Into Annihilation: The Arikara Story of Custer’s March to, and the Battle of, the Little Bighorn, part 1

Battle of the Little Bighorn Anniversary Special:
One of the most mesmeric and seismic battles in world history: when the Lakota defeated utterly the United States.
⁓The Voice before the Void

Into Annihilation: The Arikara Story of Custer’s March to, and the Battle of, the Little Bighorn

from The Arikara Narrative of the Campaign against the Hostile Dakotas, June, 1876

compiled from interviews conducted by the North Dakota State Historical Society with the aged Arikara scouts in 1912 at Fort Berthold Reservation

edited by O.G. Libby and The Voice before the Void

part 1

Historical Introduction to the Battle of the Little Big Horn

In the year 1867, the United States Congress provided for a commission to treat with all the Indian tribes of the Great Plains and arrange a treaty which would grant to them definite lands. This, it was thought, would cause them to settle down and cease their war on the white man. Parts of two years were spent in visiting the scattered bands and finally, in April, 1868, an agreement was concluded which defined clearly the boundaries of the territory set apart for the Dakotas [Treaty of Fort Laramie]. This area was not large when compared with the fields over which the Dakotas had been accustomed to roam at will, but it included the Black Hills and adjacent lands which the Dakotas had cherished for a long time as a hunting ground and asylum. Consequently when gold was discovered in these hills and when the expedition commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was sent “to reconnoiter the route from Fort Abraham Lincoln to Bear Butte,” a well known point north of the Black Hills, and “to explore the country south, southeast, and southwest of that point,” the Dakotas were much disturbed.

Charles Marion Russell - The Custer Fight - 1903

The evidence gathered on Custer’s expedition with regard to a large amount of precious metal in the Black Hills was on the whole discouraging. However, other expeditions followed, and soon there began a rush of white men into this territory. It was at this point that the Dakotas were aroused and made a desperate attempt to defend their lands and their rights in the treaty.

From the time of the treaty of 1868 there had remained outside of the reservation a number of Dakotas, known as hostiles. To these were constantly being added outlaws who left the reservations, until the number which could be called hostile was probably about three thousand. Most of these were under the leadership of Sitting Bull. In late 1875, the Indian inspector E.C. Watkins, after investigation, advised that troops be sent against these hostile Indians “that winter; the sooner the better.”

In early 1876, General George Crook and Colonel J.J. Reynolds were sent on an expedition against the hostiles. Colonel Reynolds followed a trail and struck the camp of Crazy Horse. The Dakotas fled and the soldiers destroyed the camp, while being shot at from rocks, bushes, and gullies [Battle of Powder River]. General Crook was driven back by the Indians.

The results of this expedition were considered neither conclusive nor satisfactory, and a systematic campaign was devised, consisting of three distinct divisions – General Crook from the south, General Alfred H. Terry from the east, and Colonel John Gibbon from the west – to march and converge upon the Big Horn River, a tributary of the Yellowstone River.

The military authorities assumed that any one of these three divisions could defeat the enemy, the only difficulty being to catch him, for it was believed that no one of the commanders would encounter more than five to eight hundred hostile warriors. But the failure of Crook’s expedition in March, and the delay of Custer’s command at Fort Lincoln, had allowed hundreds of Indians to slip away from the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail reservations in Nebraska, and from reservations on the Missouri River, so that Sitting Bull’s camp as Custer found it on June 25th contained approximately twenty-five hundred to three thousand warriors from all the different tribes of the Dakota nation. They were supplied with fine rifles and had large quantities of ammunition.

Marching northward from Fort Fetterman on the Platte River, General Crook encountered on June 17th a large number of Indians commanded by Red Cloud [Battle of the Rosebud], and was so badly crippled that he retreated the next day to his supply camp to await reinforcements and supplies, practically eliminated from the campaign.

Colonel Gibbon marched from Fort Ellis in Montana eastward along the north bank of the Yellowstone River to the mouth of the Rosebud River, to meet General Terry.

