After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country

After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country

by Paul L. Hedren

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Between 1876 and 1877, the U.S. Army battled Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians in a series of vicious conflicts known today as the Great Sioux War. After the defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn in June 1876, the army responded to its stunning loss by pouring fresh troops and resources into the war effort. In the end, the U.S. Army prevailed, but at a


Between 1876 and 1877, the U.S. Army battled Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians in a series of vicious conflicts known today as the Great Sioux War. After the defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn in June 1876, the army responded to its stunning loss by pouring fresh troops and resources into the war effort. In the end, the U.S. Army prevailed, but at a significant cost. In this unique contribution to American western history, Paul L. Hedren examines the war’s effects on the culture, environment, and geography of the northern Great Plains, their Native inhabitants, and the Anglo-American invaders.

As Hedren explains, U.S. military control of the northern plains following the Great Sioux War permitted the Northern Pacific Railroad to extend westward from the Missouri River. The new transcontinental line brought hide hunters who targeted the great northern buffalo herds and ultimately destroyed them. A de-buffaloed prairie lured cattlemen, who in turn spawned their own culture. Through forced surrender of their lands and lifeways, Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes now experienced even more stress and calamity than they had endured during the war itself. The victors, meanwhile, faced a different set of challenges, among them providing security for the railroad crews, hide hunters, and cattlemen.

Hedren is the first scholar to examine the events of 1876–77 and their aftermath as a whole, taking into account relationships among military leaders, the building of forts, and the army’s efforts to memorialize the war and its victims. Woven into his narrative are the voices of those who witnessed such events as the burial of Custer, the laying of railroad track, or the sudden surround of a buffalo herd. Their personal testimonies lend both vibrancy and pathos to this story of irreversible change in Sioux Country.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In this original new book, Paul Hedren relates one of the great tales in American history—how the Sioux and Cheyenne, lords of the northern plains, were stripped of their land and confined to reservations. Hedren begins where most historians have ended: at the moment when the shooting stopped.  What came next is the meat of After Custer—establishing military posts, building railroads, killing the buffalo. The story of this conquest, told with a wealth of new detail, is sometimes sad but always dramatic.”—Thomas Powers, author of The Killing of Crazy Horse

“Hedren’s chronicle of the transformation of the northern plains in the wake of the Great Sioux War makes for essential reading. After Custer is at once compelling, moving, and richly rewarding.”—Jerome A. Greene, author of Beyond Bear's Paw: The Nez Perce Indians in Canada

Library Journal
Hedren, a retired National Park Service superintendent, presents what is effectively his life's work in this historical-geographic analysis of the Black Hills region after the watershed 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, which gave an astounding yet momentary victory to the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne in the epic struggle for their homelands in the Northern Plains. If this is read with Hedren's Great Sioux War Orders of Battle: How the United States Army Waged War on the Northern Plains, 1876–1877, readers will come away with a full account of the Great Sioux War that encompasses not only the military history, but an assessment of the cultural consequences of the war for the Sioux and Cheyenne, the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the destruction of the last of the immense buffalo herds, which directly enabled the "Beef Bonanza" ranching empires to grow. Military historians will appreciate Hedren's attention to the memorialization of the Little Bighorn Battlefield and the role of the army after the actual fighting ended. VERDICT Strongly recommended for academic and general readers seeking a balanced, authoritative perspective on the aftermath of the Great Sioux War.—Nathan E. Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY

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University of Oklahoma Press
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After Custer

Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country

By Paul L. Hedren


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8736-5


A Good Year to Die?

Custer was dead, and Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Morning Star were desperate. In the six months after Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors unleashed devastation on the Seventh Cavalry in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the army's senior department and field commanders, guided by Lieutenant General Philip Henry Sheridan, resolutely poured fresh troops and limitless war matériel onto the northern plains and irreversibly altered the course of the Great Sioux War. From Tongue River Cantonment (located where the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers join in southeastern Montana), Colonel Nelson A. Miles led his Fifth Infantry against a succession of Indian bands still residing in that untrammeled, buffalo-rich locale; never once did that fiercely determined, veteran campaigner allow his foe to recuperate or resupply. Similarly, in late November 1876 Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie led cavalry troops in the horrible destruction of a Northern Cheyenne village located in the southern Big Horn Mountains. As the nation's centennial year closed, he reunited with Brigadier General George Crook's sizable, well-outfitted column and scoured the Powder River countryside for others.

