Blackfoot, chief of the Mountain Crow, had plenty to trouble him on April 8, 1876, when Col. John Gibbon rode out of a wet spring blizzard and into the Crow Agency compound on the Rosebud Creek near present-day Absarokee.
He was old then, just a year from his death. His 6-foot, 5-inch frame had shrunk with 81 winters, but other Crow chiefs gathered there by the agency superintendent still deferred to him.
Known to his people as Sits In The Middle Of The Land, Blackfoot would speak first when the chiefs convened the next day to hear Gibbon’s request for Crow scouts.
“If the Crows want to make war upon the Sioux, now is their time,” the commander at Fort Ellis near Bozeman told the chiefs through an interpreter. “If they want to drive them from this country and prevent them from sending war parties into their (Crow) country to murder their men, now is the time.”
His words were written down by one of Montana’s earliest historians, Lt. James Bradley, who recorded the speech and the chiefs’ replies in his notes of the meeting.
Blackfoot understood that times were irrevocably changing and probably believed that the fate of his people hung in the balance. Sioux and Cheyenne enemies pushed by the momentum of white expansion encroached ever eastward into what was once Crow Country. Smallpox and constant warfare had whittled away the Crow population. Many desparate battles had the Crow defending themselves against Sioux and Cheyenne forces that far outnumbered them.
The old chief told Gibbon that a decision could not be rushed. The chiefs must talk among themselves. Bradley wrote later that Blackfoot “spoke for some time in an animated manner with impressive gestures.” When the chiefs finished, Blackfoot shook hands with the officers and “gathered up his robe about him leaving one arm exposed and free, and with easy dignity and grace, spoke.”
“We want our reservation to be large. We want to go on eating buffalo,
and so we hold fast to the whites,” Blackfoot orated. “Our young men are before you, but they will not listen to what I say. If you want them to go with you, I would like them to go. But if I tell them to go, they will not obey.”
Other chiefs, including Mountain Pocket, Iron Bull and Old Crow, were even less enthusiastic, telling Gibbon the young men should not go.
As the meeting drew to its close, Gibbon said he would give Crow warriors two days to decide. Bradley reported that many came forward that night.
Twenty-three Crows and white men married into the tribe were “sworn in on the point of a knife — said to be a binding oath among them,” he wrote.
Bradley, who was appointed chief of scouts, said most of the volunteers were young, but that two were middle-aged and two were over 60. They were enlisted as privates and received the same compensation as the soldiers — $13 a month.
Among those who volunteered were six who were later attached to Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s command as the 7th Cavalry rode to Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 — Half Yellow Face, Whiteman Runs Him (also spelled White Man Runs Him), White Swan, Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead and Curley (also spelled Curly).
Half Yellow Face, oldest of these six scouts, was the pipe carrier, said Marvin Dawes, a member of the Crow Tribe and ranger for interpretation at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. As pipe carrier, Half Yellow Face would be their leader. Curley, the most controversial in the battle’s aftermath, was, at 17, the youngest.
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Still three months from that encounter, Bradley and the scouts rode in advance of Gibbon’s Montana Column composed of the 7th Infantry and the 2nd Cavalry from Fort Ellis and Fort Shaw. They ranged far and wide across Eastern Montana and back again, waiting for the arrival of Custer’s column and another from Wyoming. The three columns were to corral free-roaming Sioux and Cheyenne, probably somewhere near the Bighorn River, and force them onto reservations. It isn’t clear why Gibbon’s Montana Column was in the field so far in advance of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, which didn’t even begin its westward march from Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck until two months later.
Not until June 21 did Gibbon’s column meet Custer’s regiment on the Yellowstone River near the mouth of the Rosebud, where the supply steamer Far West was moored.
Aboard ship, the commanders laid their plans. The Crow scouts were convinced the enemy would be found on the Little Bighorn. Gibbon would approach from the Bighorn, while Custer and the 7th Cavalry would advance from Rosebud Creek in Eastern Montana.
Before Custer moved out at noon on June 22, six of Gibbon’s Crow scouts were assigned to his regiment. Goes Ahead said Custer told the scouts, “If we win the fight, everything belonging to the enemy you can take home, for my boys have no use for these things.”
In a last letter to his wife, Custer reported that his Crow scouts were “magnificent-looking men, so much handsomer and more Indian-like than any we have ever seen, and jolly and supportive; nothing of the gloomy silent red man about them.”
But by the first night out, the scouts were starting to feel the weight of what lay ahead. Lt. Edward Godfrey reported that in the dark of June 22 he visited their camp. Half Yellow Face and Bloody Knife, chief of the Arikara scouts, were conversing with Mitch Bouyer, a mixed-race interpreter.
Bouyer asked the officer if he had fought the Sioux before and how many he expected to find. Godfrey said he estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 Sioux, and assured the scouts they could handle that many. The biggest fear of the government at the time was that the Indians would melt away into the prairie — not that they would resist.
