Before the battle at Greasy Grass Part 1: Treaties signed. Treaties broken.

Those of you who have followed my travels through these journals know that I try not only to share my journey with you but that I also attempt to share the way I experience travel by including geology, geography, history or any discipline I can use to bring a new perspective and enrich the undertaking for you and for me.

You may or may not be aware that I’ve often done extensive research long before I embark on these adventures that, because I gather additional facts and perspectives along the war, continues for some time after I return. As I began the drive from Missoula to Little Bighorn, my thoughts turned to my pre-trip reading about the battle and I pondered, as I had before I left, the challenge of distilling not only the events of June 25, 1876 but the decades of broken treaties and various battles that preceded it into a manageable length and format. I found it as daunting then as I do now beginning the actual composition.

Finding balance in this instance is difficult. Many books have been written about the Great Sioux Wars that had its pivotal point at the Battle of Little Bighorn bringing many different perspectives and reaching sometimes opposing conclusions. Equally confounding, the accounts of the press at the time and the accounts that found their way into most history books present a very different story from the both the contemporary Native American narratives and those passed down through their oral tradition.

Westward Expansion

The 20 minute film shown in the Visitor Center at the battlefield begins its narration with the Treaty of 1868 signed at Fort Laramie. From one perspective this is an appropriate place to start because one can draw a fairly straight line from the terms of this treaty to the battle on June 25th. However, by choosing this as a starting point, it neglects to inform the viewers of the unilateral violations of earlier treaties – particularly the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 – by the American government that led to near perpetual battles and skirmishes between the Plains Indians and a voraciously expanding European American population. Although the troubles predate 1851, it seems to me something of a pivotal year so I will begin then.

Throughout much of American history, the Europeans who had colonized  the east coast of North America looked for opportunities in the west and by the mid-1840s this expansion began accelerating. (The LDS exodus from Nauvoo, IL led by Brigham Young began in 1846 for example.) Supported by their government, most of these settlers were indifferent not only to the traditions of the native people who had dwelled in these lands for thousands of years but also to the treaty rights negotiated by the federal Government and those First Peoples. (Okay, I admit it, I like the Canadian term and will use it interchangeably with Native American and Indian.)

The Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota

Among the first of the 1851 treaties was the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux signed on July 23, 1851. It was followed in short order by the Treaty of Mendota on August 5. In these treaties, the Sioux ceded more than 24,000,000 acres in mainly in present day Minnesota as shown in this map from Wikipedia.

 The roots of this massive concession of territory can likely be traced to the First Treaty of Prairie Du Chien in 1825 and the Sioux defeat in the Black Hawk War fought in August 1832.

In the 1851 treaty, the government promised to pay the Sioux an annuity of more than 1.4 million dollars based on a rate of three cents per acre but with the U.S. government retaining $1.1 million “in trust”. The government then turned around and sold the land to settlers for $1.25 per acre. Additionally, deliberately inaccurate translations of side documents known as “traders papers” transferred more than a quarter of the promised payments to traders, many of whom were quite unscrupulous, who claimed it in settlement of alleged debts.

Now notice the narrow strip of unceded land straddling the Minnesota River which the government intended to be two reservations each about 20 miles wide and 70 miles long for the Wahpeton and Sisseton bands of the Upper Dakota Sioux. This land moved the tribes from their traditional woodland habitat to one that was mostly prairie. As more settlers moved into the area, the government then declared that these reservations (or Agencies using the terminology of the time) were intended to be temporary and by 1858 the Sioux, facing a forced change in lifestyle and economic stress from receiving less money than the government had promised, conceded the territory on the north side of the river. These stresses combined with internal tensions between tribes unaccustomed to living together but now forced to share ever shrinking territory led to the Dakota War of 1862.

The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie

Although complaints of stress between the European migrants moving west and the various Native American tribes of the plains had been growing since the middle of the 1840s, clashes between the tribes themselves and the ever increasing number of westward migrants began to spike in 1848. Not coincidentally, this spike in migration occurred soon after the discovery of gold by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848 that spurred the California gold rush.