What began for the United States Army nearly a year earlier as a simply imagined, three-pronged campaign (focused on the Yellowstone and Powder River countryside and aimed at forcing scattered, independent Sioux bands back to their assigned agencies on the Great Sioux Reservation) had opened ominously. Fearsome late winter weather hindered the initial movements of columns from western Montana, Wyoming, and Dakota, and the army had not yet reckoned with the elusiveness and resolve of its foe. The first significant engagement of this Sioux War occurred on March 17, 1876, when six companies of cavalry led by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds were defeated by Old Bear's Cheyennes on the Powder River, just north of the Wyoming line. Reynolds commanded a superior force but chanced onto warriors who were fighting to protect families and homes. At month's end the so-called Big Horn Expedition, of which Reynolds's movement was a part, returned in failure to Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, and disbanded. Crook returned to the field a second time in May, leading a significantly enlarged column now christened the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition. By then Colonel John Gibbon was inching a small column of infantry and cavalry east along the Yellowstone River from posts in western Montana, and Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry and Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led nearly one thousand combatants, including all twelve companies of the heralded Seventh Cavalry, west from Fort Abraham Lincoln on the Missouri River in northern Dakota. By early June the segments of Sheridan's straightforward campaign were finally in place, with troops presumably positioned to drive increasingly headstrong tribesmen eastward into government control.

But still nothing went right for Sheridan's Army. Crook personally led troops in the Battle of Rosebud Creek, Montana, on June 17, in what proved to be the war's largest engagement. In a bucolic setting in the midst of the Wolf Mountains—ironically, the landscapes of the Great Sioux War were all bucolic—soldiers clashed with nearly one thousand Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in an encounter filled with fierce thrusts and parries on a battlefield of sweeping proportions. At battle's end, Crook held the vast Rosebud field and rightly claimed victory. But the notion of merely holding ground was meaningless to his foe, who also claimed victory at Rosebud Creek: the Sioux and Cheyenne had lost few combatants and their village, located some twenty miles away on a tributary of the Little Big Horn River, remained secure. In any case, Crook's unceremonious withdrawal to his staging area in northern Wyoming signaled the battle's true victors and intensified the warriors' resolve and sense of invincibility against these soldiers and the other troops maneuvering against them.

Eight days later, Custer's attack on an enlarged village now located on the Little Big Horn some eighteen miles above its confluence with the Big Horn River completely surprised the inhabitants. But the outcome was far less uncertain than at Rosebud. The Indian encampment had swelled substantially by then as agency Indians (summer roamers as they were known to the agents and army) joined fellow tribesmen to hunt and—this season—fight. The villagers' resolve was powerful too, strengthened by their phenomenal numbers. Moreover, their great prophet Sitting Bull had prophesied this success. Already these roamers had twice defeated soldiers coming from the south; while not unaware of troop movements north along the Yellowstone, they felt no particular threat from that quarter. For the flamboyant and self-assured Custer, the element of surprise at Little Big Horn was his sole earthly reward on June 25: his defeat was swift, sure, and, for the U.S. Army and nation, utterly imponderable.

Ever since that time Custer's actions preceding and during the Little Big Horn battle have been scrutinized exhaustively, and faults loom large. Custer refused Terry's proffered four-company Second Cavalry battalion and pair of Gatling guns. He divided his twelve companies into small, widely separated battalions well before learning of the size and specific position of his opponent, and many in his officer corps abandoned him. But reversing any or all of these considerations might have mattered little on that hot June Sunday. Almost assuredly, a cavalry force twice the size of Custer's led by any other of Sheridan's pet commanders would have fared just as poorly against this momentarily invincible league of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors.

But the extraordinary Indian coalition at Little Big Horn was a fleeting phenomenon that unraveled almost immediately after the final shots were fired on Custer's doomed battalion. The sheer numbers of people and animals in that Indian village exhausted immediate sources of game, wood, and grass and obliged them to move or separate. More importantly, the Seventh Cavalry's survivors, well entrenched on a high bank overlooking the Little Big Horn River and dust clouds on the distant northern horizon foreshadowing Terry's and Gibbon's approaching infantry and cavalry, threatened a resumption of the battle and perhaps a different outcome. Late on the afternoon of June 26 the villagers disbanded and fled upstream.

The victorious Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen as well as the U.S. Army and federal government were unaware that the Indians' fate, visible only through a historian's crystal-perfect lens, had been sealed the very moment they abandoned the Little Big Horn village. Their resolve and sheer numbers had affirmed their invincibility against the soldiers in the opening engagements of this profound war, but the glory-filled season waned. Midsummer was the time to hunt buffalo and prepare for the inevitable winter, not wage a continuous and increasingly costly war. This season soldiers hounded the splintered bands relentlessly: when Crook's, Terry's, and Gibbon's summer troops wearied, on came reinforcements led by Wesley Merritt, Mackenzie, Elwell Otis, and Miles. Each commanded fresh cavalry, infantry, and even regular dismounted artillery, all well supplied and fiercely determined to avenge Custer's death and enforce the government's will. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, Morning Star, and the others knew no such luxuries as reinforcement and resupply and instead faced the ominous alternatives of submission at an agency, flight to Canada, or death on a battlefield.

