A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 1





The scene of the campaign against the hostile Indians in 1876, was the rugged, desolate, and partially unexplored region lying between the Big Horn and Powder Rivers, and extending from the Big Horn Mountains northerly to and beyond the Yellowstone River. This region is the most isolated and inaccessible of any lying east of the Rocky Mountains, and is admirably adapted for Indian warfare and defense. Several rivers, tributaries of the Yellowstone, flow through it, and it abounds in creeks, ravines, and canyons. It is the hereditary country of the Crows, who for generations defended it against marauding tribes of Blackfeet.

A vivid description of the general aspect of the country and of the hardships and perils of our soldiers, has been given by Col. Nelson A. Miles, of the Fifth Infantry, in a letter written from the mouth of the Powder River. "No service," he says, "is more thankless or dangerous than contending against these treacherous savages, and if you will come out and learn the real sentiment of the army, you will find the officers of the army the strongest advocates of any peace policy that shall be just and honorable. You will find us out here, five hundred miles from railroad communication, in as barren, desolate and worthless a country as the sun shines upon—volcanic, broken, and almost impassable—so rugged as to make our granite hills of Vermont and New Hampshire appear in comparison as pleasant parks. Jagged and precipitous cliffs; narrow and deep arroyos filled with massive boulders; alkali water, or for miles and miles none at all; and vegetation of cactus and sage-bushes, will represent to you, feebly indeed, the scene of the present campaign, in which we are contending against the most powerful, warlike, and best-armed body of savages on the American Continent, armed and mounted partly at the expense of the Government, and fully supplied with the most improved magazine guns and tons of metallic ammunition."

"The brave mariner," wrote a newspaper correspondent, "on the trackless ocean without compass, is no more at the mercy of wind and wave than Terry's army, out upon this vast trackless waste, is at the mercy of his guides and scouts. The sun rises in the east, shines all day upon a vast expanse of sage-brush and grass, and, as it sets in the west, casts its dull rays into a thousand ravines that neither man nor beast can cross. The magnet always points north; but whether one can go either north or south can be decided only by personal effort. An insignificant turn to the wrong side of a little knoll or buffalo-wallow ofttimes imperceptibly leads the voyager into ravine after ravine, over bluff after bluff, until at last he stands on the edge of a yawning canyon, hundreds of feet in depth and with perpendicular walls. Nothing is left for him to do but to retrace his steps and find an accessible route."

The hostile Indians with whom our soldiers have had to contend are no despicable foe; on the contrary they are quite able, in frontier warfare, to cope with disciplined troops. They fight in bodies, under skilled leaders, and have regular rules which they observe in battle, on their marches, and in their camps. "They have systems of signalling and of scouting, of posting sentinels and videttes, and of herding their animals." They are remarkably expert horsemen, and are so dependent on their steeds, that "a Sioux on foot is a Sioux warrior no longer." Gen. Crook testifies to their adroitness and skill as follows:—

"When the Sioux Indian was armed with a bow and arrow he was more formidable, fighting as he does most of the time on horseback, than when he came into possession of the old fashioned muzzle loading rifle. But when he came into possession of the breech loader and metallic catridge, which allows him to load and fire from his horse with perfect ease, he became at once ten times more formidable. With the improved arms I have seen our friendly Indians, riding at full speed, shoot and kill a wolf, also on the run, while it is a rare thing that our troops can hit an Indian on horseback though the soldier may be on his feet at the time.

"The Sioux is a cavalry soldier from the time he has intelligence enough to ride a horse or fire a gun. If he wishes to dismount, his hardy pony, educated by long usage, will graze around near where he has been left, ready when his master wants to mount either to move forward or escape. Even with their lodges and families they can move at the rate of fifty miles per day. They are perfectly familiar with the country, have their spies and hunting parties out all the time at distances of from twenty to fifty miles each way from their villages, know the number and movements of all the troops that may be operating against them, just about what they can probably do, and hence can choose their own times and places of conflict or avoid it altogether."

