Into Annihilation: The Arikara Story of Custer’s March to, and the Battle of, the Little Bighorn, part 3

Scouting forward and encountering the portents of a momentous battle to come: giant deserted camps with sun dance circles and sweat lodges, drawings in sand of dead men, drawings on hills of fighting bison, rocks painted red.
⁓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 3

An interview with Custer as told by the Arikara scout named Soldier

Soldier and Bob-tailed Bull met Custer at his camp on the river bank, in his own tent, F.F. Gerard was interpreter. Custer said: “The man before me, Bob-tailed Bull, is a man of good heart, of good character. I am pleased to have him here. I am glad he has enlisted. It will be a hard expedition but we will all share the same hardships. I am very well pleased to have him in my party, and I told it at Washington. We are to live and fight together, children of one father and one mother. The great-grandfather has a plan. The Sioux camps have united and you and I must work together for the Great Father and help each other. The Great Father is well pleased that it took few words to coax Son-of-the-Star to furnish me scouts for this work we have to do and he is pleased, too, at his behavior in helping on the plan of the Great Father. I, for one, am willing to help in this all I can, and you must help too. It is this way, my brothers. If I should happen to lose any of the men Son-of-the-Star has furnished, their reward will not be forgotten by the government. Their relations will be saddened by their death but there will be some comfort in the pay that the United States government will provide.”

Bob-tailed Bull replied: “It is a good thing you say, my brother, my children and other relatives will receive my pay and other rewards. I am glad you say this for I see there is some gain even though I lose my life.”

Custer then said: “No more words need be said. Bob-tailed Bull is to be leader and Soldier second in command of the scouts.”

Clothing was issued to the two leaders, on Bob-tailed Bull’s sleeve there were three stripes, and on Soldier’s sleeve there were two. Custer called on Bob-tailed Bull to speak, and he said through Gerard, that he was not a man to change tribes all the time, that he was always an Arikara and respected their chiefs and had served under them gladly. He said: ”Yes, Long Hair, I am a member of the police and also chief, with one hand I hold the position of police among my people and with the other I hold the position of chief of the scouts. My brother, I am going to address you so, for you said we were brothers, I have had experience fighting the Sioux, and when we meet them we shall see each other’s bravery.”

Bloody Knife US Army cavalry Arikara scout 1873

The march from Fort Lincoln to Powder River as told by Red Star

There was no Indian ceremony at Fort Lincoln before the march, but on the way to Fort Lincoln they sang their war songs at every camp. We were all waiting six days, Custer had gone east to Washington. Red Star heard of his return. Bob-tailed Bull, Bloody Knife, Tall Bear, Stabbed, Black Fox, and Crooked Horn went to meet Custer at Fort Lincoln, the regular headquarters. Red Star heard that Custer was well pleased with the appearance of the scouts. Custer was happy to see Bloody Knife, he presented him with a handkerchief and a medal, which were given to him for Bloody Knife at Washington. Then he recognized one of his old scouts, Black Fox. Custer was pleased to see the beautifully decorated shirt which belonged to Bob-tailed Bull. Custer told him that he had been to Washington and that he had been informed that this would be his last campaign in the West among the Indians. He said that no matter how small a victory he could win, even though it were against only five tents of Dakotas, it would make him President, Great Father, and he must turn back as soon as he was victorious. In case of victory he would take Bloody Knife back with him to Washington.

