Episode 36 of The Wealth Cast sees National Park historian Neil Mangum join Chas to discuss one of the most infamous military conflicts in American history, the Battle of Little Bighorn. General Custer’s defeat shook the foundations of the country, and for over a century, far less was known by establishment historians than should have been, due to a systematic failure to consult with Native American custodians of knowledge about the battle. Neil highlights this and other insights into the battle, in the context of his own journey as an historian and his work in the National Park System.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Hello, and welcome to The Wealth Cast. I’m your host, Charles Boinske. On this podcast, we bring you the information that you need to know in order to be a good steward of your wealth, reach your goals and improve society. On today’s episode, we’re going to take a bit of a detour into an unrelated subject, or a subject that’s not related to the typical podcasts that we do, and that is the life of an historian and the Battle of Little Bighorn.
One of the benefits of being a good steward of your wealth is your ability to explore your interests, and things outside of business or your profession, etc. And for me, one of those interests is history—and in particular military history. Since I was a kid, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
And today, I’m really fortunate to be able to welcome Neil Mangum to the podcast. Neil is an historian, who has been the Chief Historian at the Little Bighorn National Battlefield Park, as well as the superintendent of the park. Neil is one of the preeminent authorities on the American West, and is highly sought after as a guide, particularly to the Indian Wars.
I hope you enjoy the podcast. There’s certainly enough information about the Battle of the Little Bighorn in this podcast to hopefully kindle your interest in terms of learning more, or perhaps opening a door on history in general.
Well, Neil, thank you so much for joining me on The Wealth Cast. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to chat with you and have you share your experiences career-wise, and as the superintendent of the Little Bighorn National Monument, and as a historian. So thank you so much for joining me.
Well, I’m glad to be here today.
So why don’t we start at the beginning. You know, you’ve told me the story of how you made your way to employment at Little Bighorn National Battlefield Monument. And I thought it was really interesting, and there’s so many parallels with, you know, business careers in terms of perseverance, etc. I thought it’d be an interesting thing to share with to start.
Well, my interest in Little Bighorn—it was captivated by the 1941 release of—by Warner Brothers—of the movie, They Died with Their Boots On. It was from that movie that I took a liking, personally, to the star of the show, George Custer, who, standing there alone, goes down in immortal defeat at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
From that time, when I was a kid in the 1950s—when I first saw the movie—I was captivated by the event and looked into well, you know, where is Custer Battlefield? And it’s in Montana. Well, it’s managed by the National Park Service. So who are those guys? So I did some looking around.
Of course, in my hometown of Petersburg, Virginia, there was a National Park Service Unit, Petersburg National Battlefields. And I did some letter writing in high school, and I wanted to go out to Custer Battlefield and be a seasonal—I applied but was rejected on that. But I eventually got on with the National Park Service in Petersburg, as a seasonal, working in the park’s Living History Program, where I donned Confederate Gray, and we did cannon firing demonstrations, cavalry, all for the visiting public.
Well, ultimately I wanted to go to Little Bighorn—or go to Custer Battlefield—which later by the way, was name changed to a Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I applied for some of the permanent jobs there at Custer because I had got on permanently at Petersburg. I was rejected the first time but the second time I decided—I heard that a vacancy was opening up for the Chief of Interpretation at the park and the historian’s position. I was—at that time I was the historian at Petersburg Battlefield. I drove up personally to Montana, and talked to the superintendent and say, “Hey, I know, I wanna make myself known as a serious candidate for your position here.”
So we had a long chat, and to make a long story short, about a year later—actually, less than a year later—he called me up and said he was going to pick me up and it would be a transfer from my job. At the time, I was working in Missouri, at another national park there, and they transferred me to Custer Battlefield, and I came up there in 1979, and became the park historian slash and the Chief of Interpretation. So that’s how I got up to Little Big Horn. So again, I guess part of it is persevering, knowing what you know, knowing what your goals are, and trying to figure out how to on meet those goals and objectives. You were saying you would do, and I think in the business cycle is, “I know what I want to do, how do I get there?”
