10 Important Battles & Fights of the Great Sioux War
These ten battles shaped the future of the Great Plains and its inhabitants.
From the 1850s to the 1870s, the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne fought a series of wars against the United States for their continued sovereignty. The core cause of these conflicts was white encroachment on Native American land and Native American resistance to that encroachment.
In the end, overbearing technology, resources, and logistics of the United States led to the end of Native American resistance.
Their culture, as well as that of the Cheyenne, depended on the horse, and nomadic buffalo hunting was central to their lifeways. These cultures came into conflict with the United States’ expansion, starting with attempts of the U.S. to open up a trail for settlers heading to California as part of the Gold Rush.
These early disputes were fought in the 1860s and resulted in the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), which guaranteed the Sioux possession of today’s South Dakota west of the Missouri River. This included the sacred Black Hills. However, in the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, leading to white settlers illegally pushing into Native American land.
The United States was unable, and probably unwilling, to constrain settlement. The U.S. government tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux. The Sioux and Northern Cheyenne rightly viewed this as an affront of the Fort Laramie treaty and refused.
Settlers were attacked and the U.S. ordered all Sioux and Northern Cheyenne to return to reservation land. It then launched the army to clear the Black Hills. Thus, the Great Sioux War started.
The following ten battles and fights were the key events in this tragic conflict.
1. Battle of Powder River, March 17, 1876
In the late winter of 1876, Brigadier General George Crook marched his soldiers north out of Fort Fetterman in Wyoming into the bitter cold of the Bozeman Trail. The plan was to catch Native American war leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at unawares in their encampments.
The trek was hard and the white soldiers were frostbitten and weary. Then on March 16, 1876, Native American scouts spied two warriors observing U.S. forces. In response, Crook detached a force of nearly 400, led by Colonel Joseph Reynolds to follow them. These tracked them to a large Oglala Sioux encampment: Crazy Horse’s camp.
Reynolds launched a two-pronged attack on the encampment but the cold weather and poor execution resulted in his troops only being able to burn the village. The U.S. Army lost the initiative and found itself under fire from the Cheyenne who had withdrawn to lodges on the heights.
Four soldiers were killed, six wounded, and 66 were stricken by frostbite. Cheyenne losses were minimal with figures ranging from one to three dead. Reynolds was forced to withdraw.
This attack most likely solidified Native American resistance to the U.S. Army. Reynolds himself was court-martialed and found guilty of dereliction of duty for not throwing his full command into the battle after the initial attack.
Sometimes this fight is called the Reynolds Battle. It marked the start of hostilities in the Great Sioux War.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
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2. Skirmish of Tongue River Heights, June 9, 1876
General Crook led another incursion into Sioux Territory in late May 1876. In early June, he encamped at the confluence of the Tongue River and Prairie Dog Creek. Crook sent three scouts ahead to the Crow reservation to recruit men for the new campaign.
While they waited, time was spent playing games to while away the hours. The monotony was finally broken when outlying guards fired warning shots. Soon, roughly 100 to 200 Cheyenne warriors had put the camp under fire from heights above the waterways.
The army soldiers returned fire ineffectually. Crook then sent a detachment of cavalry to dislodge the Cheyenne. They did this, but could not pursue them since they had removed themselves into much too rocky terrain.
Casualties for the whole incident, sometimes called the Battle of Prairie Dog Creek, were light, with only two soldiers wounded. Cheyenne casualties were also light.
The fight, however, highlighted the hubris of the American command. General Crook did not station men in the heights, maybe because he underestimated his Native American foes. This type of arrogance would come back to bite the army.
Related read: 9 Fascinating Facts About Cherokee Bill, Ruthless Outlaw
3. Battle of Rosebud Creek, June 17, 1876
That first bite was at Rosebud Creek. General Crook led his column of 1,3000 men toward a rendezvous in Montana with two other columns in the region of the Bighorn River.
As his column approached the Bighorn, his scouts passed word of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors nearby. The U.S. army and its 262 Crow and Shoshone allies headed toward Rosebud Creek, where there was believed to be a large Sioux village.