In 1850, former U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas Harvey began lobbying for a general council to negotiate the rights of passage through Indian lands stating that “a trifling compensation for this right of way would secure their friendship.”

The council, headed by David Mitchell, superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, opened on September 8, 1851 attended by U.S. treaty commissioners, representatives of the Arikara, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan and Sioux as well as, in a quasi-official capacity, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and Jim Bridger the latter of whom we met on my travels through Utah.

Prior to convening the council, Mitchell had sent messages assuring various tribal leaders that the government would, “divide and subdivide the country for the permanent good of the Indians” and that the agreement would end “the bloody wars which have raged from time immemorial.” (The final treaty set forth traditional territorial claims of the tribes as among themselves leaving open the possibility of wars between the tribes.)

After smoking the peace pipe at the opening of the council, Mitchell declared, “We do not want your land, horses, robes, nor anything you have; but we come to advise with you, and to make a treaty with you for your own good.”  He would later stress that these divisions of land would allow “the Great Father” to punish the guilty for any future depredations while again promising that there was no intent “to take any of your lands away…or to destroy your rights to hunt, or fish, or pass over the country, as heretofore.”

The map below highlights the lands granted the Sioux as well some of the other tribes in attendance though not all the tribes were pleased with this division of territory. Mitchell tasked De Smet and Bridger, both of whom the Indians trusted and who knew the region better than any other Europeans in attendance to create a map that respected traditional homelands.

(Though it’s not clearly defined on the map, the range of territory granted the Crow centered on the Bighorn Mountains. It spanned a large area covering more than 38.5 million acres from the Big Horn Basin on the west, to the Musselshell River on the north, and east to the Powder River; it included the Tongue River basin. While DeSmet and Bridger might have recognized this as traditional Crow territory, bands of Cheyenne and Sioux had been encroaching on it for decades pushing the Crow into a shrinking pocket of territory.  In fact, it was this ongoing history of skirmishes that led Crow and Arikara to fight against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the Great Sioux War. Several Crow warriors would serve as scouts for Custer.  

I’ll note at this point, that Little Bighorn is a translation from the Crow language. The Lakota Sioux called the river and the area where the battle was fought, Greasy Grass. I will use the terms interchangeably.)

In return for signing the Treaty, the Native Americans were to guarantee safe passage to settlers following the Oregon Trail and allow roads and forts to be built in their territories. They were promised payments of $50,000 to each tribe for past damages caused by the emigrants and an annual annuity of $50,000 for 50 years.

When it received the treaty, Congress unilaterally reduced the payment term from 50 years to 10. Increasing traffic over the Bozeman Trail led to increasing warfare between the tribes, the emigrants and the U.S. Army.

(The Bozeman Trail, established by John M. Bozeman, was a diagonal shortcut for fortune seekers headed toward the gold fields at Virginia City, Montana. It left the Oregon Trail at Deer Creek Crossing near present day Glenrock, Wyo. From there, travelers turned north through the Powder River Basin, which is bordered on the south by the North Platte, on the north by the Yellowstone River, on the west by the Bighorn Mountains and on the east by the Black Hills. Migrants then headed west toward the headwaters of the Tongue River, passing what are now the communities of Bighorn and Dayton, Wyoming saving upward of 250 miles.

There was, however, a problem with Bozeman’s route. he trail crossed through prime buffalo-hunting grounds that had been promised to the Lakota Sioux under the terms of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Unsurprisingly, the Lakota, together with their allies the Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne, violently resisted this incursion onto their land. Predictably, a number of wars raged across the northern plains through the 1860s such as the Dakota and Colorado Wars in 1862 and the Powder River War in 1865.

By 1866, the trail became primarily a military transportation road. The tribes’ resistance to the presence of the forts and to military travel on the road became known as Red Cloud’s War, named for the Oglala Lakota Sioux war leader.)

