got credit for nearly every wrong committed, a false reputation to which, however, they had little objection.
It was determined that the roaming tribes, or, as they were often called, "the hostiles," should be forced to go on the reservations. This determination was the immediate result of a report on their behavior by Inspector Watkins, on November 9, 1875. On December 6 of the same year, after consideration of this report by the Interior Department, orders were sent to all the Sioux agencies to notify "Sitting Bull's band and all other wild and lawless bands" that "unless they shall remove within the bounds of their reservation (and remain there) before the 31st of January next, they shall be deemed hostile, and treated accordingly by the military force." This notice was given, and the roaming bands refused to comply with it. They were then turned over to the military, and for this they were ready. Sitting Bull coolly sent word to General Terry to come on. "You need not bring any guides," he said; "you can find me easily. I will not run away." It was the original intention to strike the Indians before the spring opened, while their ponies were in bad condition and the weather prevented them from travelling, but movements from General Terry's department were made impracticable by the cold. General Crook prepared an expedition from Fort Fetterman, from which point, it was supposed, the troops could operate at any time.
The expedition was composed of ten troops of cavalry and two of infantry (700 men), with a large train, it being necessary to carry all forage for the horses and pack animals. The command marched down Tongue River almost to the Yellowstone. A trail was discovered, and Colonel Reynolds, with nine troops of cavalry, pushed forward over it, on the night of March 16. In the morning they discovered the camp of Crazy Horse, near the mouth of Little Powder River. The situation of the village, beneath the precipitous bluffs of the river, made it impossible to charge at once. The horses had to be conducted to the valley through almost impassable gorges, a work which required two hours, and even then Captain Moore's battalion of dismounted men, which had been assigned a position on the eastern side, had not been led to the designated point by the commander. Only two officers and five men advanced to where they had been ordered. At nine o'clock Captain Egan charged the camp, with one company, while Captain Noyes, with another, drove off the herd. Both movements were successfully executed, though Egan was put on the defensive before the supporting column came up. On its arrival the Indians fled to the rocks, and the soldiers began destroying the camp. One hundred and ten lodges, with numerous buffalo robes and property of all kinds, were burned. The troops lost four killed and six wounded; the Indian loss was trifling. Immediately after destroying the village, the troops retired rapidly to Lodge Pole Creek, twenty miles away, where they expected to meet Crook, but he had not arrived. The soldiers had now been thirty-six hours in the saddle, or fighting, and were much exhausted. Supperless and blanketless, they rested as well as they could during the intensely cold night. No guard was stationed with the captured herd, in consequence of which nearly all of them escaped and were retaken by the Indians. The cold grew so intense as to make further operations impossible. The thermometer repeatedly fell to thirty degrees below zero, and on several occasions went below registry. The command returned to Fort Fetterman, and the troops were distributed to their posts.
This movement and its results have been subjected to spicy criticism, beginning with some sharp talk by the Indian Department. In his report General Crook said that the village was a "perfect magazine of ammunition, war material, and general supplies. Every evidence was found to prove these Indians in co-partnership with those at the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies, and that the proceeds of their raids upon the settlements had been taken to those agencies and supplies brought out in return." This raised the wrath of the Indian Bureau. Agent Howard, of Spotted Tail agency, reported at once: "No proceeds of raids upon settlements have' been brought here; no supplies taken north in return. No arms have been sold by the agency trader to Indians for more than two years, and but little ammunition; and, for two months, none of either. I respectfully suggest that General Crook be requested to produce some of the abundant evidence which he found." Agent Hastings, of Red Cloud agency, was more savage. He said: "I learn from one of the half-breed scouts, who was with Crook's expedition against the hostile camp, that it was a complete failure, with the exception of the killing of an old squaw and two children, and the destruction of about forty lodges, with a loss to the troops of four killed and six wounded. Seven hundred Indian ponies were captured, but were recaptured on the following day, with the exception of about seventy head. A dozen or more officers have been placed in arrest for cowardice, and the command have returned to the railroad. Five pounds of powder, twenty of lead, and six boxes of percussion caps comprised all the ammunition that was found in the abandoned camp." The truth probably lies between these extremes. While some of the statements of the latter extract are exact, its tone is so venomous as to destroy confidence in others. On the other hand, General Crook's statement savors more of opinion than of demonstration. It is difficult to conceive of any evidence that could possibly be in the Indian camp which would prove that the proceeds of raids on the settlements had been taken to the agencies and traded for goods. If such were the fact, the evidence would be at the agencies, not at the camp.
Telegraph Messages on Little Big Horn
of Indians -
Source: Massacres of the Mountains, by J.P. Dunn Jr, M.S., LL.B, Harper &
Brothers, Franklin Square, New York, 1886