The significance of the Battle of Little Bighorn extends well beyond the immediate outcome of the conflict. This consequential showdown between Native American tribes and United States forces encapsulates the height of struggle for control over the Great Plains. Painted against a backdrop of tension, the resounding Native American victory underscored their fortitude in repelling encroachment upon their lands, while simultaneously foreshadowing a devastating aftermath for the indigenous tribes – an ultimate defeat and relegation to reservations. It stands as a pivotal yet paradoxical chapter in their resistance; a poignant triumph followed by the erosion of freedom and age-old traditions.

In 1868, an all-too-fleeting tranquility settled upon the western front of the Missouri River. The notable Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by tribal leaders of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, gestated the Great Sioux Reserve within modern-day South Dakota, conceived in hubristic perpetuity. However, the ink scarcely dried before the looming breakdown of the treaty, accelerated by the interests of the railroad expansion and the insatiable hunger for progress.

Colonel George A. Custer's fateful expedition in 1874, with intent to establish a fort, unexpectedly birthed a gold discovery in the Black Hills, igniting a feverish gold rush. With swarms of settlers invading the sacred territory, the U.S. government's efforts to purchase the Black Hills were vehemently rebuffed by the Lakota—no monetary worth could compensate for the spiritual value of their consecrated land.

The frigid winter of 1875 brought forth a scathing ultimatum from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the tribal nations, demanding their relocation to reservations. The lack of a Native American response ushered in military intervention, culminating in a mustering of forces along the frontier. On the evening before destiny would unfold, June 24, 1876, Custer positioned the 7th Cavalry Regiment for what would become known in history as the Battle of Little Bighorn. His scouts, the Crow and Arikara, provided intelligence of the nearby Native American encampment, prompting a critical decision by Custer to initiate a pre-emptive strike.

Facing an underestimated force of 1,500-1,800 Native American warriors amongst an 8,000-strong village, Custer intended to lie in wait. Yet, reports of their compromised stealth led him to order an immediate attack. Marching into the expanse, Custer split his men into four cohorts, directing Captain Frederick Benteen to probe the south-western flank, while he and Reno approached the village. Amidst unfolding chaos, as Reno commenced an attack on the southern end of the camp, the warriors—reacting swiftly—repelled his advance.

Amidst a barrage of gunfire and the vigor of mounted attackers, Reno's men, dismounted and entrenched in timber, were ultimately outflanked, forcing a harried and fatal retreat to the bluffs east of the river. Benteen, returning without any sightings of enemy movement, met Reno's battered remnants atop what would become known as Reno Hill.


Top photo: "The Custer Fight," by artist Charles Marion Russell (1864–1926). Lithograph showing the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side. Source: Wikimedia, in the Public Domain.

Middle photo: "Custer's Last Stand" by artist Edgar Samuel Paxson (1852–1919) oil on canvas painted in 1899. Source: Wikimedia, in the Public Domain.

Bottom photo: Montana, 6 July 2017. Monuments to where those at the Battle of the Little Bighorn fell. Spot where General George Armstrong Custer fell is denoted in black on marker in the center of image. Source: Wikimedia, in the Public Domain.


Unbeknownst to Reno and Benteen, Custer had begun a parallel thrust northward. Evidence, both archaeological and derived from Native accounts, paints a harrowing picture of the battle’s climax. Custer's encounter at Medicine Tail Coulee set ablaze a series of skirmishes. Forced back to Custer Ridge, his command splintered under relentless onslaught. The troops fanned across the battlefield—from Calhoun Hill, along Custer Ridge, to the infamous Last Stand Hill, a site immortalized by its desperate name, where the final resistance and moments of Custer’s command played out.

12432752864?profile=RESIZE_710xThe Sacred Hills, the flashpoint for war, were enveloped in silence as the U.S. government resolved to subjugate the Native American populace, demilitarizing and dispossessing them in earnest. The leaders, once victors of Little Bighorn, faced divergent destinies. Some sought refuge in Canada, others fell or surrendered—each sealing their place in historical narrative. The victorious tribes dispersed, as the U.S. took possession of the Black Hills. Yet, a reckoning in federal courts came on June 30, 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled over $105 million in reparations for the wrongful annexation of the Black Hills, affirming the Sioux’s rightful claim dating back to the Treaty of Fort Laramie—an adjudication echoing justice but distanced by the gaps of a century.