It was early in the morning when the bugle sounded, and the camp broke up and the march began. Gerard told the scouts to form themselves by societies in order, first the New Dog Society (the oldest men in it), second the Grass Dance Society, and third the Da-roch-pa (its members had a crescent moon shaved on the back of the head). At the head of the New Dog Society were Soldier and Crooked Horn. The Grass Dance leaders were Young Hawk and Bob-tailed Bull. The leaders of the Da-roch-pa were Strikes-the-Lodge and Bull-Stands-in-the-Water. The march began, with Custer ahead. There were four Dakota scouts who had been at Fort Lincoln that went along with the Arikara. One of these scouts was Ca-roo, another was Ma-tok’-sha, a third was Mach-pe’-as-ka (White Cloud), and the fourth was Pta-a’-te (Buffalo Ancestor). A drove of cattle went along to furnish beef to the soldiers. Custer was always first on the march. Breakfast was always ready just after daybreak each day of the march. Custer picked out his own camps because he knew the country well. The scouts were kept in details on the flank and on the hills ahead all night. There was plenty of game. Strikes Two was a very good old hunter and Young Hawk was a good young hunter. The scouts always camped near Custer’s headquarters, and as they were getting supper Custer came to them on a visit. They knew his choice of meat very well and how he liked to have it cooked. Young Hawk always cooked his meat for him, and Custer was very fond of him, and also of Goose because they were jolly young fellows, reckless and full of life. Custer said to them by signs that he liked to see men eat meat by the fire; if they were full, they would be strong.

Once Custer was eating with them when he spoke through Gerard, the interpreter. He said he had made up his mind to go on this expedition to fight. He said he had been to Washington and had been given instructions to follow the Dakotas. Now that he was on the war-path, if he had a victory, he said: “When we return, I will go back to Washington, and on my trip to Washington I shall take my brother here, Bloody Knife, with me. I shall remain at Washington and be the Great Father. But my brother, Bloody Knife, will return, and when he arrives home he shall have a fine house built for him. He will be given the whole tribe of the Arikara to be the head of. Those of you present will have positions under him to help in what he is to do. I will have papers made out for each of you here, then you will have plenty to eat for all time to come, you and your children.”

Custer continued: “When these papers are in your hands, you will have food to eat always. In case your child is hungry and wants something to eat, take your papers to any citizen and he will divide with you. Take them to any store, and when they are read, they will speak and tell what you wish and you will get it.” He then asked if the Mandans and the Arikara were friends, and was told that they were.

At the Little Missouri, Custer forbade all shooting lest it should give warning to the Dakotas. Robert Jackson shot his revolver at a snake in the river. The officer of the day came up and asked who had fired a shot and Jackson said, “I did it.” They put him under discipline for this, a keg was turned upside down, and he stood on it on one foot.

They now crossed the Little Missouri River to Soldier Hill (also known as Sentinel Butte). Snow fell here, a heavy storm, some of the tents were drifted half way up to the top. It cleared off very cold. They stayed here four sleeps and when they went on, they camped at Beaver Creek. Here scout Limping Grosventre came with mail from the Yellowstone River. He told the scouts that a soldier had been killed up there while hunting. They camped again on Beaver Creek. They went on to a dry coulee with bunches of willows. Here they could see the peaks of the mountains by Powder River. They marched towards the timber and when they reached it they made camp. Here two soldiers went out hunting and at dark they had not returned. The scouts lighted fires for them on the hills and they returned late at night. From here they made a hurried march; they could now see the bluffs on the Powder River. Custer ordered a halt and ordered that the cavalry only were to go on. The infantry and wagon train were to stay behind. Then the order to move was sent back to the scouts and they marched on the Powder River and made camp. Here Young Hawk, Forked Horn, One Feather, and the Dakota scout, Ca-roo, were detailed by Custer to follow up Powder River.

The scouting of Powder River as told by Young Hawk

These four Indians were sent ahead to scout for a detail of cavalry that followed after, two by two. Custer ordered them to follow up Powder River and look for the Dakota trail. They were to go far up on one side and if they did not find the trail, they were to return on the other side in the same way. As soon as they struck the Dakota trail they were to instantly return to Custer. The party followed up the Powder River to the Tongue River and then went up the Tongue River. They got into the mountains and Young Hawk killed and cut up an elk which made him lose the rest of the party for some time. He caught up with the rest of them on the Rosebud River and here fires were lighted. Forked Horn got the scouts out to go ahead and see what they could find. They saddled up and he told Young Hawk to go in a different direction from the rest. Young Hawk got on the hill where he could see the Rosebud River and discovered an abandoned camp with birds flying over it. It was a deserted Dakota camp and a horse was standing near it. He rode up to the deserted camp and saw evidence of many Dakotas having been there. Saddles had been made here and the horses had trampled the bank at the watering place. He knew the camp was Dakota from what he could see of hide tanning, meat scaffolds, and the arrangement of tepees. Here the whole party camped, it was a very old camping place. On the next day’s scout they found an intrenchment showing evidence that all the white occupants had been killed. Our interpreter said this was the Bozeman party. The scouts found the camp by following the Dakota trail to it and they camped on the trail. The commanding officer of the cavalry called Forked Horn to him and said: “What do you think of this trail, Forked Horn?” Forked Horn replied: “If the Dakotas see us, the sun will not move very far before we are all killed. But you are leader and we will go on if you say so.” The commanding officer said: “Custer told us to turn back if we found the trail, and we will return, these are our orders.” They turned and followed the Rosebud River down to the Elk River and there they found Custer’s camp. The cavalry only had come on. The infantry and wagon train stayed behind at Powder River.

