“These hand-drawn colour sketches show both U.S. cavalry and mounted braves in action, as well as some chilling depictions of the aftermath of the battle.”
CUSTER’S LEGENDARY ‘last stand’ at the Little Bighorn in Montana is one of the most iconic and controversial events of the American west.
The June 25 to 26, 1876 battle between elements of the U.S. 7th Cavalry and more than 2,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors led to the slaughter of more than 250 American soldiers. From the moment the first reports of the massacre hit national newspapers, Little Bighorn has captivated the imaginations of Americans — the story has been the subject of no fewer than 31 films, more than 20 songs and at least one odious x-rated video game. And while Custer’s failed (not to mention foolhardy) assault on a numerically superior band of warriors has been endlessly reconstructed, parsed and debated by historians, much of what we know of the massacre today comes to us through the lens of the ‘white man’… but not all.
Consider Red Horse, a Sioux chief and eyewitness to the battle. Five years after the historic clash, the 60-year-old Indian Wars survivor provided one of the few written native accounts of the famous fight. Committed to paper at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881, the Minneconjou Lakota warrior also authored a series of illustrations to accompany his narrative.
Known as pictographcs, these hand-drawn colour sketches rendered on fabric show both U.S. cavalry and mounted braves in action, as well as some chilling depictions of the aftermath of the battle. Here are a few of them with Red Horse’s own commentary about the events.
“The day of the attack, I and four women were a short distance from the camp digging wild turnips,” reported Red Horse. “Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw that the soldiers were charging the camp. The soldiers charged so quickly we could not talk. The Sioux mount horses, take guns and go fight the soldiers.”
Later in the account, Red Horse described an encounter with a cavalry commander he believed might have been General Custer.
“Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet. The Sioux have for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought,” he wrote. “I don’t know whether this was Custer or not. Many of the Sioux men that I hear talking tell me it was. It has been told me that he was killed by a Santee Indian, who took his horse. Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought. I saw two officers looking alike, both having long yellowish hair.”
Red Horse also relates how the warriors killed a number of the cavalry troopers.
“The Sioux charged the different soldiers below, and drive them in confusion. These soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands, saying, ‘Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners,’” he said. “The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them.”
Red Horse isn’t the only eyewitness to render his recollections of the battle on canvas. This pictograph comes to us by Amos Bad Heart Bull. Just eight years old at the time of the clash, the image shows cavalry troopers pursued into the river by warriors.
The Smithsonian Institute maintains a complete set of Red Horse’s pictographs of the Battle of Little Bighorn (available here). The complete transcript of the chief’s account is available here at PBS.org.