Custer Battlefield Museum
General George Armstrong Custer
The museum is located on the former site of Sitting Bull's camp, on
the famous Garryowen bend of the Little Bighorn River, a traditional
summer hunting campsite for many Plains Indian tribes. As the Seventh
Cavalry approached in late June of 1876, this was the site of one of
the largest Indian gatherings ever recorded in North America. Several
famous locations associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn are
visible from Garryowen. These sites include Reno's hilltop defense site,
Weir Point, Last Stand Hill, Medicine Tail Coulee, the Crow's Nest,
the Wolf Mountains as well as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National
Monument and Custer National Cemetery.
Extensive New Exhibits
Cavalry and Indian artifacts excavated on the site of the Battle of
the Little Bighorn join large dioramas showing step-by-step battle action.
Such items include Little Wolf's Golden Eagle Tail Feathered War Bonnet,
which was worn during many battles including the Battle of the Little
Big Horn. The contract for Sitting Bull's appearance in the famous Buffalo
Bill Wild West Show is on display and is the only known attested signature
of Sitting Bull. Also exhibited is a facsimile of the signatorial rock
pictograph attributed to Crazy Horse made on a sandstone cliff above
Reno Creek after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The original was
destroyed in 1963.
Indian War era artifacts include many items found at the battle site,
such as Crow Dog's rifle, several war clubs and trade knives, cavalry
spurs, and Flow-blue enamelware from Sitting Bull's camp. Cavalry items
on display include Tom Custer's Kerr revolver and an Army pistol dropped
on the Reno retreat route, still fully loaded. Other Indian weaponry
includes a Lakota lance made from a cavalry guidon pole, shields, and
an U.S. Army-issue revolver with a holster decorated with Plains Indian
style beadwork. Also on display are Beaded Indian War Shirts and an
extensive collection of moccasins.
Famed Indian War Period Photography Exhibit
Over 100 photographs by world-famous photographer David F. Barry are
currently featured. This collection is one of the largest displays of
D. F. Barry on exhibit, and contains many of the most recognizable images
of the American Frontier, such as General George Armstrong Custer, Benteen,
Sitting Bull, Gall, Low Dog, and Tom Custer. These photographs have
toured internationally and present a rare chance to view many of the
participants and events that led up to the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Other Barry collections are maintained at the Buffalo Bill Museum in
Cody, Wyoming and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
The museum also features one of the shovels used to bury the cavalry
dead, an Indian necklace made from one of the rings on General Custer's
saddle, an early Sioux dugout canoe and ivory cavalry dice found in
the Reno retreat area. A highly significant collection of battle-vintage
bead work in addition to bronzes, paintings and other memorabilia create
a highly educational tour through the vanished American frontier.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The remains of this unknown trooper were found in 1926 prior to the
50th Anniversary of the Custer Battle. Presumed to have been one of
Major Reno's men, one of the first Seventh Cavalry men killed in the
opening phase of the battle in the river valley near Garryowen, Montana.
Apparently high water in the spring following the famed battle, caused
the soldier's body to be buried, and it was not found until the road
crew building the US 87 highway uncovered it 50 years later.
Now 125 years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn the Custer Battlefield
Museum unveiled a new 'Peace Monument' which is located behind the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier. Featured on each side of the Granite Peace Monument
is a bronze sculpture of Sitting Bull and General George Armstrong Custer.
The Custer Battlefield Museum is dedicated to collecting and preserving
the history of Western Expansion on the American high plains, including
artifacts, manuscripts and memorabilia related to the Seventh Cavalry,
frontier military life and Plains Indian tribes.
The museum is open year round, admittance fees are $4 for adults and
$3 for seniors, with those under 12 admitted free. Groups and tours
are welcome, with advance notice requested but not required.