And not being put off by difficulties, and having to persevere.
Yes. The rejections, they come, but you say, “Okay, well, that’s now I’m going to see what I can do to improve my position, and at the next time that the position comes open.” So that’s what you do.
That’s great. I seem to remember a part of the story being during that process, at one point, you got a rejection letter with someone else’s name on it. Is that true?
Yes. The first time I wrote to Custer Battlefield—this would have been, oh, after graduating high school—and I sent my application in, and here comes an envelope in the mail from Custer Battlefield, and I think, “Oh boy, here’s my job.” Open it up. The letters—the envelope was right, it was addressed to me—but I had somebody else’s rejection letter in there. And of course, somebody else got my rejection letter.
That would have dissuaded most people from continuing the effort, but I’m sure you’re glad.
Well, it’s something that you that you don’t forget!
I bet, I bet. Well, eventually, through your experiences there, you became superintendent of the park as well, correct?
That’s correct. And again, that was another story where I had applied for the job, the position of the superintendent at the park had come open, and I applied for it and didn’t get it. And so I am working at my old job, which at the time was the historian out of Sul Ross State University and the National Park Service had an office there, and I covered about six or seven national parks in the southwest region. I get a call out of the blue saying, “Hey, how would you like to come to a Little Bighorn Battlefield?” By that time the name had changed officially from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
So I got a phone call saying, “Well, we’d like for you to come to Little Bighorn.” And I said, “Well, let me think about it.” And I was so excited about about getting it, I said I got to run this by my wife and family. And of course I called them back the next morning and said I’ll take the job.
That’s a great story.
Well, I got rejected both times for the seasonal job for the—well actually, I got rejected three times. The seasonal job, I got rejected, the permanent position at Custer Battlefield as a historian, I was rejected there. And I was rejected the first time applying for the superintendent position.
Well, there you go. There’s a perfect example of perseverance. So thanks for sharing that, Neil. You know, I think based on your enthusiasm of the subject that’s very contagious, I think it was well deserved in the end. So on behalf of everyone interested in history, and especially the Little Bighorn and all the work you’ve done there, thank you for persevering.
I think, you know, at this point, it might make sense to share just sort of an overview of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And I might share from my perspective, my interest in the Little Bighorn started at a young age as well—probably about 10 or 12, as soon as I started really reading history. And for some reason, this particular episode in history really captured my attention.
And I think it may be because of the mystery associated with the Battle of Little Bighorn. It’s kind of like watching a movie, where occasionally the sound goes out, and then occasionally the picture goes out, and then occasionally both go out, and it picks up at some point, you know, further along in the movie, so you’ve got to interpret what happened, and do some reading and gain a better understanding, but it’s an unsolvable, you know, it’s not 100% solvable. We’ll never know exactly what transpired. And that’s what sort of piqued my interest, you know, years ago, and it’s been a lifelong interest.
And I’m really glad that has been. It’s provided me with great experiences, meaning folks like you, and David Woodbury, and others. So why don’t you share sort of an overview of the battle, and then we can talk about a couple related topics?
Well, the Battle of Little Bighorn was part of an overriding campaign. The government—that means the United States government—had issued an ultimatum to all the Indians living off of the reservation. Now, in 1876, their reservations were generally along the Missouri River, present day Bismarck, and then down toward Mowbray, South Dakota, down that way. But there had been a number of Indians who had never signed the treaty to live on a reservation. And so the government was focusing on bringing those Indians onto a reservation. And they issued an ultimatum in December of 1875, which was that the Indians must report to a reservation by the end of January 1876. Scarcely not even two months away, they must report to a reservation or they would be considered enemies of the government, and the term that was applied was “hostiles.” And if they did not come into a reservation, the United States government would send soldiers out to force that ultimatum, force that edict.