The story of Red Star

We followed the Powder River down to the Yellowstone and made camp. Here was a large tent owned by a white man who was trading. The Arikara called him Arrow-Feathered-by-Crow-Feathers and he looked like an Arikara. This white trader was selling liquor to the soldiers. The tent was black with soldiers buying liquor, it looked like a swarm of flies. There was no guardhouse at this camp and when the soldiers were arrested for being drunk they were taken out on the prairie and guarded there. The scouts were forbidden to drink for Gerard had told them not to go to the tent. After a time when there was less drinking and most of the white soldiers had gone away, Gerard came to the scouts and told them that Custer had permitted each one to buy one drink.

They were two days in camp here and there was a camp of soldiers just across the river. Two Arikara scouts were sent out ahead, Stabbed and Goose, and they were given a letter to take to the camp across the river. Here there were some Crow scouts and their interpreter, Man-Wearing-Calfskin-Vest. When Custer’s army came up to the camp, Red Star saw the army across the river was already on the march up the Yellowstone. Stabbed and Goose came back and reported to Custer’s camp. This camp was the base camp for the infantry, the band, all the wagons, and part of the mules. They broke camp and marched on; the band played all the time. Custer and Bloody Knife came by and Bloody Knife said: “The General says we are all marching. There are numerous enemies in the country.”

The next order was that if our command was broken up into squads or single horsemen that this camp should be the appointed place for reassembling all those that had scattered. “For my part my heart was glad to hear the band, as far as we could hear the band played. There were some cannon being brought along. We came to the mouth of the Tongue River and here a camp was made. We marched up on a hill overlooking the Elk River and then down to the mouth of the Tongue River. Right at this point was an abandoned Dakota camp. Here lay the body of a soldier, and all about him were clubs and sticks as though he had been beaten to death, only the bones were left. Custer stood still for some time and looked down at the remains of the soldier.”

They found a burial scaffold with the uprights colored alternately black and red. This was the mark of a brave man buried there. Custer had the scaffold taken down and the negro, Isaiah, was told to take the clothing and wrappings off the body. As they turned the body about they saw a wound partly healed just below the right shoulder. On the scaffold were little rawhide bags with horn spoons in them, partly made moccasins, etc. Isaiah threw the body into the river. They camped here, and next day crossed the Tongue River and went through the bad lands and encamped at the mouth of the Rosebud. Opposite this camp there was another camp on the other side of the Yellowstone. Six of the Crow scouts and one interpreter came across from that camp. There was a steamboat here, and the cannon were taken across the Yellowstone by the steamboat. Here they waited while the scouts went up the river. Two days later the scouts returned and reported a big Dakota trail on each side of the Rosebud. They broke camp and went up the Rosebud River.

Gerard told us he wanted us to sing our death songs. The Dakota trail had been seen and the fight would soon be on. Custer had a heart like an Indian; if we ever left out one thing in our ceremonies he always suggested it to us. We got on our horses and rode around, singing the songs. Then we fell in behind Custer and marched on, and a halt was soon made. Custer then ordered two groups of scouts to go ahead, one on each side of the river. Soldier led one of these bands with Red Bear, and Bob-tailed Bull the other. The scouts rode only a little ahead of the soldiers and the army camped on a flat. At supper time Bloody Knife was missing, and the scouts waited for him till it was late but he was drunk somewhere, he got liquor from somebody. Next morning at breakfast Bloody Knife appeared leading a horse. He had been out all night. Then the bugle sounded and we saddled up, Custer ahead, the scouts following and flanking the army that marched behind. Bob-tailed Bull was in charge, with Strikes Two and others on one side. About nightfall they came to an abandoned Dakota camp where there were signs of a sun dance circle. Here there was evidence of the Dakotas having made medicine, the sand had been arranged and smoothed, and pictures had been drawn. The Dakota scouts in Custer’s army said that this meant the enemy knew the army was coming. In one of the sweat lodges was a long heap or ridge of sand. On this Red Bear, Red Star, and Soldier saw figures drawn indicating by hoof prints Custer’s men on one side and the Dakota on the other. Between them dead men were drawn lying with their heads toward the Dakotas. The Arikara scouts understood this to mean that the Dakota medicine was too strong for them and that they would be defeated by the Dakotas. Here they camped. The scouts brought in two Dakota horses which had been discovered by Strikes Two; this indicated that the Dakotas had hurried away from the camp in great haste. On the right bank of the Rosebud as they marched they saw Dakota inscriptions on the sandstone of the hills at their left. One of these inscriptions showed two buffalo fighting, and various interpretations were given by the Arikara as to the meaning of these figures. Young Hawk saw in one of the sweat lodges, where they had camped, opposite the entrance, three stones near the middle, all in a row and painted red. This meant in Dakota sign language that the Great Spirit had given them victory, and that if the whites did not come they would seek them. Soldier saw offerings, four sticks standing upright with a buffalo calfskin tied on with cloth and other articles of value, which was evidence of a great religious service. All the Arikara knew what this meant, namely, that the Dakotas were sure of winning. Soldier said he heard later that Sitting Bull had performed the ceremonies in this camp. After they passed the inscription of the two buffaloes charging, they came to the fork of the Rosebud River. Six of the Crow scouts with their interpreter had been out scouting and they returned at this camp. They reported many abandoned Dakota camps along the Rosebud. The whole army stopped here and ate dinner on a hill. While the scouts were at dinner, Custer came to their camp with his orderly, the one who carried his flag for him. The Arikara were sitting in a half-circle. Custer sat down with one knee on the ground and said: “What do you think of this report of the Crow scouts? They say there are large camps of the Sioux. What do you suppose will be the outcome of it all?” Stabbed jumped up and hopped about the fire, pretending to dodge the bullets of the enemy, and Custer watched him. The other officers came to the fire and stood around it. Custer extended his arms and said he was glad and pleased to have with him on this expedition familiar faces. “Some of you I see here have been with me on one or two other expeditions, and to see you again makes my heart glad. And on this expedition if we are victorious, when we return home, we will be proud to have on parade marches those who have shown themselves to be brave young men. When your chief, Son-of-the-Star, sees you on this parade, I am sure he will be proud to see his boys.”

The bugles blew and they went on, Bob-tailed Bull ahead. They came upon another abandoned Dakota camp. These camps were large, one-third to one-half of a mile across. At this point they could see, far ahead, hills about twelve miles off. They marched towards these hills. This was the beginning of the night march and they rode all night. At dawn they came to the stopping place for breakfast and they were tired and tumbled off their horses for a little sleep. Bull-in-the-Water and Red Bear had charge of one mule which they were unpacking and the former said: “Let us get breakfast for if we go to the happy hunting grounds we should go with a full belly.” In getting water for their breakfast they passed through the camp of the soldiers. The soldiers were lying in groups on the ground snoring, for they were very tired, and lay down where they had unsaddled. Custer’s tent was on a little knoll at the right of the scouts’ camp. Bull-in-the-Water ate his breakfast standing up and looking around. Soon he gave a yell: “Two scouts are coming.” They were Red Star and Bull. Camp broke up and Custer came down to join them. His orders were to go ahead riding hard and take the Dakota horses. Stabbed rode around on horseback, back and forth, exhorting the young men to behave well and be brave. He said: “Young men, keep up your courage, don’t feel that you are children; today will be a hard battle. We have been told that there is a big Sioux camp ahead. We attack a buffalo bull and wound him. When he is wounded we are afraid of him though he has no bullets to harm us.” He said these things for he saw many of us were young and inexperienced and he wished to prepare them for their first real fight. He was rubbing some clay between his hands. Then he prayed: “My Father, I remember this day the promises you have made to me; it is for my young men I speak to you.” Then he called up the young men and had them hold up their shirt in front so that he could rub the good medicine on their bodies. They came up one by one, he spat on the clay and then rubbed it on their chests. He had carried this clay with him for this purpose.

