The Little Bighorn Battlefield is one of the most important places for both American history and the history of the Native Peoples that live in Montana, Wyoming, and even South and North Dakota.
This National Monument preserves the history of one of the last battles between the Lakota and Cheyenne peoples and the US Army.
It is a beautiful yet somber reminder of the sacrifices that were made in the efforts for western expansion in the United States.
History of Little Bighorn Battlefield
The Little Bighorn Battlefield is one of the most controversial places in the United States.
This grassy hillside in southern Montana is the location of one of the greatest defeats of the US Army’s cavalry, and while a massive victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, one of the final stands against the US government’s attempt to sequester native peoples to reservations across the country.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was the culmination of many years of tension between the Lakota peoples and the United States government.
The US Government wanted to take up non-nomadic lifestyles, sequestered to a single large reservation in what is modern-day western South Dakota.
While some Lakota accepted this change, many tribal units rejected the reservation and continued to live nomadically in the plains stretching across the northern part of the United States.
Lakota, Cheyenne, and other peoples who had worked to peacefully negotiate terms with the US Government rejected a final offer from the United States to purchase the Black Hills.
In the winter of 1875, following failed negotiations, all Sioux peoples were told to report to a reservation by the end of January 1876. The Sioux in large part rejected this demand and were then deemed as ‘hostiles’ against the US Government.
Throughout 1876, many small skirmishes between native peoples and the US Army occurred. The US Army was led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
Custer and his troops arrived at the Little Bighorn River on June 24, 1876, his Crow scouts informed him that there was a very large encampment of Lakota on the opposite side of the river.
It was believed that the encampment was only women, children, and elderly individuals and that they could be easily captured and held for ransom.
On June 25, Custer’s troops began their assault on the encampment, at Reno Creek, named for Major Marcus Reno, who led the first attack on the Lakota encampment.
Reno’s attempt at a surprise assault on the Lakota was thwarted when their shots into the camp were met by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Suffering substantial casualties, Reno and his troops retreated.
In retaliation for the attack on Reno, Custer sent his command into the valley where the encampment was located.
There are few accounts of what occurred in the valley, but archaeological evidence indicates that the Lakota and Cheyenne, who were quite familiar with the area, were able to effectively attack the remnants of the 7th Cavalry Division. The extent of the battle occurred between the afternoon of June 25th and the evening of June 26th.
What we do know of the final battle between the 7th Calvary and the Lakota and Cheyenne is that over the course of two days 268 US soldiers were killed and at least 55 were severely wounded.
Support troops located the bodies of between 40 and 50 of the last soldiers to attempt to retreat from the valley, including that of Lt. Col. Custer.
This site is known as “Custer’s Last Stand” as it is where he and his troops, while retreating made one final stand to stop the onslaught of fire from the Lakota and Cheyenne.
Not long after the battle, the site was memorialized as a monument to the US Soldiers who had died in the Battle at Little Bighorn.
Newspapers and survivors turned the battle from a fight for the rights of native peoples to a savage attack on an Army Cavalry regiment.
For many years, the site stood as a memorial to the US Soldiers only. However, today, with a greater understanding of the battle and archaeological research that tells a larger story, the site is now a memorial to both the men of the US Army and the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors that fought to protect their people.
In 1940 the site was transferred to the National Park Service from the US Department of War, and in 1946, it was renamed “Custer Battlefield National Monument.”
In 1991, after significant protests by the American Indian Movement, and many other tribal organizations, the site was renamed “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument,” and now serves to honor both the Cavalry soldiers and the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors that lost their lives along the Little Bighorn River in 1876.
What To Do at the Little Bighorn Battlefield
Little Bighorn National Battlefield is a substantial sight, and there are plenty of things to do while visiting the site.
This isn’t a typical National Park or Monument, so you might find that there are fewer opportunities for activities. Regardless, there are still some interesting things to do while visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Drive the Tour Road
Tour Road is a 4.5-mile road that serves as a self-guided tour of the entire site. The Tour Road begins at the Battlefield visitor’s center and travels along the east side of the Little Bighorn River.
Along the road, there are numerous pull-offs where you can read about important places within the battlefield, and interesting bits of history about the location and important people involved in the Battle at Little Bighorn.
The National Park Service has also set up a guided narrative of the Tour Road that you can access using your cellphone. If you are looking for a bit of exercise, you can also walk the Tour Road.
Take a Guided Tour
The Apsaalooke Tour company, owned and operated by the Crow Tribe offers a guided bus tour of the battlefield.
The Crow were active participants in the Battle of Little Bighorn, and their tour of the battlefield provides a different perspective than what you may experience on the Tour Road.
The bus tour is a one-hour drive that starts at the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, which is where the Battle of Little Bighorn actually started.