The campaign loosely was supposed to be three army columns put into the field: One coming from the south out of Wyoming, another one coming out of western Montana, and another column coming out of North Dakota under the command of General Alford Terry, including all 12 he had in his command—all 12 companies of the Seventh U.S. Cav, commanded by field commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. And the idea was these three converging columns would locate the Indians, and then each column then, would block the Indians from getting away, and drive them back on the other column. Now, you have to understand that when we say “block,” we’re not talking about these three columns being in such close concert that they know what the other columns are doing. We’re talking about hundreds of square miles of territory where the army did not know precisely where the Indians were located.
Well, ultimately, the column coming from the south on the command of Brigadier General George Krupp is turned back by the combined forces of Sioux and Cheyenne, at the Battle of the Rosebud, fought just eight days before the Battle of Little Bighorn. And he fell back into the army, and he was out of the picture—no communications as to what happened to him.
Meanwhile, the other two army columns had formed the junction, about 100 miles away from the Little Bighorn Battlefield, that being the command of Colonel John Gibbon, and Gen Alford Terry. The decision was made that based on the most current Indian scouts that they had—they had Arikara and Crow Indian scouts with them—that the Indian division, most likely based on the smoke and the evidence that they had seen, was probably over on the Little Bighorn River Valley. And of course, that river valley runs for, oh, about 100 miles or more, so you don’t know precisely where it’s at.
But now that they had some idea where the Indians were located, Terry gives Custer free rein—essentially free rein—to take his 12 companies and go in, go up the Indian trail that had been discovered on the Rosebud Creek, which is one valley stream east of the Little Bighorn. Custer would go up the Rosebud Valley, would Custer, and then he would cross over toward the headwaters of the Rosebud over to the Little Bighorn Valley, which was the valley to the west. And then he would come down that valley, and if there were Indians, he would drive them down the valley toward the other column, which was Gibbons’ column, now personally attended with General Cherry, and that column would come up the Little Bighorn Valley from its mouth, and the two columns would converge on the Indians. That was the plan of action.
Well, Custer takes off on the 22nd of June with all 12 companies and about 560 soldiers with him. They go up the Rosebud Valley, they discover that the Indian Trail has turned off of the Rosebud, and has gone over to the Little Bighorn Valley. Custer goes up and follows the Indian Trail and gets up to a high point known today as the Crow’s Nest, up on the Wolf Mountain about 15 miles from the Little Bighorn Valley to the west. Custer scouts out a huge Indian pony herd down in the valley—they can see smoke, basically coming up from the valley floor, 15 miles away. And Custer tells his officers what his plan is—and that is to wrest them in, the rest of the day. This is the morning of the 25th of June 1876. He’s gonna wrest his men, and using the cover of darkness, he will then go down into the Little Bighorn Valley, reconnoiter the Indian village down there, and then strike it on the morning of the 26th. That’s his plan of action.
But some of his scouts—and when I say scouts, not only his Indian scouts, and he had some good Arikara scouts, and he also had a few Crow, whose this was their country, they knew it backwards and forwards—but he also had his white scouts to depend on, who told him that “you need not be worried about not being detected. The Indians have—the Sioux and Cheyenne have their people up too, and they’ve spotted you. They know we’re up here.”
Custer had decided that “Nope”—he argued with his officers and said “Nope, they don’t know we’re here.” And then one of the officers came up to Custer. In fact, it was Custer’s younger brother, Tom Custer, who came up and said, “Hey some of the packs had come off during the night” from the 175 pack mules they had, and they discovered that the Indians were examining the contents of the packages on the packs. And that was proof positive that the Indians knew the location of Custer. At least, that’s what he thought.
And so he made a very crucial and a very fateful decision, and that was to launch his attack immediately before the Indians could break up. And he started down the valley. And as he did so, he organized the Seventh Cavalry into four battalions. Well, all of this was as Custer goes now, he’s concerned that the Indians may be getting away, because based on not only his experience, but other military officers and personnel, the problem is the Indians, if they know there’s an army column nearby, they will usually scatter like quail being being hunted down. That’s the general consensus.
And that was the big worry, right? The big worry was that they would miss this opportunity.
