The Indian Wars
In late 1875, continual skirmishes with the Indians were occurring in the Big Horn Mountain and Powder River regions of Wyoming, to the north and west of the Black Hills. The “hostile population” was estimated to be about 3,000 strong. Military leaders decided that the appropriate action would be a show of force that would bring the native people into the agencies.
General Crook initiated a campaign against the tribes in early 1876 from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming, heading for the Powder River country with only 900 troops. After an unsuccessful attack against a band of Cheyenne and a band of Oglalas under the leadership of Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, General Crook and his troops returned to the fort for the winter. As spring approached, an attack strategy was designed to overwhelm the native people with three columns of troops, one led by General Crook, one led by Colonel Gibbon, and one led by General Terry. Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, serving under Terry, was in command of the Seventh Cavalry.
In May 1876, the three military columns set out from their respective bases. One of the columns, under General Crook, was attacked early on by a group led by Crazy Horse, which prevented Crook from meeting up with Terry and Gibbon. When Gibbon and Terry met, it was decided to divide the troops into two groups and attack the native camp from the north and south simultaneously, trapping the Indians between the two forces. Gibbon and Terry traveled together to attack from the south. Custer’s cavalry headed out on a different path to attack from the north.
Custer arrived at the Little Big Horn River ahead of Terry and Gibbon and did not wait for their arrival, which resulted in disaster. Dividing his cavalry into three segments, Custer began his attack. Two sections of Custer’s troops survived the battle, but Custer and the men who stayed with him were wiped out.
Known today as the Battle of Little Big Horn, or alternately as “Custer’s Last Stand,” it was also the last of the major battles to be won by tribal forces. Attacks against the native people resumed in August. At several of the agencies, friendly native people were disarmed and their ponies were taken away from them as a preventative measure. Skirmishes alternated with attempts to negotiate. In early 1877 the military went to Spotted Tail, a chief at one of the friendly Indian camps that had not been disarmed, for assistance. Spotted Tail convinced many of the native people to surrender. Some headed into Canada under the leadership of Sitting Bull but many went to the agencies. Crazy Horse, reputed to be Spotted Tail’s nephew, and his band were the last to return. They went to the Red Cloud Agency, where Crazy Horse was killed when he resisted being placed in confinement.
The Battle of Little Big Horn gave Congress the power and popular support to pass an appropriations bill that dictated that the Sioux would not receive any further appropriations unless they gave up the Black Hills. Commissioners carried the new agreement to several agencies of the Sioux, where without horses or weapons, the native people acquiesced. Under the terms, the tribes sacrificed the Black Hills and all hunting rights in Montana and Wyoming. The tribes were to be relocated to reservation lands. Many of those who had previously surrendered fled north to join Sitting Bull in Canada. Of those who remained, Spotted Tail’s band relocated to Rosebud Creek and the Oglala Lakota picked their site at Pine Ridge, just west of Rosebud.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition