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George Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of the settlement of the West from 1877 to 1898

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with The Dawes Act, 1887 Primary Source and the Images from the Carlisle Indian School, 1880s Primary Source to show the relationship between American Indians and the United States government during the late 1800s.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans continued to move westward, driven to settle the continent by the providential ideal of Manifest Destiny. They traveled along various overland trails and railroads to Oregon, California, Colorado, and the Dakota Territory in search of agricultural land and gold. American Indians who lived and hunted in the West were alarmed at encroachment by white people on their lands, which were usually protected by treaties. The conflict led to several violent clashes throughout the West in the 1850s and 1860s, in which combatants and noncombatants on both sides became casualties of war.

The Black Hills, located in modern-day South Dakota, was a contested area among several American Indian tribes and one of the centers of fighting between them and settlers. The Lakota Sioux and their Cheyenne allies had displaced the Crow, Arikara, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Shoshone tribes westward from the area. The Sioux and Cheyenne had acquired horses and firearms from Europeans and Americans starting in the mid-eighteenth century and incorporated them into warrior cultures that valued personal courage in battle. They also used horses and guns to hunt buffalo for sustenance and to dominate the fur trade in the area.

A photograph overlooking Inyan Kara mountain.

Inyan Kara, a mountain sacred to the Lakota people, is part of the Black Hills area of modern-day South Dakota.

The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed lands in parts of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas to various American Indian tribes. The terms of the treaty provided safe passage for American emigrants through the territory and allowed the government to build roads there. The Indians were to be protected from white settlers and given annual provisions. Some Sioux tribal leaders signed the treaty, but the Oglala Sioux leader, Black Hawk, refused and denounced it. “These lands once belonged to the Kiowas and the Crows, but we whipped those nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians.” His words proved to be prophetic.

Continued fighting led the two sides to sign the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which created the Great Sioux Reservation on a large part of the territory contained in the earlier treaty. The new agreement guaranteed the Sioux hunting rights and the removal of U.S. military forts from the area. However, the Americans saw it as part of the process of establishing reservations for Indian tribes and eventually assimilating them into American culture with schools, agriculture, and private plots of land. The Sioux appreciated the protections in the treaty but did not feel bound to adopt white ways or be constrained in pursuing their traditional way of life.

Meanwhile, tensions were high in other parts of the West. In Kansas, the Cheyenne had killed more than 100 settlers in 1867, and Lieutenant Colonel George Custer was dispatched to the Oklahoma Territory to carry out retribution against the Cheyenne. Custer was the flamboyant but brave hero of Gettysburg and other Civil War campaigns who, after the war, had alternatively fought Indians in the West and performed Reconstruction occupation duty in the South. In late November 1868, he led the Seventh Cavalry through deep snow to attack a large Cheyenne village of 6,000 people on the Washita River, in southwestern Oklahoma.

Custer divided his army into four columns and deployed them to assault the village and block any escape. Fearing his army was in danger of being overwhelmed, he used 53 women and children as hostages as he withdrew his troops. After Major Joel Elliott and his 18 men were killed in a last stand, an officer blamed Custer in a letter to a friend; a newspaper obtained the letter and published it anonymously. When Custer threatened to horsewhip the letter’s author, Captain Frederick Benteen boldly admitted he wrote it and Custer backed down, appearing weak. The dissension in the regiment’s command boded ill for the future, however.

Tensions with American Indians continued to simmer in the early 1870s. The Transcontinental Railroad contributed to western development and the integration of national markets, but it also intruded on American Indian lands. Two military expeditions were dispatched to Montana to protect the railroad and its workers in 1872. The Panic of 1873 bankrupted the Northern Pacific Railroad and temporarily halted railroad building, but the tide of settlers could not be stemmed. In 1874, gold was reportedly discovered in the Black Hills within the heart of the Great Sioux Reservation. By the end of 1875, as many as 15,000 prospectors and miners had flooded the Black Hills in search of gold.

A photograph of men in a man-made clearing in the forest. The men are surrounded by felled trees and logs. There is a log cabin in the background.

Thousands of men and women hoping to find gold overwhelmed the Black Hills in the 1870s, provoking American Indians who considered the area sacred.

Many of the Sioux and Cheyenne were irate at the presence of so many Americans in violation of the Fort Laramie treaties. Sitting Bull was an elite Lakota Sioux war leader in his mid-40s and a respected holy man who had visions and dreams. Another important leader was the Oglala Lakota supreme war chief Crazy Horse, a leader called a “shirt-wearer”” with a reputation as a fierce warrior. Both resisted the reservations and American encroachment on their lands. They wanted Indian autonomy and were willing to unite and fight for it.

In early November 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant met with General Philip Sheridan and other advisors on Indian policy at the White House. They issued an ultimatum for all Sioux outside the reservation to go there by January 31, 1876, or be considered hostile. The Sioux ignored ‘the edict from Washington, DC. Sitting Bull said, “I will not go to the reservation. I have no land to sell. There is plenty of game for us. We have enough ammunition. We don’t want any white men here.”

