June 25, 1876 – Lt. Colonel George Custer and 200 US cavalry soldiers under his command were wiped out at the Battle of Little Big Horn, popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” marking the climax of the Great Sioux War.
By the mid-19th century United States policy towards the Indians in the west was based on the premise that the native peoples would have to give way, one way or another, to the white settlers who wanted their land. The United States had become an industrialized nation with a large and mobile military, vastly outnumbering any remaining Indian nations. It also had a burgeoning white population that viewed Indian land out west as theirs for the taking.
In theory, the US government only acquired land that was fairly purchased from the Indians via land sale treaties. In reality, US government agents negotiating these land treaties simply dictated outcomes to whichever native peoples they were dealing with, rather than event pretending to negotiate in good faith. Without exception, tribes would be told to cede the majority of their land to the US government and agree to live on small areas “reserved” for them. Those that refused faced the full might of the US army, with predictable outcomes. Inevitably, in a few years the Americans would be back, forcing the cession of even more land, shrinking these “reservations” even further, until practically nothing was left.
The Sioux nation of the Northern plains included a number of different peoples who spoke a common language (Siouan). There were three main groups of Sioux people – the Lakota, the Eastern Sioux, and the Western Sioux – and these groups were each made up of dozens of different bands. Traditionally, the Sioux claimed a wide swath of land in the northern plains, including most of modern-day Minnesota and the Dakotas, along with parts of Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa.
Conflict with white settlers began soon after the opening of the Oregon Trail, and in the 1860’s two large scale conflicts with the US military broke out, culminating in Red Cloud’s War in 1866. That war ended with the Sioux fighting the US cavalry to a stalemate, which encouraged the US government to seek peace rather than continue fighting. That peace was finalized in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which secured for the Sioux an extensive reservation – called “The Great Sioux Reservation” – covering parts of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. Critical to the treaty was the acknowledgment of Sioux ownership of the Black Hills area of South Dakota, a place of great spiritual meaning to the Sioux.
Like every other US/Indian treaty, however, the ink had not yet dried before its provisions were broken by white Americans. At first, white settlers seeking farmland moved illegally onto Sioux land, and then, in 1875, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, bringing in a rush of unwelcome white invaders. When the Sioux refused government demands that they solve the problem by selling the Black Hills to the U.S. (a common government response to its own treaty violations), all-out war broke out again.
The Great Sioux War, with the United States and its Crow Indian allies fighting the Sioux and their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies, began in earnest in the summer of 1876. By then, thousands of Sioux, along with their Indian allies, had left their designated reservations for the summer buffalo hunt. This, however, was specifically forbidden under their treaties. The US government response was to unleash thousands of US soldiers and cavalry in a three-pronged assault in order to force these natives back onto their reservations, crush their resistance, and force them to give up the Black Hills.
One of these prongs was under the command of General Alfred Terry. Directly under Terry was the celebrated hero Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, commander of the 7th US Cavalry. Neither Custer nor the 7th Cavalry were strangers to war or to fighting Indians. Custer had been a decorated officer during the Civil War, as had many of the soldiers who now fought under him. He had begun fighting Indians as early as 1866, and in 1868 led his 7th Cavalry in massacring over 100 Cheyenne men, women and children in the “Battle” of Washita River. It was a Custer led expedition, in fact, that had first announced the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.
The main target of the operation was a large assembly of Sioux (specifically, Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse), Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who had gathered along the Little Bighorn River in the Montana Territory (this area had been designated by treaty to the Crow tribe, ancient enemies of the Sioux, which explains the Crow alliance with the US army against the Sioux).
On June 17, 1876, unbeknownst to Terry and Custer, one of the other prongs of the assault, led by General George Crook, fought a heated battle (the Battle of the Rosebud) with a larger than expected Sioux and Cheyenne force about 30 miles from Little Big Horn. While that fight ended in a draw, it alerted the Indians to the proximity of the army. It also demonstrated that the army had woefully underestimated the number of Indian warriors, a fact that Terry and Custer never learned.
In the meantime, on June 22 Terry sent Custer and the 7th Cavalry out to conduct reconnaissance of the area while Terry and the main force of his army marched towards Little Big Horn. Custer and his 600 men were to scout the area and then meet up with Terry on the 26th or 27th to surround the Indian encampment. By June 25th Custer had located the main Indian camp. He initially planned to attack it the next day, but upon learning from his scouts that the Sioux knew he was there, he decided instead to attack the camp at once, despite having no idea of the size of the camp or of how many warriors he would be facing (he believed there were about 800; in fact, there were at least 2,500, if not thousands more).
Custer split his men up into three groups of about 200 soldiers each for the attack. One was under his direct command, one under that of Major Marcus Reno, and one under Captain Frederick Benteen. The first charge was led by Reno. Reno charged his men across the river towards the Indian camp when he suddenly stopped as he realized it was much larger than he had anticipated. Just outside the camp he had his men dismount and begin firing indiscriminately into the camp, hitting women and children as well as warriors. About 500 warriors amassed on a nearby hill and opened fire on Reno, who ordered a hasty retreat after losing about a quarter of his men.
Reno rode up a nearby hill where he was met by Captain Benteen and his troops. There, with a combined force of about 350 soldiers, they dug in in a circle to create a defensive position to hold off the inevitable Indian attack. Although they were pinned down, they managed to hold off repeated Indian assaults. This, however, left the bulk of the Indian forces to focus their wrath on Custer.
What exactly happened to Custer is open to much debate (as neither he nor any of the soldiers with him survived), although a general idea can be pieced together from the conflicting native accounts and archeological evidence. It appears that while Reno and Benteen were desperately trying to save their skins, Custer too was leading a charge across the river towards the main Indian camp. As he entered the water, however, he came in view of the very large Indian force prepared to meet him, and immediately called for a retreat. Custer turned and led his forces up a nearby hill, where he made his famous “last stand.”
The hill Custer landed on was exposed to attack and not as defensible as Reno’s, and the Sioux and Cheyenne, led in battle by Crazy Horse, were relentless in their assaults. Attempts to fight their way over to Reno’s hill failed, and within half an hour Custer and every single man under his command was dead. They did not go quietly, however; the majority of Sioux casualties occurred during the assaults on Custer’s position. Based on the positions of the fallen after the battle, it appears that after each assault the survivors would regroup and form new, albeit smaller, defensive lines to try to delay the inevitable end.
Once Custer had fallen, the Indians refocused their attention onto Reno and Benteen for the remainder of the day and through the next (June 26th). Finally, on June 27th, Terry’s forces approached the site and the Indians withdrew, leaving Reno and Benteen shaken but alive.
In the end over 270 American soldiers were killed and another 50 wounded. While the battle had been an Indian victory, however, Sioux leaders realized that continued fighting would be fruitless. By July, most Indians had returned to their reservations. In 1877 Sitting Bull fled to Canada, and Crazy Horse surrendered to US authorities (after which he was murdered by a US soldier). By May, 1877, the Great Sioux War was over. Congress declared the Sioux in violation of their treaty and simply took the Black Hills (an action which the US Supreme Court declared illegal in 1980). Today, the Sioux continue their fight to regain their sacred land.