The primary causes of the hostilities of the Indians which made this campaign and previous ones against them necessary, extend far back and are too numerous to be here fully stated. The principal Indian grievances however, for which the government is responsible, are a failure to fulfil treaties, encroachment on reserved territories, and the dishonesty of agents. Col. Miles speaks of our relationship with the Indians for the last fifty years, as the dark page in our history, which, next to African slavery, has done more to disgrace our government, blacken our fair name, and reflect upon our civilization, than aught else. It has, he says, been a source of corruption and a disturbing element, unconfined to any one political party or class of individuals.

Wendell Phillips asserts that the worst brutality which prurient malice ever falsely charged the Indian with, is but weak imitation of what the white man has often inflicted on Indian men, women and children; and that the Indian has never lifted his hand against us until provoked to it by misconduct on our part, compared with which, any misconduct of his is but dust in the balance.

The great difference in the condition and character of the Indians over the Canada line and our own, can only be accounted for by the different treatment they have received. The Canadian Indians are, on the whole, a harmless, honest people, who, though they are gradually disappearing before the white man, bear him no ill-will, but rather the contrary. Bishop Whipple of Minnesota, an earnest advocate of the peace policy, draws the following contrast:—

"Here are two pictures—on one side of the line a nation has spent $500,000,000 in Indian war; a people who have not 100 miles between the Atlantic and the Pacific which has not been the scene of an Indian massacre; a government which has not passed twenty years without an Indian war; not one Indian tribe to whom it has given Christian civilization; and which celebrates its centennial year by another bloody Indian war. On the other side of the line there is the same greedy, dominant Anglo-Saxon race, and the same heathen. They have not spent one dollar in Indian war; they have had no Indian massacres. Why? In Canada the Indian treaty calls these men 'the Indian subjects of her Majesty.' When civilization approaches them they are placed on ample reservations; they receive aid in civilization; they have personal rights of property; they are amenable to law and are protected by law; they have schools, and Christian people delight to give them their best men to teach them the religion of Christ. We expend more than one hundred dollars to their one in caring for Indian wards."

The results of the Indian disturbances, whatever their causes, have borne heavily on the hardy and enterprising settlers along the border. Of these citizens Gen. Crook says:—

"I believe it is wrong for a Government as great and powerful as ours not to protect its frontier people from savages. I do not see why a man who has the courage to come out here and open the way for civilization in his own country, is not as much entitled to the protection of his Government as anybody else. I am not one of those who believe, as many missionaries sent out here by well-meaning eastern socities do, that the people of the frontiers are cut-throats, thieves, and murderers. I have been thrown among them for nearly 25 years of my life, and believe them to compare favorably in energy, intelligence and manhood with the best of their eastern brethren. They are mercilessly plundered by Indians without any attempt being made to punish the perpetrators, and when they ask for protection, they are told by some of our peace commissioners sent out to make further concessions to the Indians, that they have no business out here anyhow. I do not deny that my sympathies have been with the frontier people in their unequal contest against such obstacles. At the same time I do not wish to be understood as the unrelenting foe of the Indian."

The Sioux Indians, embracing several tribes, are the old Dakotahs, long known as among the bravest and most warlike aboriginals of this continent. They were steadily pushed westward by the tide of civilization to the Great Plains north of the Platte, where they claimed as their own all the vast region west of the Missouri as far as they could roam or fight their way. They resisted the approach of all settlers and opposed the building of the Pacific Railroad.

In 1867, Congress sent out four civilians and three army officers as Peace Commissioners, who, in 1868, made a treaty with the Sioux, whereby for certain payments or stipulations, they agreed to surrender their claims to a vast tract of country, to live at peace with their neighbors, and to restrict themselves to a territory bounded south by Nebraska, west by the 104th meridian, and north by the 46th parallel of latitude—a territory as large as the State of Michigan. "They had the solemn pledge of the United States that they should be protected in the absolute and peaceable possession of the country thus set apart for them; and the constitution makes such treaties the highest of all authorities, and declares that they are binding upon every citizen."