In March, General George Crook attacked the Cheyenne on the Powder River, prompting them to go to the nearby Oglala camp and then the massive Sioux village. The different Indian tribes decided to unite through the summer and fight the encroaching Americans. In the spring, Sitting Bull called for warriors at the agencies to assemble at his village for war. The U.S. federal government established agencies that provided land, rations, and protection for the American Indians. Nearly 2,000 warriors answered the call and swelled the village of 8,000 American Indians by June. Many were armed with the latest repeating Springfield rifles.

That spring, Sitting Bull reported visions and dreams with omens that promised victory over the white man. In mid-May, he fasted and purified himself in a ritual called the Sun Dance. After 50 small strips of flesh had been cut from each arm, he had a vision that showed the whites coming into the Indians’ camp and suffering a great defeat. Meanwhile, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry regiment were also planning a summer campaign.

In mid-May, 1,000 U.S. soldiers formed up in a column and set out from Fort Abraham Lincoln. The Seventh Cavalry combined 140 men of the Sixth Infantry and 40 Indian scouts, mostly Arikara. An even larger force of 1,300 cavalry and Indian allies left Fort Fetterman under General George Crook and were searching for Sitting Bull’s village on the Rosebud River. Although Sitting Bull had ordered the warriors to adopt a defensive posture, the young warriors rushed out to attack the column and assaulted it several times. Crook was surprised at the tenacity and unprecedented discipline of the enemy assaults and had to return to the fort because of his casualties and low supplies of ammunition. He failed to send word to General Alfred Terry or Custer.

After discovering the approximate location of Sitting Bull’s village, Terry met with Custer and Colonel John Gibbon on the Yellowstone River to formulate a plan. They agreed on a classic hammer-and- anvil attack in which Custer would proceed down the Rosebud River and attack the village while Terry and Gibbon went down the Yellowstone and Little Bighorn Rivers by June 26 to block any escape. Terry said he had “too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon your precise orders, which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy,” giving Custer wide latitude to proceed alone in his hunt for glory. Custer refused four additional companies of cavalry and two Gatling guns.

The map is titled

This map shows how Gibbon, Crook, Terry, and Custer approached the battlefield where the Battle of Little Bighorn was fought.

On June 23 and 24, Custer’s Arikara scouts found increasing evidence that Sitting Bull’s village had recently occupied the area. After a long day in the saddle, the exhausted men stopped for the night at 2 a.m. on June 25. The scouts, meanwhile, went to a high vantage point they named the Crow’s Nest to spy for any sign of the village. After sighting a massive herd of ponies, they sent a message to wake Custer. When a frightened scout, Bloody Knife, warned they would “find enough Sioux to keep us fighting two or three days,” Custer replied, “I guess we’ll get through them in one day.” The scouts were certain the regiment had been seen, and Custer’s greatest fear at this point was that the village would escape his clutches. He ordered the bugler immediately to call the officers and form up the men for battle.

Around noon, Custer led the Seventh into the valley and divided his men as he had during the Battle of Washita. He sent Captain Benteen to the left with 120 men to block any escape while he and Major Marcus Reno advanced on the right along the Sun Dance Creek. They found a single tipi of an outlying part of the village and spotted 40 to 50 warriors fleeing toward the main village. Custer further divided his army, sending Reno in pursuit and himself continuing along the right flank. Inspiring his men with some bluster, Custer told them, “Boys, hold your horses. There are plenty of them down there for all of us.”

Reno’s men crossed the Little Bighorn and indiscriminately fired at noncombatants. Hundreds of Indian warriors started arriving. After drinking a copious amount of whiskey, a drunken Reno ordered his soldiers to dismount and form a skirmish line. They were outnumbered and were quickly overwhelmed by the American Indians’ onslaught. Already running low on ammunition, Reno’s men retreated to the cover of some woods along the bank of the river but were soon flushed out, though 15 men remained there, hidden and frightened. The warriors routed Reno’s troops and killed and mutilated several during their pell-mell retreat back across the river. Reno organized 80 men on a hill and fought off several charges.

Benteen soon reinforced Reno during a lull in the fighting in the nearly 100-degree heat. The 15 men from the thicket also made it to what is now called Reno Hill, and the pack train with ammunition and supplies arrived as well. Benteen asked where Custer was, but Reno did not have a good answer. The men built entrenchments from ammunition and hardtack boxes, saddles, and even dead horses. For more than three hours they fought off constant attacks by hundreds of warriors and were relieved only by the arrival of darkness after 9 p.m. Reno’s men did an especially good job of digging entrenchments and barricades even though they were tired and thirsty.

The fierce attacks resumed around 2:30 a.m. on June 26 and lasted all morning. Benteen and Reno helped organize charges that temporarily drove off the Sioux and Cheyenne, and a few men desperately organized water parties down to the Little Bighorn under the blistering sun. The fighting lasted until mid-afternoon, when the warriors broke off to follow a large dust cloud that indicated the village was departing. The soldiers on the hill feared it was a ruse and spent most of the night watching for the enemy’s return.

