Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

Oral Histories of Northern Cheyenne Descendants of the Battle of Little Bighorn, 1985-1987

Historical Note:

The Battle of Little Bighorn took place on July 25-26, 1876 near the Little Bighorn River in what is now southern Montana. Sometimes referred to as "Custer's Last Stand," the encounter pit the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army, under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, versus a collection of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. The 7th Cavalry sustained severe losses as a result of the encounter - its casualty count ultimately tallied to 268 dead and 55 injured, over half the total roster of the regiment. Among those whose lives were claimed was Lt. Custer as well as every soldier fighting in the five companies alongside him. Estimates of Native American casualties vary widely, but the battle is almost universally remembered as having been an overwhelming victory for the Native American alliance; a victory that was, at least in part, brought about by major tactical mistakes made by Custer in commanding his troops. Custer was a flamboyant and celebrated figure who had achieved fame for decorations earned during the American Civil War. His death, combined with the heavy defeat suffered by the 7th Cavalry, rendered the Battle of Little Bighorn both an extremely newsworthy event during its time and a continuing source of fascination within American popular culture.

The Cheyenne people are believed to have established themselves as a tribe in the early 1500s. Originally based in the Great Lakes region of present-day Minnesota, the Cheyenne migrated west, eventually settling in what is now Montana. By the 19th century, the Cheyenne nation had grown quite substantially, populating a great expanse across the midwestern United States. Throughout the century the Cheyenne were commonly at war: first against the Crow people - traditional enemy of the Cheyenne - and later against the United States Army. In the aftermath of the Black Hills War of 1876-1877, the Northern Cheyenne were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma - home of the Southern Cheyenne - by the United States government. The tribe, unaccustomed to this new environment, fared very poorly and in 1878 a fragment of the Northern Cheyenne returned to their ancestral homeland, settling in the Powder River Basin of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming. In 1884 the 444,000-acre Tongue River Indian Reservation, located in southeastern Montana, was established by U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. The reservation has served as home to the Northern Cheyenne people ever since.

Royal G. Jackson was a faculty member in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University from 1970 until his retirement in 2004. Jackson taught courses in recreation resource management and nature-based tourism; his research interests included forest history, nature-based tourism, and protected area management. He pursued research projects in the western United States and in Costa Rica. As part of his research, Jackson conducted numerous oral history projects pertaining to the history of forestry, specifically, the Oregon State University College of Forestry and the Research Forests (McDonald and Dunn Forests); the Soap Creek Valley in Benton County, Oregon; Basques in Harney County, Oregon; the diversification of a resource-based economy in Deschutes County, Oregon, to include tourism; the Winema National Forest; the Battle of Little Bighorn from the perspective of the Northern Cheyenne descendants; and the environmental movement and ecotourism in Cost Rica. Jackson earned his BA in 1960 from the University of New Mexico, an MA in 1965 from Western New Mexico University, and his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 1971.

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