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Discovery of Gold Spurs Confrontation

In 1875, gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The U.S. government wanted access to the area but much to the government’s dismay, the Black Hills home to the Sioux and Cheyenne Native American tribes. With the discovery of gold, the U.S. began to ignore the earlier treaties that it had signed with the Sioux and the Cheyenne and now began to invade the Black Hills region.

Since the mid-1800s the U.S. had been trying to confine the Native Americans in this region to live on reservations (closed encampments).  In protest over the forced migration, Chief Sitting Bull and the Lakota Tribe had camped out along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. The Cheyenne and the Sioux, who were led by Crazy Horse now joined the Lakota in an effort to confront the U.S. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered along the Little Bighorn, a river that they called Greasy Grass.

In response, the government sent three columns of the U.S. army to confront the Native American Tribes. From the west, came a column led by Colonel John Gibbon; from the south, there was the column commanded by General George Cook; and from the east there came a column led by General Alfred H. Terry. General George Custer’s 7th Calvary of 600 men made up most of General Terry’s column.

General Custer’s Last Stand

On June 22nd, General Terry ordered General Custer’s 7th Cavalry to pursue Chief Sitting Bull’s trail, which led into the Little Bighorn Valley. By the morning of June 25th, Custer’s scouts had found the location of Sitting Bull’s village. General Custer had decided to wait in hiding until the next morning, when they would attack the village. However, later in the morning of the 25th, Custer’s men spotted some scouts from the Lakota tribe who in turn had spotted Custer’s men. Custer assumed that these scouts would hurry to warn their village, so he attacked immediately.

A portrait of General George Custer

Custer split his own group of 600 men into three smaller groups. Two of the groups would attack the village from the north and the south, while the third group would stay just south of the village to cut off any retreating Native Americans. U.S. Army Intelligence had reported that there was a group of about 800 warriors in the village, and Custer hoped to catch this army by surprise. In fact, it was General Custer who was in for a surprise.

In addition to the 800 Lakota warriors, there were roughly 1,200 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, meaning that Custer was really attacking an army of 2,000 fighters. Not only were they greater in number but these men were armed with repeating rifles, which were superior to the rifles of Custer and his men. At the sounds of the attack, Chief Sitting Bull quickly made preparations for the women and children to be kept safe, and readied his men for the upcoming battle.

Custer now found his group of 210 men cut off from the other groups by hundreds of Native American fighters. The battle that followed took nearly two hours but in the end Custer and every man in his group were killed. After the battle, many people believed that Custer and some of his surviving men fought their last battle on high ground, making for “Custer’s Last Stand” but there is no firm evidence to support this story.

A monument of Crazy Horse has been carved in the hills of South Dakota

There were many Native American Warriors who fought bravely during the Battle of Little BIghorn Among the most famous of these was Crazy Horse, leader of the Oglala Band of the Lakota Tribe. Crazy Horse, along with Sitting Bull was an important figure in the Native American’s resistance to their forced migration into reservations.

Importance of the Battle of Little Bighorn in U.S. History

Many white Americans of the time were angered by the Battle of Little Bighorn. General Custer had been a hero of the Civil War just a few years earlier, so many mourned his death. They were also angered at the Native Americans who had killed them, and many wanted the Army to push harder to force the Native Americans on to reservations.

In contrast, the people of the Lakota, Sioux, and Cheyenne viewed the Battle of Little Bighorn as a monumentous victory. Many hoped that this battle would help turn the tide and that the U.S. government would allow their tribes to stay on the lands they had already settled. This, sadly, was not to be the case as within just a few years of the Battle of Little BIghorn, the tribes would surrendur to the U.S. Army.

Battle of Little Bighorn Fun Facts

  • General Custer graduated dead last in his class at West Point Army Academy
  • Four of Custer’s family, including two brothers, a brother-in-law, and his nephew, were also killed at Little Bighorn
  • Crazy Horse was originally known as Among the Trees
  • Crazy Horse was shot in the face after he ran away with another man’s wife
  • Sitting Bull was originally known as Jumping Badger
  • Sitting Bull was the first person to become Chief of the entire Lakota Nation


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