“Well, I can tell you we are going to have a damned big fight,” Bouyer responded.
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On the morning of June 23, Custer’s column came across the first deserted Sioux camp and stopped at two more during the day. The scouts, who could read the signs, now understood that the enemy force, strengthened by young men who had slipped away from agencies in the Dakotas, would be formidable. The trail left by the enemy force was so large, even Custer admitted to his striker that there would be more Indians than he figured.
The next day they found fresh trails coming from the east and more deserted enemy camps, including one much larger than the others. The frame of Sitting Bull’s sun dance lodge was still standing, Godfrey said, and the scalp of a white man was hung from the center pole. At this camp, Sitting Bull had a vision of a great victory.
The spiritual power conjured by the great Sioux medicine man lingered as the scouts warily examined the site. It was clear to them that the enemy knew soldiers were coming, that they expected a battle and that they were confident of a victory.
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Godfrey described the march from the sun dance site as “tedious.”
“We made many long halts so as not to get ahead of the scouts, who seemed to be doing their work thoroughly,” he wrote.
Smoke signals were reported, but could not be confirmed. Near sundown, after a march of 28 miles replete with signs of an immense movement of people and ponies, Custer went into camp for a few hours’ sleep. He expected to resume pursuit later that night.
It would be a difficult march through a moonless night. Half Yellow Face guided the column about eight miles closer to a lookout now called Crows Nest. Custer halted about 2 on the morning of the 25th to let the struggling pack train catch up.
The Crow scouts rode to the Crows Nest and waited there until the sun rose.
“As soon as it became light enough to see, we could make out smoke from the Sioux camp on the Little Horn Valley and could see some white horses on the other side of the Little Horn River,” Whiteman Runs Him recalled many years later.
When Custer arrived, Whiteman Runs Him went to meet him. Custer dismounted and climbed to the lookout, but couldn’t see any sign of a large village. Finally, when handed a field glass, he observed what was likely a large pony herd.
The Crow scouts believed that earlier that morning, the troops’ presence had been discovered by Sioux traveling toward the Little Bighorn camp. Custer’s plan to lay low and attack the next day was no good, the scouts told him.
“We scouts thought there were too many Indians for Custer to fight,” Whiteman Runs Him said in a 1919 interview. “There were camps and camps and camps. I would say there were between 4,000 and 5,000 warriors, maybe more. I do not know. If we had not seen the two Sioux scouts earlier in the morning, I would have advised Custer to hide at this point all day and then surprise the camp at night, but since these scouts had seen the soldiers, it was no use to wait longer.”
Believing he had no choice, Custer forged ahead with his exhausted command. While the troopers expected a quick victory and an end to the long campaign, the scouts sang their death songs.
The Crow scouts, who knew the country well, advised Custer to approach the Little Bighorn from Reno Creek. Whiteman Runs Him said that the troopers rode down the creek at a trot. Nearing the Little Bighorn, Custer made another fateful decision — he divided his command in three parts. Three companies under Capt. Frederick Benteen were sent a scout to ridges on the left to size up the village and report. Three more companies under second-in-command Maj. Marcus Reno would stay parallel to Custer and his five companies as they approached the village.
Half Yellow Face, leader of the Crow scouts, objected.
“There are too many of the enemy for us, even if we stay together,” he warned. “If you must fight, keep us all together.”
Custer brushed off the scout’s warning. Half Yellow Face started to strip off his soldier clothing and paint his face for battle.
“You and I are going home today, and by a trail that is strange to us both,” the scout said.
As they approached the Little Bighorn, Custer ordered Reno to the south bank of the river to attack the village. Half Yellow Face and White Swan charged with Reno and the Arikara scouts in apparent misunderstanding of their orders.
Goes Ahead, Whiteman Runs Him, Hairy Moccasin and Curley stayed with Custer. The four scouts and interpreter Mitch Bouyer rode ahead of the soldiers, Hairy Moccasin said in a 1916 interview. Custer yelled at them to stop and ride to a high hill to see what progress Reno was making on his assault on Sitting Bull’s camp circle.
Hairy Moccasin told Custer “Reno’s men are fighting hard,” though he believed at the time they would all be killed. He recalled that Custer told Bouyer to send the scouts back to the back train several miles behind. Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead and Whiteman Runs Him obeyed. The pack train later joined Benteen’s command and what remained of Reno’s after its wild retreat across the river and onto the high bluffs.
White Swan and Half Yellow Face, who had gone with Reno, remained in the valley during the retreat, firing from the cover of a small wood.
Curley had decided to stick with Bouyer a little longer. Finally, Bouyer, who died with Custer, encouraged Curley to leave. Curley said Bouyer told him “You are very young — you do not know much about fighting. I am going to advise you to leave us and if you can get away by detouring and keeping out of the way of the Sioux, do so and go to the other soldiers and tell them that all are killed.”
