THE BATTLE OF LITTLE BIGHORN - part 1

part 1 historical background
part 2 Custer and the 1875 Gold Rush
part 3 the Battle

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 1

In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 1 covers Montana and Wyoming. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.

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The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie

Prior to 1860, and according to the treaties of 1851 and 1855, the Teton Sioux and Cheyenne owned hunting grounds in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota. They led a nomadic existence and the (then) fertile prairie grasses formed an excellent base for their primary food source, the buffalo. However, gradually they were driven up north by gold discoveries in Montana and Idaho. The Indians resisted these encroachments on their territory and raided (illegal) miners and settlers. In 1860 federal troops attacked them a first time.

The Secession War (1860-1865) granted the Indians a temporary respite, but after the war the miners and settlers again showed up, brought in by the new railroads, the Mississippi river steamships and covered wagons. Over the Bozeman Trail they moved right through the Indian buffalo hunting grounds, with an unstoppable lust to kill the buffalo, just for pleasure. The army built three forts in Sioux territory, allegedly to protect the travelers.

In 1886 an extraordinary Oglala chief Red Cloud finally managed to unite almost all of the tribes in their battle against the never ceasing white expansion. Another figure arose from the Indians, the Oglala Crazy Horse, who in the same year realized the extraordinary military feat of luring eighty soldiers out of Fort Kearny and then ambushing them. But while his tactics may have been called brilliant, his strategy certainly was debatable. In the end, the army was forced to retreat and eventually the forts were abandoned.

In 1868 this situation was officially formalized in (yet another) treaty, the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The federal government's intention was to enclose the Indian tribes and thereby to control them. The treaty "eternally locked" the Sioux territories across the whole of South Dakota and stipulated that in return they would get enough food and other goods. Furthermore the Bozeman Trail would be closed, all "non-allocated territory" from South Dakota to the Big Horn Mountains in Montana was declared free of white colonists, and the Sioux were allowed to use it for buffalo hunting.

About 15,000 Sioux, including Red Cloud, opted for the free food parcels and eventually moved to the reservation in South Dakota. However, another group of 3,000 Sioux and 400 Cheyenne refused to retire to the reservation and chose to continue hunting on their "non-allocated territory".

"Free" Indians

Sitting BullAmong all the different tribes again rose a strong figure, the Hunkpapa chief Sitting Bull. This outstanding individual had already earned military glory in the battles of 1865, but since then he had expanded his influence in political and spiritual areas. He firmly believed in the traditional Indian values and condemned the servility of his compatriots in the reservations, for "a piece of bacon, some sugar and some coffee".

Although Indian tribalism was very strong, most of the younger fighters respected him because of his superior intellect and strong personal magnetism. Both for Indians and whites, the "free" Indians were identified more and more with Sitting Bull.

These free Indians were a thorn in the federal government's eye because they offered a haven for disgruntled reservation Indians, they had no respect for the Agency Officials (Indian Agents), and not always remained in their allocated territories. The federal government therefore looked forward to abolishing the "unallocated territories" and to get its hands on the entire territory.

By the way, these Indian Agency Officials were usually appointed by "friends of political friends", and they amassed fortunes by corruption, providing rotten food, and theft...

Government policy

After the Secession war, the triumvirate of the winning team ran the USA, with Ulysses S. Grant as President, Army General William Sherman as head of the US Army, and General Philip Sheridan as Head of the Military Division of the Missouri. Sherman had personally negotiated the treaty of 1868, but as soon as in 1870 he wrote to Sheridan that he did not consider this treaty as "sacrosanct" because after all, the Indians had surrendered...

Most Army officers thought that the Indian problem would resolve itself, and several disgraceful tricks were used to accelerate this "solution". Thus the buffalo extermination was speeded up, the promised food consisted of Secession War rations (dating from 1865 or earlier) that usually were completely spoiled before they arrived, and as many Indian horses were killed as possible. Another particularly distasteful and even sadistic practice was to provide blankets that had previously been infected with smallpox, which by itself killed about two thirds of the Indian population.

As soon as the buffalo disappeared from the prairies, the Indians would have no other choice left but to go to the reservations. Unfortunately, the gold discoveries crossed their planning of an outspoken genocide. The prospectors and settlers came in faster than foreseen, but the Indians stubbornly refused to die!

Most of the politic pressure came from the all-powerful railroad companies, who wanted new railroads, the free land that came with the package deal, and the settlers that would eventually pay for both. These companies in turn were backed up by influential financial investors.

Between 1871 and 1873 several railroad-expeditions were organized in Indian territory. Under the 1868 treaty railroads were tolerated, but the massive arrival of new white settlers unavoidably caused incidents. The leader of the 1873 cavalry escort was the young officer Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.

** Continue reading with part 2 **