General Terry, with the Seventh Cavalry under its lieutenant colonel, George Armstrong Custer, was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck. On the morning of May 17th, this command started on its ill-fated expedition. On June 1st and 2d, they were delayed by a snow storm, but they reached the mouth of the Powder River on June 10th. From here Major Marcus Reno, with a part of Custer’s army, was sent to reconnoiter, and Custer went on to the mouth of the Tongue River. Reno returned June 19th with news of a “large Indian trail” leading up the Rosebud River. There were many indications that the Dakotas’ stronghold was upon the Little Big Horn River about fifteen miles above its junction with the Big Horn River. Custer reached the mouth of the Rosebud on June 21st. Here he was met by General Terry who had gone up the Yellowstone on the supply steamer, the “Far West.” Colonel Gibbon also joined them here. A conference was held on board the “Far West” at which it was decided that Custer with the Seventh Cavalry should follow the trail discovered by Reno, while the others were to continue to the mouth of the Big Horn River where Custer was to report later.

Having received its instructions, the Seventh Cavalry and its accompanying party of Arikara and Crow scouts marched out of camp at noon on June 22d, 1876. In consultation with his officers that evening, Custer took unusual precautions to provide for secrecy. During the first day’s march, three large Dakota camping places were passed. June 24th was a tedious, dusty day, and the troops made long halts to keep in touch with the scouts, who were carefully examining the country. Many more forsaken camping places were passed this day and instead of realizing, as he should have done, that these were the camps of an unusually large number of Dakotas, Custer, probably influenced by the reports of military authorities that there were not more than five to eight hundred warriors in this hostile band, mistook these numerous camps for a succession of camps of the same village.

In the largest of these forsaken camps, a large sun dance lodge was standing. It contained a white man’s scalp. At sundown, after marching about twenty-eight miles, a camp was made under cover of a bluff. General Custer seemed strangely depressed, and that evening, he consulted with his officers. He informed them that the trail led over the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn Rivers, and that the march would be continued at once for he was anxious to get to the divide before daylight. After marching about ten miles, he halted the command a little after 2 A.M., June 25th, and waited news from the Arikara scouts, who were reconnoitering. He was of course anxious that these scouts should definitely locate the enemy in their camp, and that the enemy should not be aware of his approach. After a much needed rest of five and one-half hours, they moved on cautiously for a distance of ten miles, and halted again in a ravine concealed from view. This ravine was about a mile from the Little Chetish or Wolf Mountains, a high, broken, and rough country of precipitous hills and deep narrow gulches which form the divide between the Little Big Horn and the Rosebud. Looking from the high hills at this point the Indian scouts discovered the Dakota village in the Little Big Horn Valley, which they concluded was twelve or fifteen miles away. But with this news they also reported that the Dakotas had evidently discovered the approach of the white men, for the group nearest Custer’s command was moving away. Later they learned that this was but a smaller camp joining the larger one down the valley.

However, Custer, fearing that the Dakotas were moving away, and thinking that there were not more than eight hundred Dakota warriors in the country, decided to attack at once, as delay would allow the village to scatter and escape. After an inspection of the troops, the column started and crossed the divide a little before noon. Shortly afterwards, the command was divided into three parts, one under Reno, one under Custer, and a third under Captain Frederick Benteen. The pack-train was under the escort of Captain Thomas McDougall with Troop B.

Reno’s battalion marched down a valley that developed into a small tributary of the Little Big Horn now called Benteen’s Creek. Custer’s column and the pack-train followed closely, but Benteen was ordered to the left and front, to a line of high hills three or four miles distant, where the country was exceedingly rough and hard on his horses. The first two battalions did not meet any Dakotas until they arrived at a burning tepee, probably fired by the scouts, and here they saw a few. The Dakotas did not act surprised, nor did they make any attempt to delay the troops. They simply kept far enough ahead to invite pursuit.