P.O. Box 200
Garryowen, MT 59031
The Custer Battlefield Museum is located in the historic town Garryowen
at Exit 514 on I-90, just south of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National
Monument. Interstate highway access takes just an hour from either Billings,
Montana, or from Sheridan, Wyoming.
The museum is located on the grassy riverbank where the Battle of the
Little Bighorn began when Major Renos troops attacked Sitting
Bulls camp here on June 25, 1876. A major highlight on the museum
grounds is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where one of the first Seventh
Cavalry fell dead. The Peace Monument, which is the first
new monument built on the battlefield since 1928.
Season of Operation
Hours of Operation
Memorial Day - Labor Day: Daily 9:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m. September - May:
Daily 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Group Reservations Required
Services and Amenities
Registered Historic Site
Custer's last stand was the centerpiece of the final struggle for the Plains. Bobby Bridger describes below Sioux preparations for the battles in his book, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull.
Those scheduled to take part in the dance purified themselves by fasting and praying in sweat lodges. Next, the dancers would be painted by Holy men. Finally, they would lie prone beneath the tree and a Holy man would take a rawhide rope hanging from the top of the Sun Dance pole, cut the flesh on the dancer' breast or back and slip a thong through the skin and tie it. The dancer would then stand and dance to a particular drum beat for as long as the pain could be endured or the flesh tore.
Children had a particularly good time during the Sun Dance. They were allowed to tease the dancers, as they were required to endure humiliation as well as great pain.
Indeed. Having vowed one hundred pieces of his own flesh, Sitting Bull leaned against the sacred pole while his adopted son, Jumping Bull, knelt beside him with a very sharp, steel knife. Beginning near the wrist of the right arm and working upward, Jumping Bull lifted the skin on Sitting Bull's arm and cut a slice of flesh about the size of a matchhead. This process was repeated for thirty minutes until Jumping Bull had worked his way up each of Sitting Bull's arms, taking one hundred pieces of flesh.
The flesh offering complete, it remained for the Hunkpapa leader to Sun Dance. With blood dripping down his arms and off his fingers, Sitting Bull danced throughout that day and all through the night. Around noon the following day he was nearly unconscious and warriors laid him down. Cold water revived Sitting Bull and he whispered in a weak voice to his friend Black Moon.
Black Moon announced that Sitting bull had received a vision. In the vision the chief heard a voice from above saying, "I give you these because they have no ears." Sitting Bull looked up and saw soldiers falling down like grasshoppers into the Hunkpapa camp. Every Lakota knew exactly what Sitting Bull's vision prophesized; they were going to defeat the wasichus! Stanley Vestal writes:
Afterwards Sitting Bull warned the people: "These dead soldiers who are coming are the gifts of God. Kill them, but do not take their guns or horses. Do not touch the spoils. If you set your hearts upon the goods of the white man, it will prove a curse to this nation." Twelve lesser chiefs heard this warning, but said nothing. All the people heard of this, but some of them had no ears.
The Sun Dance ended June 14. On the evening of June 16 Lakota scouts returned to Sitting Bull's camp to report Three Stars's soldiers camped in the valley of the Rosebud River. General Crook had over 1,000 soldiers and nearly 300 Crow, Shoshone, and Arikara scouts.
Sitting Bull was weak from the Sun Dance yet promptly went to work organizing a large war party, leading one-hundred Cheyenne and nearly nine-hundred Sans Arc, Minniconjou, Brule, Oglala, and Hunkpapa Lakota toward Three Stars's camp. Sitting Bull realized he would not be able to fight in his weakened condition. He would be able to encourage warriors and coordinate battle strategy from the sidelines, yet everyone knew this fight belonged to Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse had been waiting for a long time for the chance to test himself in battle with the Pony Soldiers. Since the Fetterman fight at Fort Phil Kearny, he had studied the soldiers and their ways of fighting. He had retreated into the Black Hills to seek visions and ask Wakantanka to help him lead the Oglalas when the Pony Soldiers came again to make war upon his people. Crazy Horse had known since childhood that the world men lived in was only a shadow of the real world and he had learned to dream himself into the real world before going into a fight. There, he could endure anything.
