Friday, June 16, 2017

Custer's Last Stand

June 13-15
This is another of those locals on our bucket list. After touring several other Indian Wars battle sites on our way to the area we were pretty well acquainted with the history of the time.

A visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a solemn experience in many respects.

Custer National Cemetary
Immediately adjacent to the parking area is the Custer National Cemetery, so we look a little time to walk the rows and read a few of the headstones. Originally established in 1879 to protect the graves of soldiers who died in the Little Bighorn battle it was later enlarged and includes burials from veterans and spouses, as well as children, from almost every military action up until the closing in 1978, Only plots already reserved are still available. A small booklet is available for a self guided walking tour. It has some fascinating details about the history of the cemetery as well as many of the individuals interred there.

Only a short distance from the cemetery is the Little Bighorn visitors center. An informative film, nice displays, and a fantastic presentation by a ranger (from Texas!) who has been studying this historic event since he was 18. 'Guess he knows a little about it!

After the ranger's presentation we took a bus tour with the Absaalooka tribal tours (Absaalooka is the true name of the tribe that came to be known as the Crow). Narrated by a member of the tribe, we learned more about the event as well as a little of their culture, and the inter-tribal politics that had an impact on the battle. Specific facts about the battle were discussed as we viewed the actual locations. The guide explained how the terrain impacted the actions of the soldiers and the Indians.
A portion of the Little Bighorn Battlefield

For those unaware of the timeline of events - here's the brief history. (A much more detailed version is available here.) We all know pioneers headed west for free or cheap land. When they came into contact with the Indians (it's ok to call them Indians, they use that term too) there were often conflicts. Sometimes they got along, sometimes not. Usually at issue was the conflict over land to farm (pioneers) and land to hunt (Indians).

A treaty was signed giving most of the Dakota Territory to the Indians, including some land not assigned to a specific tribe, but open for all to hunt. The Black Hills were included in the treaty area. Forts were established along the main travel routes so the military could protect the settlers as well as keeping the settlers from bothering the Indians.

Shortly after the Civil War, when many men were returning home, with no jobs, a financial recession hit the nation hard. At about the same time gold was discovered in the Black Hills. There was no stopping the pioneers from flooding into the areas that were supposed to be off limits to them. President Grant tried various ways of managing the situation, but several Chiefs (Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, primarily) wouldn't go along with his plan and insisted on staying off reservation, in the open area. This was when the military was sent in to "round then all up and get them to the reservation".

Tribal politics were having their own effect on the situation. The Sioux (Lakota) and Cheyenne were trying to push the Crow out of the area. The Crow, thinking that if they could get rid of the Sioux they'd be in good shape, were happy to scout for the Army. It didn't turn out so well for anyone. The Indians knew this was their last stand, and whether Custer knew it was his "last stand" as he went into battle or not, it was a major turning point for the Native American cultures in the area.

Monument on the mass grave on Last Stand Hill
After careful scouting, planning and discussions, Custer divided his troops into three groups, hoping to surround the tepees set up in the valley near the river. Gathered for hunting and a seasonal celebration, the village setting was full of families.  Though the attack was a surprise, the Indians resoundingly defeated the Army. The battle, over two hot June days in 1876, resulted in the deaths of over 260 soldiers and attached personnel. It's hard to say how many Indians were killed, including women and children, but the number is probably under 50.

A mass grave holds many of the remains, and there are markers throughout the park, indicating where it is known that someone fell - white for soldiers, red for Native Americans. A few have names, but most do not.

There is also a peace memorial, dedicated to the Native Americans who were involved in, and perished in, this battle. The memorial has panels around the curved walls with names and etched portraits. It's beautiful, and definately worth the short walk up the hill from the visitor center. There's more information about the Indian Memorial and what happened to those who died in the battle here.

After two days of touring the sites and digesting all the historic information we decided on a lunch out, at the trading post near the entrance to the park. Good souvenir shopping, and the best "Indian Taco" I've ever had. HUGE fry bread heaped with goodies.

7th Ranch RV Park was home for the duration of our visit to the Little Bighorn. There aren't a lot of housing choices in the area, but we were very pleased with our choice. 7th Ranch is named for the 7th Cavalry, Custer's command.

7th Ranch is situated inside a working ranch of several hundred acres. They have a few head of cattle, and some great scenery! Guests are free to take dogs off-leash anywhere outside the immediate fenced campground area, so there's plenty of room to roam and good grass and sagebrush to check out.

The spaces are comfortably large, and some have shade trees. There are also a few tent spaces, and a playground for the little ones. The laundry facilities are pretty small, but seem to be adequate for the needs of visitors. It seems most guests stay only one night so the area really empties out during the day. The owners and camp hosts are all friendly and helpful, and we really enjoyed our stay!
The evening view from our site - a Charlie Russell sky

On the map, the closest town is Garryowen - which turns out to be a one acre, privately owned town (the ownership is too long to discuss, and irrelevant). The name is  unusual so I just had to look it up. 'Turns out, the tune Garryowen is, and has been for many years, the official tune of the 7th Cavalry.  Here's the full history,  along with the music. It seems like a good name for this tiny town near this infamous location so closely connected to the 7th Cavalry.

This little "town" houses a private museum of Native American artifacts. They also have an extensive gift shop with a range of goods from typical souvenirs to high end art work and traditional Indian jewelry as well as art works of rawhide, feathers and beads.

The album is here, and there's more information on each of the individual photos.

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