The scouting in advance of the army as told by Red Star

On the Rosebud the night before, a little after dusk, Crooked Horn, Black Fox, Red Foolish Bear, Strikes-the-Lodge, Red Star, and Bull were called to Custer’s headquarters and there they saw four ponies of the Crow scouts standing saddled. At his tent stood Custer with Gerard, and Gerard said to them: “Long Hair wants to tell you that tonight you shall go without sleep. You are to go on ahead, you are to try to locate the Sioux camp. You are to do your best to find this camp. Travel all night, when day comes if you have not found the Sioux camp, keep on going until noon. If your search is useless by this time you are to come back to camp. These Crow Indians will be your guides for they know the country.” Just then Charley Reynolds (called by the Arikara, Lucky Man) came along with his horse all saddled, he was to be their interpreter. The four Crow Indians were called by the Arikara: Big Belly, Strikes Enemy, Man-with-Fur-Belt, and Curly Head. Their interpreter was called Man-Wearing-Calfskin-Vest, a white man, and he went along, making a party of twelve. Custer said to them: “Soon after you leave we will march on.” They started out, their horses trotted on briskly, being used to the broken country. They stopped to smoke and one of the Crows told them by signs that by daybreak they would reach a high mountain where they could see far, from it all the hills would seem to go down flat. They rode on and on and reached a small grove where they smoked again and a Crow scout told them they were near. They came on to the foot of the mountain and the same Crow scout, the leader, told them they had come to the mountain and they were to climb up. As soon as they reached the top they unsaddled and it was just daybreak. “I saw two of the Crow scouts climbing up on the highest peak of the hill. I had carried some coffee on my saddle to give Bob-tailed Bull the night before. I was told to give it to the Crow scouts, and started towards them when I heard the Crows call like an owl, not loud but clear (the Sioux call this way).” The scouts were all sitting together when they saw the two Crow scouts coming back from the highest point of the hill. These two scouts touched the Arikara scouts and they got up to sing the song they usually sing, but the two scouts signed to them to keep silent. One of these two Crow scouts then came up to Crooked Horn and told him by signs that they had seen Dakota tepees ahead. Then all the scouts climbed up the peak to look for signs of the Dakotas. The first two Crow scouts pointed in the direction of the Dakota camp. As Crooked Horn and Red Star looked, the former said: “Look sharp, my boy, you have better eyes than I.” Red Star looked and saw a dark object and above it light smoke rising up from the Dakota tepees. It was at the upper end of the village, the tepees were hidden by the high ridge but the smoke was drawing out and up. Beyond the smoke he saw some black specks he thought were horses. Charley Reynolds looked a long time, then took out his field glasses and looked a long time. Then he put them down and nodded his head. He took a note book, sat down and wrote a note and got up, folded the paper, and handed it to Crooked Horn. Crooked Horn took it and turned to Red Star and said: “Boy, saddle up your pony; Bull, saddle up your pony.” They had saddled up when Crooked Horn said to them: “Look, you can see the smoke of our camp.” Red Star looked and saw a cloud of smoke rising up and their way back was clear, they could follow the smoke. They started down the hill, after they were down he urged his horse on for he had the note and he paid no attention to his companion. Once in a while he looked back to see where Bull was, his horse was bad. As he came up out of a hollow he saw the sentries and he gave the call, as is the custom among Arikara (the Crow scouts use the same call on bringing a message to camp), and he also began turning his horse zig-zag back and forth as a sign that he had found the enemy. The sun was just coming up when he got to camp. The sentries began to come together in groups. Stabbed came up and said: “My Son, this is no small thing you have done.” (Meaning it was a great honor, according to Arikara custom, to have brought such a message.) Red Star rode by Stabbed and got off and unsaddled. Stabbed turned and called out to the scout camp: “Why are you sleeping, Red Star has come back.” Bloody Knife got up at once and met Red Star and asked him if he had seen anything. He said, yes, they had found the camp. Then he saw Gerard coming up with Custer and they came where he had unsaddled. Tom Custer was there. Custer sat down on his left knee near Red Star who was squatted down with a cup of coffee. Custer signed to Red Star asking him if he had seen the Dakotas, and he answered by a sign that he had. Then Red Star handed the note to Custer, taking it from his coat, and Custer read it at once and nodded his head. By Red Star’s side was Bloody Knife and Tom Custer. Custer said to Bloody Knife by signs, referring to Tom, “Your brother, there, is frightened, his heart flutters with fear, his eyes are rolling from fright at this news of the Sioux. When we have beaten the Sioux he will then be a man.” Custer then told Red Star, through the interpreter, to saddle up at once. “We are going back to where his party are on the hill,” he said. Red Star was not through his breakfast, but he left his coffee, knocking it over with his foot, saddled up, and joined Custer. In the party were Custer, his bugler, Tom, Red Star, Gerard, Bloody Knife, Bob-tailed Bull, and Little Brave. They rode hard toward the hill and Red Star heard a bugle as he left camp, blown by Custer’s bugler, who turned backward on his horse to do so. Custer asked by signs of Red Star if the distance was short, and Red Star made signs that it was. When they got to the foot of the hill, Red Star signed that this was the place. They climbed the hill, and came to the scouts. Charley Reynolds came up and he and Custer went ahead leaving the others behind. Charley Reynolds pointed where Custer was to look, and they looked for some time and then Gerard joined them.