That’s right. This was a golden opportunity as Custer saw it. Some of the scouts tried to warn Custer that, “You know what, there are more Indians down there,” as one of them said, “there’s more Indians down there, than you got bullets in your guns.” Custer was expecting probably to meet no more than 1,500. And when you count the officers and civilians, Custer had over 600 and some men in his column, and he felt confident that they would be able to handle anything that they found.
Well, the Indian village—it was a good sized city. It probably had 7,000 to 9,000 people living in it, of which there were probably 1,500 to 2,000 warriors. or more. But the big thing was, the Indians were not running away. When Custer got close to the Indian village on the south end, again, people have to understand that at this point in time Custer has not seen the size of the village. It stretched out along the little Bighorn for a mile and a half to two miles there. And he orders Major Reno with three companies to cross the Little Bighorn and take as fast a gait as he deemed prudent and charge the Indian village, and Custer would support him with the whole outfit.
So Reno crosses the river and goes down the valley and wham, runs into Indian resistance—so much resistance that Reno is forced to dismount his men and fight on foot, on a skirmish across the valley floor. Meantime, Custer had not followed Reno across the valley. He stayed on the bluff on the east side of the Little Bighorn. Apparently he was looking for a route to get down to the other end of the village, and strike from the other end while Reno was engaging the Indian village from the south end.
The Indians put up so much pressure on Reno they forced them within 15 to 20 minutes, to fall back into a stand of timber along the banks of the Little Bighorn for protection. Sioux and Cheyenne forces continue to mount against Reno, and within a half an hour, the Indian pressure is so great that they break through the timber and they shoot one of the Major Reno’s scouts, Bloody Knife, right in the face. And it unnerved the major, as it probably would anybody and there is panic setting in and command disorganization.
As a result, Reno is going to lead his men out—most of the men did not even hear the command to mount up and move out—but they saw soldiers mounting up and moving away, and Reno was leading his command back to where they came from. But by this time, Indian pressure coming in as the Indians are sounding the alarm in the village, at the opportune time, Crazy Horse is going to come on the battlefield and also strike Reno as he is coming out of the timber.
The attack by Crazy Horse and the other Indians are going to push Reno over to the Little Bighorn River itself, and force him to go into the steep banks of the Little Bighorn, then up the other side, and up to a bluff above the river there. The bluffs were about 300 feet above the valley floor. In that retreat, Reno lost a third of his command in killed and wounded. There were a good number of men who did not hear the orders to move out of the timber, so they had to hide in the timber, and wait, for some of them, a day and a half before they could get out.
Reno was a beaten man at this time, but fortunately for him, the Indians who had pushed him across the river suddenly broke off the attack—and no question they could have wiped out all of Reno’s men, save for the fact that Indian word was coming up, “There are more soldiers coming, attacking from downstream.” This was about four miles away at another crossing now known as Medicine Tail Ford. Some of Custer’s men were apparently trying to cross there and deliver an attack on the other end of the village. But the Indians saw what was going on, and they—those who had been fighting Reno—now peeled off and went after Custer, and joined the other Indians in the valley there at the other end of the village.
One thing as you tell the story, I think, for the listeners, you know, one thing that’s hard to understand, unless you’ve been there, is the scale that we’re talking about. It’s, as you mentioned, four miles downstream. This is not something that’s easily seen from any one point. The temptation is to think this is relatively small space, but it’s very large. It’s very broken up, the terrain.
Yeah, on the west, where the village, the encampment was—that was pretty much flat land, and that’s why the Indians were camped there. It afforded good grazing for the 15,000 horses that they had with them. But it was also flat land to put the teepees up and to do the work of the village.
You’re right—on the side that Custer is now moving, he is traveling through ravines and gullies in broken terrain, and once Custer leaves Reno to charge the Indian village, Custer is pretty much on his own. He goes up and is seen on the bluffs above where Reno had formed his skirmish line in the valley. Some of the men, including Reno, they thought they could identify Custer up on the ridge. So they knew that Custer was up there—had been up there—but he suddenly disappeared. And what transpires is that Custer is going down into the ravines, back behind the the high pinnacle peaks known as Weir Point, named for one of Custer’s officero.
