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June 2016

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U.S. Census Bureau History: Battle of the Little Bighorn

George Armstrong Custer

The U.S. government ordered Lt. Colonel George A. Custer and the
U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment to evict the Lakota Sioux and Northern
Cheyenne Indians from their land in the Dakota Territories' Black
Hills following the discovery of gold in the region.

June 25–26 marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn—the most prominent battle in the Great Sioux War of 1876, in which Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians annihilated five companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment led by Lt. Colonel George A. Custer. Known by its American Indian participants as the "Battle of the Greasy Grass," the battle culminated with "Custer's Last Stand" on June 26, 1876.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie provided the Indians exclusive use of South Dakota's Black Hills and territory in Montana and Wyoming. However, the 1874 discovery of gold in the region led the U.S. government to order the Army to force the Indians onto reservations and out of the way of newly arriving settlers and prospectors. Angered by the U.S. government's failure to honor its treaties, the Great Plains Indians refused to end their nomadic lifestyle for the confinement of reservations. In response, the 7th Cavalry Regiment entered Montana to force the Indians off the land in late spring 1876.

As Brigadier General Alfred Terry, Colonel John Gibbon, and the 7th Cavalry Regiment advanced toward suspected Indian encampments along the Little Bighorn River, they were unaware of the size of nearby Indian forces. To their southeast, General George Crook and 15 companies from the Department of the Platte retreated after encountering an unexpectedly large Indian force on June 17 during the Battle of the Rosebud. With little intelligence or knowledge of Crook's retreat, Terry ordered Custer to reconnoiter the Little Bighorn area and attack if advantageous on June 22. Custer observed Indian activity on June 24 and divided his companies into three battalions under Major Marcus Reno, Captain Frederick Benteen, and himself. Despite warnings from his Indian scouts, Custer began the attack at midday on June 25.

First to approach the encampment was Major Reno, who enraged the Sioux by killing women and children. Reno's men made a hasty retreat to the bluffs on the opposite side of the Little Bighorn River where they joined Benteen's men to dig defensive positions. Despite a message requesting immediate assistance and hearing heavy gunfire from Custer's men in the distance, Benteen and Reno held their position. They did not learn that Custer and his men were dead until General Terry arrived on the scene and delivered the news on June 27.

Although the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a major victory for the Great Plains Indians, it was also a step toward their ultimate defeat and relocation to reservations. Many of the Sioux combatants fled to Canada, but begrudgingly moved onto reservations following food shortages and failed efforts to have their land returned. On June 30, 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians Link to a non-federal Web site, that the United States took the Black Hills without just compensation. The Sioux refused monetary compensation. They continue to insist upon their right to occupy their sacred land in the Black Hills and along the Little Bighorn River.

You can learn more about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its participants using data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies. For example:

