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The path to Custer’s last stand

March 31, 2013
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

In 1874, George Custer, while on a reconnaissance mission with his cavalry reported the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the last stronghold of the Sioux Indians. While prospectors poured onto Indian land, angry warriors raided white settlements.

Finally in December 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sent an ultimatum to agents on the Sioux Reservation, "Sir, I am instructed by the Hon. Secretary of the Interior to direct you to notify Sitting Bull's band of Sioux Indians residing without the bounds of their reservations who roam over Western Dakota and Eastern Montana, that unless they shall remove within the bounds of their reservation (and remain there) before the 31st of the next January, they shall be deemed hostile and treated accordingly by the military force."

The agents dispatched runners through the snow to bring the word to the tribal chiefs, but the Indian leaders refused to move their people upon this demand. By the next spring many smaller Sioux bands had collected into a single body, mustering between 1,500 and 2,500 Indians. Together, still free, and in a fighting mood, they would show the whites for all time what it meant to be an Indian warrior. And that began the final chapter of General George Custer's career and his life.

Custer's plan was to beat the plains warriors by "fighting the devil with fire." By this he meant using other Indians to scout against the bands of Sioux and the cavalry could then destroy them. This was not divide and conquer. The plains Indians had never been unified, his army merely capitalized on the long standing animosities between tribes. Most scouts came from reservation Indians who were just anxious to earn their $13 a month, get off the reservation and get a little revenge on their old blood enemies. Although the scouts formally enlisted in the army, the white soldiers did the actual fighting. All the Scouts had to do was trail the enemy and locate his camps. Once the battle erupted the scouts' only further duty was to cripple the enemy by stampeding his horses.

In his war with the Sioux, Custer used Crow and Arikara scouts. Had he taken their advice he never would have rushed the Indian forces at Little Big Horn. Days before the battle his scouts knew they were on the trail of the bulk of the Teton Nation. Bloody Knife, Custer's most trusted scout repeatedly warned him that there were too many Sioux. But Long Hair as Custer was called, pushed on, fearing only that the Sioux would escape. As it turned out, that was the one thing he need not have feared.



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