The undulating prairie above the Little Bighorn River southeast of Crow Agency was the site of the signature event in America’s three-century conquest of the western world and its Native inhabitants. As 300,000-plus annual visitors to the National Park Service site are well aware, the story of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors' annihilation of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry (and his Crow scouts), which stunned a nation, is told in poignant and graphic detail.
But Little Bighorn is merely the Super Bowl of Montana’s Indian War history. Anywhere from 20 to 200 battlefields – depending on your definition of “battle” -- dot the vast state, some shedding important insight into the impending rout at Little Bighorn or its aftermath.
Montana’s Indian Wars can mostly be condensed into three major arenas: The Blackfeet Wars of northwestern Montana, the Nez Perce’s 1,170-mile march from eastern Oregon to 40 miles from Canada, and the well-chronicled Sioux/Northern Cheyenne battles led by chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Dull Knife, Two Moons and others against the likes of Custer, Miles, Howard, Terry and fellow cavalry leaders whose names now are fixtures in eastern Montana maps as towns, parks and other landmarks.
Some, such as Little Bighorn and the Battle of the Big Hole (Nez Perce) site near Wisdom, are tourist-beckoning areas operated by the Park Service. Visitors can easily spend hours wandering those landscapes, picturing where the soldiers and warriors stood – and fell.
Others, including Rosebud Battlefield State Park near Busby and Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook, have far fewer amenities while still offering gripping snapshots of frontier history through trails and markers in country that remains largely unchanged.
In most cases, skirmishes are all but lost to the dustbin of history, their memories kept alive only by lonely stone plaques and markers -- or nothing at all -- on private lands where only the owner's care maintains the landscape's integrity.
At least a half-dozen Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Crow battlefields of varying renown are within a tomahawk's throw of the state’s so-called “Warrior Trail” – U.S. Highway 212 from Crow Agency through Busby, Lame Deer and Ashland to the state’s southeast corner at Broadus. Ironically, the battle signifying the end of the Great Sioux War of 1876, at Wolf Mountain (or Belly Butte), is marked only by a sign creaking in the wind and a stone National Historic Landmark behind a barbed-wire fence along a remote, dusty backroad.
In each case, if you tread lightly and listen as the wind rustles through the grass and sage, you can almost hear bullets flying, warriors and soldiers shouting, and the wailing of Indian women and children as they flee in their final gasps of freedom.
The Battle of Little Bighorn and adjoining Reno-Benteen Battlefield in the same complex need no reintroduction here. But if your list of summer activities includes digging into more obscure Montana Indian Wars history, here are a few benchmark battlefields not to miss:
SIOUX & NORTHERN CHEYENNE WARS
Date: Aug. 1, 1867
Location: About three miles northeast of Fort Smith
Tribes: Sioux, Northern Cheyenne
What’s there: The battlefield site is on private property, but respectful visitors are allowed to stop and read the small National Park Service stone monument marking the spot. It’s about three miles east of Fort Smith, near Cottonwood Camp on the Bighorn River. On County Road 40A, cross the Bighorn Canal and look for NE Warman Loop. The marker is in a field near both roads.
The story: Now a mecca for trout anglers, Fort Smith was one of three installations built after the Civil War to provide safe passage for gold miners headed to Montana from Wyoming on the Bozeman Trail. Naturally, the trail and what it brought didn’t sit well with the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho, who raided the remote outpost frequently in the summer of 1867. Finally, in mid-summer, a band of about 800 warriors attacked 20 soldiers and nine civilians in a hay field and log corral about three miles from the fort. Though the battle could be heard inside the fort, no support was sent to the corral. Despite the Indians’ clear numbers advantage, the battle was a stalemate due largely to the soldiers' impenetrable cover in the walled corral and new weaponry that had just arrived from Europe. As daylight waned, the Indians gave up and left.
The significance: Fort Smith commander Lt. Col. Luther Bradley didn’t make much of the fight, and it’s a relative footnote in Indian Wars history. But even though the Indians didn’t suffer significant casualties (eight dead, 30 wounded), their inability to take the fort forced them to rethink their strategy. After the Hayfield Fight and a similar skirmish a day later in present-day Nebraska, the Indians abandoned full military-style attacks along the Bozeman Trail and for the next decade only conducted occasional raids. The battle also bears some renown for the introduction of the “1866” rifle, which was rarely used after the Hayfield Fight because the soldiers weren’t fond of them.
Battle of Powder River
Date: March 17, 1876
Location: 35 miles southwest of Broadus, near Moorhead
Tribes: Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne
What’s there: Just off a county road on private land overlooking the meandering Powder River is a mound of cemented rocks and four brass plaques bearing the names of soldiers killed in the battle, which took place along the river. The Fulton family owns the land and maintains the Veteran of Foreign Wars markers. To see artifacts from what locals refer to as "The Reynolds Battle," visit the Powder River Historical Museum in Broadus.
