The 1873 Expedition to survey a path along the Yellowstone River for the Northern Pacific Railroad did not get off to an auspicious start.
A few miles outside Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D., a Sioux war party had gathered. Early on the first morning out, June 17, an estimated 50 to 80 warriors skirmished with the surveyors’ military escort.
Gunfire alerted the 40 to 50 Arikara (Ree) scouts assigned to the fort. They charged out to face their Sioux enemies in a running battle that lasted about an hour.
“The Rees brought in two scalps and tails of ponies as trophies of their victory,” reported a Dr. Phelps, who had joined the expedition at the last moment as part of the scientific team exploring the traditional hunting grounds of Northern Plains tribes.
Several accounts of the initial encounter survive, and the Billings team of David Eckroth, Howard Bogess and Mike Penfold has reviewed them all in the course of 10 years of research.
Recently a thick volume of their work, written by Eckroth and reviewed by Bogess and Penfold, has been completed and will be distributed to select libraries and institutions. The project, officially titled “Colonel Stanley and Lt. Col. Custer’s Expedition on the Yellowstone 1873,” was a project of the Frontier Heritage Alliance. Although the three principals were not paid for their work, travel, research and printing of the final document was made possible through grants from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service.
The grants helped the researchers document and map the three-month survey of the Yellowstone and Musselshell regions. Their work will be presented to the Montana Historic Preservation Office as part of a plan to nominate portions of the expedition’s route to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Frontier Heritage Alliance also recommends that two battlefields along the route be nominated as National Landmark Battlefields.
The researchers dug into military and railroad records, as well as journals and private correspondence. Eckroth wove it all together in a 595-page report.
In addition to the latest volume, the Frontier Heritage Alliance has published two previous volumes detailing the failed survey expedition of 1872. The first was an exhaustive study of “Baker’s Battle of the Yellowstone” about a confrontation near Billings. The Sioux combatants included Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, who also menaced the 1873 Expedition.
The second volume, “Sitting Bull’s Fight with Col. Stanley,” details a battle on Aug. 22, 1872, in the O’Fallon Creek Valley between present-day Miles City and Terry. Sitting Bull and Gall attempted to surround Col. David Stanley and his 600 troops in the narrow canyon.
Stanley was back a year later with a Northern Pacific survey crew attempting to complete its work all the way west to Pompeys Pillar, which had been the goal of the 1872 Expedition.
This time, the escort included Civil War hero Lt. Col. George A. Custer and 810 men in the 7th Cavalry. All told, 1,200 cavalry and infantry were joined by another 500 civilian employees, 39 scouts and two newspaper correspondents.
Eckroth’s manuscript documents the simmering conflict between Custer and Stanley, who was is charge of escorting the expedition. The report includes a letter from Stanley to his wife brimming with malice toward Custer.
“He is universally despised by all the officers of his regiment excepting his relatives and one or two sycophants,” Stanley wrote.
Stanley had his critics, too, including those who worried that his excessive drinking could jeopardize the expedition. Custer, who didn’t drink, had little patience with his commanding officer.
Eckroth also reports on the relationship between Custer and Thomas Rosser, the Northern Pacific’s lead engineer. They had been at West Point together and both men had been generals during the Civil War — Custer on the Union side and Rosser on the Confederate.
They had faced each other across many battlefields, but on the 1873 trip enjoyed each other’s company.
“The interview was exceedingly pleasant and deeply interesting,” Phelps wrote of the former foes’ first encounter on the expedition. “Their mutual questions and explanations concerning the many combats to which they had been parties cleared up points, which before were mysterious, and afforded an entertainment to their only auditor on this occasion that was well worth the trip to Dakota to enjoy.”
Eckroth writes in minute detail about the two major encounters with the Sioux that summer. The most dangerous day was probably Aug. 4, when Custer and two companies rode ahead of the escort column to explore an area southwest of present-day Miles City.
Crazy Horse had set a trap using decoys to lure the cavalry into a grove of trees on the banks of the Yellowstone. But Custer did not take the bait. Realizing Custer wouldn’t venture further, about 300 Sioux attacked.
Custer quickly set up defensive lines. Eckroth describes the battle in detail through documents written by the participants, including Custer. Troopers held the Sioux off for hours and were preparing a cavalry charge when reinforcements arrived. Casualties were light on both sides, but it was clear the expedition’s progress would continue to be monitored by the Sioux.
The second battle, also extensively covered in Eckroth’s report, occurred on Aug. 11 near the mouth of the Bighorn River, where Custer had camped. The Sioux had gathered in the early-morning hours and began firing at troops on the opposite side of the river. Custer ordered a detachment of sharpshooters hidden in the trees to return fire.
But more warriors appeared on the side of the river where Custer had set up his defenses. Eckroth covers the action movement by movement, using the words of the soldiers. One soldier was killed and Custer estimated that as many as 40 Sioux died before the warriors withdrew. Custer believed that the hostile force consisted of between 800 to 1,000 warriors. He also noted that the Sioux had been armed with the latest in breech-loading repeating rifles supplied to them at the Indian agencies on the Missouri.
On Aug. 15, the survey party reached its destination — Pompeys Pillar. The next morning, hundred of weary soldiers bathed in the river or dangled fishing line into the low-running water.
About 9 a.m., shots were fired by a small party of warriors across the Yellowstone. The men scrambled out of the river under covering fire from a hastily formed skirmish line. No one was hurt, but the bathers probably never lived down their naked escape.