Gerard called back to the scouts: “Custer thinks it is no Sioux camp.” Custer thought that Charley Reynolds had merely seen the white buttes of the ridge that concealed the lone tepee. Charley Reynolds then pointed again, explaining Custer’s mistake, then after another look Custer nodded that he had seen the signs of a camp. Next Charley Reynolds pulled out his field glasses and Custer looked through them at the Dakota camp and nodded his head again. Crooked Horn told Gerard to ask Custer how he would have felt if he had found two dead Dakotas at the hill. The scouts had seen six Dakotas after Red Star and Bull had left them. Two of them had gone over the ridge down the dry coulee and four of them had ridden into the timber at the foot of the hill. They thought the two Dakotas were planning to ambush the messengers and they wished to kill them first. They did not do so because they were afraid Custer might not like it. Custer replied that it would have been all right, he would have been pleased to have found two dead Dakotas. Then the scouts sat down and one of the Crow scouts, Big Belly, got up and asked Custer through the Crow interpreter what he thought of the Dakota camp he had seen. Custer said: “This camp has not seen our army, none of their scouts have seen us.” Big Belly replied: “You say we have not been seen. These Sioux we have seen at the foot of the hill, two going one way, and four the other, are good scouts, they have seen the smoke of our camp.” Custer said, speaking angrily: “I say again we have not been seen. That camp has not seen us, I am going ahead to carry out what I think. I want to wait until it is dark and then we will march, we will place our army around the Sioux camp.” Big Belly replied: “That plan is bad, it should not be carried out.” Custer said: “I have said what I propose to do, I want to wait until it is dark and then go ahead with my plan.”

Red Star as he sat listening first thought that Custer’s plan was good. The Crow scouts insisted that the Dakota scouts had already seen the army and would report its coming and that they would attack Custer’s army. They wanted him to attack at once, that day, and capture the horses of the Dakotas and leave them unable to move rapidly. Custer replied: “Yes, it shall be done as you say.” The army now came up to the foot of the hill and Custer’s party rode down and joined the troop.


Continued in part 4.