All of this time, Custer has not seen the totality of the Indians. Intervening bluffs, buttes, block his vision, and so he cannot see everything that’s down below. So when he departs from the bluffs overlooking Reno’s position in the valley there, Custer loses all visual contact. And as he goes down toward the the Fourth there—he sends a couple of companies down that way—the Indians are not in great numbers at this point, but there’s enough to drive and stop Custer. And they force him and his five companies—he only has about 200 men, that’s all he’s got to fight with, and it’s five companies. And people who don’t understand cavalry fighting, whether it be civil war, or Indian Wars such as this, generally speaking, every fourth man is a horse holder. He does nothing more than hold his horse and three of his buddies’. So that when you start to look at the math, Custer may have had 200 men, but only 150 of them are able to fight initially, because they’re horse holders. All the extra ammunition is on those saddlebags.
Of course, the Indians can see what’s going on, and they’re all coming up and waving blankets, trying to frighten the horses, so that they become unmanageable, or they simply shoot at the horses themselves to bring them down.
So you know, imagine a battle battlefield that’s literally inundated with chaos. You’ve got horses running around, you’ve got smoke, you’ve got men firing, you’ve got Indians blowing eagle bone whistles, and you’ve got a lot of noise and smoke and confusion on this battlefield. So whatever happens, Custer is forced back away from the crossing, and his men are now scattered along the hilltop for about three quarters of a mile. Custer is going to take probably two companies, and maybe attempt to go down further past the present day national cemetery and see if he can’t cross down there. But he is going to be forced back to where the mass—there’s hitch stones along the area where Custer was found. His Lieutenant Godfrey, who came over the battlefield two days after the battle, claimed that he found Custer and 42 men behind a barricade of 39 dead horses—in this area now known as Custer’s Last Stand. The men had shot the horses for breastworks and had fought the last battle.
So the Indians had literally fought a battle, and had won, some of it, thanks really what the decision of Custer was. Custer divided his regiment up. Benteen, who had 125 men, had received the only written message in the battle and it was from Custer to Benteen, which said, “Benteen, come on, big village, be quick, bring packs—P.S. bring packs.” The packs, of course, meaning the extra ammunition. Benteen joined up with Reno, and the two columns, and along with the pack train that came up about an hour later, they put up a defense. The Indians finished off Custer in probably an hour’s time. Maybe a little longer than that. But they certainly came back over and tried to finish up Reno and Benteen. But their defense perimeter was a lot better.
Custer’s command, as I say was pretty much scattered over a three quarter mile area there. Today it marks one of the unique things of the battlefield, at Little Bighorn. There is a marker put up where evidence of a soldier’s remains were found and originally buried on the battlefield, which makes it truly unique. There are not many battlefields in America, or around the world, that have a marker put up for every soldier whose body was found. Iin recent years, when I was there, we also started the process of putting up Indian markers on the battlefield with the help of Native Americans to tell us where Indian warriors had fought and fell.
Yeah, that’s an interesting story in and of itself, because my understanding is that once the news that reached the east, in particular, I guess the centennial was going on in Philadelphia at the time.
And the news about Custer’s defeat was sort of earth shattering. Because he was a Civil War hero, cavalryman, commander during the Civil War for the Union—was a big personality of the day. It sent shockwaves through society at the time. And that the interesting thing, from my perspective, is that, as part of history, the Native American accounts were either not listened to, or totally discounted, or not asked for at the time. There wasn’t much attention paid to the Native American point of view of the battle. Is that correct?
That’s correct. I mean, there were some honest efforts by some of the newspaper people to retrieve the Indian point of views of the battle as to what happened. After all, they were the ones that survived in the defeat of Custer, and the only ones that could tell what happened. And there were efforts made, but they were, normally were not utilized in the early accounts of the battle—it was from, generally, the perspective of the of the losers. This being Custer, the story was told.
