William Bordeaux's Story of the Battle
THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIG HORN
ON THE MORNING of the 19th day of June the conquerors broke up camp, and moving from the headwaters of the Rosebud, they headed north and west towards the. Little Big Horn River. Arriving at a suitable location they selected a campsite at a point due east from the forks of the river and before long a forest-like succession of lodges dotted its winding bank for a. distance of several miles. These were divided into several groups in order to better accomodate the varied bands of whom there were a large number including a tribe of Cheyennes. In general the location of the village was fairly well hidden from direct observation by a succession of thick groves and towering trees. Enough food had been furnished by a recent buffalo foray to last the inhabitants for one month. The huge village was the largest gathering of the Sioux up to that time. In addition the warriors were well equipped with guns, and their ponies were fat and fit and ready for either a long buffalo chase or an indefinately running fight.
Sitting Bull Prays For Knowledge
On the night of the 23rd Crazy Horse had many visitors. Among them was Foolish Elk who stated that he had such distinguished callers with him as Horned Antelope, Four Bears, Bear Ribs, Elk Head and Dull Knife of the Cheyennes. It was a dark night, sheet lightening glittered along the western hills followed by impatient rumbles of thunder. "Someone is He-yokan Lowan" meaning singing a Thunder Song said one of the group. "That moaning cry that we hear," said Crazy Horse, "is Sitting Bull, for today I was told that he would leave his lodge and venture out into the high hills to pray, for some advance knowledge" (Humbleoklake). "If that is true," joined in Elk Head. "he is very holy, and whatever he reveals should be accepted as worthy of consideration." (Throughout these manifestations of an approaching storm a loud wall was heard from the direction of the hills that lay to the north.)
Sitting Bull Predicts Great Battle
According to the statement of a person who was present when morning came, Sitting Bull, the Seer, interpreted his dream to a select group of leaders including Crazy Horse. "While stationed atop the butte last night" he said "the Great Spirit revealed to me many troops heading South from the Porcupine Creek towards our village. We will be forced to engage them and the day will belong to the Lakotas for the signs have further revealed that every soldier will die by his sword. Crazy Horse, you will emerge from this conflict with added laurels, and though you will in the coming battle prove your worth as a daring leader, the signs also reveal that your mortal career will soon terminate and that after this battle you will fall to rise no more."
Excitement in Village
That same afternoon scouts, who had returned from duty, reported that a long column of troops had halted for camp near the forks of the Big Horn River. [Note: the Indians' intelligence was in fact very good -- see American Horse Note for what the Indians knew and when they knew it.] Upon the reception of this news the village became a scene of intense excitement. Grizzled old warriors of other days congregated in small groups, and while indulging in relished knic-knic smoke, deliberated over the threatening report and what might follow.
Attitude of Crazy Horse
The conduct of Crazy Horse was a surprise to his friends, for instead of remaining calm and unconfused as he usually did when danger threatened, he was, on this occasion, extremely nervous. Unlike his old self he rode in a feverish manner to the lodges of the various tribal leaders for brief talks with them. On his return he hurried into his tent and then came out again a second or two later this time with his medicine bag from which he withdrew a small kit containing earth pigments of various colors. Moistening the palm of his hand he inserted it into the pigment and then with careful emphasis he left a maroon colored imprint of his hand on the hip of his pinto pony. He then did this on the other side, and then he drew an arrow and a bloody scalp on each side of the pony's neck. When he had completed these arrangements he staked his mount within easy reach.
This information came to me from my mother who had it relayed to her by two uncles. On the night preceding the historical battle all the campfires except those that were used within the lodges were extinguished early as an added precaution against inviting unexpected disaster. In one of the tents Crazy Horse and a few of his closest associates sat and conversed in low tones. Their conversation was concentrated mostly on the subject of the impending conflict which now seemed unavoidable. The presence of the camping troopers at a distance of only a few ridges away from a community that had already suffered attack could hardly be considered as a mere coincidence. "Whatever their purpose," remarked Crazy Horse, "I hope we are ready to meet them and to give no quarter. I suspect that this long journey of theirs has all been premeditated and in secret cooperation with Crooks to catch us from both sides. So far we have beat them to the trick by driving Crooks back out of reach of any immediate danger of retaliation. This command can also be dealt with in a like manner for according to reports their number is smaller, so, if my plans are carried out, according to schedule, we should have no trouble in disposing of them."
