25th Annual OIW Assembly
September 9-11, 2004
The Sioux Wars of 1876-1877
In spite of getting a very late start, the 25th Assembly of the Order of the Indian Wars in Billings, Montana, was an overwhelming success. On Thursday, September 9th, we heard from three experts and me. Leading off was the Chief Historian for the Little Bighorn National Monument (known to most of us as Custer Battlefield). John Doerner not only holds that position – he is a longtime member of the OIW. His paper, To Intercept or Pursue, and Capture and Destroy Them, gave us the background that would prove invaluable when Jerry Greene gave us a tour of the Canyon Creek site. John gave an excellent talk, with a number of useful handouts.
John was followed by Sandy Barnard. All attendees of past assemblies know Sandy, and, as usual, his presentation was lively and well illustrated. It had to be – Sandy showed us photos from his forthcoming book from Oklahoma Press. His co-authors, Brian Pohanka and Jim Brust, are also members of the OIW. Sandy whetted our appetites and I'm sure sold many books!
I think the biggest surprise of the day was the talk by Michael Hughes. Both exciting and thought provoking, Michael gave a new perspective to an all too neglected topic-Indian leadership in wars. His talk really set up the tours to follow. It was an outstanding effort both in content and presentation.
I was the last speaker of the day. Many thought that that was good planning – if you left early you wouldn't miss much. My presentation, aided by video and slides, discussed the railroad the army and the Indians. Once again, the talk was designed to set up our tour on Saturday, when we would visit the 1872 Baker Battle Site and the site of the 1873 Pease Bottom fight of George A. Custer. Both these engagement were a direct result of railroad surveys.
The day was officially ended by my announcement, made legendary by Jerry, that the bus would leave on time, "If I'll leave me, I'll damn sure leave you!" I don't remember a single day of a single assembly that Jerry didn't proclaim that phrase! Some traditions are simply too good to let die.
Saturday kicked off with a visit to the Chief Plenty Coups Museum, near Pryor, Montana. This sma1l out-of-the-way museum is an undiscovered gem. Plenty Coups is widely considered the last chief of the Crows. We spent about an hour going through the museum and visiting his well preserved home.
Then it was on to Custer Battlefield and lunch at the Stone House. We spent about an hour and a half eating lunch, visiting the museum and bookstore and, for many, it was a first chance to see the new Indian Memorial, dedicated June 25, 2003. Most agreed that the memorial does not detract in any way from the burial shaft atop Last Stand Hill. The memorial is both attractive and informative.
Again mounting the bus, we departed, under the steady hand of ex-superintendent (and ex-chief historian) Neil Mangum. Our first stop was Weir Point. Neil expounded on the various actions, as well as interpretations, of this area. Discussions were invited and a few intrepid souls put forth other ideas on the action here. All in all, there was little debate at this spot.
Now it was time for the main event. Neil would guide us to the top of Nye-Cartright Ridge. He assured us it was but a short walk. By now, Neil fools very few. Some decided to stay on the bus, but most chose the "short" walk. The ones who made it were treated to a lively, sometimes passionate, discussion. Entering into the fray were Ron Nichols, Sandy Barnard, Greg Michno and even myself. While usually quiet and reserved, some of the theories put forth by Neil were so preposterous that one as even-tempered as I felt forced to reply. A melee ensued that only reinforced the great fun of Custeriana. For me, it was the high spot of the entire assembly. We got back at a reasonable hour and, after a well-attended command post, it was dinner on our own.
Saturday morning we were off to visit the scene of Custer's 1873 fight with the Sioux. The spot, Pease Bottom, near the confluence of the Big Horn and Yellowstone rivers is one of the most historic spots in Montana. Somewhere nearby, but as yet undiscovered, is Manual Lisa's fur trade post, Fort Lisa. Just downstream sits the remains of Fort Pease – destined to play a role in the 1876 campaign. But we were here to visit Custer's second fight with the Sioux. This is, even by Montana standards, a beautiful and relatively untouched spot. It was here that we chose to shoot the now annual photo of our "marine" contingent. Each man assured me of his availability should "the corps" call. One can only pray for the success of our current marines.
Probably the site fewest had visited was the 1872 site where Major Baker, of "Marias Massacre" fame, had a rather sharp engagement with the Sioux and Cheyenne. Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull played prominent roles in the action, and as Michael Hughes informed us, it was here that both men solidified their standing in the tribe. The determined Indian resistance at this engagement would be the excuse used by the Northern Pacific to halt the survey. In turn, the halt necessitated the 1873 survey which led to the Custer fight at Pease Bottom. See how nicely it all fit together!
Two of the men who conducted much of the archaeology at the site gave us our tour. It was a rare chance to visit such an important, yet almost unknown site. Our guides, Harold Hagen and Dave Ashcroft, made a good case for this battle being the inaugural engagement of what would become the Sioux War of 1876.
It was now time for us to visit Canyon Creek – another little visited Indian Wars site. Led by one of the finest Indian Wars chroniclers, Jerry Greene, we were given an outstanding look at this confrontation between the Nez Perce and Sturgis' 7th Cavalry. Even Calamity Jane got into the act! The results of this action left Sturgis and the 7th holding the bag, as the Nez Perce once again escaped a vastly superior force. Jerry's unsurpassed understanding of the terrain, as well as the action, made this one of the highlights of the assembly.
Our only banquet (one of the ways we cut costs) provided a wonderful wrap-up to a very successful assembly. Our after dinner speaker (another way we cut cost – work our speakers to death), Neil gave a few fond reminiscences of his tenure at Custer Battlefield. At the end of Neil's light-hearted and engaging talk, I ended the session with thanks all around and an announcement of the location of the 2005 26th Annual Assembly of the Order of the Indian Wars – Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
You should have been there!