What Curley saw and what he actually said are matters of dispute. He has been described as the only witness to the deaths of Custer and 220 of the men in his command. His statements were dismissed by his fellow scouts, who said he had not been in the fight and did not see any part of it. Curley purportedly told many versions of what happened. Each interview was interpreted with varying degrees of accuracy and perspective.
Curley probably left before Custer rode into history. One version of his story says that he found a dead Sioux and took his gun and a blanket that would serve as a disguise through a landscape swarming with Sioux and Cheyenne. He stopped at a hill more than a mile away and probably was able to see enough to understand Custer was doomed, said John Doerner, retired chief historian at the battlfield.
“I’m adamant that his account is accurate,” he said. “He was there the longest. I think he was a brave scout. I think he told the truth.”
Meanwhile White Swan, Half Yellow Face and the Arikara scouts were still fighting in the Little Bighorn valley. White Swan had been badly wounded. The other scouts helped him mount a horse, and they all set off across the river toward the position Reno and Benteen had established on the bluffs above. The soldiers on the bluff fired over them at the pursuing Sioux.
After Custer’s command was destroyed, the Sioux and Cheyenne turned their attentions to Reno and Benteen, pinned down about five miles away.
In an interview years later, Private Dennis Lynch told battle historian Walter Mason Camp that he saw White Swan, who couldn’t walk because of his wounds, grabbing grass and pulling himself up to the skirmish line to continue to fight. Each time the soldiers would drag him away to safer ground, they would find him trying to get back into the fight. Half Yellow Face also joined the soldiers on the firing lines.
Hairy Moccasin, Whiteman Runs Him and Goes Ahead decided to slip away from the Reno-Benteen stronghold as soon as it became dark, believing they would be killed in a Sioux charge if they stayed.
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The next morning, Bradley and Crow scouts who had remained with Gibbon’s column were reconnoitering on the Bighorn River ahead of the Montana Column, which was on its way to the planned rendezvous with Custer. Soon the scouting party noticed three warriors watching their movements.
Bradley signaled that they were friends and the three, who were on the opposite side of the swollen river, came down to talk. They were recognized as Crow scouts who had been assigned to Custer. Little Face, one of the Crow scouts with the Montana Column, shouted across the Bighorn at Hairy Moccasin, Whiteman Runs Him and Goes Ahead on the other side.
Bradley said that when his scouts returned, they were crying and wailing, mourning the dead. The three Custer scouts probably believed that White Swan and Half Yellow Face, who had stayed behind with Reno and Benteen, had been killed or soon would be. Both, however, survived.
“Little Face in particular wept with a bitterness of anguish such as I have rarely seen,” Bradley wrote. “For a while he could not speak, but at last composed himself and told his story in a choking voice, broken with frequent sobs.”
But commanders of the Montana Column refused to accept that Custer and his troops had been wiped out; they thought the scouts had lied.
Curley, meanwhile, was making his way to the Bighorn near the mouth of the Little Bighorn where the steamer Far West was now anchored. He emerged from the brush about 11 a.m. on June 27 — on the day the Montana Column arrived at the battlefield to discover the scope of the disaster.
No one on board understood what he was trying to communicate. Grant Marsh, captain of the steamer, recalled that Curley was wild with grief and threw himself down on the deck, rocking to and fro, groaning and crying. He was handed a pencil and paper and drew a picture of a battle lost.
Later, Half Yellow Face and White Swan, whose wounds were swelling dangerously, came down to the Far West with the battered remnants of the Reno and Benteen commands.
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Except for Half Yellow Face, all Custer’s Crow scouts lived to be old men. Half Yellow Face is believed to have died in 1878 in another confrontation with the Sioux.
White Swan, who lived until 1904 with debilitating injuries from the battle, is buried in Custer National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Goes Ahead ranched about six miles south of the battlefield. He died in 1919 and is buried at Custer National Cemetery.
Hairy Moccasin died at Lodge Grass in 1922 and is buried there.
Whiteman Runs Him died in 1929 at Crow Agency and was buried at the battlefield. He was much sought after for interviews. Battlefield interpreter Dawes said that Whiteman Runs Him got a shot at silent picture fame late in life. He appeared in “Red Raiders,” a 1926 Western starring Ken Maynard, cowboy hero of the silver screen.
Curley worked as an Indian policeman and later as judge when the Crow Agency was moved to its present site in 1884. The work did not suit him and he resigned. He ranched along the Little Bighorn about a mile from Last Stand Hill. The home he built there still stands.
“Every morning, he went out and saddled his horse,” historian Doerner said. “As his horse entered the water, he started his mournful song as he crossed to the east side of the Little Bighorn. He’d come through the archway near the Stone House and come out onto the battlefield and ride around singing. He stopped singing when he crossed back to the west bank.”
Interviewers hounded him about the battle literally to his dying day, May 21, 1923. He, too, is buried at the battlefield.