Battle of the Little Big Horn

Painting by J. K. Ralston


On the morning of June 25, 2006, I read items published in two newspapers about the Battle of Little Big Horn:

New York Times: “On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry were wiped out by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana.”

Halifax Chronicle Herald: “General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry was massacred in Montana at the battle of the Little Big Horn, 130 years ago today, in 1876. The U.S. government had sent the army to fight Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, who were refusing to live on the great Sioux Reservation. The Indians banded together as the military threat increased. Custer ended up attacking a group of up to 7,000, for which his regiment of 647 was no match.”

It never ceases to amaze me to discover that the White man, in this supposedly enlightened age of 2006, can still use words to describe historical events, involving conflicts between North American First Nations Peoples and Caucasians, that imply that the White cause was just and civilized and the Indian’s cause was uncivilized. I’ll add a few words to both quotes that would have made them acceptable to First Nations Peoples and accurate.

New York Times: On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry, part of an army sent by the U.S. government to force the Indians back on the reservation, was defeated by Sioux and Cheyenne Warriors in the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana. Custer, shamefully, in striving to achieve personal glory, incompetently jumped the gun and attacked a vastly superior force, resulting in the complete annihilation of his men. There is nothing for the Nation to be proud of here, the army’s overall goal, which was eventually realized, was to neutralize the Indians and clear the way for non-Indian gold prospectors and settlers to steal remaining tribal lands.

Halifax Chronicle Herald: “General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry was defeated by Sioux and Cheyenne Warriors in Montana at the battle of the Little Big Horn,130 years ago today, in 1876. The U.S. government had sent the army to the area to fight the Indians because they were refusing to live on the great Sioux Reservation. It was a refusal that had to be overcome because it was preventing non-Indians from appropriating, without paying compensation, remaining Tribal lands for the purposes of mining for gold and building white settlements. Custer, in an unabashed push for personal glory, and a shameful disregard for the lives of his men, attacked a vastly superior force in comparison to his small contigent and his troops were wiped out.”

Many of the hunter's historians have glorified Custer as a hero, depicting that he and his men were brutally massacred by heathen savages. Now I'll play the hunted's historian. In reality he had that fate in mind for the Tribes, but had the tables turned on him. The truth of the matter is that Chief Sitting Bull and his people were making a last stand against an army that vastly outnumbered them, and which had access to an almost unlimited array of modern weaponry. A fitting comparison would be a match between an Elephant (US) and Mouse (Indians).

Daniel N. Paul

Quoted from: www.historylearningsite.co.uk/battle_of_the_little_big_horn.htm

Then in 1862, gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains in Montana. As with all gold rushes, such a find attracted many prospectors to the area. They needed to be supplied. A supply route was opened up by John Bozeman - the Bozeman Trail - which went from the Oregon Trail to Virginia City, running along the eastern edge of the Big Horn Mountains. The Bozeman Trail ran straight through the hunting grounds of the western Sioux nation. While the Oregon Train was an irritation to the Sioux, the Bozeman Trail was a serious threat to their way of life. For the gold miners, the Bozeman Trail was vital; to the Sioux it was yet another example of the whites affecting their lives in a negative manner.

Quoted from: www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/custer.htm


Outraged over the continued intrusions of whites into their sacred lands in the Black Hills, in late 1875, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians defiantly left their reservations,. They gathered in Montana with the great warrior Sitting Bull to fight for their lands. The following spring, two victories over the US Cavalry emboldened them to fight on in the summer of 1876.

To force the large Indian army back to the reservations, the Army dispatched three columns to attack in coordinated fashion, one of which contained Lt. Colonel George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Spotting the Sioux village about fifteen miles away along the Rosebud River on June 25, Custer also found a nearby group of about forty warriors. Ignoring orders to wait, he decided to attack before they could alert the main party. He did not realize that the number of warriors in the village numbered three times his strength. Dividing his forces in three, Custer sent troops under Captain Frederick Benteen to prevent their escape through the upper valley of the Little Bighorn River. Major Marcus Reno was to pursue the group, cross the river, and charge the Indian village in a coordinated effort with the remaining troops under his command. He hoped to strike the Indian encampment at the northern and southern ends simultaneously, but made this decision without knowing what kind of terrain he would have to cross before making his assault. He belatedly discovered that he would have to negotiate a maze of bluffs and ravines to attack.

Reno's squadron of 175 soldiers attacked the northern end. Quickly finding themselves in a desperate battle with little hope of any relief, Reno halted his charging men before they could be trapped, fought for ten minutes in dismounted formation, and then withdrew into the timber and brush along the river. When that position proved indefensible, they retreated uphill to the bluffs east of the river, pursued hotly by a mix of Cheyenne and Sioux.