The Dakota village was strung along the west bank of the Little Big Horn for a distance of three or four miles. When the troops were close to the river, Custer ordered Reno to move forward at as rapid a gait as he thought prudent, and “charge the village.” Reno moved off at a trot toward the river, delayed ten or fifteen minutes watering the horses, then crossed the stream and reformed his column on the left bank with the Arikara scouts on his left. Advancing about a mile further, he met with little resistance. Then the Dakotas opened a brisk fire and made a dash toward the left where the scouts were. Here Reno, instead of obeying his commands and charging the village as he had been ordered to do, to throw the Dakotas into confusion and destroy a part of their village, halted, dismounted his troops, and fought on foot until he was forced back into the timber. This position was a strong one and he remained there till nearly surrounded, when he gave the order to mount and get to the bluffs. This order was not generally understood and a confused retreat followed. He was forced to the left by the attack and did not get to the ford by which he had entered the valley. He found a fordable place, but by this time the command had lost all semblance of organization and a number of soldiers were killed before they reached the bluffs.

Meanwhile, Benteen had gone to the left over a succession of high hills and deep valleys. The farther he advanced, the more difficult the way became. During this march his men could get occasional glimpses of the Custer battalion, distinguished by the troop mounted on gray horses. Before he had gone too far over this rugged country, Benteen decided to follow the trail of the rest of the command and turning back, reached it just before the pack-train. Shortly afterwards, he received a message from Custer telling him to hurry on to join his command. Benteen’s march brought him to the bluffs where he met Reno’s retreating troops and his battalion was ordered to dismount and deploy as skirmishers along the valley. The Dakotas soon withdrew from this attack, presumably in order to give their whole attention to Custer, who was by this time separated from the other troops by a distance of two and one-half or three miles.

Custer, on leaving Reno, had gone to the right of the river and the ridge down a ravine that led to the river. Some of Reno’s men had seen a party of Custer’s command, including Custer himself, on the bluffs about the time the Dakotas began to develop their attack on Reno’s front. This party was heard to cheer, and the men were seen to wave their hats as if to give encouragement, and they then disappeared behind the hills. It is probable that from this ridge, Custer saw plainly the Dakota village, and realized that the chances were desperate. Reno was already in the fight, and Custer had no reason to think that he would not push his attack vigorously; accordingly it was about this time that the messenger was sent to Benteen with Custer’s last order, “Benteen, come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. Cook, Adjutant. P.S. Bring packs.”

For a long time after Benteen joined Reno, firing was heard down the river in the vicinity of Custer’s command. Benteen’s three companies had doubled Reno’s force and with the company of the pack-train, which arrived a little later, there were seven companies under Reno, while Custer had only five. Custer’s need of supplies and men was shown by his urgent message to Benteen, and if these seven companies with their ammunition had hastened to his aid, their united force might have enabled Custer to save his command. The attack on Custer’s command lasted but a short time, and no survivor was left to tell the story of this fight.

After the annihilation of Custer’s command, the Dakotas turned their attention to Reno, who was moving out in Custer’s direction. He was driven back to the ridge and the Indians continued to fire upon his command till dark, when they stopped to celebrate their victory by a scalp dance in the valley below. Some of the scouts were sent out after dark to look for signs of Custer’s command but they returned after a short absence to report that the country was full of the enemy. The next morning the Dakotas renewed the attack, the soldiers dug shallow rifle pits and piled up boxes of hard tack across the most exposed portion of their position. They suffered much from thirst as the Dakotas carefully guarded the river to prevent any water from being obtained. Later in the afternoon the firing grew slack and about 3 o’clock it ceased altogether. It is thought that their runners must have brought to the Dakotas news of the approaching column, for Terry with Gibbon’s command arrived about 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning. Reno and his men had seen the Dakotas moving away at dusk, but did not then know the cause. The timely arrival of Terry, without doubt, saved Reno and his command from a fate like that of Custer’s.

Thus the expedition, so carefully planned, and so confident of victory, had completely failed. The Dakotas had succeeded in hiding their strength and were able to go into battle with at least three times as many warriors as Custer had expected to find. The principal war chief engaged in the battle was Gall, of the Hunkpapas. Other important leaders were Crow King and Black Moon of the Hunkpapas; Low Dog, Crazy Horse, and Big Road of the Oglalas; Lame Deer, leading the Minniconjous, and Hump of the Minniconjous; White Bull and Little Horse of the Cheyennes; and Spotted Eagle of the Sans-Arcs. Gall, Crow King, and Crazy Horse played the leading part, while Sitting Bull, though important in the councils, took no part in the battle.


Continued in part 2.

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