In the western part of the Sioux territory, lying between the two forks of the Cheyenne River, is the Black Hills country with an area of four or five thousand square miles. Of the interior of this region up to 1874 nothing was known excepting from the indefinite reports of hunters who had penetrated therein. The arrival at a trading post of Indians who offered gold-dust for sale which they said was procured at the Black Hills, caused much excitement; and a military expedition of 1200 men was sent from Fort Lincoln in July 1874, to explore the Hills and ascertain if gold existed there. As was expected, no hostile enemy were encountered by the large expedition which thus invaded the Indian territory. A few lodges of Indians were met in the Hills, and they ran away notwithstanding friendly overtures were made. An attempt was made to lead the pony of one mounted Indian to headquarters, but he got away, and a shot was fired after him which, says General Custer, wounded either the Indian or his pony as blood was found on the ground.

The geologists of the expedition reported that there was gold in the Black Hills, and miners and others began to flock thither. In 1875, troops were sent to remove the trespassers on the Indian reservation, but as fast as they compelled or persuaded the miners to go away others came to fill their places; and at the present date there are more settlers there than ever before.

Of the treaty of 1868 and the so-called peace policy then inaugurated various opinions are entertained. Gen. Sherman, a member of the commission, in his report for 1876, says:—

"The commission had also to treat with other tribes at the south; viz,—the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowas and Commanches; were engaged for two years in visiting and confering with these scattered bands; and finally, in 1868, concluded many treaties, which were the best possible at that date, and which resulted in comparative peace on the Plains, by defining clearly the boundaries to be thereafter occupied by the various tribes, with the annuities in money, provisions, and goods to be paid the Indians for the relenquishment of their claims to this vast and indefinite region of land. At this time the Sioux nation consisted of many distinct tribes, and was estimated at 50,000, of whom some 8,000 were named as hostiles.

"These Indians, as all others, were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Indian Bureau, and only small garrisons of soldiers were called for at the several agencies, such as Red Cloud and Spotted Tail on the head of the White Earth River in Nebraska (outside their reservation), and at Standing Rock, Cheyenne, and Crow Creek on the Missouri River, to protect the persons of the agents and their employes. About these several agencies were grouped the several bands of Sioux under various names, receiving food, clothing, etc., and undergoing the process of civilization; but from the time of the Peace Commission of 1868 to the date of this report, a number of Sioux, recognized as hostile or 'outlaws,' had remained out under the lead of Sitting Bull and a few other chiefs."

"The so-called peace policy," says Bishop Whipple, "was commenced when we were at war. The Indian tribes were either openly hostile, or sullen and turbulent. The new policy was a marvellous success. I do honestly believe that it has done more for the civilization of the Indians than all which the Government has done before. Its only weakness was that the system was not reformed. The new work was fettered by all the faults and traditions of the old policy. The nation left 300,000 men living within our own borders without a vestige of government, without personal rights of property, without the slightest protection of person, property, or life. We persisted in telling these heathen tribes that they were independent nations. We sent out the bravest and best of our officers, some who had grown gray in the service of the country; men whose slightest word was as good as their bond—we sent them because the Indians would not doubt a soldier's honor. They made a treaty, and they pledged the nation's faith that no white man should enter that territory. I do not discuss its wisdom. The Executive and Senate ratified it.... A violation of its plain provisions was an act of deliberate perjury. In the words of Gen. Sherman, 'Civilization made its own compact with the weaker party; it was violated, but not by the savage.' The whole world knew that we violated that treaty, and the reason of the failure of the negotiations of last year was that our own commissioners did not have authority from Congress to offer the Indians more than one-third of the sum they were already receiving under the old treaty."

"The Sioux Nation," says Gen. Crook, in his report of Sept. 1876, "numbers many thousands of warriors, and they have been encouraged in their insolent overbearing conduct by the fact, that those who participated in the wholesale massacre of the innocent people in Minnesota during the brief period that preceded their removal to their present location, never received adequate punishment therefor. Following hard upon and as the apparent result of the massacre of over eighty officers and men of the army at Fort Phil Kearney, the Government abandoned three of its military posts, and made a treaty of unparalleled liberality with the perpetrators of these crimes, against whom any other nation would have prosecuted a vigorous war.