The exact number of warriors who fought against the 7th Cavalry has been a subject of ongoing debate. While estimates have varied widely, ranging from an improbable 30,000 to a conservative 800, the reality likely aligns more closely with the Army's initial estimates from early 1876, which anticipated between 2,000 and 3,000 warriors on the battlefield. These figures prompted Major General Terry to request the deployment of the entire 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment for the upcoming campaign, arguing that the projected warrior count would overwhelm the 550 cavalrymen currently under his command in the Department as of February 1876. Terry's assessment that his forces were insufficient proved tragically accurate, as the Regiment, led by Custer, numbered only 565 men on the fateful day of June 25, 1876. Contemporary analyses generally place the number of opposing warriors between 1,000 and 1,500.

Determining the precise number of casualties among the warriors who bravely defended their families proved to be an even more challenging task. Not only were the numbers available by tribe, but also the names of the fallen. The entire basis for this list stems from the testimony of Native Americans, soldiers, and the meticulous research and analysis conducted by Richard G. Hardorff. Hardorff's contributions to the study of this battle and its participants are unparalleled. He stands as one of the few non-Native scholars who have skillfully and insightfully utilized Native American testimony. Father Peter Powell also deserves recognition, particularly for his work on the history of the Cheyenne Nation. His acclaimed book, "People of the Sacred Mountain," garnered several major literary and historical awards and remains a highly sought-after reference on Native American history. Dr. Kenneth Hammer's "Custer in '76" was the first significant publication to feature the Walter Camp collections. Walter Camp dedicated years to interviewing participants and survivors from both sides, and his notes and observations continue to provide a rich source for research.

The number of casualties, stated with a reasonable degree of certainty, includes 31 warriors, six women, and four children who lost their lives on June 25 and 26, 1876. Estimates have varied widely, ranging from 11 to "hundreds," but after reconciling the various names with known listings and testimonies, the figure of "around 30" appears most frequently. While other names remain under investigation, even if verified, they would only slightly increase the total.

Ethnologist George B. Grinnell, who worked with the Northern Cheyenne people following their return to the north, estimated that approximately 40-45 Northern Cheyenne individuals succumbed to disease and illness in Oklahoma. This was a primary factor in their decision to flee from the area. Grinnell emphasizes that this number of deaths surpassed the number of lives lost during the Great Sioux War. Records show that the Cheyenne suffered two battle deaths at the Rosebud, seven at the Little Big Horn, six at Slim Buttes, and 25 during the destruction of Dull Knife's village.

12432752682?profile=RESIZE_710xRecent attempts to incorporate more Native American oral history into the interpretation of the battle at the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument involved locating rock cairns believed to mark warrior death sites. These cairns are small piles of rocks supposedly linked to individual deaths. Although over 200 such cairns were identified by survey flags, no testimony or artistic depiction mentions such a large number. Previously, only around 20 cairns had been identified, with some cases connecting them to specific individuals. At present, the accounts and artwork from those who witnessed the events do not support the existence of such a high number.



"The Battle of Greasy Grass | In Custodia Legis." The Library of Congress. Last modified June 25, 2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2020/06/the-battle-of-greasy-grass/.

"Indian Casualties of the Little Big Horn Battle 25-26 June 1876." The Little Bighorn History Alliance. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://littlebighorn.info/Articles/IndianCasualties.pdf.

"June 25, 1876: Battle of the Greasy Grass (Battle of Little Big Horn)." Zinn Education Project. Last modified January 31, 2023. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/battle-little-big-horn/.

"Rare Indigenous Eyewitness Account of Battle of the Little Bighorn Found in Ontario." CBC. Last modified April 1, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/battle-little-bighorn-letter-brampton-1.6404159.

You need to be a member of War History Network to add comments!

Join War History Network

Votes: 0
Email me when people reply –