The figure shows American soldiers fighting warriors from the Lakota Sioux, Crow, Northern, and Cheyenne tribes on horseback. The American soldiers hold guns. Most of the American Indians hold tomahawks and spears, and a few hold guns. In the foreground, General Custer fights the Sioux chief, an American Indian lies on the ground, and a one American Indian flees.

This 1876 depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn, titled Custer’s Last Charge, shows General Custer on horseback with his men battling Lakota Sioux, Crow, Northern, and Cheyenne tribes.

General Terry’s army was camped to the north when his Crow scouts reported to him at sunrise on June 26 that they had found the battlefield where 200 men of the Seventh Regiment had been killed on what would become known as Last Stand Hill. The next day, Terry arrived at Last Stand Hill and wept at the news that Custer and his men were confirmed dead.

The bad news spread to the East, where it sobered the celebrations of the American centennial on the Fourth of July. The U.S. Army relentlessly pursued the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne until it forced their surrender by applying military pressure and killing off buffalo herds. That year, Congress passed a bill claiming all the Black Hills and hunting lands of the 1868 treaty. Sitting Bull submitted to the U.S. government in 1881, and his authority as chief was no longer recognized. He was killed by Standing Rock Agency Indians in December 1890 just before the Battle of Wounded Knee.

The Indian Wars after the Civil War were devastating for American Indian tribes and their cultures. Their populations suffered heavy losses, and they lost their tribal grounds for hunting and agriculture. In the early twentieth century, the U.S. government restricted most Indians to reservations as Americans continued to settle the West. Many Americans saw the reservation system as a more humane alternative to war, but it wrought continued damage to American Indian cultures.

Review Questions

1. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 largely provided for

  1. the creation of Indian reservations across the United States, restricting American Indians’ access to land that belonged to settlers populating the west
  2. the Transcontinental Railroad to be built across American Indian territory
  3. the guarantee that settlers would be allowed to safely cross American Indian territory on their way westward
  4. the assimilation of American Indians into European-American culture

2. The Oglala Sioux leader Black Hawk refused to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 because

  1. the Sioux nation was at war with the United States
  2. the land the Americans wanted had already been captured by the Oglala Sioux
  3. American Indians did not recognize land ownership rights
  4. signing the treaty would have forced the Oglala Sioux to move from their homeland

3. Despite the guarantee of autonomy in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, American Indians experienced an invasion of their traditional territory by American prospectors seeking gold in

  1. Indian Territory (Oklahoma)
  2. Little Big Horn
  3. the Black Hills
  4. Standing Rock

4. In fighting against the advancement of settlers on his people’s land, Sitting Bull was most like which eighteenth-century American Indian leader?

  1. Crazy Horse
  2. Black Hawk
  3. Pontiac
  4. Tecumseh

5. All the following occurred after the death of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer except

  1. Sitting Bull was no longer recognized as chief
  2. the U.S. government authorized the killing of more buffalo herds
  3. the American Indians were forced to sign a revised Fort Laramie Treaty
  4. Congress claimed ownership of the Black Hills for the United States

6. As an immediate act of revenge for the death of General Custer and 200 of his men, the U.S. government

  1. massacred the Crow nation
  2. took claim to the Black Hills
  3. rescinded the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868
  4. attacked the Sioux at Wounded Knee

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze the impact of the Indian Wars on the American Indian population at the end of the nineteenth century.
  2. Compare the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 with that of 1868 and explain the reason for the new treaty.

AP Practice Questions

“ARTICLE 1. The aforesaid nations, parties to this treaty, having assembled for the purpose of establishing and confirming peaceful relations amongst themselves, do hereby covenant and agree to abstain in future from all hostilities whatever against each other, to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.

ARTICLE 2. The aforesaid nations do hereby recognize the right of the United States Government to establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories.

ARTICLES 3. In consideration of the rights and privileges acknowledged in the preceding article, the United States bind themselves to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States, after the ratification of this treaty.

ARTICLE 4. The aforesaid Indian nations do hereby agree and bind themselves to make restitution or satisfaction for any wrongs committed, after the ratification of this treaty, by any band or individual of their people, on the people of the United States, whilst lawfully residing in or passing through their respective territories.”

The Treaty of Fort Laramie, September 17, 1851

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The most significant motivation for the agreement excerpted was

  1. complete cessation of hostilities between American Indians and the Federal government
  2. the assimilation of American Indians into American society
  3. the peaceful coexistence of different American Indian nations
  4. the use of American Indian territory by American citizens

2. A significant result of the treaty excerpted was

  1. peace between the different American Indian nations
  2. the assignment of American Indians to reservations
  3. continued fighting between the American military and American Indians
  4. the completion of the transcontinental railroad

3. Which of these most directly influenced the circumstances described?

  1. Progressive reforms
  2. The Industrial Revolution
  3. Manifest Destiny
  4. Populism

Primary Sources

Custer, George Armstrong. My Life on the Plains: or, Personal Experiences with Indians. New York: Dover, 2019.

Suggested Resources

Cozzens, Peter. The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Vintage, 2017.

Donovan, James. A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn: The Last Great Battle of the American West. New York: Back Bay Books, 2008.

Lehman, Tim. Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier 1846-1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

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