Montana is a beautiful, sparsely populated land of big skies, the mountains from which it derives its name and empty roads. It became the 41st state of the Union in 1889 but its place in history largely arises from it being where the last battle took place in which native Americans defeated forces sent by the US Government to overcome them, the Battle of the Little Bighorn - often referred to as Custer's Last Stand.
By the end of the Civil War, most native American nations had been subdued and their peoples settled on reservations. However the Northern territories were still largely populated by tribes who were able to continue to follow their traditional ways of life, but as European settlers and prospectors started arriving in increasing numbers conflicts arose, and invariably the US goverment chose to ignore agreements and treaties with the Indians. This led to a series of wars between 1854 and 1891 known as the Sioux Wars, which culminated with the massacre of Wounded Knee and the final subjugation of native Americans.
The Battle of Little Bighorn occurred in a series of battles in 1876 known as the Great Sioux War. In 1868 the Treaty of Fort Laramie established a reservation for the Sioux which included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri river and reserved other lands to the West for the sole use of Indians. However the US Government subsequently tried to get the tribes to give up the Black Hills in South Dakota. The area was sacred to the Indians but the economic opportunities to European settlers in the area were significantly enhanced when an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel Custer, a Civil War hero, discovered gold in the them, there hills. In 1875 the Sioux tried to convince President Grant to honour existing treaties, but failed to do so. The US Government resolved to take the lands by force and many of the Lacota Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, sought to defend them.
Needless to say, the US Government won the war, but the Sioux and Cheyenne did win two battles. The most famous of these, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, took place in June 1876 close to where an Indian camp had been set up alongside the Little Bighorn River in Southern Montana. By all accounts it appears to be a series of miscalculations by Custer that led to the defeat. He misjudged the strength of the Indians and divided his forces to no tactical benefit. His strategy appears to have been to attack the Indian camp and use the women and children as human shields to persuade the Indians to surrender, but his attempted assault on the camp probably increased the resolve of the Indians to defend it. A lot of what happened is pure conjecture or based on archeological evidence, as not one member of the companies Custer's led on that day survived and the Indian side of the story is largely based on verbal testimonies which may have become embellished with time.
The scene of the battle is a serenely beautiful place, set on a series of small hills overlooking the river. The area is now a National Monument, with a road leading along the route of many of the major incidents that took place during the battle, with stopping places and paths where there are markers recounting the events that took place there. Alongside the memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives there is also a memorial to the Indians who fought to protect their homelands. There is a useful visitor centre at the site, and nearby a museum and Indian trading station. Just down the road an Indian reservation exists, with the obligatory casino.
Montana was my my mostly Northerly stop on my trip through the American heartlands, and the visit to the Little BigHorn was well worth the detour. The site may be best remembered for the defeat of a flambuoyant and famous war hero, but by all accounts the US Cavalry fought with bravery that the Indians marvelled at. However I think if you visit the site, the feeling you come away with is pathos, at seeing the greed that led to the demise of America's true original culture, and wonder, at the tough but beautiful land the tribes inhabited. Life would have been hard for people living up here, particularly in the brutal winters, but it was a life at one with the environment. On my way South, in Idaho, I spent a little more time visiting an Indian Reservation than I did in Montana, and the decline of tribal culture and the resultant damage to their social cohesion is sobering. Having said that, I met many native Americans on the way who seemed to be both proud of their heritage and happy in their current circumstances.
Next stop: Wyoming.