The Wild West as seen through the eyes of Thom Ross encompasses a wide range of events and occurances. From Bank Robbers and Soldiers to Explorers and Showmen to Indians and Daily western life. His world is filled with passion and historical content layed playfully to canvas that captures the attention and interest of old and young alike.
This Years show revoles around two aspects of the Wild West. "The Battle at the Little Bighorn" and Reoccuring Stories of the Wild West. Custer, his men and Sitting Bull are all interwoven with Ross' continuing passion for the events of the past. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Roy Chapman Andrews and Doc Holiday are all participants this year. Come and be a part of history.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, more popularly known by its sobriquet "Custer's Last Stand," was fought along the ridges, gentle sloping hills, and ravines above the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876. The conbatants were the combined forces of Teton (Western) Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, pitted against the 7th regiment of the U.S. Cavalry. The battle is remembered today as being a successful armed attempt by the Sioux and Cheyenne to preserve traditional ways in the face of inevitable cultural change brought about by the expansion of European Americans. After more than a century, Little Bighorn has come to symbolize the clash of these two vastly dissimilar cultures, both struggling for widely differing things from the same resources.
This battle was not an isolated tactical confrontation. It was one portion of a much larger strategic level campaign, designed to force the capitulation of non-reservation Lakota Sioux and Cheyanne.
In 1868, some Lakota Sioux leaders had agreed to a treaty that created a large reservation in South Dakota and Nebraska. The Lakota further agreed to cease raids against settlers, survey crews, and other enemy tribes in favor of settling on the reservation and accepting goverment subsidies. It was hoped that this so-called "Peace Policy" of President Grant's administration would help ease the cultural transition for the Sioux.
Lakota Sioux leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse opposed this policy. They feared becoming too dependent on the government, preferring to remain out on the plains as they had always done, far away from the treaty-reservation system. These roving bands of hunters and warriors had not signed the 1868 treaty and consequently felt no obligation to conform to its restrictions. They did not limit their hunting activities to the unceded land assigned to the reservation Lakota for that purpose and made sporadic forays against white settlers and enemy tribes on the fringes of the frontier. These non-reservation Lakota were reinforced during the summer months by groups known as summer roamers. These Indians had left the reservation temporarily to join hunting and raiding parties. The first snow fall usually saw these bands back on the reservation for the winter.
Problems were further complicated in 1874 when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was ordered to make an exploration of the Black Hills in the heart of the Lakota Sioux reservation. Fearing that intimidation by the summer roamers was jeopardizing the process of assimilating others on the reservation, General Philip H. Sheridan recommended a fort be constructed and garrisoned in the Black Hills, so that the army could repond to trouble quickly. Custer was to map the area and locate several suitable locations for future military posts. During the expedition, professional geologists discovered deposits of gold in paying quantities, and the resultant rush of entrepreneurs to the Black Hills was met with violence by the Sioux, who considered the whites as unwelcome interlopers on sacred ground.
All of these issues finally climaxed in the winter of 1875 when the Commissioner of Indian Affairs issued an ultimatum requiring all of the non-reservation Sioux to report to a reservation by the end of January, 1876. The deadline came and went with virtually no reponse, and matters were handed over to the military.
The campaign of 1876 called for three columns of troops to converge simultaneously on the Powder River country in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. Contrary to myth, these troops were not expected to launch a combined attack on any specific Indian village at a pre-designed time and location. Inadequate, slow, and often unpredicable communication prevented the army from coordinating march routes, distances, and timing. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Lakota Sioux and their Cheyenne allies were nomadic hunters, constantly on the move. No officer or scout could be certain how long a village would remain stationary, or which way the tribes might go in search of food, water, and grazing areas for their horses. These unpredictable factors of Plains Indian culture played a major part in the strategy of this campaign.
