Interstate highway 90 goes right past the Battle of the Little Bighorn site, and you can look up in the hills as you go by and see the grave markers where Custer’s men were found. Evan Connell, in his great book, Son of the Morning Star, describes how the rest of the Army realized what had happened to their colleagues. When Custer’s detachment vanished, the Army sent a second unit to the battlefield. From a place fairly close to where the highway now runs, those soldiers looked up and saw a great deal of something white flashing on the ridge. For a moment some wondered if it was snow. But it was July and there was no snow. The scattered bits of white were the bodies of Custer’s soldiers.
Custer was there with his brother, his brother-in-law, his nephew, a correspondent from The New York Herald, and a lot of people that he liked to hang out with. He loved newspaper coverage and he was great copy and he knew it well. He had lovely long blond hair which he was reluctant to cut, and whenever he did get a haircut his wife saved the locks that fell and made a wig of his hair for herself. She liked to wear the wig of his hair when they went to shows on Broadway. They’d have been on the cover of People magazine, George and Elizabeth Custer, if there’d been a People magazine then.
Custer only had one tactic — charge! — which he used throughout his career. During the Civil War, his wife Elizabeth met President Lincoln on a receiving line.
“Oh, your husband is the man who leads his troops into battle with a whoop and a hurrah,” said Lincoln.
“And I hope he always will, Mr. President,” said Elizabeth.
“Then you wish to be a widow,” said Lincoln. And indeed Mrs. Custer was a widow far longer than she was a married woman. She died in 1932, having devoted her life to keeping the myth of her husband’s greatness alive.
When the news of the Battle of Little Big Horn arrived at the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia that summer, everyone was crushed. It had been an exciting and successful exhibition, something like a World’s Fair. The telephone had been introduced to the public during the Celebration. People had spoken on the phone for the first time. You could speak to someone all the way across the crowded and bustling fairground. It was a miraculous thing. In many ways the Celebration was the beginning of the modern era in America. But news of the Little Big Horn cast an immediate and thorough pall on everyone.
The question of who owned the Black Hills was settled immediately. A year later the Black Hills had become federal property (purchased for almost nothing, the Sioux forced to sign by threat of having their rations withheld). Sioux reservations were greatly reduced in acreage, and the Hills were legally open to prospectors. This theft — for theft it was — would resound through history. It still does; the case still has not yet been resolved, in large part because the Sioux to this day refuse to negotiate for anything less than the sacred land they wanted in the first place.
Very nearly every Sioux man, woman, and child on the plains was rounded up and forced onto reservations, and the subsequent years of famine and disease were brutal. By 1890 misery was so endemic that Indians all over the West were ripe for any kind of idea that would offer salvation. So up rose the Ghost Dance, a sort of religious revival and political rebellion at once. It started with a Paiute man in Nevada named Wovoka, who spoke to God, and he reported that God’s message to the Indians was that they should continue their traditional ways of living, and begin a new, more devoted kind of dancing. Dancing and right living would bring back the buffalo and restore the Indians back to their original strength. Dancing and right living would bury the whites with earth five times as deep as a man. The dance caught on quickly and flew from reservation to reservation. The Sioux, cautiously, sent a man named Kicking Bear to talk to Wovoka. Kicking Bear reported that he had looked in Wovoka’s hat and seen the whole world, the whole vision, and that Wovoka spoke truly. So the Sioux began to dance.
I think it is safe to say that if any tribe would take something to the limit — dancing, for example — it would be the Sioux. They danced and danced and danced. There are photographs of the Sioux dancing in huge circles, dancing for days, falling down in trances and exhaustion, rising up and dancing some more. Some reported that they had danced so hard that they had flown to the morning star and brought back pieces of it. Some reported that had seen and spoken with their dead relatives. Some dancers painted the visions they had seen, often on beautiful white shirts, and soon it was reported that a shirt with a vision painted on it was bulletproof. There are reports of people wearing the shirts and having guns fired at them point-blank and not being injured. I don’t know how this could happen but that is what was said.
Talk of bulletproof shirts scared people. The Pine Ridge reservation Indian agent, a man nicknamed Young Man Afraid of the Sioux, called for Army reinforcement. The Army sent the Seventh Calvary — Custer’s unit. This is fourteen years after Little Big Horn, but memories on both sides were fresh. Disaster followed. A Sioux leader named Big Foot and his people, reportedly heavily armed, are camped at Wounded Knee Creek. The Army goes in to disarm them. There is a struggle and shots are fired. The soldiers, up on a rise around the canyon of Wounded Knee Creek, fire down at the Indians with exploding shells. The Indians are massacred. Hundreds of Indians and dozens of soldiers are killed, some of the soldiers by friendly fire.
When I was working on a book about the Sioux, I went to the plains and read as many newspapers of the time as I could find. There were lots of newspapers in the West then. I believe there were more newspapers per capita then there are now. I found one newspaper in South Dakota where L. Frank Baum, later famous as the author of The Wizard of Oz, complained that the massacre at Wounded Knee wasn’t enough, and that a sensible government would just wipe all the Indians out and be done with it. I found another article by a then-famous humorist named Bill Nye, who wrote a humor piece about the massacre. There was more like that. I was staggered.