The Little Bighorn Battlefield is remote. It’s 75 miles north of Sheridan, Wy and 65 miles east of Billings, MT. That’s why I was surprised by the astounding number of travelers there. During Ruth & my visit, I learned that 400,000 people, including many foreigners, come here each year, and I became fascinated by this question, Why is a long-ago battle between the U.S. Army and Northern Plains Native Americans of such great interest to contemporary Americans?”
While there, I was amazed by the fact that the story of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer is both prominent yet treated as only a small part of what led to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The Visitors Center was a very crowded, multi-generational place that clearly stirred high interest. Near it was another surprise, a national cemetery with 5,000 tombstones. It was officially closed for future burials in 1978 except for some already accepted reservations. While Ruth elbowed her way into the standing-room-only film that she later told me was worthwhile, I browse the gift shop. There were so many books about Custer for sale that I began counting them. I stopped at 50. Why is there such interest in a man who lost one of the most controversial battles in American history? I began looking for the answer and discovered that I had to really search for anything about him on these premises.
There seemed to be far more about Tatanka-iyotanka, more commonly known as Sitting Bull, than about Custer. That’s partially because the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is on the Crow Indian Reservation. As a result, visitors have several options. The 2 main ones involve cell phone audio or Apsaalooke tours. The latter depart 5 times daily for 1 hour, complete battlefield excursions with Crow Tribe and other Native American guides.
My tour of the center in search of Custer resulted in lots of info about the people of the Plains, the uses of bison, etc. There was a vivid diorama about Reno’s retreat. And I finally found one about Custer’s debacle. I found “Unraveling the Mystery” the most interesting display. It described Little Bighorn Battlefield excavations in 1984, 1985, and 1989! During them 9,660 artifacts including cartridge cases, wedding rings, coins, etc. were found. The 2nd most interesting display to me was about Custer’s wife Elizabeth, who donated lots of personal items to this battlefield commemoration. After he died at Little Bighorn, she moved to New York City. Lectures and writing kept his memory and her love for him alive. She was his faithful widow for 57 years.
Losing the Battle of Little Bighorn for Custer meant the death of his brother Tom and 211 other men from the 7th Cavalry. An additional 105 from other companies also died. After it, Lakota and Cheyenne families removed their dead, up to 100 bodies. Less than 20 years later the Army erected 249 headstones to show where Custer’s men fell. The Indians won the battle but lost the subsequent war that resulted in the end of their nomadic way of life. One of the biggest contributing factors to the conflict was finding gold in the Black Hills. This led to violations of the Fort Laramie Treaty and a huge influx of gold seekers who weren’t concerned about Native American rights.
Many myths and legends have emerged from this one historical incident. Because the story keeps growing, it continues to generate great interest among travelers who stream to a remote, windswept corner of Montana and treat it like they would a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.