* * *

The Indian war of 1876–77 was known from the earliest times as the Great Sioux War, a descriptive name harmonious with other contemporary references such as Great Sioux Nation and Great Sioux Reservation. Historians and others quickly embraced the name and used it to distinguish this Indian war from other conflicts with the Sioux occurring along the North Platte River in the 1850s and 1860s, in Minnesota and Dakota in 1862 and 1863, along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana in the middle and late 1860s, and associated with the Ghost Dance in 1890.2 Like other American Indian wars, this one had its root in the possession and development of tribal land by an ever-expanding American culture. But this time the contest was not confined to the outer margins of what was recognized as Sioux Country, as in most of the other conflicts; instead it was waged to attain irrefutable control of the entire vast Sioux homeland that spanned the northern Great Plains. Moreover, this war was aimed at firm control over the Sioux people on their designated reservation.

For most Americans, the vastness and unsettled nature of Sioux Country remained an unfamiliar phenomenon in the mid-1870s. The occurrence of conflict there during the nation's centennial year spoke more to the helter-skelter nature of American settlement in the West than to any initial government wish to control these particular Indians and that landscape, at least until it became a crisis. Settlement interests west of the Missouri River always had been focused elsewhere—agriculturally rich Oregon, the religious haven in the Great Basin, and the gold country of California and then Colorado. The roads feeding those destinations had only skirted Sioux Country. When gold was discovered in Montana in 1862, the Bozeman Trail sliced through the western margins of Sioux Country. Red Cloud and his followers fought a vicious war and successfully closed the road, however, and forced the abandonment of its three army garrisons. But after 1869 Montana-bound argonauts had access to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads to Corinne, Utah, and the Montana Trail north from Corinne to the goldfields. The Bozeman Trail had been rendered unnecessary.

Into the 1870s much of the landscape lying north of the overland trails and between the Missouri River and western mountains was not particularly well known to whites or coveted by them. Government surveying expeditions had crossed these northern plains from time to time, and fur-trading companies encamped on its margins had captured a hearty business from its core. But this vast untrammeled prairie was recognized by one and all as Sioux Country, home of the Teton or Lakota Sioux Indians and not open to invasion. The seven distinct Teton bands—Oglala, Brulé, Two Kettle, Miniconjou, Sans Arc, Blackfeet, and Hunkpapa—numbered some 15,500 people in the 1870s. These Indians were relative newcomers to this particular landscape too, having captured it from other tribes late in the preceding century. Friends of the Lakotas like the Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos also resided there. Interlopers like the Crows, Assiniboines, Shoshones, Crees, and Arikaras, the possessors of these plains in earlier times, still invaded from the margins, especially to hunt buffalo.

From the 1850s onward, the respective Teton bands were generally recognized as occupying discrete subsections of Sioux Country. These traditional or favored homelands later figured in the allotment of agencies according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and later still in the proceedings of the Great Sioux War. The middle Missouri River region of today's western South Dakota, for instance, was recognized as the homeland of the Two Kettle Sioux, while the Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Sioux lived farther north in the Upper Missouri country of today's western North Dakota and eastern Montana. The Miniconjou Sioux generally resided north and east of the Black Hills, and the Sans Arcs customarily inhabited lands west and southwest of the Black Hills in today's eastern Wyoming. The North Platte River basin of Wyoming and Nebraska was the favored homeland of the Oglalas, while the Brulés occupied the White River and Pine Ridge country of Nebraska and Dakota. Across this vast landscape, these preferred homelands had flexible, nearly imperceptible margins. As the Sioux met and conquered Indian enemies, their holdings continually expanded westward and northward.