  • When the Battle of the Little Bighorn ended, the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment suffered 268 dead and 55 wounded (6 of whom died of their wounds at a later date). Many of these soldiers participated in the 1870 and earlier censuses, including: Colonel Miles Keogh; Lt. Colonel George A. Custer and his brother Boston Custer; 1st Lieutenant Daniel McIntosh; 2nd Lieutenants James Sturgis, Weston Harrington, and Henry Harrington; 1st Sergeant Frederick Hohmeyer; Sergeant John Wilkinson; Corporal Samuel Staples; Dr. James DeWolf; Privates Charles Perkins, George Adams, John Heim, Joseph Broadhurst, Owen Boyle, Thomas Sweetser, William Losse; and trumpeters John Patton, Julius Helmer, and Thomas McElroy.
  • The U.S. National Parks Service manages a memorial and visitor center at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Big Horn County, MT. The Crow Agency—a census designated place—lies northeast of the battlefield and is home to members of the Crow American Indian tribe. In 2014, the Census Bureau estimated the Crow Agency's population was 1,821.
  • Planning a visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument? Consider a stop at the Big Horn County Museum Link to a non-federal Web site in Hardin, MT. Featured in our Data@Museums program, the museum uses census data in its local history and Plains Indians exhibits.
  • Census records identify few American Indians prior to 1860. During the 1860 Census, enumerators included American Indians living in the general population. In 1890, the Census Bureau released a report Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska), which included data on all American Indians living in the United States, but the records were destroyed in a 1921 fire. The 1900 Census enumerated Indians living in the general population and on reservations. In that year, the American Indian population totaled 237,196. Some Indian participants in the Battle of the Little Bighorn can be found in the 1900 and later censuses, including: Black Elk, Flying Hawk, He Dog, Henry Oscar One Bull, Iron Hawk, Two Moons, and White Cow Bull.
  • Between 1885 and 1940, agents or superintendents in charge of Indian reservations usually conducted censuses each year and submitted the results to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Data in the U.S. Indian Census Rolls usually include English and/or Indian name of the person, roll number, age or date of birth, sex, and relationship to head of family. Many of the Indians who participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn are contained on these rolls, including: He Dog, Chief Gall (1892 and 1894), Sitting Bull, One Bull, Black Moon, Rain in the Face, Kicking Bear, and Hollow Horn Bear.
  • In 2010, 5.2 million people in the United States identified themselves as American Indian and Alaska Native either alone or in combination with one or more races. Of this total, 2.9 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native alone. California led the nation with the largest population of American Indians with 723,225, followed by Oklahoma (482,760), Arizona (353,396), Texas (315,264), New York (221,058), and New Mexico (219,512).
  • The U.S. government and military continued pressuring the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and other tribes to vacate their land following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, eventually relocating them to reservations like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Nebraska and the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. In 2010, the Pine Ridge Reservation was the nation's second largest American Indian reservation with a population of 18,834. The Rosebud Indian Reservation's population—the nation's seventh largest—totaled 10,869. The Navajo Nation Reservation, spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, is the nation's largest with a population of 173,667 in 2010.
  • Surviving combatants of the Battle of the Little Bighorn lived well into the 1900s. Dewey Beard—a Minneconjou Lakota Indian who changed his name from "Iron Hail"—was a teenaged participant at the battle as well as a survivor of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. He died in Rapid City, SD, in 1955. Charles Windolph, assigned to Captain Frederick Benteen on June 25, 1876, was wounded and received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the June 26, 1876 battle. He died in Lead, SD, in March 1950. Minnie Grace Mechling Carey, daughter of Henry W.B. Mechling who earned the Medal of Honor while serving under Captain Benteen, was likely the last surviving child of one of the Little Bighorn's participants. She died July 30, 2006, in Sebring, FL.
  • Many descendants of those who participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn will participate in the 2017 Census Test conducted at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Link to a non-federal Web site on April 1, 2017. The 2017 Census Test is both a site test on tribal lands and a nationwide self-response test. It will allow the Census Bureau to test the feasibility of collecting information on tribal enrollment as well as refine our methods for the 2020 Census for enumerating areas with unique location characteristics.

American Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield

The Indian Memorial at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana honors Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne battle participants,
including Black Elk, Flying Hawk, He Dog, One Bull, Iron Hawk, Two Moons, and White Cow Bull.

Chief Gall
View larger image

Chief Gall

Inspired by Sitting Bull's visions, Chief Gall (pictured) led the Hunkpapa Lakota against the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 26, 1876. Known as the "Battle of the Greasy Grass" to the American Indians, Gall's recollections of the battle are critical to our understanding of the battle and its outcome.

After the battle, many American Indian participants, including Gall, fled to Canada but returned to the United States in 1880. Gall moved to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Link to a non-federal Web site in 1881, where he appears in the 1892 and 1894 U.S. Indian Census Rolls. He farmed and served as a judge of the reservation's Court of Indian Affairs. Gall died at his home in Oak Creek, SD on December 5, 1894.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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This Month in Census History

On June 14, 1951, the Census Bureau dedicated UNIVAC I at the Echert-Mauchly Laboratory in Philadelphia, PA.

Built by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly and completed by Remington-Rand, UNIVAC I was the nation's first commercial computer built for a civilian government agency. It weighed 29,000 pounds and performed about 1,905 operations per second using 5,200 vacuum tubes. The Census Bureau retired UNIVAC I in 1963.

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021