Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse. What could possibly go wrong?

Time Before Now, August, 1873 Suffragist Susan B. Anthony voted for president and got fined $100, more than $2000 today.   Outlaw brothers, Jesse and Frank James committed their first train robbery in Adair, Iowa,  getting away with about $3.000, much less than they expected.  And Jules Verne’s new book “Around the World in 80 Days” was winning acclaim from the critics.  One of the French author’s most successful novels, Hollywood’s 1956 version won five Oscars and the 2004 remake bombed at the box office.

August 4, 1873

On this day, George Armstrong Custer first encountered two men who, just three years later would prove to be his undoing.

The little-known Battle of Honsinger Bluff, along the Tongue River in southwestern Montana, was the reckless young officer’s introduction to Chief Sitting Bull and sub-chief, Crazy Horse.  The outcome may have led Custer astray.

While assigned to protect a railroad survey crew, Custer and a contingency of about 90 soldiers and 4 civilians, clashed with a group of Lakota warriors more than twice that size.  It was an unplanned encounter on both sides.  Custer’s small detachment sent out to hunt, were camped well ahead of a Col.  main force of 1,300 commanded by David S. Stanley. (Left)  When a Lakota scout spotted a grazing horse that had strayed outside the wooded area, they were apparently unaware of the Stanley column so nearby.

The 200 Lakota were uncharacter-istically disorganized, say military historians, perhaps after learning of Stanley’s column nearby.  They quickly retreated, having suffered only one wounded.  Custer lost possibly as many as three men and may have greatly underestimated the Lakota by the event.

Just 34, Custer had won accolades for bravery during the Civil War but likewise, gained a reputation as dangerously impulsive, as well.    His frequent foolhardy maneuvers became known as the “Custer Dash.”  

Despite his celebrity, he’d received a year’s suspension after going AWOL in 1868, reportedly leaving his post to visit his wife, the beautiful and socially prominent Elizabeth Clift Bacon. (Right)   The daughter of a wealthy and influential judge and politician, her marriage to Custer was continually tumultuous. 

The year-long suspension was quickly overturned by his military mentor, General Phillip Sheridan. (Left) Already preparing for his offensive against the Cheyenne, he claimed he couldn’t spare Custer.

Apparently he couldn’t. Custer’s assault on the winter camp of Cheyenne leader, Black Kettle, known either as the Battle of Washita River or the Washita Massacre, still leaves the number of women and children who died in doubt. 

Sitting Bull had hoped to escape the same fate. The U.S. government had signed the Second Treaty of Ft. Laramie, guaranteeing the Lakota a permanent reservation in Southwestern South Dakota.  But seven years later in 1874, along came Custer.  

Officers of the 1874 Black Hills Expedition

While leading an expedition into the Black Hills, in another “Custer Dash,” he managed to upend the agreement, boldly announcing the discovery of gold at French Creek.  By accident or design, he touched off a wave of gold rush fever that inspired Washington to remove the Lakota by force. 

Signing of the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie

Despite the treaty, Sitting Bull had already skirmished with the U. S. military by then.  His Teton Sioux had been caught up in retaliations following 1862 Sioux Uprising in southern Minnesota.  In fact it had involved no Western Lakota at all, but rather only Eastern Dakota.  

While Custer did penance for his love life and reigned terror on the Cheyenne, 37-year-old Sitting Bull had ascended to the role of principal chief of the northern Lakota.  Crazy Horse, still in his twenties, had become battle savvy, leading the resistance to white incursion in Red Cloud’s War and participating in the ambush of Captain William Fetterman’s troops along the Powder River.   In the intervening three years between the Tongue River incident and the Little Big Horn, the Lakota had coalesced with the Cheyenne and become a formidable fighting force.  (Above, unverified, the only image believed to possibly be a photo of Crazy Horse)

Ironically, Custer nearly missed his date with destiny.  Summoned to Washington in the Spring of 1876.   He was to testify before Congress regarding a kick-back scandal involving the Secretary of War, William Belknap, and President Ulysses S. Grant’s brother.  Fearing he might be passed over for command in Gen. Alfred Terry’s summer offensive against the Lakota, he petitioned to return to the frontier. 

Lacking permission to leave, however, Custer headed to rejoin his regiment at Fort Abraham Lincoln anyway.  On May 2, a furious President Grant had Custer removed from the train in Chicago and arrested.  The episode touched off a fire storm of controversy and Grant, much to his sorrow, finally relented. 

The 7th Cavalry’s devastating defeat at the Little Big Horn on June 27 stunned the U.S. Army and shocked the nation.  Sitting Bull, (right) however, recognized that while they had won this battle they were losing the war.   He retreated with his followers to Canada.  But five years later hunger, depravation and pressure from the U.S. drove him to return, surrendering at Fort Buford in present-day northwest North Dakota.  

In custody for several years, by September of 1884 he was literally auctioned off to Alvaren Allen, (right) a politician, promoter and the second mayor of St. Anthony, Minnesota.  Allen had outbid the competition for the right to exhibit Sitting Bull on a 15-city tour which also included trick shot, Annie Oakley.

A year later the chief joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.  This time was his turn to get the money, earning $50 a week, about $1,500 today.  He reportedly also had the good sense to charge a dollar to have a picture taken with him.  His tenure with Buffalo Bill was short in light of his celebrity it generated, only about four months.(Left, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull)  

But his star status didn’t save him. He died about four years later on Dec. 10, 1890, at age 59 on the Standing Rock South Dakota reservation.  During attempts  to arrest him amid fears he would flee with members of the Ghost Dance movement, he was shot by Native police officers, Bullhead and Red Tomahawk. 

Crazy Horse had already surrendered at Nebraska’s Red Cloud Agency.  He’d met the same fate in 1877, killed at nearby Fort Robinson, according to the Army, while trying to escape.  The year of his birth is uncertain but he was probably no older than 37 at the time of his death.

Mrs. Custer (left) was widowed at 34, but dedicated the rest of her 90 years to polishing her husband’s image as a martyr after President Grant publicly blamed him for the Little Bighorn disaster.  Authoring three books and touring the country, her PR efforts were successful for more than fifty years. It was well into the 20th Century before historians took a closer look at Custer’s actions leading up to that fateful day.

And alas, in 1874 miners in the South Dakota gold fields, observing the practice of honoring Civil War heros, named their town after the nation’s unluckiest general.  Custer barely aced out Gen. Stonewall Jackson in a vote the residents may have come to regret.

The 1881 Courthouse Museum, 11 Mount Rushmore Road, Custer, South Dakota, is located in the original Custer County Courthouse.  Since 1976 it has been home to exhibits about Custer’s 1874 expedition, including historic photographs by William Illingworth, Custer artifacts and a first edition copy of his book, “My Life on the Plains.” In addition, the museum’s three levels include the Ranch Room,with displays of saddles, tack, tools and veterinary equipment, a courtroom, judge’s chambers and one-room schoolhouse. 

Outdoor displays include a carriage house, smithy’s forge and equipment from the community’s first newspaper.  The museum is open May through September, 10 to 7, Monday through Saturday and 1 to 7 on Sunday.   For more information go to,  e-mail,call (605) 673-2443 or write 1881 Custer County Courthouse Museum, 411 Mount Rushmore Road, PO Box 826, Custer, South Dakota 57730

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.