Upon reaching the Rosebud, Crook called a halt to allow the rest of the column to catch up. The Sioux, then led by Crazy Horse, launched a surprise attack with some 1,500 warriors. While the regular army was taken by surprise, Crook’s Native American allies were not.
They blunted the charge of the stronger force. Eventually the Sioux made a tactical retreat from the field, meaning to draw the army away off. This did not work. Of the U.S. Army, 26 were killed and 56 badly wounded. Crazy Horse lost only 17.
The Battle of Rosebud Creek was a near disaster for the U.S. Army, and presaged the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The battle is also known as the “Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.”
During the heat of the battle, a Cheyenne chief named Comes in Sight had his horse shot out from beneath him and found himself under heavy fire. When his sister, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, saw this, she charged into the fight and got her brother onto her horse, helping him escape.
4. Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876
If anybody knows at least one event of the Great Sioux War, it is the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly called Custer’s Last Stand. After the Battle of the Rosebud Creek, the U.S. Army column headed by General Alfred Terry was tracking the Sioux and Cheyenne.
Terry ordered Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer to take the 7th cavalry and scout for enemies along the Little Bighorn River. On the morning of June 25, Custer found an encampment of some 10,000 Sioux led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Instead of waiting for reinforcements, Custer pressed on with his 600 men.
Crazy Horse led a frontal attack while Sitting Bull remained behind to defend the village. The battle was quick. Some 3,000 Native Americans completely overwhelmed Custer’s 7th Cavalry. It was the most overwhelming victory of a Native American force over a U.S. Army force, ever. Custer’s Last Stand burned an indelible image into the annals of American history.
News of the debacle quickly spread east.
The outrage over the incident led to a redoubling of American efforts to subjugate the Sioux, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Sioux.
5. Fight at Warbonnet Creek, July 17, 1876
The U.S. army was looking to avenge themselves for the Little Bighorn. The first opportunity presented itself in a small, but intense skirmish at Warbonnet Creek. The Fifth U.S. Cavalry, led by Colonel Wesley Merritt, was sent to block Native American supply routes between the various agencies in Nebraska.
At Warbonnet Creek in northwest Nebraska, Merritt found the Cheyenne and set up an ambush. At the minor action that followed, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody claimed to have killed the warrior Yellow Hair and taken his scalp, thus, taking “the first scalp for Custer.”
He featured this event in his later famous Wild West Show. Cody’s claim has been highly disputed.
Related read: 17 Epic Facts about the Transcontinental Railroad
6. Battle of Slim Buttes, September 9, 1876
In the Slim Buttes Range of western Montana, Oglala leader Crazy Horse led an estimated 800 warriors to come to the relief of a Lakota village that was under assault by some 150 cavalry. When he arrived, he found the village in ruins and to his surprise, the cavalry was now reinforced by 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers under General Crook.
Crook, for his part, was determined to avenge the Little Bighorn loss. In his campaign, he had purposely not taken enough rations believing that he could despoil Native American villages to keep up supply.
This did not happen and soon rations were cut to half and eventually the army was reduced to killing horses and mules for meat. Thus, when they reached the Lakota village, they went about pillaging then devouring the food.
Crazy Horse led an attack from the heights, shooting at the soldiers below, while Crook took up a defensive position. Relentless gunfire finally drove Crazy Horse away. The price was three men. This was the first victory for the U.S. Army after the Little Bighorn, but Crook’s soldiers probably remembered the march more for its horsemeat.
Related read: When Did the Wild West Really End?
7. Battle of Cedar Creek, October 21, 1876
The U.S. Army delivered a heavy blow to the Sioux at Cedar Creek. Sitting Bull had been on the move, with a large assortment of tribes when he was discovered near the headwaters of Cedar Creek by Colonel Nelson A. Miles, who led 500 infantry.
The two forces stood off and parlayed with Miles, demanding that Sitting Bull surrender and return to the reservation. Sitting Bull refused. Negotiations broke off and the Native Americans departed. But after they began burning brush to hide their movements, shooting started.
