The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most-studied skirmishes in the history of the United States behind Gettysburg, so it’s no surprise people come from around the world to visit the site.
The Little Bighorn National Monument is the site of one of the most iconic battles in American history — the June 25, 1876, clash between Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry and a coalition of Indian tribes, most of them Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
A lot of Europeans from countries including England, Germany and France are among the nearly 300,000 people who visited the battlefield in 2017, said Ken Woody, chief of interpretation at the national park.
“They’re surprised by the wide open spaces. Their countries are so much smaller there than they are here,” Woody said. “I think they’re also shocked by how many Europeans were in the battle.”
Of the 640 soldiers in the 7th Cavalry, scouts and civilians commanded by Custer, 128 were from Ireland, 125 were German and 15 were from Canada.
“Some of them, Germans and Italians, couldn’t even speak English," Woody said.
The battlefield is located about an hour southeast of Billings off Interstate 90. It draws everyone from passing tourists who stop for an hour or two to serious scholars who seek permission to spend weeks researching in the archives or walking the grounds.
The peak months for visitors at the battlefield are June, July and August, with July the most popular. But the national monument is open year-round, with 30 to 50 people stopping by in the colder months compared with 1,000 a day in the summer.
Many visitors bring their misconceptions with them to the battlefield, Woody said.
“A lot of it is sensationalized by Hollywood,” he said. “Hollywood really molds a lot of people’s thinking.”
One minor point, Woody said, is that movies often portray Custer with flowing blond locks. During the Civil War his hair was probably almost shoulder-length, Woody said, but it was cut short by the time he arrived in southeast Montana. Custer also battled a receding hairline.
During the years Woody has also chatted with re-enactors who have worked as extras on Little Bighorn-themed movies who themselves are well-versed on everything to do with the battle.
“When they tell the director, ‘It didn’t happen that way,’ the director says, ‘We’re not making a documentary,’” he said.
The battle is so much more layered and complex than is shown in movies. And it requires context to truly understand.
"It's a complicated answer when we explain these things," Woody said.
Visitors to the national monument have a number of ways they can learn the facts about the battle’s participants and the timeline. During the fall and winter, the 25-minute DVD “Triumph and Tragedy Along the Little Bighorn” is shown upon request at the visitors’ center.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, park rangers give five talks a day, about 40 minutes each, which provide an overview of the battle, the participants, the reasons behind the conflict and some of the battle’s aftermath.
“Some of us really have dedicated a large part of our lives to researching it,” Woody said.
People can visit the small museum at the visitors’ center, which contains Custer’s personal effects, firearms typical of that era, information on the Indian scouts who were with Custer and a display about the Plains Indians.
A newly designed exhibit, which will open in 2019, will provide a storyline to go along with the artifacts on display, Woody said. A new visitor center is in the planning stages, but when it will be built isn’t yet known.
Visitors can also explore the grounds. Two hundred yards from the visitors’ center, a granite memorial lists the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who died in the battle.
Nearby stands the Indian Memorial which commemorates the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who allied in the battle to form the largest Native army ever recorded on the Northern Plains. Panels on the circular memorial also honor the Crow and Arikara scouts who served with the U.S. Army against their traditional, more powerful enemy tribes.
The Indian Memorial was the longest project in national park history, Woody said. It involved 17 affiliated tribes which had to agree on the wall.
The memorial was dedicated in 2003 and completed in 2014.
“Ever since then people who visit are not as angry as they used to be,” Woody said. “Before, they were angry because they felt the Indians hadn’t gotten their due.”
Visitors can drive their vehicles on a 4.5-mile road tour and listen to cellphone audio descriptions of the various sites as they drive along. Markers placed at pull-offs along the way provide additional information.
Also during the summer months, Apsaalooke Tours, run by the Crow Nation Office of Tourism and housed in the visitors’ center offers tours seven days a week, five times a day. Tour guides on the short buses go into great detail about the battle.
Visitors also can walk through the cemetery at the battlefield where nearly 5,000 veterans from the Indian Wars up through Vietnam are buried. Each Memorial Day, an 11 a.m. ceremony honors the soldiers buried there.