This Day in History

Throughout the 1800s, the United States engaged in a long and bloody military campaign to defeat and relocate millions of indigenous Americans who called North America their native home. In most cases, Native Americans lacked the military technology to effectively defend themselves against their European enemies. However, 1876 was a year that went down in history, when Native American forces, under the leadership of Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, massacred a group of U.S. soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

The conflict that led to this battle related to the United States government's efforts to stop Native American Sioux tribe populations from roaming their homelands on the Great Planes and confine them to specifically designated reservation camps. Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe resisted these efforts, but many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen agreed to a special treaty that designated certain lands as their own.

Discovery of Gold Leads to U.S. Government Breaking Reservation Treaty

However, the U.S. government later disregarded this treaty and the U.S. Army entered Native American reservation lands after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This betrayal inspired thousands of Cheyenne and Sioux tribespeople to leave their reservation lands to join forces with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in Montana. In Spring 1876, 10,000 Native American men, women and children had gathered in a massive camp on Little Bighorn River. They remained there in spite of the U.S. War Department's threat to attack them if they refused to return to their reservation camps.

Several columns of United States soldiers soon appeared at the edge of the Native American camp, but on June 17, 1876, 1,200 Native Americans defeated the first column of soldiers and turned them back. That's when U.S. General Alfred Terry ordered famous Indian killer Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry to go scouting for enemy troops. As Custer neared the Native American camp at Little Bighorn River, he decided to push ahead instead of waiting for U.S. Army reinforcements.

Native Americans Kill Custer and 200 U.S. Troops

When word spread that Custer and his 600 troops had entered the valley, Sitting Bull rallied his warriors to protect the women and children. Meanwhile, Crazy Horse went to face the intruders head on with 3,000 Native American troops. An hour later, Custer and a battalion of 200 U.S. troops were dead.

Because Custer was killed in this battle, it became known as Custer's Last Stand. Due to the gruesome nature of his defeat, though, white Americans were angered and it solidified their opinion of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages. The U.S. government bolstered its military efforts as a result; five years later, nearly all of the Cheyenne and Sioux populations had been defeated and confined to their reservation camps.