Up to 600 warriors engaged the soldiers in order to cover the retreat, but they were forced to abandon valuable supplies and materials. Miles then launched a dogged pursuit, forcing Sitting Bull to divide his people. He himself headed north while other lodges headed south.
Miles was able to overtake some and force their surrender. While Sitting Bull did not surrender, it was clear that the U.S. Army was gaining the mastery of the Great Plains.
8. Dull Knife Fight, November 25, 1876
While Colonel Miles was ranging against the Sioux, General Crook led another large excursion of about 2,000 men including soldiers, Native American allies, and supporting personnel toward the base of the Bighorn Mountains.
There, they found a Cheyenne village headed by Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf. This was one of the locations that held the core of the camp that Custer had attacked at the Little Bighorn. The fight that ensued, called either the Dull Knife Fight or the Red Fork Battle, after the Red Fork of the Powder River, saw the Cheyenne taken by complete surprise.
The old, women, and children fled as warriors stayed to fight in order to buy them time to escape. The brief but intense fight saw about 40 dead and 80 wounded, while the U.S. Army lost some six soldiers with 22 wounded. In the mayhem, the U.S. Army soldiers saw, to their consternation, relics of Custer’s troops from the Little Bighorn.
The pillaging grew apace and many important artifacts of Cheyenne history were lost. As the Cheyenne fled into the mountains to find Crazy Horse’s camp, they saw their village burning below. Eleven babies froze to death in the march that followed.
9. Battle of Wolf Mountains, January 8, 1877
After the Battles of Cedar Creek and Red Fork, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne came to understand that their long term position was untenable. Even Crazy Horse agreed that peace was needed.
A delegation was sent to Colonel Nelson A. Miles, but unfortunately, that delegation was killed by Crow warriors, who were allied with the U.S., and traditional enemies of the Sioux. While Miles wrote apologies and assured them that it was the Crow and not the whites who did it, the Sioux did not believe him. They continued the war.
Through the winter, Colonel Nelson A. Miles had been on the hunt for Crazy Horse. Through the season, he and his men endured frozen hardships and with little luck at finding the Oglala chief. While encamped at the south of the Wolf Mountains and near the Tongue river, Miles’ intelligence informed him that Crazy Horse was near.
Defenses were set up, especially since other Sioux warriors had been making forays against them. Then, on the morning of January 8, 1877, Miles found himself under attack by Crazy Horse and perhaps 500 warriors. The superior armaments of the U.S. Army easily repulsed Crazy Horse back to the heights.
There they took up a defensive position and fought the army until he low on ammunition and withdrew. Despite it being a five-hour battle, casualties were low with only three killed on either side.
While it was a draw, the internal pressure on the Sioux to surrender intensified. Crazy Horse did just that, in May. Sitting Bull, meanwhile, headed for Canada.
10. Battle of Little Muddy Creek, May 7, 1877
By the spring of 1877, the Sioux resistance was largely broken. Almost all of the Sioux who had fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn had surrendered or returned to the reservations.
All that was left was one dissident camp led by Chief Lame Deer. Colonel Miles was sent to track them, which he did at the Little Muddy Creek. A negotiation started. Miles demanded that Lame Deer put down his rifle. He put down the weapon, but left it cocked and facing toward them.
Then, during negotiations, something happened that triggered a general fight. Lame Deer was shot dead, as well as 13 others of his band. The U.S. Army lost four.
The Battle of Little Muddy Creek, also called the Lame Deer Fight, was the last major gasp of Sioux resistance. While the surrender of Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee Massacre would utterly destroy any last vestige of Sioux independence, the Great Sioux War had come to an end.
Related read: 7 Famous Native American Women with Remarkable Stories
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Sources & Further Reading
- The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Nathaniel Philbrick
- Battles and Skirmishes of the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877: The Military View, Jerome A. Greene
- Sioux Warrior vs US Cavalryman: The Little Bighorn campaign 1876–77, Ron Field
- Great Sioux War Orders of Battle: How the United States Army Waged War on the Northern Plains, 1876–1877, Paul L. Hedren
- The Great Sioux War: A History from Beginning to End, Hourly History
- Powder River: Disastrous Opening of the Great Sioux War, Paul L. Hedren
Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.