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie

It was Red Cloud’s War that brought the Sioux and American government together once again at Fort Laramie. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie expanded what became the Great Sioux Reservation to include a vast area of the land deemed Crow Territory in the 1851 treaty reducing the Crow territory from more than 38.5 million acres to about 8.5 million and left parts of Montana as unceded territory.

 ( map from

The Great Sioux Reservation now had its boundaries on the North Platte River to the south and west, the Missouri River to the east and the Yellowstone River to the north and west. Thus, all of the western half of present day South Dakota, including the Black Hills was considered part of the Sioux Reservation. The terminology marks a key change, however, as what had once been Sioux territory was now a reservation. To help you grasp the difference, here is some language from the treaty itself:

the tribes who are parties to this agreement hereby stipulate that they will relinquish all right to occupy permanently the territory outside their reservations as herein defined, but yet reserve the right to hunt on any lands north of North Platte, and on the Republican Fork of the Smoky Hill river, so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase. (From Article XI)


The Indians herein named agree that when the agency house and other buildings shall be constructed on the reservation named, they will regard said reservation their permanent home, and they will make no permanent settlement elsewhere; but they shall have the right, subject to the conditions and modifications of this treaty, to hunt, as stipulated in Article XI hereof.

The United States hereby agrees and stipulates that the country north of the North Platte river and east of the summits of the Big Horn mountains shall be held and considered to be unceded Indian territory, and also stipulates and agrees that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same; or without the consent of the Indians, first had and obtained, to pass through the same; and it is further agreed by the United States, that within ninety days after the conclusion of peace with all the bands of the Sioux nation, the military posts now established in the territory in this article named shall be abandoned, and that the road leading to them and by them to the settlements in the Territory of Montana shall be closed.

Many among the tribes thought they had won the war and that the treaty protected their sacred lands and traditional hunting grounds. In fact, at one point prior to signing the treaty, Red Cloud made a speech in which he said that he was ready for peace and that there was no need for more war. He stated that he wasn’t sure if he’d go to the reservation anytime soon, however, and he hoped the Oglala could visit and trade at Fort Laramie again, as they had in the more peaceful years of the past. His people had no desire to farm, and as long as there was game, he saw no need for them to learn.

The government’s objective was not merely to end the war but to settle the Indians down on the reservation, where they would become a more settled agrarian society but, of equal importance, where they could be more easily controlled.

Those hills aren’t black. They’re gold.

Before I jump ahead to an important decision that had its genesis in 1872, I’ll share a bit of my experience traversing Montana. I doubt that people who assert that Montana is a particularly beautiful state have spent any significant amount of time driving through the eastern plains. At no point in my drives from Great Falls to Billings, from Billings to Little Bighorn National Monument or on to Devils Tower did I encounter a scenic view that prompted me to stop my car and take a photo. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to perceive this landscape as beautiful but for me, its certainly not one that would inspire me to travel a great distance to see.

While I didn’t take any photos, I have downloaded a few from around the internet that I think are representative so you can decide for yourselves.

Here’s an aerial view of Hardin, MT from landsat:

This one is from a real estate site for Toluca:

Or this one from a bus company’s website:

Now I’ll return to the lesson at hand. In March 1872 the Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, wrote a letter that hinted that the United States had no intention of honoring the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty:

“I am inclined to think that the occupation of this region of the country is not necessary to the happiness and prosperity of the Indians, and as it is supposed to be rich in minerals and lumber it is deemed important to have it freed as early as possible from Indian occupancy. I shall, therefore, not oppose any policy which looks first to a careful examination of the subject… If such an examination leads to the conclusion that country is not necessary or useful to Indians, I should then deem it advisable…to extinguish the claim of the Indians and open the territory to the occupation of the whites.”

It’s likely that the sentiments expressed in this letter were part of the policy that took shape over the ensuing several years.