The first military force moved eastward from Fort Ellis near present day Bozeman, Montana and was composed of about 450 men led by Colonel John Gibbons. The second column, about 1,000 strong came from Fort Fetterman in central Wyoming, and was commanded by General George Crook. The third column was lead by General Alfred H. Terry and marched westward from Fort Lincloln, near present day Bismarck, North Dakota. It was expected that any one of these three forces would be able to defeat the 800 to 1,000 warriors that hey were likely to encounter.
Just eight days before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, General Crook and his Wyoming Column found out first hand that the army had drastically underestimated the number of warriors. On June 17, Crazy Horse and 1,300 to 1,500 warriors rode out of their village to attack Crook. In six hours of fighting, Crook suffered about 30 casualties, the Indian warriors about 20. This was a shocking and enexpected reversal of warfare against Plains Indians. The summer's campaign was to hold many unexpected surprises for other troops also.
Believing he did not have the manpower or supplies neccessary to continue on campaign, Crook withdrew to Goose Creek in northern Wyoming near present day Sheridan, to await supplies and reinforcements. The Indians meanwhile, moved their village west, following antelope herds, until June 23 or 24. They came to rest in the valley of the Little Bighorn.
These Indians had come together for a variety of reasons. This well-watered region of the Powder, Rosebud, Bighorn, and Yellowstone Rivers had always been good hunting grounds and there was plenty of grass to nourish their horses. The tribes always gathered together in large numbers for a few weeks in the spring to celebrate their annual Sun-Dance ceremony. The most recent Sun-Dance had occurred about two weeks earlier near present day Lame Deer, Montana. Hunkpapa Sioux, spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, had sacrificed 50 pieces of flesh from each arm, and recieved a vision of the future. He claimed to have seen soldiers riding upside down into camp. He prophesied there would soon be a great victory for his poeple. On the morning of June 25, the camp was ripe with rumors about soldiers on the other side of the Wolf Mountains, 20 miles to the east. Few paid any atttention. In the words of Low Dog, an Oglala Sioux, "I did not think anyone would come and attack us as strong as we were."
The Indians apparently were unaware that Terry's Colunm had despatched Custer and the 7th Cavalry to make a wide flanking march in order to come up on the Indians from the south. Terry and Gibbon, with the slowly moving infantry would approach from the north, and the Indians, who were supposedly encamped somewhere along the Little Bighorn, would be so completely enclosed as to make their escape virtually impossible.
Fifteen miles east of Little Bighorn Battlefield are the Wolf Mountains. Custer's initial plan had been to conceal his regiment in those mountains throughout June 25. This would allow his Crow and Arikara scouts to locate the Sioux and Cheyenne village. Custer planned on making a night march on June 25, and launching an attack at dawn on June 26. However, when Custer's scouts reported that the regiment had been spotted by the Lakota, he judged that the element of suprise was lost, and that the village would flee, the inhabitants scattering into the rugged landscape, and bring dismal failure to an expensive and physically grueling campaign. Custer ordered in immediate advance.
At noon, Captain Frederick W. Benteen was ordered to march southwest, along the foot of the Wolf Mountains with three companies, approximately125 men. His objective was to locate any Indians, to "pitch into anything" he found and send word to Custer. The remainder of the 7th advanced toward the valley until just past 2:00 p.m., when a party of warriors suddenly broke from cover and raced toward the Little Bighorn River. Custer ordered Major Marcus A. Reno to take his 140 man battalion consisting of three companies of Arikara scouts and to charge the village, and that he would "be supported by the whole outfit."
The Indian village lay in the broad valley bottom west of the Little Bighorn. Reno crossed the river about two miles above the village and began advancing downstream toward the southern end of the village.