While band affiliation in Sioux society was a matter of birth, allegiances were flexible. An Oglala could live among and marry a Sans Arc; the Brulés freely hunted in the favored haunts of the Hunkpapas; and a young Miniconjou or Blackfeet man might share a common vista with a Cheyenne male during a vision quest atop Bear Butte. The Teton Sioux were united by language and tradition. People from the seven bands counseled together each summer, typically in June at a predetermined location: they renewed friendships, forged alliances, and conducted the sun dance ceremony. Nearly all the Tetons distrusted the whites; but into the 1860s they focused greater enmity on common enemies like the Crows, Assiniboines, and other tribes who challenged for their homeland and the rich hunting grounds.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty confronting government commissioners charged with brokering the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty (which brought closure to Red Cloud's Bozeman Trail War) lay in defining and imposing what was in effect a reimagined and severely diminished Sioux homeland. In accordance with the government's plan to gain greater control over the Sioux and eventually transform them from nomadic hunters into Christian farmers, the treaty proposed confining them to one-third, maybe barely one-quarter, of their former well-established territory. As prescribed in article 2, the new Great Sioux Reservation encompassed the southwestern quarter of the extant Dakota Territory or what is generally South Dakota west of the Missouri River today. Before this imposition, Sioux Country was substantially larger, spanning the entire western half of the Dakota Territory, all of eastern Montana and Wyoming, and all of central and western Nebraska.

Government commissioners were also challenged when establishing agencies for the Sioux bands that accommodated preferred homelands and also provided for ease and efficiency of administration. The government preferred that the Sioux agencies be located somewhere along the Missouri River, where steamboats could transport annuities and stocks more economically than by overland trails. The treaty stipulated that a single central agency would serve the reservation. In reality, the government yielded to the preferential homelands and diverse character of the Sioux people, as evidenced by the eventual array of agencies established along the Missouri River and in western Nebraska.

Recognizing the continuing importance of buffalo hunting to the tribesmen, the Fort Laramie Treaty wisely conceded two vast landscapes for that select purpose. The Oglalas and Brulés living in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming hunted south of their preferred homeland as often as they did north of it, so the treaty allowed the chase to continue in the Republican River country of southern Nebraska and northern Kansas as long as buffalo ranged there. Of course, these bands often looked to the Powder and Yellow-stone River country for hunting opportunities, as did every other Sioux band and northern plains tribe. This was also conceded by the treaty for a Wyoming landscape generally bounded by the North Platte River to the south, the new reservation to the east, and the summits of the Big Horn Mountains to the west. The commissioners generally envisioned that the Sioux would only absent themselves from their agencies seasonally and no longer reside permanently in these hunting lands. The Nebraska hunting lands were given no specific name, but the treaty labeled the Wyoming tract the "unceded Indian territory." It was silent on whether the unceded territory stretched northward across the Yellowstone River into Montana's Big Open, a matter that was later contested. Clearly the Big Open, that great flat-iron shaped landscape bounded by the Musselshell, Yellowstone, and Missouri rivers, was as much a favorite haunt for Sitting Bull's and Gall's Hunkpapa followers as Nebraska's Pine Ridge and Republican River countryside was for Red Cloud's Oglalas and Spotted Tail's Brulés.

The breadth and diversity of Sioux Country had other attributes as well. Viewing these northern Great Plains simply as a vast sea of grass perfect for sustaining immense buffalo herds hit the mark in general but missed the subtleties characterizing and enhancing its diverse subsections. While the lush, short- and mixed-grass prairies of western Nebraska and eastern and northeastern Wyoming certainly offered perfect grazing for large ungulates like deer, prong-horns, and buffalo, scattered topographic anomalies dramatically enriched the faunal diversity and other life-sustaining resources available to the Sioux and other tribes. The character of these northern Great Plains, as a topographic and ecological whole, both accommodated the Indians' nomadic and cyclic lifeways and had virtually dictated those cultural roots.

Nebraska's Pine Ridge illustrates the point. Best remembered for lending its name to today's vast Oglala Sioux reservation in southwestern South Dakota, the Pine Ridge is a sinewy, pine-timbered escarpment rising in eastern Wyoming's Hat Creek Breaks, stretching east through northwestern Nebraska and into South Dakota and across today's Pine Ridge Reservation. The escarpment's width varies from a mile or two in Wyoming to as many as twenty miles in Nebraska, and elevations change dramatically wherever the ridge is crossed. When coming to the Pine Ridge, Black Hills-bound prospectors and freighters traveling northward in 1875 and 1876, whether on the Sidney-Black Hills or Cheyenne-Black Hills roads, invariably noticed the long, treacherous descents over white chalky breaks. Southbound trips through the Pine Ridge were all the more arduous, becoming long, taxing pulls for stagecoaches and freight wagons.


Excerpted from After Custer by Paul L. Hedren. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul L. Hedren is a retired National Park Service superintendent residing in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of Fort Laramie and the Great Sioux War and Great Sioux War Orders of Battle: How the United States Army Waged War on the Northern Plains, 1876–1877.

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