Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Leo Lawton

Expository Writing

Mr. Rose

Section 008

December 5, 1997

            Although many people think of  "Custer's Last Stand" as a massacre of United States Army troops by savage Indians, in reality it was a defense of Native American lives, land, and culture.  The Sioux Nation had been there long before the white man's quest for gold brought him to the region, and the ultimate debacle that this brought on

            Gold had been discovered in the Black Hills only four years after the 1868 Treaty of Laramie whereby the United States Government, considering the land worthless, had ceded it to the Sioux Nation forever.  This treaty stated that "No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the territory, or without the consent of the Indians to pass through the same"  (Brown 273).  By 1874 white men, in their incessant search for riches, were illegally invading the Black Hills in such numbers that the Army was ordered to make a reconnaissance.  This was in direct violation of the treaty, only six years old, that strictly prohibited such intervention.  The Indians felt the Army was protecting the miners.
            Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, commanding the United States Army's Seventh Cavalry, was ordered to make this sojourn through Indian Country.   As the Indians had no warning of the Army coming, and therefore no preparation, they could do little more than sit back and watch this armed invasion of their territory.  The major results of this incursion were that Custer reported the Black Hills were indeed filled with gold.  The trail Custer's supply wagons cut through the heart of the country became known as Thieves Road (Brown 277).

            Early in 1875 hundreds of potential miners came up the Missouri River and thence onto  Thieves Road in search of the elusive gold of the Black Hills that Custer had reported.  The Army sent in troops to stop this onslaught and removed a few, but as no action was taken against them they simply returned to their claims.  General George Crook made a reconnaissance of the Hills and noting more than a thousand miners ensconced there notified each that they were illegally on Indian land, but took no action to remove them (Brown 278-79).
            Red Cloud, Chief of the Oglala Sioux, being on a reservation, appealed to President Ulysses Grant that the Black Hills were being overrun with gold miners and the Army did nothing.  President Grant's answer was to send envoys to rewrite the Laramie Treaty of 1868.  Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas and Crazy Horse, a War Chief of the Oglalas, neither having ever lived on a reservation, refused to attend a meeting with a Presidential Commission, made up of Senator Allison, Reverend Hinman, General Alfred H. Terry, and John Collins.  Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse selected Little Big Man as an observer for the "free" Sioux.  In September 1875 the Commission met with any Indian Chiefs who would appear.   The Commission, deciding that buying the Black Hills was impossible, then made an offer for the mineral rights to them.  This was turned down flatly by all Indians involved in negotiations (Brown 279-284).

            In December of that year, Edward Smith, United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs, sent out runners to all off-reservation Indians notifying them that they must report to a reservation by January 31, 1876.  This amounted to a declaration of war against all Black Hills Indians as it was nearly impossible for them to comply at that time of year had they been so inclined (Capps, Indians 210).
            In January 1876, a mixed band of Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux left their reservation to go hunting buffalo and antelope as they were starving on the meager government rations provided.  In March they joined with some nonagency Indians camped near the Powder River.  Here General Crook's advance column, under General Joseph J. Reynolds, attacked this peaceful village, driving the Indians from their camp.  The Army then destroyed it, burning all of the Indians' food, saddles, and clothing, and driving off their pony herd.  That night the Indians stole back their horses, and on a three day march in below zero temperatures they made their way to Crazy Horse's village.

            When spring arrived and the ponies were strong from better forage, Crazy Horse broke camp and led his Oglala Sioux and the Cheyennes north to where Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapas had lived through the winter.  Not long after that, Lame Deer arrived with a band of Minneconjous and asked permission to camp nearby.  All had heard of soldiers coming and realized they had strength in numbers.  As the weather warmed, they moved north in search of wild game and fresh grass for the horses.  Along the way they were joined by bands of Brulés, Sans Arcs, Blackfoot Sioux, and additional Cheyennes.  Many younger Indian Braves were spoiling for a fight, but the Chiefs and older men urged them to avoid the white men.  As they slowly moved north, many hunting parties off the reservations joined them, and some of these told of large Army concentrations moving in from three directions (Brown 287-88).

