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The Battle of Little Bighorn, Part I : Historical Background
When Legend becomes Fact...
The Battle of Little Bighorn, though only a local "skirmish" in a desolate outskirt, became so legendary, that it was even heard in Europe. The story of the heroic general, who barely failed to overcome thousands of crazed and bloodthirsty Indians, moved entire generations all over the western world.
When we visited Harding in Montana, some facts and aspects didn't quite seem to correspond with the "official" history. Which was reason enough to delve more deeply, visit the battlefield museum, talk to local Indians, read several publications, and dig up whatever was available on the Internet. Which inevitable led me further back into history, to start all over again... Finally, I correlated all of this information.
The result is somewhat extensive, but nevertheless quite interesting ! The bare facts obviously remain the same, but the interpretation of the events leading up to this tragedy do show diverging viewpoints. I just hope that I won't be stepping on sore toes, because legends have a tendency to be quite tenacious...
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend !
The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie
This treaty "eternally locked" all non-allocated territory from South Dakota to the Big Horn Mountains in Montana as Indian territory, free of white colonists.
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, 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 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 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. While his tactics may have been brilliant, his strategy certainly was debatable...
In the end, the army was forced to retreat and eventually the forts were abandoned. In 1868, this was officially formalized in (yet another) treaty, the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The federal government's intention was to enclose them and thereby control them.
This 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. Another group of 3,000 Sioux and 400 Cheyenne however, refused to retire to the reservation and chose to continue hunting on their "non-allocated territory".
Among 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.
They were however a thorn in the federal government's side 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, Indian Agency Officials were usually appointed by "friends of political friends", and they amassed fortunes by corruption, providing rotten food, and theft...
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 himself had negotiated the treaty of 1868, but even as soon as 1870 he wrote to Sheridan that he did not consider it as "sacrosanct" because after all, the Indians had surrendered...
Most Army officers thought that the Indian problem would resolve itself, and a few infamous "tricks" were used to accelerate this "solution". Thus the buffalo extermination was speeded up, the promised food rations consisted of Secession War rations (dating from 1865...) and usually were completely spoiled before they arrived, and as many Indian horses as possible were killed. A particularly distasteful and sadistic practice was to provide blankets, that were previously infected with smallpox, which by itself killed about two thirds of the Indian population...
As soon as the buffalo disappeared, the Indians would have no other choice left but to go to the reservations. Unfortunately, the gold discoveries crossed their planning for an outspoken genocide. The prospectors and settlers came in faster than foreseen, and the Indians stubbornly refused to die !...
Most of the politic pressure came from the 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 were backed up by influential financial investors.
Between 1871 and 1873, several railroad-expeditions were organized in Indian territory. Under the treaty, railroads were tolerated, but the arrival of the white settlers unavoidably caused incidents. The leader of the 1873 cavalry escort was the young officer Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
*** Little Bighorn Part II : Custer, and the 1875 Gold Rush ***
*** Little Bighorn Part III : the Battle ***