This is where, in 1876, a group of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Native Americans defeated the United States 7th Cavalry Regiment in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also called the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand.
The road from the highway to the site entrance leads gently uphill, with even higher hills ahead. The first thing I noticed was a field of uniform white headstones -- unmistakably a military cemetery.
This is Custer National Cemetery, with approximately 5,000 graves. It was established after the battle and was later expanded. The lovely Superintendent’s Lodge, a two-story stone building from 1894, was one of the first permanent dwellings constructed in eastern Montana. Some believe that it is haunted. I’m happy to say that while I was certainly moved by the site, I had no supernatural experiences.
I browsed the selection of gifts and books in the visitor center and watched an introductory presentation. Later I was glad to come back for a break from the heat.
During your visit, you can walk or drive up Last Stand Hill to the two major monuments. The Deep Ravine walking trail leads down into the valley toward the river. Signs warn you to stay on the trails. Rattlesnakes were a good enough reason for me to do that!
Here are eight things to know before planning a visit to the site.
1. It’s Hard To Separate Fact From Fiction
The causes, events, and results of the battle are some of the most exhaustively studied pieces of American history, and controversies and questions abound. People have criticized Custer’s leadership, the other commanders’ actions, the Cavalry’s equipment, and so on. For many years afterward, people came forward claiming to be the sole survivor. Here are some of the basic, well-established facts.
On June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led part of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army in an attack against an encampment of Native Americans in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. He and the 209 others with him were killed. The rest of the 7th, led by Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, fared better, but the Native Americans had unquestionably shattered the myth of the unbeatable cavalry.
Estimates of the number of Native American deaths vary widely, from at least 30 out of 1,500 to possibly 3,000. In the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 274 out of about 700 were killed.
2. The Full Story Is Complicated
The U.S. government was determined to relocate all Native Americans in the area to reservations. Not all agreed to go.
The full story is a complicated tale of alliances, deals, betrayals, and -- more recently -- attempts at understanding. The blog Native Hope says, “To understand this battle means one must peel back many layers, but even then, there will be more accounts, more broken promises, and more tragedies added to its complexity.”
The main thing to know is that the Little Bighorn site is part of a history that is still being written.
3. Perspectives On The Battle Have Changed Since 1876
As a Canadian, I first heard of Custer’s Last Stand on American television. Cartoons and comedians made General Custer the butt of their jokes. Oddly, this still happens.
Custer’s notable loss notwithstanding, many Westerns glorified the seemingly invincible U.S. Cavalry appearing over the hill.
For years after the battle, Custer and his men were considered heroes in the cause of settling the West. Custer faded to a household name, but with less of a mystique, over time. After the two World Wars, the events of the 1800s belonged to historians, not newspapers.
In the 1970 movie Little Big Man, Custer was depicted as a madman. The Native Americans were portrayed as individuals, not stereotypes.
That same year brought Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown. The American Indian Movement was underway. The Indians of All Tribes group occupied Alcatraz in protest.
In 1991, the name of the battlefield was changed from Custer’s Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Over time, more non-Native Americans began to understand that the mass slaughter of the buffalo on the prairies had abruptly ended the way of life of the Plains people in Canada and the U.S. It first hit me when I visited the Fort Walsh National Historic Site in Saskatchewan. While there, I learned about Sitting Bull, a Native American leader at Little Bighorn.
4. You’ll See Both White Marble And Red Granite Markers
Climbing Last Stand Hill, I was a bit surprised to see headstones scattered here and there.
The 7th Cavalry was so depleted that the best the men could do for their comrades after the battle was to dig shallow graves and try to be respectful. For years, there were attempts to find and bury whatever remains could be found. Some were sent back east for interment.
In 1890, Company D of the 25th Infantry placed 249 white marble headstones on the hillside to indicate where individual soldiers had died.
The Native American warriors’ families took their bodies away soon after the battle. Starting in 1999, red granite markers were placed on the battlefield to show the places where the Native American warriors fell.
5. Custer’s Remains Were Transferred From The Site Of The 7th U.S. Cavalry Memorial
The tall 7th U.S. Cavalry Memorial at the top of Last Stand Hill was erected in 1881. Below it, a mass grave holds the remains of the 7th Cavalry Regiment members.
A year after the battle, Custer’s remains were transferred from the battlefield to West Point Cemetery in New York.
6. An Indian Memorial Was Recently Dedicated
The 2003 dedication of the Indian Memorial, also on the hilltop, changed the appearance and significance of the entire site. In 2019, a final dedication ceremony marked the completion of the memorial.
You can walk through and around the Indian Memorial, with a view of the landscape in each of the four directions. A simple wrought-iron sculpture makes a line drawing of spirit warriors on horseback, the sky behind and inside them.
It isn’t just the Lakota and the Cheyenne who are remembered here. The memorial honors their Arapaho allies and the Crow and Arikara who scouted for the 7th Cavalry.
7. There’s Even A Cemetery For The Horses
Many horses died in the battle. The 7th Cavalry shot some of their horses to make a last-ditch defensive wall. There’s a marker for the 1881 7th Cavalry Horse Cemetery on Last Stand Hill.
8. After The Battle, Sitting Bull And Crazy Horse Continued To Resist Relocation
Sitting Bull, a spiritual leader and chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, had a vision of soldiers falling into his camp like grasshoppers raining from the sky. The vision united and inspired others, including Crazy Horse and Chief Gall. They believed they would win a great battle.
The victory at Little Bighorn was decisive, but it didn’t end the war. The U.S. Army retaliated, still determined to move the Native Americans onto reservations.
On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered. He died on September 5, 1877, of a bayonet wound.
Sitting Bull stayed in the U.S. for almost a year, but between the buffalo growing scarce and pressure from the Army, it was difficult. On May 5, 1877, Sitting Bull and his followers traveled north into Canada, where some other American Sioux were already living.
The buffalo were being hunted to extinction in Canada, too. Hungry and perhaps believing in promises of better treatment in the U.S., Sitting Bull returned with some of his people in 1881. He was killed by Indian agency police in 1890.
Other Things To Know Before You Go
The Crow Tribe offers guided tours of the site. You can also see the site on foot or by car with the audio cell phone tour. Don’t miss the drive to the Reno-Benteen site. It shows the vast scale of the landscape.
Bring your own food and drink, and dress for the weather. You’ll want water and sun protection in the summer.
The National Park Service’s website describes the monument’s accessibility features.
Pets are not allowed outside of cars.