"Since that time the reservations, instead of being the abode of loyal Indians holding the terms of their agreement sacred, have been nothing but nests of disloyalty to their treaties and the Government, and scourges to the people whose misfortune it has been to be within the reach of the endurance of their ponies. And in this connection, I regret to say, they have been materially aided by sub-agents who have disgraced a bureau established for the propagation of peace and good will, man to man.

"What is the loyal condition of mind of a lot of savages, who will not allow the folds of the flag of the country to float over the very sugar, coffee and beef, they are kind enough to accept at the hands of the nation to which they have thus far dictated their own terms? Such has been the condition of things at the Red Cloud Agency.

"The hostile bands roamed over a vast extent of country, making the Agencies their base of supplies, their recruiting and ordinance depots, and were so closely connected by intermarriage, interest and common cause with the Agency Indians, that it was difficult to determine where the line of peaceably disposed ceased and the hostile commenced. They have, without interruption, attacked persons at home, murdered and scalped them, stolen their stock—in fact violated every leading feature in the treaty. Indeed, so great were their depredations on the stock belonging to the settlers, that at certain times they have not had sufficient horses to do their ordinary farming work—all the horses being concentrated on the Sioux Reservation or among the bands which owe allegiance to what is called the Sioux Nation. In the winter months these renegade bands dwindle down to a comparatively small number; while in summer they are recruited by restless spirits from the different reservations, attracted by the opportunity to plunder the frontiersman, so that by midsummer they become augmented from small bands of one hundred to thousands.

"In fact, it was well known that the treaty of 1868 had been regarded by the Indians as an instrument binding on us but not binding on them. On the part of the Government, notwithstanding the utter disregard by the Sioux of the terms of the treaty, stringent orders, enforced by military power, had been issued prohibiting settlers from trespassing upon the country known as the Black Hills. The people of the country against whom the provisions of the treaty were so rigidly enforced naturally complained that if they were required to observe this treaty, some effort should be made to compel the Indians to observe it likewise.

"The occupation by the settlers of the Black Hills country had nothing to do with the hostilities which have been in progress. In fact, by the continuous violations by these Indians of the treaty referred to, the settlers were furnished with at least a reasonable excuse for such occupation, in that a treaty so long and persistently violated by the Indians themselves, should not be quoted as a valid instrument for the preventing of such occupation. Since the occupation of the Black Hills there has not been any greater number of depredations committed by the Indians than previous to such occupation; in truth, the people who have gone to the Hills have not suffered any more and probably not as much from Indians, as they would had they remained at their homes along the border."

"In 1868," says Wm. R. Steele, delegate from Wyoming, "the United States made a treaty with the Sioux Nation, which was a grave mistake, if it was not a national dishonor and disgrace; that treaty has been the foundation of all the difficulties in the Sioux country. In 1866, Gen. Pope established posts at Fort Phil Kearney, Reno, and Fort Smith, so as to open the road to Montana and protect the country and friendly Crows from the hostile Sioux. In keeping these posts and opening that road, many men, citizens and soldiers, had been killed. Notable among the actions that had taken place was the massacre of Fetterman and his command at Fort Phil Kearney; and yet after these men had sacrificed their lives, the Government went to work and made a treaty by which it ignominiously abandoned that country to these savages, dismantling its own forts, and leaving there the bones of men who had laid down their lives in the wilderness. Was it to be wondered at, under these circumstances, that Sitting Bull and his men believed they were superior to the general government? Any body who knows anything about Indian nature knows that the legitimate result of that cowardly policy of peace at any price, was to defer only the evil day which has now come upon us. Since that time the Sioux have been constantly depredating on the frontiers of Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, and more men have fallen there in the peaceful vocations of civil life, without a murmur being heard, than fell under the gallant Custer. The friendly Crows have been raided with every full moon; so with the Shoshones; and at last these outrages have become so great and so long continued that even the peaceable Indian Department could not stand them any longer, and called on the military arm of the Government to punish these men."

