Custer's Cavalry Expedition: Three Forks of the Missouri River - Backwater of the Bighorn Fronti


Bighorn Ranch Land, 2016

The General George A. Custer who died on a hill beside Little Bighorn River was not the "Augie" Custer who achieved hero stature during and after the Civil War (he was also known as "Fanny"). His heroics got muddled in the fog of legend that emerged from the Montana battle that ended his life and the lives of 208 soldiers under his command. President Grant, who was instrumental in putting Custer at the Bighorn, criticized Custer's actions in the battle. Quoted in the New York Herald, Grant said, "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary." General Phillip Sheridan likewise reportedly frowned at the outcome. The jury is still out, however, whether the political criticism was just.

Yellowstone River

Despite the notoriety, Custer had been a jokester and was described by some classmates as one of the most improbable students/officers ever to have graduated from West Point (accumulating a record number of demerits on his credentials, mostly due to a consistent string of practical jokes and displays of disregard for petty rules). Before getting shoved to the seminal confrontation with natives in Montana, he was suspended from the military for one year for going AWOL on a visit to his wife.

Personality aside, he played and fought valiantly and gained recognition for it. This adulation possibly fed his ambition at least a little and maybe contributed to some excessive self-confidence that was to prove his undoing and demise.

When one drives out of the Rockies heading east in Montana, the Big Sky takes over. Bluffs and plains stretch across a new horizon cut open by rivers like the Snake, Yellowstone, and Bighorn, not to mention the headwaters of the Missouri. The Missouri River officially starts at the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison in Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana, and is joined by the Gallatin a mile downstream. The Yellowstone is a tributary as is the Platte, among others.

At the Three Forks headwaters I found myself alone. Brilliant autumn colors framed a gathering storm just to the south, but the headwaters themselves made barely a ripple in the flat land. However, one could go on and on about the rich history of this place, a real frontier serviced by the most important frontier river of them all, the Missouri. Lewis and Clark gazed on the confluence here.

Three Forks, Montana

"Both Capt. C and myself corrisponded in opinion with rispect to the impropriety of calling either of these streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them after the President of the United States and the Secretaries of the Treasury and state..." Meriwether Lewis, July 28, 1805

Foothills of the Rockies

Montana's sky country is stark grassland and rocky bluffs administered often by stiff winds.

On July 28, 1866, Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment, then headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. He took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne. He went on frontier duty, scouting in Kansas and Indian Territory until October 1869. Under Gen. Sheridan's orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supply in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. On November 27 he led the 7th Cavalry in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Chief Black Kettle — the Battle of Washita River, killing scores of warriors and some women and children. His men shot most of the 875 Indian ponies they had captured in this battle, historically labeled the first substantial U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War.

During this period Custer also commanded a Black Hills campaign in South Dakota against hostile indians, and while there stirred up a local frenzy over newly discovered gold. To take possession of the Black Hills (including the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the U.S. decided to corral all remaining free Plains Indians. President Ulysses Grant set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all Lakota and Arapaho wintering in "unceded territory" to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered "hostile".

The 7th Cavalry, Custer commanding, departed from Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17, 1876, part of a larger army force planning to round up remaining free Indians. Meanwhile, the Lakota holy man Sitting Bull called together the largest ever gathering of Plains Indians at Ash Creek, Montana (later moved to the Little Bighorn River) to discuss what to do about the whites. It was this united encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho that the 7th met at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Crow Indian Reservation. Apparently, the Lakotas were staying in the valley without consent from the Crow tribe, and so the Crows (their scouts) sided with and aided the US Army.

The Yellowstone River, tributary of The Missouri

Alongside the Yellowstone in Autumn

The Missouri Headwaters at Three Forks - I and Tom and Lewis and Clark

"...a fine morning we proceeded on a few miles to the three forks of the Missouri. Those three forks are nearly of a Size. The North fork appears to have the most water and must be Considered as the one best calculated for us to assend..." William Clark, July 25, 1805

To be continued and concluded in Blog 3 - Chief Two Moons' Recollection


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