In the morning the greater part of the village was astir long before sunrise and smoke streamed skyward from outdoor campfires as women bent over them while preparing the morning meals. When breakfast was finished the usual village routine took place and as excited youngsters through with their other chores eagerly trekked out to bring in the village pony herd. Older Indians more concerned gathered about in self-explanatory groups. In the calm that was noticeable, brought about by the approaching storm, Crazy Horse proceeded to lay out plans for the defense of the village. Scouts were sent out to keep an eye on the soldiers who might advance at any moment When they returned they reported that they were only about three ridges away (about ten miles) and that they had been divided into three groups. When this news was heard the whole village became a scene of intensest activity. Braves, young and old, began catching their horses and without hardly knowing what they were doing galloped off towards the lower end of the village where a throng of braves had already congregated. A band of vivid Cheyennes who had been gathering all morning suddenly dashed out and, as they passed, they signalled the Lakotas that they would give battle and hold back the soldiers as long as they could.
As the excitement increased Crazy Horse again became his cool and wary self. Mounted on his painted pinto pony with the symbols of war and victory in scribed upon its thighs and neck he raced along beside the lodges of his warriors urging them on with words of encouragement. "Remain cool and fight until your last arrow and shell are released and keep this one thought in mind that the lives of our women and children are in danger and even more so if the troops succeed in reaching the village. As soon as you are mounted follow me toward the river where several bands are already waiting."
The Historical Battle
Foolish Elk of the Brule band related to me the following account of the battle as he saw it. Because of a minor wound that he had received in the engagement against Crooks on the Rosebud he was in too weak a condition to take part in the attack on Custer. This is his version:
"I was weak so I sat in the doorway of my lodge and from there I saw all the commotion that was going on in the village. Warriors were hastily leaping on their ponies and riding away. The women also were making hasty motions as they packed their possessions in order to be ready for sudden flight. Warriors, I had never seen so many, all of them were well armed and their ponies were in mettlesome condition. While I was occupied in this manner and expecting at any time to see or hear something momentous happen, I heard gun shots coming from the upper end of the village followed by war whoops. These firearm reports coming from a direction opposite where our braves had been massed for an attack confused my mind and later I found out what had happened. The Hunkpahpahs and Minnekanwojues had frustrated an attack on their village by two detachments under Major Reno and Captain Benteen. As my attention began to focus on what was happening towards the upper end of the village I was suddenly startled into looking toward the East again where the events that I had waited for began to outline themselves. As I shaded my eyes with my hand, I could see emerging from the direction of the hazily outlined hills a long column of bobbing forms moving into the river bottom. A trumpet blared and they began to gallop. When I first saw them they were about 10 arrowshots away (3000 yards). As they again appeared in view I saw that they were barely close pursuit of several warriors who were just barely managing to keep ahead of them. These, I learned later, were the Cheyennes who had rushed out earlier to meet the approaching troopers and who, in accordance with the instructions of Crazy Horse, were deliberately leading them into an ambush exactly as he had planned. [Note: White Cow Bull described the exact same scene, with Custer's men coming fast in hot pursuit of a handful of Indians, but he said they were Sioux, and it was no ambush -- there were less than a dozen Indian defenders when Custer tried to charge across the Little Bighorn and attack the Indian village.]
"However, I did not know this at the time and sat there in tense anxiety expecting at any moment to see the village over-run by troopers. Just as I was begining to feel, let us say immensely wan, I heard the Sioux war cry (Hokahe) ring out from the river bottom, and soon afterwards a swarm; of warriors appeared and began to attack the ranging column from three sides. Crazy Horse with a mixed band of Ogalalas and Brules met the foremost van of troops head on and then, dividing into two streams they rode on towards the rear of the column, slashed at it from both sides as they did so. Suddenly, and at a given signal, the reformed Cheyennes rushed in and proceeded to belabor and shoot down the disconcerted members of the first group. In the meantime another band of warriors came furiously riding in from the south. In a short time I could see through the extending cloud of dust that almost entirely covered the raging scene that the whole column was caught in a trap and completely surrounded. In fact the leading group had been cut off by the charging warriors from the rear detachment, and these latter were being driven in the direction of another band of Indians who were coming at them from the north and who were not far from the lower end of the village. I witnessed this encounter at close range and saw the separated group immediately disposed of in a very short time. Towards the east, though the main battle had become indistinct, and because of intervening ridges, I was only able to get a hazy view of our warriors as they rode into and then out again from the scene of conflict. This encounter lasted longer than the skirmish to the north, but very soon the din and commotion began to die down and braves on lathered mounts appeared emerging from the direction of the battle. Some of these galloped off toward the north and others came riding into the village; it was from these that I learned of the exceptional disaster that. had befallen the entire command. (Wicunkasotapelo) "We killed them all" remarked one of the group."