The story: The cavalry didn’t lose many battles to the tribes, but this was one – three months before Little Bighorn. As part of the War Department’s plan to round up hostiles and move them to a reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Army moved into southeastern Montana, where on a frigid late-winter day scouts found a Northern Cheyenne band of about 60 warriors and a few Oglala Sioux led by Chief Two Moons camped in about 40 lodges along the river. In the early morning, Col. Joseph J. Reynolds attacked in a blizzard, firing 100 rounds for every round from the tribe, destroying the village and rounding up 700 ponies. Despite the barrage, only a few Indians were killed, and the soldiers, weary from marching and frustrated by shots from snipers, retreated. A day later, Gen. George Crook met up with Reynolds and discovered four soldiers dead, many more wounded and 66 suffering from frostbite. Crook subsequently ordered the column to head for a fort in Wyoming.
The significance: By all accounts, the Battle of Powder River ushered in the Great Sioux War of 1876. And though cold and battered themselves, the Indians recovered 500 of their stolen ponies and were emboldened by a victory that set the stage for two more big battles that summer. Though some historians blame Gen. Crook for his lack of support of Reynolds, he was so disgusted with the colonel for losing to the Indians that he initiated a court martial. Reynolds eventually was expelled from the Army, effectively ending his career. Crook’s regiment regrouped but would be ambushed some three months later at Rosebud Creek, losing 28 soldiers and rendering him ineffective for Little Bighorn.
Rosebud Battlefield State Park
Date: June 17, 1876
Location: About 27 miles south of Busby, on the eastern edge of the Crow Reservation
Tribes: Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne
What’s there: After a one-mile drive on gravel off MT 314 is a parking area with interpretive signs describing a battle that took place on what is now a largely undeveloped 3,052-acre state park and National Historic Landmark. An undulating one-mile loop drive or walk on gravel provides a further glimpse of the story, albeit with some imagination required.
The story: Eight days before Little Bighorn, there was Rosebud. For most of the Indian wars, tribes were on the defensive. But at Rosebud Creek, about 1,500 Sioux and Northern Cheyenne went on the warpath, attacking 1,000 troops and more than 250 Shoshone and Crow scouts under Gen. George Crook's direction. In what would be one of the largest battles of the Indian Wars, the soldiers and tribes fought to a stalemate, each losing about 10 men and each claiming victory when the Lakota and Cheyenne called off the battle, setting the stage for the most famous fight of them all.
The significance: Scholars agree that the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne sent a formidable message to the U.S. Government at Rosebud, and that it was one of the few Indian success stories. What also isn’t debated is that in the aftermath, Crook was forced to head south to resupply, leaving Gen. George Armstrong Custer without full support at Little Bighorn. Some say Crook was short on provisions anyway and couldn’t have helped Custer, but his legacy was permanently tarnished and the Indians were at the apex of their confidence.
Battle of Cedar Creek
Date: Oct. 21, 1876
Location: On both private and BLM land about 20 miles northwest of Terry along MT 253
Tribe: Lakota Sioux
What’s there: Nothing marks the site, but to see artifacts visit the Frontier Gateway Museum in Glendive. To visit the site on a hillside, make an appointment at least a few days in advance with the Prairie County Museum in Terry; they'll be happy to escort you to the battlefield a modest walk from the highway.
The story: Nearly four months after Little Bighorn, the Great Sioux Wars of 1876 were beginning to wind down and the tribes were becoming more conciliatory. Many Sioux wanted to return to their reservations. As Col. Nelson A. Miles and Gen. Alfred Terry settled for the winter at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers near present-day Miles City, Sioux Chief Sitting Bull met with Miles and offered to leave the soldiers alone in exchange for continued hunting of buffalo. Miles instead demanded surrender, talks broke down and after both sides retreated to their stations a skirmish broke out on the East Fork of Cedar Creek, a sparsely vegetated bump roughly on the divide between the Missouri and Yellowstone river drainages in country now called "The Big Open." The Indians fled and the troops chased Sitting Bull for 40 miles, stealing the tribe's supplies along the way. Six days later, having suffered six casualties, the 2,000 weary Sioux surrendered and returned to reservations, with Sitting Bull and a few holdouts headed for Canada.
The significance: The Sioux did not suffer many losses at Cedar Creek, but the skirmish was pivotal. Most notable was the growing dissension among the Indians, many of whom were weary and fearful of the impacts winter would have on their families. Lesser chiefs pleaded with Sitting Bull to surrender, and the chief had threatened to kill any of those who did. When it was over, fewer Sioux were committed to Sitting Bull’s leadership and the tribe’s days of freedom clearly were numbered.
