Closing the Frontier

40b. Custer's Last Stand

Battle of Little Big Horn

Custer's Last Stand
Edgar S. Paxson, 1899

Another Broken Treaty

Gold broke the delicate peace with the Lakota. In 1874, a scientific exploration group led by General George Armstrong Custer discovered the precious metal in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

When word of the discovery leaked, nothing could stop the masses of prospectors looking to get rich quick, despite the treaty protections that awarded that land to the Lakota. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the local Indian leaders, decided to take up arms to defend their dwindling land supply.

Sighting the Enemy
The Statue is entitled "Sighting the Enemy." It depicts General Custer at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. On that date Custer led the famed Michigan Brigade to victory over J.E.B. Stuart, despite Stuart's numerical superiority

Little Big Horn

Custer was perhaps the most flamboyant and brash officer in the United States Army. He was confident that his technologically superior troops could contain the Native American fighters. Armed with new weapons of destruction such as the rapid-firing Gatling gun, Custer and his soldiers felt that it was only a matter of time before the Indians would surrender and submit to life on a smaller reservation. Custer hoped to make that happen sooner rather than later.

His orders were to locate the Lakota encampment in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana and trap them until reinforcements arrived. But the prideful Custer sought to engage the Lakota on his own.

On June 25, 1876, he discovered a small Indian village on the banks of the Little Big Horn River. Custer confidently ordered his troops to attack, not realizing that he was confronting the main Lakota and Cheyenne encampment. A large warrior force (most estimates range from 1200-1500) led by Crazy Horse descended upon Custer's regiment, and within hours about a third of the Seventh Cavalry including General Custer and all 210 or so men under his direct command, were massacred.

The victory was brief for the warring Lakota. The rest of the United States regulars arrived and chased the Lakota for the next several months. By October, much of the resistance had ended. Crazy Horse had surrendered, but Sitting Bull and a small band of warriors escaped to Canada. Eventually they returned to the United States and surrendered because of hunger.

Crazy HorseIs this really Crazy Horse? According to most historians, the great Lakota warrior never allowed his picture to be taken. While no images of Crazy Horse have been universally proved as the real deal, this tin-type has been claimed authentic by the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council.

Reactions Back East

Custer's Last Stand caused massive debate in the East. War hawks demanded an immediate increase in federal military spending and swift judgment for the noncompliant Lakota.

Critics of United States policy also made their opinions known. The most vocal detractor, Helen Hunt Jackson, published A Century of Dishonor in 1881. This blistering assault on United States Indian policy chronicled injustices toward Native Americans over the past hundred years.

The American masses, however, were unsympathetic or indifferent. A systematic plan to end all native resistance was approved, and the Indians of the West would not see another victory like the Little Big Horn.

On the Web
Custer Battle: Archaeology and History
A very attractive and informative site on Battle of Little Big Horn history and the ongoing archaeological study underway on the battlefield. Easy to naviagate to find maps, photos, biographies and a timeline of events.
General George Armstrong Custer
Here is a concise biography of the General Custer from "Ohio History Central," Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.
The Battle Of The Little Big Horn
George Herenden was a civilian hired to scout for the Seventh Cavalry, under Major Reno. This webpage provides his eyewitness account of the Battle of Little Big Horn, as told to a New York Times reporter. The illustrated, present-day overview of the battle and background information is good reading, too.
The Custer Massacre
This article printed in Harper's Magazine, August 5, 1876, editorializes on the need for a new policy regarding the Indians in the wake of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Did you always wonder about the family legend that your great-grandfather was killed fighting with Custer? Now you can find out yourself on this list of military (and some civilian) casualites of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
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