But you start to see a little bit of change, for instance, in 1886, on the tenth anniversary of the battle, there had been some of the veterans of the battle, like Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, and those guys, they came out, and they invited some of the Indians who were now living on reservations. Chief Gall, who was one of the lieutenants of Sitting Bull—hey had been good friends at one time—Gall claimed that the opening of the battle by Reno, gunfire filtered into the village and killed two of his wives and three of his children. Well, Gall told Godfrey that, you know, “What do you know about the battle?” I mean, Gall told him, “You know, it was a battle, where the soldiers were from his perspective, the soldiers were stopped half a mile from the ford.” The ford theory was being—here was an opposition to the ford theory that Custer tried to cross there. And in fact, today, that’s still an argument that’s in vogue is there some historians who don’t believe Custer got went to the Ford. Gall, in 1886, said the same thing.
Anyway, I use the Gall story to illustrate that you start to see a little bit of Indian viewpoints in it. Hamlin Garland, I think in 1898, in an interview with Two Moon—Two Moon was a Cheyenne warrior at Little Bighorn. And Two Moon, they asked him, “How long did the battle take?” And Two Moon’s answer was, “It took about as long as it takes a hungry man to eat his supper.”
You know, when people look at—students of the battle—we want to know who, what, when where. Where was such and such standing? Where did we think what event occurred? The Indian accounts at that time, part of it is, the questions that were being asked, people were not asking the Indians the right types of questions. They got general answers. So but yes, to answer your question, to me, the Indian accounts have always been around, we’ve just fail to utilized them.
Yeah, I think if memory serves a big affirmation of the Indian accounts was just after the fires in the mid 1980s on the park that burned the grass away and allowed more archaeological digs.
Yeah, exactly. Because you know, like I said, the battlefield has had marble markers showing where soldiers felt since 18, what, 1890 I guess is when they were put up. But there’s none for the Indians. Well, when we had the fire in 1983, what it did, Charles, is it burned off the matted grasses of the battlefield, which the battlefield had been fenced off since 1890, I guess. And so there had not been any fires that had come through there. Well of all this fuel accumulation, 1983 comes along, and it’s stripped all of the fuel off of the battlefield. And what it did was open up the area.
So the next year we brought an ontological team in, and they went over the battlefield, and lo and behold, they found Indian positions. One is called Greasy Grass Ridge. It fronts the backside of Calhoun Ridge. And they also, the lower part of Calhoun Ridge, they found lots of Indian cartridge casing there. And then at Calhoun Ridge proper, they found a huge pocket of cartridge casings—spent cartridge casings coming from Henrys and Winchesters, which they dubbed the name Henry Hill for the number of Henry shells that were found there.
So the archaeology opened up, the fire helped open up the possibility of doing a survey. And we discovered a lot more Indian positions. We also did work along the markers on the battlefield, and discovered—we know we have 40 to 50 more markers than Custer had men. In fact, there are 249 markers on the battlefield—about 200 men died with Custer. So how do we get more markers? Well, over the years, from 1876 to 1881, when they had burial details come back to the battlefield, they collected all the bones that they could, and then when they came out in 1890, they put up markers, and in some cases, they put up two markers side by side, because they found human remains at those places, which gave rise to one historians book, in 1953, which talked about the buddy system—that Little Bighorn showed evidence of soldiers pairing up for protection. Certainly, it just was not the case, because the archaeologists came through and finding human bone fragments, they surveyed them and analyzed them, and what they discovered was, where you had a number of paired markers, the human remains found in those sites was consistent with being the same person. So that’s one reason that you have more markers on a battlefield than actually Custer had men.
Speaking of markers, the thing that always struck me—I remember the first time I went to Little Bighorn was actually during a fishing trip where I had some free time. And I drove over, and I was by myself, and you know, went through the gate and looked across the battlefield. And it struck me that these markers represented people, and that they were spread out all over the place. You could see them way in the distance, and clusters here and there.
But what struck me was, it must have been just an awful experience. I mean, a lonely place to die, in the middle of nowhere, in those days, right?
And just that the human tragedy on both sides of the engagement.
You know, the focus has always been, or has often been more focused on the cavalry. But of course, the Native Americans suffered as well. And I think that that’s, you know, that’s a good segue into talking about your efforts to recognize that fact, through the memorial that’s now on the battlefield.