Battle of Wolf Mountain
Date: Jan. 8, 1877
Location: Four miles southwest of Birney along the Tongue River and eastern edge of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation
Tribes: Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne
What’s there: An interpretive sign creaking in the wind and a National Historic Landmark stone marker along a remote dusty road is all that marks what is considered to be the final event in the Great Sioux Wars. Slip through a tattered barbed-wire fence to explore the rocky hillside called Belly Butte, where the battle took place.
The story: Seven months after Little Bighorn, most Sioux and Northern Cheyenne had resigned themselves to reservations, including the followers of Sitting Bull (Sioux) and Dull Knife (Northern Cheyenne). After a failed attempt to negotiate peace with Gen. Miles and a subsequent murder of an Indian delegation, Sioux Chief Crazy Horse decided to exact revenge. Amid a blizzard, Crazy Horse and his band of Oglalas, Brules and Northern Cheyenne attacked nearly 500 troops under Miles along the Tongue River. Fighting in three feet of snow and temperatures well below zero, the soldiers held their ground and, after five hours of battle, claimed seven modest hills from which the Indians attacked, including Belly Butte. The tribes scattered and would never mount a serious offensive again.
The significance: Though the remoteness and lack of ceremony belie its significance, the Battle of Wolf Mountain did indeed signal the end of the Great Sioux Wars. The tribes were demoralized, and many Sioux and Northern Cheyenne began to trickle onto reservations. After withdrawing from Wolf Mountain, Crazy Horse and the rest of his followers would arrive four months later at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where they officially ended their resistance, forever taming the Plains for European settlers.
NEZ PERCE WAR OF 1877
Big Hole National Battlefield
Dates: Aug. 9-10, 1877
Location: 10 miles west of Wisdom off MT 43
Tribe: Nez Perce
What’s there: A recently renovated National Park Service interpretive center with books, artifacts and films features a sweeping view of the North Fork of the Big Hole River valley and the tepee poles representing the site of the Nez Perce village. A lower paved parking lot provides access to three self-guided trails that wind through the battlefield and to a hillside perch amid pines where the cavalry’s cannon was stationed. Until several years ago, small markers with painted eagle feathers indicated where the Indians fell, but those were removed because the Park Service decided they didn't offer an accurate representation of what took place.
The story: After refusing to move from their homeland in eastern Oregon to a reservation in Idaho, a band of nearly 700 Nez Perce led by chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, Ollokot and White Bird embarked on an 1,170-mile “trail of tears” across Oregon, Idaho, Montana and 5-year-old Yellowstone National Park. For much of the summer they eluded 2,000 soldiers under Gen. Oliver Howard and Col. John Gibbon, outfoxing the soldiers in most of 18 separate engagements. But in the early dawn of Aug. 9, 1877, in what would become the third and most significant of the four major battles of the Nez Perce War, Gibbon’s forces surprised the Indians, killing close to 90 – mostly women and children. Many Nez Perce escaped, but they were battered and knew their journey was at end.
The significance: The Battle of the Big Hole clearly was the turning point of the Nez Perce Wars of 1877, putting the Indians on their heels for the final two months of their desperate effort to reach safety in Canada.
Battle of Canyon Creek
Date: Sept. 13, 1877
Location: Eight miles north of Laurel, 16 miles west of Billings.
Tribe: Nez Perce
What’s there: A small covered pavilion with three interpretive signs and a sandstone pillar describing the battle marks the junction of Buffalo Trail and Lipp roads west of Billings and north of Laurel. Don’t bother exploring the creek bottoms or distant rims where the Nez Perce had staked out positions, though; they’re all on private land.
The story: For more than a month since the Battle of the Big Hole, the Nez Perce had continued to elude Gen. Howard, their easterly and then northerly pilgrimage taking them through America’s first national park, Yellowstone, where they killed two tourists. The 7th Cavalry under Col. Samuel Sturgis was ordered to intercept the Indians as they emerged from Yellowstone, but they failed until the tribe reached turbid Canyon Creek where it emerges from a cut in the rims. The Nez Perce came to the Yellowstone River country believing the Crow would provide asylum. But, fearing retaliation and mistakenly believing helping the U.S. Government would serve their future, the Crow refused Chief Looking Glass’ overtures; some even became cavalry scouts. Despite being outnumbered about 2-to-1, Looking Glass’ small group of snipers managed to keep the cavalry at bay long enough for the women and children to make an easterly escape along the rims before turning north in hopes of finding an ally in Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in Canada.
The significance: Though the Indians suffered only three casualties, the Crow, who refused assistance, used the cover of the U.S. Army to steal about 300 Nez Perce horses, further demoralizing the tribe and slowing its progress just enough to allow the troops to catch up a month later 40 miles shy of Canada.