President Grant, in his message of December, 1876, uses the following language:—"A policy has been adopted towards the Indian tribes inhabiting a large portion of the territory of the United States, which has been humane, and has substantially ended Indian hostilities in the whole land, except in a portion of Nebraska, and Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana territories, the Black Hills region, and approaches thereto. Hostilities there have grown out of the avarice of the white man, who has violated our treaty stipulations in his search for gold. The question might be asked, why the Government had not enforced obedience to the terms of the treaty prohibiting the occupation of the Black Hills region by whites? The answer is simple. The first immigrants to the Black Hills were removed by troops, but rumors of rich discoveries of gold took into that region increased numbers. Gold has actually been found in paying quantity, and an effort to remove the miners would only result in the desertion of the bulk of the troops that might be sent there to remove them."

The causes and objects of the military operations against the Sioux in 1876, as stated by the Secretary of War in a letter to the President dated July 8th, 1876, were in part as follows:—

"The present military operations are not against the Sioux nation at all, but against certain hostile parts of it which defy the Government, and are undertaken at the special request of the bureau of the Government charged with their supervision, and wholly to make the civilization of the remainder possible. No part of these operations are on or near the Sioux reservation. The accidental discovery of gold on the western border of the Sioux reservation and the intrusion of our people thereon have not caused this war, and have only complicated it by the uncertainty of numbers to be encountered. The young warriors love war, and frequently escape their agents to go to the hunt or war path—their only idea of the object of life. The object of these military expeditions was in the interest of the peaceful parts of the Sioux nation, supposed to embrace at least nine-tenths of the whole, and not one of these peaceful treaty Indians has been molested by the military authorities."

Of the hostile Indians referred to by the Secretary of War, Hon. E.P. Smith, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, reported Nov. 1st, 1875:—"It will probably be found necessary to compel the Northern non-treaty Sioux, under the leadership of Sitting Bull, who have never yet in any way recognized the United States Government, except by snatching rations occasionally at an agency, and such outlaws from the several agencies as have attached themselves to these same hostiles, to cease marauding and settle down, as the other Sioux have done, at some designated point."

Soon afterwards, Indian Inspector E.C. Watkins addressed the Commissioner respecting these Indians, as follows:—"The true policy in my judgment is to send troops against them in winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection. They richly merit punishment for their incessant warfare and their numerous murders of white settlers and their families, or white men whenever found unarmed."

Early in December, by the advice of the Secretary of the Interior, Commissioner Smith directed that runners be sent out to notify "said Indian Sitting Bull, and others outside their reservation, that they must move to the reservation before the 31st day of January, 1876; that if they neglect or refuse so to move, they will be reported to the War Department as hostile Indians, and that a military force will be sent to compel them to obey the order of the Indian officer." Respecting this order to the Indians, Bishop Whipple, in a letter to the New York Tribune, says:—

"There was an inadequate supply of provisions at the agencies that Fall, and the Indians went out to their unceded territory to hunt. They went as they were accustomed to do—with the consent of their agents and as provided by the treaty. * * * The Indians had gone a way from the agencies to secure food, and skins for clothing. The United States had set apart this very country as a hunting-ground for them forever. Eight months after this order to return or be treated as hostile, Congress appropriated money for the seventh of thirty installments for these roaming Indians. It was impossible for the Indians to obey the order. No one of the runners sent out to inform the Indians, was able to return himself by the time appointed; yet Indian women and children were expected to travel a treeless desert, without food or proper clothing, under the penalty of death."

As the order and warning were disregarded by the Indians, the Secretary of the Interior notified the Secretary of War, Feb. 1st, 1876, that "the time given him (Sitting Bull) in which to return to an agency having expired, and advices received at the Indian Office being to the effect that Sitting Bull still refuses to comply with the direction of the Commissioner, the said Indians are hereby turned over to the War Department for such action on the part of the army as you may deem proper under the circumstances."

By direction of Lieut. General Sheridan, Commander over the vast extent of territory included in the Military Division of Missouri, Brig. Gen. George Crook, Commander of the Department of the Platte, an officer of great merit and experience in Indian fighting, now undertook to reduce these Indian outlaws to subjection, and made preparations for an expedition against them.