            In fact, General Crook was coming from the south, Colonel John Gibbon from the west, while Terry, with Custer and his Seventh Cavalry, was moving from the east.  A Cheyenne hunting party happened on General Crook's command along the Rosebud River, and a thousand well-mounted Indians went to do battle with this intruder.  After a pitched battle lasting all day, fighting ceased at nightfall.  In the morning the Indians could see General Crook's men in the far distance retreating.  Crazy Horse had fought Crook to a standstill and forced him back to his camp for supplies (Brady 201).
              After this battle, the Indians again moved northward searching for new game herds and greener pastures.  They made their next major camp in the valley of the Little Bighorn River.  In this camp were at least ten thousand Indians including four thousand warriors (Brown 290).  At the south end of the valley were the Hunkpapas with the Blackfoot Sioux nearby.  Next came the Sans Arcs, Minneconjous, Oglalas, and the Brulés.  At the north end were the Cheyennes.  All Tribal Chiefs were considered equal except Sitting Bull whom they recognized as the old man Chief of all camps.  This was undoubtedly the greatest concentration of Indians ever assembled on the Great Plains (Edwards 614).  Most were spoiling for a fight with any white man that should happen along.

            General Terry left Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876 in charge of a column that included Custer and 600 troopers of the Seventh Cavalry.  On June 22 Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were dispatched to scout for Indians on the Rosebud River.  They expected that he would find the ford where a large body of Indians had crossed the river.  He was not to follow this trail, but was then to turn southward and scout the headwaters of the Tongue River.  On June 24, Custer indeed found where hundreds of Indians had passed moving west toward the Little Bighorn.  He chose to go west also and made a 10-mile night march in that direction.  An Indian who had discovered them certainly would have reported the presence of the soldiers.

            This led Custer to believe that the Indians would attack him, and his premise was that he should attack first.  Custer split his forces into three battalions giving Major Reno command of three troops and Captain Benteen three more.   Custer retained personal command of Troops C, E, F, I, and L.  Captain McDougall with B Troop was ordered to bring up the pack train and stay in charge of it.  Such were the preparations for battle on this beautiful June day (Brady 232-33).

            Major Reno's troops crossed the Little Bighorn and attacked toward the southern end of the Indian encampment.  Captain Benteen's men proceeded south and west of the village to prevent Indians escaping in those directions.  Custer himself stayed on the east side of the river and proceeded north, before turning west toward the river, to strike the Indian village at the midpoint (Connell 274-78).

            By attacking from the south Reno's men first made contact with Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapas, the strongest force of the entire encampment.  Within minutes Reno's men were routed and falling back trying to return across the Little Bighorn (Capps Chiefs 206).  This freed hundreds of Indians for a frontal assault against Custer and his troops, while Crazy Horse and Two Moons with a large contingent of Cheyennes attacked him from the flank and rear.  "‘In about the time it takes a white man to eat his dinner' Custer and 225 troopers were wiped out" (Edwards 614).

            In summary, by long term usage and by treaty of 1868, Indians owned the Black Hills.  There is little doubt greedy white gold miners were largely responsible for the severe battles that took place in that area.  The battle known as Custer's Last Stand was forced on the Indians by the Army.  Although the Indians won the battle, they could not win the war over the superior armed might of the United States Army.  It was a day of infamy in a time of infamy.

Works Cited              
Brady, Cyrus Townsend.  Indian Fights and Fighters.  Lincoln: Bison, 1971.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, 1991.  
            Capps, Benjamin, The Great Chiefs.  Alexandria: Time-Life, 1977.
---. The Indians. Alexandria: Time-Life, 1979.
Connell, Evan S.  Son of the Morning Star. San Francisco: North Point, 1984.

            Edwards, Mike W.  "Should they build a fence around Montana?" National Geographic.  May 1976: 614.

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