Battle of Bear Paw
Dates: Sept. 30-Oct. 5, 1877
Location: 15 miles south of Chinook
Tribe: Nez Perce
What’s there: A Nez Perce National Historical Park sign off MT 240 marks the parking area for a 1.25-mile mowed trail through the grasslands where the last of 18 Nez Perce battles of 1877 unfolded. Small markers decorated with tokens ranging from coins and trinkets to cigarette butts denote the places where chiefs Ollokot, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzte fell. Before driving to the battlefield, stop at the Blaine County Museum (open daily during summer) in Chinook to learn more about the Nez Perce journey. Trail maps are available at the museum and battlefield parking area.
The story: Forty miles from freedom, and having eluded Gen. Howard one more time, the Nez Perce stopped near the Bear Paw Mountains, an island range within view of Canada. Numbering about 700 at this point, including 200 warriors, the tribe was confident it would reach refuge with Sitting Bull and resistant Sioux in Canada, unaware that Gen. Nelson A. Miles was rapidly approaching from the southeast. With the help of Sioux and Cheyenne scouts, the soldiers crept up on the Nez Perce as they slept along Snake Creek. The Army stole about 200 horses, preventing any daylight escape. The tribe and cavalry fought fiercely on a cold night and into the morning, when Miles and Chief Yellow Bull met under a flag of truce. The battle nevertheless continued and was a standoff until the arrival of a cannon that blasted the Nez Perce’s fortified positions and turned the tide. Wounded, sick and shivering, the tribe’s resolve finally waned until Chief Joseph surrendered, finally uttering the famous words “From where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more forever” to end the Nez Perce War.
The significance: The Battle of Bear Paw was the definitive end of a summer-long flight that began in eastern Oregon and covered 1,170 miles into Idaho, Montana, Yellowstone National Park and back into Montana. When it was over, the Nez Perce were sent to reservations in northern Idaho and eastern Washington, never to see their Oregon homeland again.
Marias Massacre (Baker Massacre)
Date: Jan. 23, 1870
Location: About 15 miles southeast of Shelby on the Hi-Line. Drive east on US 2 to Dunkirk and drive four miles south on South Dunkirk Road to Dobyn's Road. Go east for a half-mile to Robinson Road, then south two miles to the river. The site isn't marked (except by a retired combine), but a two-track road leads to a bluff and a view of the place where the Piegan were camped.
Tribe: Piegan Blackfeet
What’s there: The massacre site is now on private land owned by caring stewards, so the best you can get is a distant view. A state historical marker on US 287 just north of Choteau tells the shameful story.
The story: As the name implies, the Marias Massacre -- or Baker Massacre as it is sometimes known and Bear River Massacre among the Blackfeet, for their name for the Marias -- was hardly a battle. A staggering 173 Piegan women, children and mostly elderly men were slaughtered on a frigid day during what later was determined to be an attack on the wrong group of Blackfeet. The massacre was touched off by the murder of a white trader who was killed near Helena by a young warrior named Little Owl. Determined to exact revenge, a regiment under Major Eugene Baker began pursuit of Little Owl’s Piegan band, which had joined up with a group under Mountain Chief, all believed to be camped along the Marias River. As temperatures reached 30 below zero, the soldiers came upon a camp of 32 lodges along the river, surrounding it and commencing firing. Only when it was over did an Indian scout for the cavalry realize that it was a peaceful group led by Heavy Runner, who had papers from the government indicating they were to be left alone. Heavy Runner was killed while greeting the soldiers with his papers, and of the 172 others, some 50 kids less than 12 years old were either shot or killed with a bayonet. The soldiers did take about 100 prisoners, but when they realized many of the Piegans had small pox they cut them loose in frigid temperatures with no clothing, food or shelter, causing many to freeze to death. Only later did the soldiers learn Mountain Chief was camped a few miles downstream.
The significance: Even Americans who supported Indian relocation were appalled by the massacre, which some called a war crime. Initially, Washington tried to cover up the shameful act, but a report by a Blackfeet agent for the government was leaked and an outcry ensued. Under public pressure, President U.S. Grant instituted a policy of peace and permanently wrested control of Indian policy from the War Department (instead putting it under Interior). For the Blackfeet, it was a turning point in their war with the government, seeing it as the penultimate “crushing blow” before the extinction of the buffalo in their territory 14 years later. Some 145 years later, the tribe did exact a measure of revenge when one of Mountain Chief's great-granddaughters, a Browning banker and rancher named Elouise Pepion Cobell, sued the U.S. Government for trust monies owed to Indians across the country; Cobell, who died in 2011, lived long enough to win the largest settlement ($3.4 billion) ever against the government. Blackfeet members, including descendants of survivors, gather at the massacre site every year to commemorate the tragedy.