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Montana battlefields keep memories of Indian Wars alive
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Montana battlefields keep memories of Indian Wars alive

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The undulating prairie above the Little Bighorn River southeast of Crow Agency was the site of the signature event in America’s three-century conquest of the western world and its Native inhabitants. As 300,000-plus annual visitors to the National Park Service site are well aware, the story of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors' annihilation of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry (and his Crow scouts), which stunned a nation, is told in poignant and graphic detail.

But Little Bighorn is merely the Super Bowl of Montana’s Indian War history. Anywhere from 20 to 200 battlefields – depending on your definition of “battle” -- dot the vast state, some shedding important insight into the impending rout at Little Bighorn or its aftermath.

Montana’s Indian Wars can mostly be condensed into three major arenas: The Blackfeet Wars of northwestern Montana, the Nez Perce’s 1,170-mile march from eastern Oregon to 40 miles from Canada, and the well-chronicled Sioux/Northern Cheyenne battles led by chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Dull Knife, Two Moons and others against the likes of Custer, Miles, Howard, Terry and fellow cavalry leaders whose names now are fixtures in eastern Montana maps as towns, parks and other landmarks.

Some, such as Little Bighorn and the Battle of the Big Hole (Nez Perce) site near Wisdom, are tourist-beckoning areas operated by the Park Service. Visitors can easily spend hours wandering those landscapes, picturing where the soldiers and warriors stood – and fell.

Others, including Rosebud Battlefield State Park near Busby and Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook, have far fewer amenities while still offering gripping snapshots of frontier history through trails and markers in country that remains largely unchanged.

In most cases, skirmishes are all but lost to the dustbin of history, their memories kept alive only by lonely stone plaques and markers -- or nothing at all -- on private lands where only the owner's care maintains the landscape's integrity.

At least a half-dozen Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Crow battlefields of varying renown are within a tomahawk's throw of the state’s so-called “Warrior Trail” – U.S. Highway 212 from Crow Agency through Busby, Lame Deer and Ashland to the state’s southeast corner at Broadus. Ironically, the battle signifying the end of the Great Sioux War of 1876, at Wolf Mountain (or Belly Butte), is marked only by a sign creaking in the wind and a stone National Historic Landmark behind a barbed-wire fence along a remote, dusty backroad.

In each case, if you tread lightly and listen as the wind rustles through the grass and sage, you can almost hear bullets flying, warriors and soldiers shouting, and the wailing of Indian women and children as they flee in their final gasps of freedom.

Here are a few benchmark battlefields not to miss:

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