As to the incidents that took place at the upper end of the village, the best account that I have, was given to me by Elk Head and others who have verified his version. "Our two separate bands composed of Hunkpahpahs and Minnikanwojues met and engaged a body of troops who had arrived within sight of the village without being detected, but before they had a chance to advance in formation we broke up the attack and they were driven back to a timbered hillside where they dismounted to seek cover behind trees and bouldered rocks. We kept them busy dodging our bullets and, arrows. A second detachment, some of whom were mounted on white horses, did succeed in breaking through to us and crossed the river but we threw then back and several of them were killed and wounded. A second attempt to cross the river that lay between us was even less successful for they not only lost more men but they were forced to retreat in desperate disorder; for the remainder of the battle they remained hidden behind a thick grove well screened with heavy brush. We could not at first understand why they were making such desperate efforts to break through our defense until the news of the total destruction of Custer's command was relayed to us by a group of youngsters who had ridden over from the scene of the conflict. Their motive then was plain for they had been hastening to the aid of Custer who had planned to attack the lower end or the village."
After the Battle
The cessation of the battle of the Little Big Horn left behind a grim succession of thwarted forms prostrated upon the scene of combat. Riddled with bullets and arrows the dead troopers lay strewn along the path of its advance-fading reminiscences of a bold but losing fight against odds. Either through luck or superior prudence Major Reno and Captain Benteen extricated themselves from their perilous position near the village and escaped from the danger zone under cover of darkness thus spared the fate of their less fortunate comrades.
Custer's Conqueror by William J. Bordeaux, Smith & Company 1944 p 53 - 59
Born in 1884, William J. Bordeaux was the son of a white trader and a Brule Sioux mother, and a registered member of the Brule band of the Teton Sioux. He was not an eye-witness to the events he writes about, but like 100 Voices' other Indian chroniclers (Ohiyesa, John Stands In Timber, Bird Horse and Pretty Shield), Bordeaux had fluent, native access to some important participants whose information is not avialble elsewhere.
Bordeaux's writing is extremely frustrating to many students of the American wars with the Sioux and Cheyenne, for while his narrative is frequently garbled, he is also the only source for Sioux warriors Elk Head and Foolish Elk's important eye-witness account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Furthermore, Bordeaux interviewed Crazy Horse's sister, Julia Iron Cedar or Mrs. Amos Clown, which makes his comments on Crazy Horse particularly important. For instance, Bordeaux records Crazy Horse's prediction that the Americans were lying and wouldn't honor the commitments they made to the Sioux in the treaty of 1868, which was true as it turned out.
Improbably, William J. Bordeaux was also one of the most astute Indian observers of Crazy Horse's military innovations, describing how Crazy Horse very cleverly attacked a line of Custer's men head on and "slashed at them from both sides" at the Little Bighorn, thereby minimizing the Bluecoats' defensive firepower, and how at the Rosebud, he attacked Crook in encircling waves, a technique Crazy Horse developed to isolate and destroy portions of the American force piecemeal. See Sioux & Cheyenne Military Tactics during the American Wars of Imperial Conquest on the High Plains for more info.
Similarly, Bordeaux's tantilizingly brief picture of Crazy Horse in action on the Powder River -- where he tersely yet wryly asks his sub-commanders, "how about it?" -- provides an almost Socratic picture of Crazy Horse in the commander's role. It isn't hard to imagine his eager young accolytes like Good Weasel and Kicking Bear and Little Big Man vying to provide the smartest -- effectively lethal -- answer to their mentor.
-- Bruce Brown
© Copyright 1973 - 2020 by Bruce Brown and BF Communications Inc.
BF Communications Inc.
Website by Running Dog