Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Map of the Army campaign that led to Little Bighorn

Little Bighorn Battlefield is also the site of "Custer's Last Stand." This is the place where units of the US Army 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer decided a few hundred trained-and-armed soldiers on horseback were more than a match for thousands of experienced-and-well-armed Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors. 263 men in the 7th Cavalry died that day. And while the Native Americans may have won that battle, they soon lost the war...

Representatives of the Federal government met with representatives of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and other Plains tribes at Fort Laramie, Wyoming in 1868 and signed a treaty to end "Red Cloud's War." That treaty designated a large section of South Dakota as the "Great Sioux Reservation" in perpetuity and guaranteed that the Indians would be protected from encroachments by any and all other "citizens" of the United States. However, neither of those provisions of the treaty ever had a chance, especially as units of the US Army were soon roving the Black Hills in search of gold. The Black Hills were Sacred Ground to most of the Plains tribes and they had a tendency to kill any invaders they found there. That brought in more Army personnel and one thing soon led to another... then in 1874, a major body of gold ore was discovered in the heart of those mountains. That shortly led to thousands of gold seekers invading the area. The government tried to buy the whole region from the tribes but with the Black Hills being Sacred Ground, that effort was rebuffed. So shortly, the tribes were leaving the reservation and attacking Euro-American invaders all through the area.

In December, 1875, the Federal Commissioner of Indian Affairs officially ordered the tribes to return to the reservation and cease all hostilities before January 31, 1876 or be treated as hostiles by "the military force." Of course, the Indians did not comply and, of course, the Army was called in.

The Army plan called for three separate expeditions: one under Col. John Gibbon from Fort Ellis in Montana Territory, another under Gen. George Crook from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory and a third under Gen. Alfred Terry from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory.

Crook's troops met up with a large body of Lakota and Cheyenne on Rosebud Creek on June 17 and suffered serious casualties, forcing them to withdraw and abandon the campaign. Terry and Gibbon met up on the Yellowstone River near the mouth of Rosebud Creek about the same time. From there, Terry ordered Custer and the 7th Cavalry to head south on the Rosebud River and try to come up against the tribes from the south. Meanwhile, the remainder of Terry's force accompanied Gibbon's troops back to the Bighorn River and headed south from there. Their objective was to surround the tribes and force them to surrender.

Before sunrise on June 25th, Custer's Crow and Arikara scouts spotted signs of a large encampment in Little Bighorn Valley. Worried that his men would be spotted and that the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne might escape, Custer resolved to attack them as soon as possible. He divided his regiment into three battalions and sent three companies off with Major Marcus Reno and three more companies off with Captain Frederick Benteen. A single company was ordered to accompany and protect the slower pack/supply train. The major and the captain both soon met with stiff resistance and were soon in serious defensive posture, held down for two days by Native American warriors. Custer himself led 210 men onto the battlefield from another direction... and none ever returned. Indian accounts relate that Custer and his men were wiped out in a matter of minutes.

Gravestones marking where most of the troopers fell
Gravestones marking the sites where troopers fell

As the troops under Gibbon and Terry approached, the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho pulled back from the fighting with Reno and Benteen and scattered in all directions. Most of them returned to their respective reservations over the next few years and quietly surrendered.

Only the Indian side of the story of Custer's Last Stand has ever been told but it has been retold and embellished countless times in the movies and in print. When Terry and Gibbon arrived on the site the day after the battle, they found Custer and his men (and many of their horses) scattered across the hillside, lying where they had died. The troops gathered some of the bodies up and buried them in rows like in most cemeteries. Others were buried exactly where they were found. On the site where Custer's body was found, a monument was erected in his honor. Within a few years, the government returned and erected another monument (an obelisk) near the main cemetery in honor of all the fallen soldiers and their Indian scouts and guides.

In the late 1990's, it was decided that the Native Americans also warranted a monument on the site (in honor of all the tribespeople who had fought to preserve their centuries-old way of life) and, after a design contest, one was built and dedicated in 2003. The Indian memorial is more like an elemental landform (in keeping with ancient traditions): oriented to the cardinal points and open to the sky above and the spirit world. There is also an axis added to connect the memorial with the 7th Cavalry Monument through an open gate, welcoming the Cavalry dead and symbolizing that mutual understanding of the Infinite that all the dead possess...

One panel of the full circle of panels of the Native American memorial
The Arikara panel in the circle of panels of the Native American memorial

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is open year-round except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year's Day. Summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day) are 8 am to 9 pm. April, May, September and October: 8 am to 6 pm. October 24 through March 31: 8 am to 4:30 pm.

Gravestones all lined out at Little Bighorn National Cemetery
Part of the Little Bighorn National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Photos courtesy of the National Park Service