Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hardin, MT - Battle of Little Bighorn, Pompeys Pillar

After we broke free from the “Great Freeze of Great Falls”, we drove to Hardin, Montana, on Sunday, April 13th.  We found only one campground that was open for the season, but it was less than a desirable place to stay.  But I suppose that for only one or two nights you could stay nearly anywhere.

By the time we rolled into Hardin, it was getting late and I was tired.  So the kids and I drove a few blocks away to a fast food restaurant.  Immediately we noticed that we were the only ones in the restaurant who weren’t Native American.  I thought it was a little odd, but I didn’t think much of it since, after all, this is Montana.  Came to find out the next day that we were staying just on the border of the Crow Nation.  That explained it!

The next morning we drove a few miles through the Crow Reservation until we came to the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Because it was a Monday during the off-season, this national park wasn’t crowded at all.  We did see a school group touring the battlefield, and again we noticed that all the school kids looked Native American.  Again, we learned that the school group was from the Crow Nation.

As usual, we toured the visitor center first, but then we took an auto tour through the battlefield.  The battlefield leaves an impression due to the markers scattered throughout the park indicating the place where soldiers and Indians fell during the battle, best known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.

In 1876, while the United States was celebrating its centennial anniversary in Philadelphia and touting its industrial and economic might, word came to President Grant on the east coast that Lt Col George Armstrong Custer and every single man under his immediate command in the 7th Cavalry were slaughtered at the Battle of Little Bighorn.  But even though it was a great victory for the Indians, they won the battle but lost the war.  The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors were a force to be reckoned with, but ultimately their lifestyle was doomed to end due to the oppressive governance of the white man.

The Indian nations had been pushed further and further west as the white Americans pushed further and further west.  As a means of appeasement, the natives were promised free reign of the Black Hills to live their nomadic bison-following lifestyle.  However, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the American government couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep the settlers from moving into the hills.  As a result, the Indian nations yet again moved further west, into the unceded territory in present-day eastern Montana.  They really just wanted to be left alone to live their traditional lifestyle, but more settlers wanted to push into that area. 

Lt Col Custer was given orders to push the Indians out of the area.  But they refused to leave the area.  Hence, the stand-off at Little Bighorn.  The leader Sitting Bull led the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in the attack, and the rest is now history.  (Sitting Bull fled to Canada, but surrendered to the United States only five years later.  Eventually he ended up as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with sharp-shooter Annie Oakley.)  More than 260 soldiers were killed, and as many as 100 Indian warriors also met their end.  Custer’s 260 men stood against a force of 1500-2000 Indian warriors, but there were 7000 Indians encamped on the Little Bighorn River.  The odds were definitely against them.

The battlefield is currently split into two separate areas, with Crow Nation between the two areas.   In the Crow Reservation we noticed a lot of horses grazing the land.  It was very scenic.  Today there is a national cemetery at the battlefield where the remains of the soldiers are interred.  (Custer was buried at West Point.)  

There is a nice Indian memorial on the grounds of the battlefield, as well as memorials to Custer’s men.  We thought the battlefield was well done.  This was such a contentious time in our country’s history, and we thought the park honored both the Indians and the Americans in equal fashion.  No doubt a delicate tightrope to balance upon.

Later that same day, once we finished with the Little Bighorn Battlefield, we drove an hour north to see Pompeys Pillar National Monument.  

Named after Sacagawea’s son whose nickname was Pompey, it is the only tangible evidence we have of the Lewis & Clark expedition besides their own records.  William Clark engraved his name and date upon the rock when he passed by the Yellowstone River:  Wm. Clark  July 25, 1806

“…this rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction…The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & year.”  - from the original journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Even though it was still closed for the season, we walked to the top of the rock and had a magnificent view of the river below.  It was surreal to be at the only known exact spot of William Clark over 200 years ago.  And since we had recently been to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center a few days prior, this was a neat place to visit.

We then drove back home, and later that night Steve and the older boys woke up and went outside to watch the lunar eclipse, dubbed “blood moon”.  I was just way too exhausted to get out of bed, so I missed the spectacle.  But it was a clear night in Montana, and the eclipse was apparently a sight to behold.
And once again, the next morning we packed ourselves up and continued on.