Guides from the Crow Tribe will share their tribe’s interpretation of the battle and how the Battle was experienced by the native peoples involved in the fight.
To take the tour, reservations are required. The bus picks up at the Visitor Center parking lot. The cost for the tour is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors (65 & up) and $5 for children (4 to 12).
Hike the Deep Ravine Trail
The Deep Ravine Trail was originally established when Army personnel entered the battle site to assess casualties and bury the dead.
The trail travels from the ridge above the river to the area known as the Deep Ravine. The Deep Ravine is where the last shots of the Battle of Little Bighorn occurred.
Along the trail, you’ll notice white and red granite markers. The white markers indicate the places where Cavalrymen were buried, and the red mark the places where Lakota and Cheyenne warriors were buried.
At the end of the trail are a few interpretive signs with information on the last moments of the battle.
Visit the Museum and Visitor Center
The Little Bighorn National Battlefield visitor center is a great place to start your visit.
Inside the visitor center, you’ll find a nice museum that has plenty of information about the history of the Native peoples of the area, the conflicts between European settlers moving west across the continent, and of course the story of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
While you are in the Visitor Center, stop and watch the video, “Triumph and Tragedy Along the Little Bighorn”, which provides additional information about the battle and the lasting effects of western expansion on tribes across the United States.
Watch a Reenactment
Though not located at the Battlefield site itself, there is a private company that does reenactments of key parts of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
These reenactments occur annually on the days the battle was originally fought. Beginning at 1 PM on June 24th and extending through June 26, the reenactment is a joint effort between residents in the area and members of the Crow Tribe.
What to See at the Little Bighorn Battlefield
When you are visiting Little Bighorn National Battlefield, there are a few things that you cannot miss seeing. These features are some of the most important at the site and are important to telling the history of the site.
Last Stand Hill
Last Stand Hill is the most well-known part of the Little Bighorn National Monument. This hill is where Lt. Col. Custer and his men made one last stand against the Lakota and Cheyenne.
The hill is dotted with white headstones that mark the locations where Army soldiers were buried. If you look closely at the headstones, you’ll notice one that has a distinctive black background.
This is the headstone for Lt. Col. Custer died. While the Battle of the Little Bighorn was spread across two days and a much larger area, it is this area that gives the battle its other name, “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Seventh Cavalry Monument and Indian Memorial
Located at the top of Last Stand Hill is a large granite monument that is dedicated to the soldiers of the Army’s 7th Cavalry. This memorial lists the names of all of the men who died during the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Below the Calvary Monument is the Indian Memorial. This memorial was constructed in the 1990s when the site became a National Battlefield and the narrative at the site was updated to include the efforts of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe peoples that fought against the US Army in an attempt to save their way of life and protect their families from the attacks of the 7th Calvary.
Reno-Benteen Memorial and Trail
The Reno-Benteen Memorial marks the spot where Majors Reno and Benteen set up a defensive perimeter to protect the remnants of their regiments from the attacking Lakota.
The Lakota had set up on the bluffs above the troops and at the end of the day on June 25th, attacked the soldiers by firing down on them.
The assault on this entrenchment lasted until the next day when the Lakota and Cheyenne retreated after handing the 7th Cavalry a substantial loss.
The Memorial marks the spot where Reno and Benteen attempted to protect their remaining troops.
Best Time to Visit Little Bighorn Battlefield
The Little Bighorn National Battlefield is open year-round, and it is located near the junction of I-90 and Highway 212. Visiting this National Monument is an option any time of the year if you are passing through.
However, weather conditions in the winter make the wide open expanse of the prairie a cold and windy spot to walk around.
The best time to visit the Battlefield is late May through early October. During this time the weather is more agreeable, and you’ll enjoy walking the trails through the battlefield in the warm sunshine.
Many people that are history enthusiasts enjoy visiting during late June. There is a reenactment company that put on a full reenactment of the battle from June 24 through June 26.
Why is Little Bighorn Battlefield Significant?
There are plenty of battlefields remaining that tell the story of the fight between the United States and Native Peoples. However, the Battle of Little Bighorn is probably the most significant of these battlefields.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was a substantial victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes that had rejected the US government’s attempts to place them on reservations.
However, this battle also represented the end of the Lakota and Cheyenne’s attempts to remain living freely as a nomadic people.
Following the Battle of Little Bighorn, the US Army became more aggressive at fighting the Tribes, and eventually, they were forced onto reservations in the Dakota Territory which includes the states of Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming.
Little Bighorn Battlefield Conclusion
The Little Bighorn National Battlefield is an important site that memorializes the efforts of both the US Government and the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Tribes during the Battle of Little Bighorn.
A National Cemetery and important historical site, the Battlefield is a must-see for anyone traveling through southern Montana.
It tells the story of one of the most important days in American History and the westward expansion.