After the ratification of the Treaty of Ft. Laramie in 1868, the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapahoe believed that they would be left in peace in the area of land called the Great Sioux Reserve. The land comprised that portion of the present State of South Dakota lying west of the Missouri River. The treaty would be respected by the American government for only a short time. By 1872 the area was being surveyed for a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
In 1873 General Phillip H. Sheridan, in command of the Department of Missouri, sought to establish a fort in the Black Hills. In violation of the treaty Colonel George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 and his report suggested that there was gold in the area. In March of 1875 Professor Walter P. Jenney conducted a geological survey of the area and confirmed the reports of gold.
By March of 1876 prospectors were pouring into the Black Hills with 11,000 white men gathered in Custer City. The previous December the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the buffalo hunters to return to their agencies by the end of January. Non-compliant Native Americans would be regarded as hostiles and dealt with by the military.
General George Crook was instructed to force the Native American warriors to comply. Sheridan’s plan was to send one column of soldiers with Crook from Ft. Fetterman northwest, one column with General Alfred Terry from Ft. Abraham Lincoln southwest, and a third column with General Gibbon from Ft. Ellis east.
Crook’s force of 1049 officers and men left Ft. Fetterman on May 29th and fought with Crazy Horse on June 17th in the battle of the Rosebud, which the warriors won.
Generals Terry and Gibbon met up at the mouth of the Rosebud River on June 21st. These two forces comprised 1450 cavalry, infantry and scouts. Terry sent Custer to scout up the Rosebud while taking steamers to ferry across Gibbon’s force, which was to go up the Bighorn and meet with Custer. On the morning of June 22nd Custer set out with 850 men, Indian scouts and guides up the Rosebud. Scouts reported seeing the Sioux camp and the next morning Custer himself was looking down on the encampment. By late morning Custer’s troops moved down the western slope of the Wolf Mountains and out of the plain. He received a report from one of the scouts about the size and position of the Sioux encampment and moved his command down the valley.
Here Major Marcus Reno and Custer separated into two forces. Reno advanced down the left side of the valley. Custer’s command moved down the right side and out on a rising plain. Reno’s troops were still in full view of Custer. As Custer emerged from the valley he lost sight of Reno for a few minutes and then came close to the crest of the hill overlooking the valley. Here he halted and sent scouts ahead. Receiving a signal from the scouts Custer and his staff rode to the top of the summit. He traveled along the ridge for a time and then turned left down a dry creek, called Medicine Tail Coulee. He rode out close to the river, but did not cross. Custer now led his command back up the valley a short distance and turned left.
By now the warriors knew where Custer’s troops were and began crossing the river. Reno had by this time already fought with the warriors and retreated with his men onto the bluffs. The Sioux could give their full attention to Custer and his men. The Sioux attacked. Custer shot at the attackers who were reckless enough to come within range, but the whole movement was a retreat. Whether or not Custer was planning to withdraw far enough from the river to make a stand or had started a retreat to the mountains is not known. The Sioux thought he was trying to reach the mountains and headed him off. The entire command was killed. The date was June 25th.
Two days later General Terry arrived with Gibbon’s men and met with the remains of Reno’s troops. They buried Custer’s two hundred dead, gathered Reno’s wounded and withdrew to the mouth of the Little Bighorn. Terry applied for reinforcements, but the groups of warriors had scattered, each following their own leaders, some back to the reservations. The policy was now to disarm and dismount all of the Native Americans at the agencies.
Sitting Bull and Gall escaped into Canada. Crazy Horse remained with his followers in the Bighorn Mountains until the spring of 1877 when he surrendered. Crazy Horse remained at Ft Robinson under military watch. On September 5, 1877, he resisted arrest and was bayoneted by a sentry.
Gall crossed the border back into the United States in 1881 and met up with General Miles. After stubborn resistance he too surrendered. He lived peaceably on the Standing Rock agency until his death in 1894. Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881. In 1883 he was taken to the Standing Rock agency. During the Ghost Dance incident in 1890, when he was arrested, the great Sioux chief resisted and was killed.