The resounding defeat of 12 companies of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry at the hands of Plains Indians during the Battle of the Little Bighorn is among U.S. history’s epic events of the Western frontier.
The two-day fight is commemorated at Little Bighorn National Monument near Crow Agency, Montana, 104 kilometers northwest of Billings.
In June 1876, the U.S. government sent the polarizing Army commander Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops to subdue Sioux and Cheyenne Indians who had left the reservation where they had been forced to move. Often referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand,” the Battle of the Little Bighorn grew to symbolize centuries of Native American struggles to preserve and defend their homeland and way of life from Euro-Americans. Today, visitors can tour the very grounds where this turning point in the struggle took place.
What to See
The white tombstones of Custer National Cemetery lie adjacent to the visitor center and museum. Pay your respects at the gravesites of more than 4,000 men and women who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as well as in both world wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The heart of Little Bighorn is Last Stand Hill, where the crux of the battle was fought and where visitors can view the tiny, crooked gravestones and markers indicating where Custer’s troops fell and were buried. This includes Custer, whose remains were eventually disinterred and now lie at West Point Cemetery in Highlands, New York.
Look for the 7th U.S. Cavalry Memorial, a towering stone monolith built in 1881 and dedicated to the 263 troops and attached personnel who died in the battle. Nearby, the somber “Peace Through Unity” Indian Memorial features metal castings of “Spirit Warriors,” commemorating the Native American fighters and tribal women involved in the battle. For decades, Native Americans sought to have their story recognized at the national monument. In 2003 the Indian Memorial was unveiled. Sixty Native Americans are documented to have died in the battle, but the exact toll is not known.
What to Do
Attend the 20-minute ranger talk at the visitor center and explore the museum’s exhibits to learn more about the battle’s history, the era’s weapons, Custer’s life and the Plains Indians. Next, drive the 7-kilometer road connecting Last Stand Hill to Reno-Benteen Battlefield, where part of the battle was fought. You can take a self-guided tour, or purchase an audio guide that points out important sites along the route.
Near the Battlefield
Gape at the dramatic, twisting canyon walls cut by the Bighorn River at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, 93 kilometers west of the monument. The 48,500-hectare recreation area sprawls across mountains, valleys, prairies and wetlands, and is also home to a lake and more than 43 kilometers of hiking trails. Both Little Bighorn Battlefield and Bighorn Canyon lie within Crow Indian Reservation. Every August, the reservation hosts the Crow Fair Powwow & Parade Celebration. Traditional Crow singing and dancing, an Indian rodeo, horse racing and a parade are among the highlights. Visitors interested in learning more about the Crows can visit Chief Plenty Coups State Park, which has exhibits on tribal artifacts and history.
Where to Sleep and Eat
Don’t arrive at the monument hungry; there are no food concessioners on-site, though a “trading post” outside the entrance to the monument serves food. You’ll find budget chain motels and fast-food restaurants in Hardin, Montana, 19 kilometers north of the monument, but for a greater variety, travel to Billings or Sheridan, Wyoming (120 kilometers south).