Right. Well, the memorial, there had been protests at the battlefield, oh, ever since—particularly during the Indian Movement of the 1970s. Nothing had ever come to it, and of course, the argument could be made, and was made, that there were several things going on. The battlefield was named after Custer, the loser—nothing about the Indians and their attempt to preserve their way of life, their culture. The other thing with the name was, so the argument came up for name change, which eventually happens in, I think, 1991 is when that occurred.
Meantime, Congress said that there could be an Indian Memorial placed up there, because there was one for Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the battlefield, but nothing for the Indians. So the Indian Memorial came about—when I got up there, the legislation had already passed, the only problem was there was no funding. Congress had not provided any funding for it, and until Congress provided funding, it wasn’t going to happen. I know that my predecessors and myself, we had gone out and tried to raise money, but it was not working.
So eventually, I went to Washington to meet with the Montana delegation and talk to them about, “You know what, it’s been 10 years since this was established as a, they were gonna make an Indian Memorial up here, and there’s not one, I don’t think there’s going to be one. You can make one very quickly by just simply providing the funding to so”. So the Montana delegation was very supportive of it, and they of course, at that time, I think the only Indian in the U.S. Senate was Ben Nighthorse Campbell out of Colorado. And he was very supportive of it, and he came up to the battlefield, and lo and behold, essentially, the funding was there to build the Indian Memorial.
And by golly, you know, we’ve got one there. You know, and it’s made a lot of difference. I was there at a time when I was a historian—there was nothing for the Indians, because you see up there, there were no markers, no memorial. And then once we got the memorial up, there were a lot more Indians coming to the battlefield—Native Americans were coming in good numbers.
And it also improved the rapport with our Indian neighbors, particularly the Cheyenne, who, I brought over some of their delegation and said, “Hey, how can we improve the battlefield even more?” And they said, “Well, why don’t you—you got markers for the soldiers where they fell, why not put up markers where the Indians fell?” I said, “It’s a great idea.” I say, “We need some documentation. We need to know where those Indians fell.” And they said, “There’s a lot of Indians who fell in the battle, and there are rock cairns over the battlefield,” and he said, “You people don’t know who they are, or all of them, but we have a good list of where these people fell, and the names of those warriors who fell.”
So with their participation, we put up initially Cheyenne markers because they were the closest tribe working with us, and eventually, we also got the different bands of Lakota Sioux involved in the process, too. So now we have I think, around 30 markers on the battlefield—Indian markers on the battlefield. You know, so when people come over—Native Americans come in, well, they got something to see now, you know, not just the Indian Memorial, but they got markers on the battlefield.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic development and improvement, in my view, because at the end of the day, you know, we’re talking about people on both sides. And we’re all interested in history, but the bottom line is, it was a tragic event for both sides. Not only that day, but subsequently, right? So as history unfolded—congratulations on achieving that.
Yeah. Well, thank you. Well, I think more so for the Indians, because remember, their whole life is—revolves around their family. All of their possessions are located on the hillside, and horses, and ponies, and what’s in that teepee. And they are so dependent on the Mother Earth around them to provide them with the Buffalo for food, for shelter. And now they’re being told, “You got to go live on a reservation whether you want to or not, that’s just that’s just the way things are.”
And so I understand the Indian point of view of wanting to fight and hold on to what they’ve got. They had been pushed around to a point that there’s nothing left for them, but even to surrender or fight. I tip my hat to people like Sitting Bull and Gall and Crazy Horse and others who said, “You know what,” as Sitting Bull said, “I do not want to go to a reservation and there be dependent on the piece of fatback that the government gives me. I want to live out here the way I am, the way my grandfather lived.”
Yeah. You have to respect that. I think the practical aspect of the government requiring the Indians to move to reservations during the middle of winter, when traveling in that part of the country during winter—and in the summer is difficult—in the winter, it’s, I don’t know how that would, you know, have been accomplished. Moving villages and people in deep snow, etc.