Just as they finished driving the soldiers out, the Indians found roughly 210 of Custer's men coming towards the other end of the village, taking the pressure off of Reno's men. Cheyenne and Hunkpapa Sioux together crossed the river and slammed into the advancing soldiers, forcing them back to a long high ridge to the north. Meanwhile, another force, largely Oglala Sioux under Crazy Horse's command, swiftly moved downstream and then doubled back in a sweeping arc, enveloping Custer and his men in a pincer move. They began pouring in gunfire and arrows.

As the Indians closed in, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the carcasses to form a wall, but they provided little protection against bullets. In less than an hour, Custer and his men were killed in the worst American military disaster ever. After another day's fighting, Reno and Benteen's now united forces escaped when the Indians broke off the fight. They had learned that the other two columns of soldiers were coming towards them, so they fled.


The Forgotten Massacre:

The Marias Massacre of the Blackfeet by the US Army, January 23, 1870

Mark Mathison - Montana State University - Great Falls College of Technology - Fall 2006

Terrorism and genocide around the world is in the news daily and Americans react with horror at how any government or group could commit atrocities against some minority. Americans feel smug that our country is far superior in the world scene of human rights. This country was founded with rights and freedoms guaranteed to it’s citizens and the rest of the world should look to America as an example to follow for human rights. But a close look at our history shows many incidents of terrorism and slaughter of innocents with the blessing of the government. Many of these massacres and government-sanctioned terrorism have been well documented and memorialized for future generations to remember and learn from. The Marias Massacre is not one of them. The Marias incident is remembered by few and no sign marks it’s location and no book has been written exclusively on the event. The Marias Massacre must be remembered, both to honor those that died, and to remind America of it’s own bloody past.

Montana in the 1860’s was a clash of cultures involving two peoples that did not understand or trust each other. America was expanding westward and uprooting the people who wanted to keep what was their ancestral home. There were good men on each side who tried to live in peace and there were bad men on each side who had no respect for each other or (even their own) and were quick to shed blood. And there were people on each side who were reluctant to condemn their own people even though they condemned their actions. In this mix were men and women who intermarried from each group and started families that often, rather than bring them together, created new animosities.

Malcolm Clarke married She Cuts Her Head Off, a Blackfoot, and they had two sons and one daughter. (Blackfeet genealogy) He was a brutal man who was expelled from West Point for horse-whipping a fellow cadet (Hoines, 2001) and moved to Montana and started a ranch near Helena. The Blackfeet knew him as a two-faced man; although he had a Blackfoot wife, he had little respect for her people.

Owl Child was a hot-tempered young man from Mountain Chief’s band and was a relative of She Cuts Her Head Off. After some dispute with Clarke, Owl Child stole some horses from him. Clarke tracked Owl Child down and whipped him viciously in front of everyone. In revenge, on August 19, 1869, Owl Child came back and killed Clarke and wounded his wife and son, Horace, who was about fifteen (Gibson, Hayne).

In Blackfoot society, blood feuds were normal, one side or the other attempts to humiliate the other, but not to wipe each other out. The Whites however, were ignorant of these ways, and growing tired of raids, called for all out war with the Blackfeet. The local people were outraged by one more attack on one of their own, and insisted that the army hunt down Owl Child and any others who were responsible for Clarke’s murder.

General Sheridan ordered Major Eugene Baker to find Mountain Chief’s band (he felt that since Owl Child was from this band, all in the band must be responsible) and gave him instructions to use his own discretion to find Owl Child and punish any other Blackfeet he thought might be guilty. What this amounted to was permission to make a preemptive strike on any Indian he found, guilty or not. Eugene Baker was also known as a hard drinking man and often was drunk on duty and he was no sympathizer of Indians. He took along young Horace and Nathan Clarke so that they could help identify Owl Child and exact vengeance on their father’s murderer.

On January 23, 1870, Major Baker’s expedition encountered a Blackfoot village on the Marias River. It was forty below zero and Baker and several of his officers had been drinking. He thought that this was Mountain Chief’s camp (his camp was about fifteen miles further down the river) and ordered the troops to surround it. A man came out to meet them holding a piece of paper up. He was Heavy Runner and this was his camp (Heavy Runner had met earlier with General Sully, the Indian Superintendent, to make known his willingness to keep peace with the Whites and Sully had given him a paper that identified him as peaceful). One of the guides, Joe Kipp, recognized Heavy Runner and tried to let the soldiers know they were at the wrong camp, but it was too late; the soldiers came to kill Indians and they didn’t care who they killed.

Heavy Runner was killed first and the troops continued firing until no one moved. Not one Indian had fired a shot. One hundred and seventy-three Blackfeet were dead; mainly the sick, elderly, women and children. Afterwards, Private Walton McKay went through the camp killing anyone wounded and was fatally shot by a dying man trying to defend himself after McKay went inside his tent; he was the only soldier killed that day.

