The Powder River Country along the eastern slopes of the Bighorn Mountains have had some of the largest game populations in the northern plains. Since prehistoric times they have been fought over by different Indian tribes. First the area was controlled by the Shoshone. Later the Crow Tribe pushed the Shoshone over the mountains and took over the hunting grounds. The Crows were displaced by the seven warlike tribes of the Teton Sioux.
After the end of the Civil War the United States resumed its westward expansion. Gold was discovered in Montana. John Bozeman laid out a road, the Bozeman Trail, as a shortcut off the Oregon Trail to the goldfields in Montana. The road went through the heart of the Sioux Tribes' newly won hunting grounds. The Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne, reacted violently to this violation of their hunting grounds. The Powder River Country became a battleground for the next twelve years.
On August 28, 1865 cavalry under the command of General Patrick Connor attacked Chief Black Bear's Arapahoes along the Tongue River (outside present day Ranchester, Wyoming). The warriors made a stand while their families scattered. Connor's troopers destroyed the village, then were driven back by an Indian counterattack. Only the use of artillery saved the soldiers from disaster. This attack caused the Arapaho to join forces with the Sioux and Cheyenne. Excerpts from an officer's diary show the military attitude.
The battle site is located in the Ranchester City Park about five miles from Dayton.
On August 31, 1865, a expedition was surveying the route of the Bozeman Trail. The group, led by Col. James Sawyer, was attacked by Arapaho Indians in retaliation for the attack on Black Bear's village. The party was besieged for thirteen days until the surveyors were rescued by General Conner's Powder River Expedition Force.
The battlefield monument is alongside U.S. Hwy 14 about three miles from Dayton where the Bozeman trail crosses the present highway.
From 1866 to 1868 the Sioux and Cheyenne fought to close the Bozeman Trail through their hunting grounds. The U.S. Army built forts Phil Kearny, F.C. Smith and Reno to guard the trail. Despite the presence of the forts, Red Cloud's Sioux warriors made travel on the Bozeman Trail a life threatening experience. The Sioux besieged Fort Phil Kearny, attacking soldiers that left the fort to gather firewood.
On December 21, 1866 a wood party was attacked by Indians. Captain William Fetterman, who had boasted that he could "ride through the whole Sioux nation with 80 men," led a force of 80 men out to relieve the wood train and "punish" the Indians. Fetterman foolishly led his command into an ambush led by Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. All the soldiers were killed in a few minutes.
On August 2, 1867 a company of the 27th Infantry was guarding a woodcutting party. The woodcutters had removed the cargo boxes from their wagons and arranged them in a circular corral. A large force of Sioux attacked the corral for over three hours but were repulsed by volleys from the newly issued breechloading rifles.
Red Cloud continued the pressure on the forts. He refused to make peace until the forts were abandoned. In May 1868 the U.S. Army ordered the forts abandoned. After the soldiers marched out, the Indians burned them to the ground. Finally, in November, 1868 Red Cloud signed a peace treaty at Fort Laramie. He was the first and only Western Indian Chief to have won a war with the United States.
On a hot June day in 1876 about 2,500 Indians attacked five companies of U.S. Cavalry on a treeless Montana ridge above the Little Bighorn River. In less than an hour every soldier lay dead. This was "Custer's Last Stand"--the most spectacular triumph of the American Indian in the fight against the encroaching European civilization.
After the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 the Indians thought that they had won for the hated forts were abandoned, the Bozeman Trail closed, and the Powder River country guaranteed as unceeded hunting grounds. All of South Dakota west of the Missouri was set aside as the Great Sioux Reservation. Their happiness was short lived. Soon there were rumors of gold in the Black Hills. Prospectors swarmed into the region. The Sioux charged the government with breaking the treaty. Many Indians left the reservation to live in the unceeded hunting grounds. Some attacked travelers on the trails fringing the Indian lands. The government laid plans to end these attacks and, perhaps frighten the chiefs into selling the Black Hills.
Late in December 1875, a demand was sent to the Powder River bands--report to the agencies by January 31, 1876 or be subject to military action. The fact that it was mid-winter and there was insufficient time to make the move made little difference. On February 1, 1876 the Secretary of the Interior asked the Secretary of War to take such measures as he thought appropriate.
Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan ordered three Army columns to converge on the Powder River country and attack the Indians. The "Montana Column" under John Gibbon marched down the north bank of the Yellowstone River. The "Dakota Column" under Gen Alfred Terry, which included all 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln toward the Yellowstone. A third column commanded by George Crook would march north from Fort Fetterman. There was no coordination between the columns because each column was strong enough to defeat the 500 to 800 warriors the Indian Bureau thought were absent from the agencies.
A lot more Indians were absent from the agencies than the Indian Bureau thought. Thousands had gathered under Sitting Bull's leadership in the Powder River country. In June they came together in one of the largest villages ever on the Great Plains.
General Terry sent the 7th Cavalry to circle around to the south behind the Indians supposed location while his infantry marched to block their escape to the north. Custer was to be in position by June 26th, the earliest date that the slower moving infantry could be in position.
Custer's force turned north early and was discovered by Indian scouts on the 24th. He immediately prepared to attack since he thought the Indians would only try to escape. Custer now did what he has been criticized for ever since--he divided his command into three parts to try and surround the Indians. He sent Captain Benteen with four companies to circle to the south. He sent Major Reno with five companies to ride down the valley of the Little Bighorn and attack the Indian village directly. Custer, with five companies would attack the upper end of the village.
Reno's battalion began a charge toward the Indian village following Custer's orders, "Move forward at as rapid a gait as you deem prudent, charge the village, and the whole outfit will support you." As the village came in sight Reno was shocked at the sight of hundreds of tepees stretching for three miles along the river. He called an abrupt halt, dismounted his men and formed a skirmish line. Soon his men retreated into the trees along the river. When an Indian scout was killed at Reno's side, he panicked and led a rout across the river. The Indians rode among the demoralized troops killing at will. When Reno's command finally reached the bluffs on the other side of the river 90 of the battalion's 175 men were killed, wounded or missing.
After separating from Reno, Custer had moved along the opposite bank of the river. About 3 p.m. he went to the edge of the bluff and saw the village for the first time. Custer now made a second fateful choice. Rather than retreat from overwhelming odds and collect the scattered pieces of his command before continuing the attack he pressed on. About 3:20 p.m. he sent his orderly with a message to Captain Benteen who he had ordered to scout to the south--"Benteen--Come on, Big Village. Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring pacs" referring to the spare ammunition on pack mules. That was Custer's last message.
From then on Custer's movements are a matter of conjecture. Indian accounts give a reasonable idea of what happened. Custer tried to cross the river at the middle of the village. He was driven back by the rapidly increasing numbers of warriors. He slowly gave ground, retreating toward the higher hills above the river. Warriors under Chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall circled to the left and right until Custer was surrounded. The Indians fought on foot using every bit of cover to inch closer and closer to the troopers. About forty tried to make a break for the river and were cut down. Custer's command group made a final stand on what is now Custer Hill. They were whittled down by rifle and arrow fire then killed in a final rush. The whole battle had lasted less than an hour.
Captain Benteen joined Reno's demoralized troops atop the bluffs. After reorganizing they moved forward to try and find Custer but were driven back by a large group of warriors. The Indians besieged them for two days on Reno Hill. On the third day the village packed up and left. The Sioux had inflicted their greatest defeat on the U.S. Army.
Their victory was short lived. Large numbers of troops were called up and kept in the field pursuing the Indians summer and winter until they surrendered. The Sioux lost their beloved Black Hills and were forced into smaller reservations in South Dakota. The Crow Indians saw their enemies the Sioux defeated by their "allies" the white men. They regained much of the land they had lost to the Sioux. Their reservation includes the Little Bighorn River and the battlefield area.
The battlefield is a national monument. There is a museum and national cemetery where many famous frontiersmen and Indian scouts are buried. The land is much like it was over a hundred years ago. The ground is deceptively flat but cut with hundreds of gullies that could still hide thousands of Indian warriors. From Custer Hill you look down on the white markers placed where soldier's bodies were found. A hawk glides overhead riding a thermal. There is only the sound of the wind in the grass. You feel as if the ghosts of the dead troopers could ride over the hills toward you any second.
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