That’s right. Yeah, you couldn’t accomplish that. There was no way in world they’re gonna do it. And only six weeks later, after the ultimatum had been delivered, six weeks after the deadline had come up, they are attacked—that is, the Cheyenne are attacked on the Powder River. I mean, the Indians realize that, hey, the army means business, and so what the Indians did for some protection was start to band together for common defense, and they were still not going in. They just simply started to band together and said “If the army means business, we had better collect our forces too, in order to protect each other better.”
Well, you know, Neil, that this has been a great overview and a great story in terms of your career, and interesting in the Battle of Little Bighorn. But my hope is that this conversation sort of encourages folks to learn more about history. I wondered if you could close with some comments about the importance of history and what we learn for it, and why study it, from your perspective, as historian and superintendent of the park, etc. Do you have any ideas to share on that subject?
History, to me is very important, because it tells you something about the past, about how you got to where you are now. History is, oftentimes, most of the time, thank goodness, is simply about people growing up, going to work, having families, and starting a business, or being involved. But it also takes in the broader perspectives of, “Alright, we see what happens when cultures come together.” It’s like a clash of cultures. And you see that in the Indian War period, you know, and of course is so evident that at Little Bighorn you got two different cultures that are clashing together.
So history provides us with a window into the past—it’s how things may have been. And it’s not just the battles, but it’s the human element of it. The stories of those Indians who tell the story. I think it was Noisy Walking, who at Little Bighorn had part of his jaw shot shot away, and he died that night, I think down in the village. You have soldier letters that are 22 years old coming out of Baltimore, Maryland, and they’ve got letters going back home to their girlfriends about when they get out of the army they’re gonna come back and marry that girl and settle down. Of course, they don’t make it. They’re killed at Little Bighorn.
And so that’s the tragedy that we have with the military. But it tells us as we study it, it tells us about people in history, whether it be a warrior, or whether it’s a—I love to tell the story of Chief Joseph and his curse. His eloquent speech at his surrender up at the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana in 1877. He tells a story about, he’s going to surrender, and fight no more forever, and his daughter—he had lost her. And she had died, probably frozen to death.
To me, history is important. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have so many books. And how many movies— the media, yes, we get so much of our information, because history is rewarding to read about. It’s not read about, it’s to look at on the silver screen. My goodness, that’s how I got interested in history was looking at Errol Flynn down there at Little Bighorn. So history as just portrayed on the silver screen, is wonderful. Because there’s so many movies that are made about history. And it’s not just in the books that we have.
Yeah, if you want to read about a subject and you’re looking for a subject to read about where there’s plenty of written material, Little Big Horn’s got to be near the top of the list.
I think only the Battle of Gettysburg has had more ink spilled on it than Little Bighorn.
I’m sure that’s true.
Well, Neil, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to have a chat about your career and Little Bighorn and the trials and tribulations of managing the park and getting the recognition for the Native Americans. I really appreciate the time, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve appreciated getting to know you over the last couple of months. So thank you so much for taking the time today.
You’re quite welcome. Thank you.
Thank you so much for joining Neil Mangum and myself on today’s episode. You could tell, I think, that Neil and I enjoyed having a chat about the Little Bighorn and his trials and tribulations as an historian trying to find an opportunity at the Little Bighorn Park.
I just would say on a personal note, I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with Neil on the Little Bighorn battlefield and the Rosebud battlefield, etc. He is unbelievably knowledgeable, and if you ever have the opportunity to meet him in person, or perhaps even take one of his tours, I would highly encourage it. I will put a link to more information about Neil and some of the tours that he leads in the notes, as well as a suggested reading list if you’d like to learn more about the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Sioux War of 1876.
Thanks a lot for joining me. Have a great day.
Neil Mangum has been with the National Park Service in various roles since the late 60s. He says that General George Custer is partially responsible for his career with the National Park Service, where he has served as the Superintendent and Park Historian for the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, among many other positions.
Neil, originally from Petersburg, Virginia, near Richmond, is now retired and currently lives in Arizona, where he is able to enjoy Cleveland Guardians Spring Training games.
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