After the carnage, Baker left part of his command to guard the captives and wounded and took the remainder to look for Mountain Chief’s camp. They found his abandoned camp a few miles down the Marias then returned. Several captive men tried to escape and the infuriated soldiers executed eight of them with an ax after bringing them back. It was later reported that the eight were killed while trying to escape. All of the horses (at least 300) were taken and all lodges and possessions were the destroyed and the bodies buried in a mass grave. The remaining survivors were then released to go to their relatives, but in their weakened condition, many more died in the sub-zero weather.

News of the massacre reached the Blackfoot Indian Agent, Lieutenant W.B. Pease and Superintendent of Montana Indians, General Alfred Sully. They protested the actions of Major Baker and demanded a public inquiry. Major Baker said in his report:

“We succeeded, about 8 o'clock, in surprising the camp of Bear Chief and Big Horn [hostiles]. We killed one hundred and seventy-three Indians, captured over one hundred women and children, and over three hundred horses. ...Too much credit cannot be given to the officers and men of the command for their conduct during the whole expedition.” (Gibson and Hayne)

Congress and the East were outraged at the reports coming out of Montana, but General Sherman, General of the Army, issued a press release silencing them. He stated that he “preferred to believe” Baker’s report:

“The majority of those killed in Mountain Chief's camp were warriors, that the firing ceased the moment resistance was at an end, that quarter was given to all who asked for it; and that a hundred women and children were allowed to go free to join the other bands of the same tribe camped nearby, rather than the absurd report that there were only thirteen warriors killed and that all the balance were women and children, more or less afflicted with smallpox" (Gibson and Hayne).

The investigation of the massacre never went any further. Baker, his officers and the civilian guides that participated in the slaughter, were never brought to trial. The survivors were never given compensation. The mass grave has never been located to even place a marker memorializing the victims and the government has made no effort to help.

Blackfoot author, James Welsh must be given credit however, as he included the account in his book “Fools Crow” (1986) in which he includes stories passed down from his family’s memories of the massacre. His book has inspired Stan Gibson and Jack Hayne to research military archives and eyewitness accounts to document the event. And cowboy poet Rory Duce wrote the following poem, Remember Marias (2006) to memorialize this tragedy:

Remember Marias - Revised 2011.

Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee
are well described in history.
Washita and Sand Creek too,
the Cheyenne and also Sioux.
Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse
left the nation in remorse.
Old Black Kettle suffered twice.
With his life he paid the price.
A thousand books, a hundred songs,
have been written about these wrongs.
And well we should remember these
for truly they were tragedies.
Massacres of innocents.
The White Man’s accomplishments!

But another story is oft ignored
in history books and by school boards.
In the bitter cold of a winter morn
the Peigan felt the White Man’s scorn!
Heavy Runner was friendly to the whites
but even he fell under the rifle sights.
Two hundred lives were lost that day
as Major Baker had his way.
Nits make lice he shouted to his men,
kill them all! Women and children!
The dead bodies of that January day
were piled high and then torched away.
No graves or National Park remain
to remind us of the White Man's shame!

Contact information for Rory can be found at his Website: Rory Duce

The American people must remember their own history of blood before they condemn any other government. All peoples must learn to understand other cultures and quit judging them by their own standards. The Marias Massacre must and will be remembered.

Click to read about American Indian Genocide

Works Cited

Blackfeet Genealogy (n.d.). [online posting]. Retrieved November 25, 2006 from http://blackfeetgenealogy.com/pafg488.htm#14937
Duce, R. (2006). Remember Marias. Retrieved November 20, 2006 from http://members.shaw.ca/ poeticinjustice/marias.htm
Gibson, S. (n.d.). An uncelebrated anniversary. Retrieved November 20, 2006 from http://www.dickshovel.com/parts.html
Gibson, S. and Hayne, J. (n.d.). Witness to carnage. Retrieved November 20, 2006 from http://www.dickshovel.com/parts2.htm
Gibson, S. and Hayne, J. (n.d.). Postscript To The 1870 Marias Massacre. Retrieved November 20, 2006 from http://www.dickshovel.com/parts3.htm
Gibson, S. and Hayne, J. (n.d.). Notes On An Obscure Massacre. Retrieved November 23, 2006 from http://www.dickshovel.com/parts4.htm
Hoines, M. (2001). [online posting]. Baker's Massacre - 1870 - Malcolm Clark. Retrieved November 23, 2006 from http://genforum.genealogy.com/mt/messages/1636.html
Welch, J. (1986). Fools Crow. New York: Viking Penguin Books.