Though initially seized with confusion, the warriors overcame their surprise and quickly rushed out to fight Reno. Seeing no sign of Custer's support, Reno did not continue the charge on the village, but halted, dismounted his men, formed them into a skirmish line. They began shooting into the warriors who were riding out of the village by the hundreds. Before long, Reno withdrew to a stand of timber beside the river which offered additional protection. Eventually, Reno decided on a second retreat, this time to the bluffs across the river. The Sioux and Cheyenne later compared the resulting chase to the excitment of a good buffalo hunt. Soldiers at the rear of Reno's fleeing command took heavy casualties as warriors galloped along side to empty their rifles into the troops, or physically knock them out of their saddles. After ordering Reno to charge the village, Custer rode northward along the bluffs until he reached a broad gulch know as Medicine Tail Coulee, a natural route down to the river and into the village. Relic later found indicate a short, sharp skirmish occurred at the ford. After defeating Major Reno, the warriors learned that another group of soldiers was attacking the village further north. Before long, Custer's two battalions were deploying on "battle ridge" where the monument stands today.
By 4:20 p.m., Reno's shattered command reached the bluffs and was joind by Captain Benteen's command. Benteen had found no Indians to the south and had returned to the main trail just in time to meet Reno's demoralized survivors. He bore a message from Custer to "Come On. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs." An effort was made to locate Custer after heavy gunfire was heard downstream. Led by Captain Weir's D company, the troops moved northward to Weir Point, an important landmark three miles from the Little Bighorn Battlefield and one and one-half miles north of Major Reno's position. Assembling at Weir Point, the troops could see clouds of dust and gunsmoke covering the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Large number of warriors approaching from the direction forced the cavalry to withdraw to Reno Hill where the Indians held them under siege throughout June 25, and all day June 26. The park tour road will take you to the Reno-Benteen siege area where another brochure will guide you across the battlefield.
The warrors lifted the siege on the afternoon of June 26, and began moving the entire village south. The next day the combined forces of Terry and Gibbons arrived to rescue the battered remnant of the 7th Cavalry. Scouting parties discovered the dead, naked, and mutilated bodies of Custer's command on the ridge above the current park Visitor Center. White marble markers today mark the approximate locations where the soldiers of Custer's command fell. The exact location will never be known as none of the soldiers survived. From Indian accounts, relic finds, and the position of the bodies, historians can piece together some portions of the action, though many answers will remain elusive forever.
After ordering Reno to charge the village, Custer rode northward along the bluffs until he reached a broad gulch known as Medicine Tail Coulee, a natural road out of this rugged country, down to the river, and into the center of the village. Relic finds indicate a short sharp skirmish occurred at the ford, and the troops fell back. After defeating Major Reno, the warriors learned that another group of soldiers was attacking the village farther norther. Before long, Custer's two battalions were being driven northward toward the long "battle ridge" where the monument stands today.
Dismounting at the southern end of the ridge, companies C and L appeared to have made a stiff resistance for a few short minutes before being overwhelmed. Company I perished on the east side of the ridge. Company E may have attempted to drive warriors out of the deep revines on the west side of the ridge, before being consumed in fire and smoke in one of the very ravines they were trying to clean out. Company F may have tried to fire at warriors on the flats below the National Cemetery before being driven to the Last Stand Site.
In all, about 80 men from the original 210 were now deployed on the hill where the monument is today. They were surrounded by nearly 2,000 or more Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Dust and gunsmoke mixed together in a thick, gritty fog which covered the entire field. Wounded men and horses on both sides groaned and screamed as bullets and arrows struck them. Desperation, fear, and violence were realities of this battle which has been glamorized in movies, dime novels and paintings.
Toward the end of the fight, about 40 men, some on foot, others on horsback, broke out in a desperate attempt to get away. They were all pulled down and killed in a matter of minutes. The warriors quickly rushed to the top of the hill, cutting, clubbing, and stabbing the last of the wounded. It is thought Custer's part of the fight lasted about one and half to two hours.
The battle was the last stand of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne as well. General Sheridan now had the leverage he needed to put more troops in the field. Lakota hunting gounds were soon infested with soldiers and forts; there was no longer a refuge for the Lakota. Most surrendered within one year after the fight (Above information from the National Park Service)