Throughout the late 1800s, the collision of two very different and separate ways of life played out on the Great Plains across Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Though neither the first nor the last armed conflict, the June 1876 battle of the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne against the 7th Cavalry and other soldiers of the United States Army is one of the most remembered. Part of the larger Great Sioux War, the battle at Little Bighorn, also referred to as Custer’s Last Stand, was instrumental in ending the free movement of American Indians throughout the West. At Little Bighorn, the Lakota and Cheyenne and others thoroughly defeated the United States Army under the leadership of George Armstrong Custer, a United States Military Academy educated and highly successful Civil War leader. Despite this victory, the Plains Indians were forced onto reservations in the coming years. Until the 1990s, Custer Battlefield National Monument was the name of the Little Bighorn National Monument.
Today, visitors to Little Bighorn Battlefield will find a landscape very similar to the way it was when the battle occurred--from the hill where Custer and his men met their deaths, “Last Stand Hill,” to the site of further fighting to the southeast. Monuments to the US troops and the American Indian warriors document the struggle. At the Reno-Benteen Battlefield site, rifle pits and other trenches are visible. Throughout the park, low white markers approximate the sites where soldiers died. Red granite markers identify fallen American Indians on the field of battle. After the battle, popular outcry led to the creation of a National Cemetery near the battlefield to remember the troops killed there. This cemetery is the final resting place for soldiers from a number of conflicts, including Vietnam. Built for the cemetery, the Superintendent’s House houses some park facilities today.
Settlers moving from the east coast of the United States often came into contact with various American Indian tribes living in the West. To encourage and protect growing settlements in the West, the Federal Government negotiated treaties with local tribes with the goal of limiting the land on which the tribes could live to free land for settlers. The government negotiated a treaty in 1868, which established a reservation for the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne peoples on the Plains. According to the treaty, this reservation was for the exclusive use of the Indians. Some bands of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne did not want to be confined to a reservation and preferred to maintain a traditional, nomadic lifestyle. Under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, two men who later became famous for their roles in fighting white settlement, these bands often lived and hunted well outside the established boundaries of the reservation.
White settlement in the area, and the West as a whole, increased following the Civil War. The discovery of gold in 1874 on the land promised to the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne in the 1868 treaty suddenly brought thousands onto the reservation. This influx and settlers’ disregard for treaty lands and native ways of life heightened the tension on the Plains. An 1875 order by the Department of the Interior attempted to compel the nomadic bands to return to the reservation by the end of January 1876. When, for a variety of reasons, this order failed to make the bands living off the reservation return, the stage was set for the conflict at Little Bighorn.
General Alfred Terry ordered Custer and the 7th Cavalry and other troops to strike at the nomadic bands of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne in southeastern Montana. Positioned generally to the north, other US Army units were supposed to block their escape according to the plan. After sighting the Lakota and Cheyenne camp in the valley of the Little Bighorn River, Custer attacked on June 25, 1876, believing that the Indians were preparing to strike their camp. To better contain the scattering villagers, Custer divided his troops.
Custer misread the sightings, however. The villagers were not scattering, nor were they taking down their camp. Instead, many warriors were in the village and able to attack Custer’s troops. Two officers, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, defended a position preventing the annihilation of some parts of the regiment assigned to Custer. The site of this position is known as the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. All of Custer's men died in particularly bitter fighting on Last Stand Hill. The surviving Indian warriors disbanded. Sitting Bull went to Canada, though he returned to the United States in 1881 and surrendered to the government.
The War Department erected a monument to honor the 7th Cavalry, attached civilian personnel, and Indian scouts who died in the battle. The War Department also controlled access to the site and how the battle was interpreted. Finally in 1991, the U.S. Congress changed the name of the battlefield from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn National Monument and ordered the erection of a memorial to the American Indians who fought for their families, land, and culture. Some 100 American Indian men, women, and children also perished in the battle.
A visitor center near Last Stand Hill offers exhibits and an orientation film on the battle, plus additional information on Custer, Sitting Bull, and the weaponry of the battle. Native culture displays and seasonal cultural demonstrations provide information on the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux. Guided tours focusing on the battlefield are available at the visitor center as is a walking tour of the monuments. A tour road running between the Last Stand Hill portion of the park and the Reno-Benteen Battlefield has wayside exhibits. A cell phone based tour provides information on the battlefield areas and additional information. A self-guided tour is available for the National Cemetery.
Little Bighorn National Monument is in memory of the US Army's 7th Cavalry and the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne who fought in one of the Indians’ last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. Though the Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux, and others who fought at Little Bighorn won, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Their victory caused the Army to pursue them across the Plains and ultimately marked the end of their nomadic culture and forced their confinement on reservations.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located off Interstate 90 (Exit 510) on US 212 East in Crow Agency, MT. Click here for National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. There is a fee to visit the park which maintains seasonal hours and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information visit the National Park Service Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument website or call 406-638-3217.