On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse dreamed himself into the spirit world and showed the Sioux new ways to fight the white soldiers. Instead of rushing forward into the fire of their rifles and sabres when Crook ordered his cavalry in mounted charges, Sioux warriors drifted off to their flanks and attacked the weak places in their lines. Rather than engaging in hand-to-hand combat, Crazy Horse kept his warriors mounted and always moving from one place to another. By noon the mystic warrior had Crook's troops confused and engaged in three separate fights. Accustomed to forming skirmish lines and powerful defensive fronts, Crook's troops were thrown into massive confusion, and Crazy Horse controlled the battlefield.
Crazy Horse had outwitted Three Stars. The Lakota had always fought in the tradition of counting coup or winning individual honors on the battlefield. At Rosebud, however, this fighting technique suddenly changed: Lakota warriors were following Crazy Horse's brilliant, highly coordinated battle plan. Rather than counting coup, or distinguishing themselves with individual battlefield honors, the warriors were intent on killing every soldier in their sights as quickly as possible. Upon befuddling and whipping the bluecoats on the battlefield with flanking movements, Crazy Horse had intended to force Three Stars and his troops into a natural canyon from which there could be no escape, yet, at the very moment Crook began to march into the trap, Colonel Royall was warned by observant Shoshone scouts of the canyons' perfect conditions for an ambush, and rallied his forces from the rear. Crook suddenly countermanded his own order, reversed his direction, and thwarted Crazy Horse's strategy. Miraculously, Crook was able to repulse the Sioux forces. Nevertheless, Crazy Horse had won the day and Crook retreated in defeat.
Bridger continues that Crook claimed the battle was his victory but in truth, Crazy Horse stopped him cold.
...In spite of Crook's claims, the true results of the Battle of the Rosebud were that his campaign was ruined and that he was surrounded defending himself in his base camp while the Lakotas wee engaged with Custer at Little Big Horn.
Another account by Larry McMurtry from his book, Crazy Horse.
Shortly after this great vision of soldiers falling had been reported and considered, some Cheyenne scouts arrived with the news that the great General Crook was coming from the south with a lot of soldiers and also a considerable body of Crow and Shoshone scouts. This was a sign that Sitting Bull had not danced in vain, although Crook never got very close to the great encampment, because Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and a large force immediately went south to challenge him on the Rosebud, where the first of the two famous battles fought that summer was joined.
When the Indians attacked, Crook's thousand-man force was very strung out, with soldiers on both sides of the river, in terrain that was broken and difficult. Crow scouts were the first to spot the great party from the north; by common agreement the Crows and Shoshones fought their hearts out that day, probably saving Crook from the embarrassment of an absolute rout. But Crazy Horse, Black Twin, Bad Heart Bull, and many others were just as determined. Once or twice Crook almost succeeded in forming an effective battle line, but Crazy Horse and the others kept dashing right into it, fragmenting Crook's force and preventing a serious counter-attack. There was much close-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting. In a rare anticipation of women-in-combat, a Cheyenne woman rushed in at some point and saved her brother, who was surrounded. (The Cheyennes afterward referred to the Battle of the Rosebud as the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.) Crook struggled all day, trying to mount a strong offensive, but the attackers were so persistent that they thwarted him. Finally the day waned and shadows began to fall across the Rosebud. The Indians, having enjoyed a glorious day of battle, went home. They had turned Three Stars back, allowing him nowhere near the great gathering on the Little Bighorn.
The second great battle of that summer was, of course, Little Bighorn. There are so many versions that a summary must suffice. Custer may well have been anticipating his presidential bid and planned to rush to the world's fair in Philadelphia, flushed with his victory over the Sioux. Instead his utter disregard for danger cost him and much of the Seventh Cavalry their lives. It was Buffalo Bill Cody, returning from a victorious New York stage appearance, to assume his army job as scout for the Fifth Cavalry.
The following excerpt is from the book, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, Inventing the Wild West, by Bobby Bridger.
First Lieutenant Charles King, later a General and a novelist, described the dramatic scene:
Savage warfare was never more beautiful than in you. On you come, your swift, agile ponies springing down the winding ravine, the rising sun gleaming on your trailing war bonnets, on silver armlets, necklace, gorget; on brilliant painted shield and beaded legging; on naked body and fearless face, stained most vivid vermilion. On you come, lance and rifle, pennon and feather glistening in the rare morning light, swaying in the wild grace of your peerless horsemanship; nearer, till I mark the very ornament on your leader's shield. And on, too, all unsuspecting, come your helpless prey. I hold vengeance in my hand, but not yet to let it go. Five seconds too soon, and you can wheel about and escape us; one second too late, and my blue-coated couriers are dead man.
Having waited upon nerves of steel, King ordered, "Now, lads, in with you."
Cody had so successfully mastered the art of dramatically blurring reality his autobiographical account of the actual "duel" is a classic example of the effect of the theater on actual historical events in his life. Controversial even to this day, the fight between Cody and the Cheyenne warrior remains one of the great myths of the 19th century American west. The version Cody depicted in his 1879 autobiography was obviously heavily influenced by the need to be metaphorically dramatize historical events in romantic, Anglo-Saxon, "knightly" fashion for the stage. Even so, Cody was still basing his mythology in truth: When facing certain death on the battlefield, it was not uncommon for Plains Indian warriors to find a worthy opponent, sing a death song and eagerly greet death with magnificent, even joyful, courage.
Cody wrote in his autobiography:
The two messengers were not over four hundred yards away from us and the Indians were only about two hundred yards behind them. We instantly dashed over the bluffs, and advanced on a gallop towards the Indians. A running fight lasted several minutes, during which we drove the enemy some little distance and killed three of their number. The rest of them rode off towards the main body, which had come into plain sight, and halted, upon seeing the skirmish that was going on. We were about half a mile from General Merritt, and another lively skirmish took place. One of the Indians, who was handsomely decorated with all the ornaments usually worn by a war chief when engaged in a fight, sang out to me, in his own tongue:
"I know you, Pa-he-haska; if you want to fight, come ahead and fight me."
The chief was riding his horse back and forth in front of his men, as if to banter me, and I concluded to accept the challenge. I galloped towards him for fifty yards and he advanced towards me about the same distance, both of us riding at full speed, and then, when we were about thirty yards apart, I raised by rifle and fired; his horse fell to the ground, having been killed by bullet.
Almost at the same instant my own horse went down, he having stepped into a hole. The fall did not hurt me much, and I instantly sprang to my feet. The Indian had also recovered himself, and we were now both on foot, and not more than twenty paces apart. We fired at each other simultaneously. My usual luck did not desert me on this occasion, for his bullet missed me, while mine struck him in the breast. He reeled and fell, but before he had fairly touched the ground I was upon him, knife in hand, and had driven the keenedged weapon to its hilt in his heart. Jerking his warbonnet off, I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds.
The whole affair from beginning to end occupied but little time, and the Indians, seeing that I was some little distance from my company, now came charging down upon me from a hill, in hopes of cutting me off. General Merritt had witnessed the duel, and realizing the danger I was in, ordered Colonel Mason with Company K to hurry to my rescue. The order came none to soon, for had it been given one minute later I would have had not less than two hundred Indians upon me. As the soldiers came up I swung the Indian chieftain's top-knot and bonnet in the air, and shouted: "The first scalp for Custer."
Generals Nelson Miles and Ranald McKenzie joined Merritt and Crook and through the winter the renegade Sioux and Cheyenne were forced to choose between escaping to Canada or surrendering at the agencies.