Thursday, June 30, 2005

Little Bighorn, Montana to Devil's Tower, Wyoming

11:30 p.m. KOA Campground, Devil’s Tower Wyoming

$25.00 to stay here, but at 10:00 p.m., I was lucky to find anything.

Montana highway 212 from Broadus to Alzada, about 60 miles, was one of the most dangerous I’ve experienced. Tall thick grass encroaching on the road’s shoulder and more deer and elk than I’ve ever seen in a stretch. The grass was so high, I often could not see the animals until they raised their heads.

From the markings on the pavement, collisions are common. I slowed to 60 in the 70 mph zone, then a semi came up on me. Realizing I would be unable to make an emergency stop with him there, I pulled close to the shoulder to encourage him to go around. Once he passed, I stayed fairly near. The truck was effective in flushing out the animals. At least then I could see which way they were moving.

20 miles of construction, with gravel and freshly-laid chip made other parts of 212 "interesting".

Outside the Custer Battlefield Museum at Garryowen, Montana. I hadn't realized that in a move of political correctness, Congress authorized the renaming of the site from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn National Monument, in recognition of the Indian tribes who also fought.


A warm day in store.

Stopped in Garryowen, 3 miles from the campground. Filled up on gas, then paid $4 to see the Garryowen Museum, devoted to the Indian Wars, particularly the Battle of Little Bighorn. I'm starting to learn some of the history, most of which was omitted from school studies. Watched a video from a TV series "Unexplained Phenomena." A gallery features photos from the era, military gear and Indian clothing, weapons and tools. "Garryowen", an old Irish tune, was 7th Cavalry regimental marching song.

Followed Chip's advice and visited the Trading Post prior to heading into the monument. The Crow Tacos are made with a shell of Crow Indian fry bread. Pretty tasty.

As I was dining, police from the Crow Agency came in and took a table. It is interesting to be a visitor on THEIR land.

The entrance to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is at the north end of the battlefield, just below "Last Stand Hill." The ill-fated raid actually started 5 or 6 miles south of this point. (It is interesting that the National Battlefield focuses on the locations where soldiers fell, and does not include the site of the Indian encampment, where the troops initiated the assault.)

A road follows the ridgeline to the southernmost point, abreast of where Major Reno's troops first engaged warriors in the valley. From here, you can work backwards, following the chronology of the attack.

It is said that 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho, including 1,500 to 2,000 warriors camped below “Greasy Grass” (Little Bighorn). They had refused to remain on reservations and wanted to pursue their traditional nomadic lifestyle.

One chief stated that when his people "crossed the divide" (the mountains to the east) they believed they would live in peace, the white man in his territory and the Sioux in this valley. They never thought the military would attack such a large encampment.

Custer ordered Reno to charge the village from the south, but instead of advancing into the village, Reno established a "skirmish line" below the village. Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Chiefs Gall, Crazy Horse, Two Moons and Sitting Bull ("Tatanka Yotanka") rushed out to meet the attack, and quickly sent Reno's men into retreat, warriors riding in among the fleeing troops, knocking many from their horses.

A view from "Reno Hill". Custer ordered Major Reno and his troops to attack the Indian Village from the south (left side here). The village was in the far right distance. Reno's forces were overtaken and routed, escaping across the river and up this ravine to the hilltop I was standing on.

Surviving soldiers managed to ascend bluffs and gain a ridgeline position, where they were besieged for two days. Meanwhile, Custer had continued north with other companies. He planned to have part of his force sweep down "Medicine Tail Coulee," ford the Little Bighorn and charge the village, in a flanking movement to complement Reno's (failed) offense.

Custer's troops came down to the Little Bighorn along Medicine Tail Coulee, flowing out of the hills onto the plain.

At the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee, the Little Bighorn is just before the treeline. This is where Custer's troops would have first engaged the warriors.

Being surprised by the overwhelming counterattack, the Custer's troops scrambled up this ravine to the ridgeline beyond.

The troops, who were under full attack moved north along the ridgeline. The marble markers show where soldiers fell.

The markers state simply: "A 7th Cavalry Soldier Fell Here June 25, 1876"

Memorials to the fallen Sioux were recently added.

Custer, with several companies, was to take a ridge further north. But the Indians reacted swiftly to news of advancing troops. They pinned Reno, then encircled both phalanxes of Custer's troops.

View looking southwest from "Last Stand Hill". Custer's marker is left center.

Custer's marker.

The Indians had new Winchester repeating rifles, supplied by the U.S. government for hunting buffalo. In close-quarter fighting, these proved devastating. The Cavalry carbines and pistols were no match.

Sculpture in the new Indian memorial.

Late in the battle, at least 28 soldiers made a frantic attempt to reach the Little Bighorn. They broke from Custer's command and ran down "Deep Ravine", where their bodies were found, mostly in a heap. According to one Indian account, this group was in a panic, running from "Last Stand Hill”, trying to reach the river. "They were moving their arms like they were running, but they were only walking."

This path leads from the ravine up to "Last Stand Hill". Over 50 markers line the path.

28 soldiers, trying to make a dash for the river, were surrounded and killed in this ravine.

In the desperate battle, all 200 of Custer's men were lost. Reno and Benteen lost 53 troops. It is estimated between 40 and 100 Lakota and Sioux died.

A powerful experience to walk these hills, so peaceful and pastoral now. And strange to think a nation memorializes one participant, while (until recently) overlooking the others' loss.

These were indeed the final days of the Great Sioux Nation. "Manifest Destiny" and the greed-driven "Gold Fever" were bringing an end to the nomadic tradition.

I had pulled to the side of the road to read one of the historical markers and take a photo when I knocked my glasses off the seat of the bike. They fell to the pavement and one of the lenses shattered. This was very disappointing. They go on and off many times a day – when taking off or putting on my helmet, taking photos, etc., etc. I expected this to happen eventually, just not this early into the journey. Though I carry two extra pair, these were my only "progressive lens" glasses.

This highway worker said she's from "the Crow Agony" - the Crow Agency.

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