BUSBY — Montana’s Rosebud Battlefield joined the ranks of Mount Vernon, the Alamo and Wounded Knee a year ago when it won recognition as a National Historic Landmark.
On Thursday, on the 134th anniversary of the battle that pitted the U.S. Army against an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne, about 200 people observed the Montana state park’s new status in a celebration a few miles away.
A plaque on the battlefield itself was to have been unveiled in a ceremony sponsored by, among others, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. But bad weather forced the event indoors at the Northern Cheyenne School gym in Busby.
State, federal and tribal officials joined the Northern Cheyenne for Thursday’s festivities, as did guests from their old allies, the Ogallala Sioux.
“Our stories are our most important way to keep our past alive,” said Ken Soderberg, interpretation and volunteer programs specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“These are the places where stories of our past are connected to the land.”
He praised the Northern Cheyenne who helped convince Park Service officials in Washington, D.C., that Rosebud Battlefield was worthy of inclusion in a select group of iconic American historical places.
The state acquired much of the battlefield from the late Elmer “Slim” Kobold in 1978. Kobold, who lived there for more than 40 years, took special care to preserve the site. The state has recently upgraded roads and installed new interpretive signs as part of a long-term management plan.
William Walks Along, member of the Northern Cheyenne’s Rosebud and Wolf Mountain National Historic Landmark Committee, told the crowd gathered in the chilly gym that “events like this anchor me to the earth.”
This site and others like it have to be preserved so future generations will know their history, he said.
“It is our duty,” Walks Along said.
Part of the reason the committee was formed seven years ago was to protect the battlefield from encroaching mineral development, he said. While the state owns the land where the battle was fought, it does not own the mineral rights. Coalbed methane development is considered one of the major threats to its preservation.
The ceremony stretched through late morning and into the afternoon with speakers telling the history of the battle and its importance to the Cheyenne.
Gen. George Crook, who had marched his column of 1,100 regulars out of Fort Fetterman in Wyoming, was the southern part of a three-pronged offensive to round up free-roaming Sioux and Cheyenne and force them onto reservations in the spring of 1876.
He was joined by about 275 Crow scouts. The Crows were mortal enemies of the Sioux, who were encroaching ever deeper into their territory.
In mid-June 1876, Wooden Leg, a young Cheyenne warrior, with 10 other buffalo hunters found an abandoned soldier camp alerting them to Crook’s presence. They spotted the campfires that night, and tracked the soldiers through the next day before deciding to return to their village and sound the alarm.
“We went into camp and reported to an old man,” Wooden Leg told his biographer, Thomas Marquis, many years later. “Some Sioux were there and they carried the news to their people. Soon all the camp circles were in a fever of excitement.”
The young men were eager to fight, but calmer heads prevailed and the camp moved. Scouts were sent to keep an eye on the troops. Word came that the soldiers were on the Rosebud. Many warriors slipped out of camp that night, and on the morning of June 17 the fighting began.
White Bull, nephew of Sitting Bull, told his biographer, Stanley Vestal, that when the Cheyenne hunters reported that the soldiers were near, all of the Sioux began to prepare for battle. White Bull was armed with a 17-shot rifle he had purchased from an Indian agent and rode over to Sitting Bull’s tent where the warriors had gathered. They set out late that night toward the Rosebud and traveled through the darkness. They rode to a big hill and sent out scouts, he said.
Halfway to the top of the hill, the Sioux and Cheyenne scouts encountered the government’s Indian scouts. Among the Crows was a young Plenty Coups, who later became the last of the great Crow chiefs. White Bull said that a brave Cheyenne led the attack, while he rode furiously behind on a slower horse.
Estimates of the Sioux and Cheyenne force ranged between 1,000 and 1,500 warriors. The battle ranged through six hours with soldiers and Indians advancing and retreating over the battlefield.
The Cheyenne call the battle site Kase’eetsevo’ — Where the Girl Saved Her Brother. The name comes from the actions of Buffalo Calf Trail Woman, who rescued her brother, Chief Comes In Sight, when his horse was shot out from under him.
By 2:30 that afternoon, with no clear victory for either side, the battle wound down. Crook lost 10 men and 21 more were wounded. The Sioux lost about 25 warriors and one Cheyenne was killed. Crazy Horse estimated the wounded at 63.
The major result was that Crook withdrew his column to Wyoming, spoiling the government’s plan for a three-pronged assault.
A week later, and about 30 miles away, the same alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne were camped along the Little Bighorn River when Lt. Col. George Custer ordered an attack.