(As I read about the history that might impact my travel experiences, I’m often shunted in unexpected directions because I learn that some disparate events are connected in ways I’d never known or imagined. Other times, I find odd [and sometimes not so odd] coincidences linking one trip to another. For example, having Jim Bridger appear in the narrative about my trip to Utah followed by his role in the current narrative is coincidental but not particularly odd.

On the other hand, finding a connection between my 2017 trip to Wyoming and Montana and my 2016 trip to Budapest was certainly surprising. That link is the financial Panic of 1873. I’d read about it in preparing for my visit to Budapest but didn’t include it in my journal because it wasn’t essential to understanding the history of that particular narrative.

While economists don’t agree on the causes of the 1873 financial crisis, most agree [and most historians concur] that it’s genesis was in Vienna the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That panic spread fairly quickly and engulfed the United States in the worst financial crisis the nation had faced in its first century as a country. Had economic conditions been better in 1873, some of the events of 1874 might have been delayed.)

I’ll skip ahead now to June 8, 1874 the date General Alfred H. Terry, the chief of the the Department of the Dakota in St. Paul, Minnesota, ordered the formal exploration of the Black Hills. He gave command of the expedition to an officer he held in high regard,  Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The mission of the 7th Cavalry was to explore the region and evaluate possible sites for a fort in or near the Black Hills.

Departing from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory on July 2, 1874, the expedition was a mile long train that included more than 1,000 troops, 300 head of cattle to provide meat, and a scientific corps comprised of a geologist and his assistant, a naturalist, a botanist, a medical officer, a topographical engineer, a zoologist, and a civilian engineer. Two miners, Horatio N. Ross and William T. McKay, were also attached to the scientific corps. Traveling on a southwest route, they reached the Belle Fourche River on July 18.

Custer sent a courier, Charley Reynolds, who traveled at night to avoid being spotted by the Native Americans, ahead to Fort Laramie where he filed Custer’s reports of the beautiful trees, sheer cliffs, clear streams, grasses, flowers, and the early summer climate of the area. Perhaps of equal importance he reported few signs of Indian habitation. These reports then flowed back to General Terry who filed a 3,500 word dispatch that was picked up by the press. It included the following:

“… gold has been found at several places, and it is the belief of those who are giving their attention to this subject that it will be found in paying quantities. I have on my table forty or fifty small particles of pure gold…most of it obtained today from one panful of earth.”

The reaction was swift and predictable. By the time Custer returned to Fort Lincoln on August 30, the Black Hills gold rush was on. Cheyenne, Virginia City, Sioux City, Sidney, Helena and Bismarck, all saw their populations swell with groups of financially desperate, gold-hungry men preparing for prospecting trips into the forbidden Black Hills.

In 1875, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant tried to buy the Black Hills region from the Sioux who promptly refused to sell their sacred land under the rights of the 1868 Treaty. In the middle of the winter, the administration then ordered them to report to reservations by the end of January, 1876. Many, including those led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, refused to do so. Others were unable to do so because of the winter weather conditions.

Although even the Indians who refused to comply with the government orders were acting within the rights granted by the Treaty, Grant labeled anyone who hadn’t reported to the reservation as “hostiles” and the army, under General Terry, developed plans for a three-pronged campaign that was to begin in the late spring of 1876 and intended to bring them in.

Under the plan, one force under Colonel John Gibbon would march east from Fort Ellis (near Bozeman, Montana today). Simultaneously troops under General George Crook would march north from Fort Fetterman in southeastern Wyoming and Terry’s column, with the 7th Cavalry under Custer’s leadership, would march from Fort Lincoln on a route quite familiar to Custer.

As we’ll see, circumstances will intervene to disrupt this strategy and shift the balance of power at the Battle of Little Bighorn. But before I begin my discussion of the battle itself, it’s important to take a deeper look at George Armstrong Custer the American soldier whose defeat etched his name into legend.

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