Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is the centerpiece Indian battlefield of eastern Montana’s coulee country. Within the U.S. Park Service site are battlefields ranging from national historic sites and a state park to lonely stone markers on private land and a sign creaking in the wind along a remote gravel road.
Each site relates a tragic chapter in America’s frontier history. Listen quietly as the wind ripples through the tall grass, especially at dusk, and some say you’ll hear the screams of wounded soldiers/warriors and the wailing of terrified women and children.
In all, anywhere from 20 to 200 Indian battlefield sites dot Montana. Most are on the vast and arid eastern side, a.k.a. “The Big Open.”
Start your one-day “Warrior Trail” tour in Billings with lodging, dining and attractions you’ll want for a base. (Options are limited once you hit the trail.)
From Billings, it’s 70 breezy miles east on Interstate 90 through Hardin to Crow Agency and home of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. To help understand the backstory for the massacre of Custer and his troops, head east on U.S. 212 toward Busby. You’ll soon be on the western edge of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation where, in the infinite wisdom of the U.S. Government, mortal enemies, the Crow and Northern Cheyenne, were put side-by-side.
Note the junction of MT 314 about two miles west of Busby. You’ll eventually turn here, but continue and you’ll notice a stone monument behind a fence honoring the Northern Cheyenne chief Two Moons, who fought at Little Bighorn and Wolf Mountain. Adjacent is a cemetery with markers dating to the 19th century.
Return west on U.S. 212 to MT 314. Turn south through Kirby to the gravel turnoff for Rosebud Battlefield State Park. Here, eight days before the Battle of Little Bighorn, 1,500 Sioux and Northern Cheyenne set the stage for that showdown – read the kiosk info before the one-mile loop drive through the park.
If Rosebud feels remote, just wait. It’s another 10 paved miles south on MT 314 to Tongue River Reservoir and a virtual U-turn on the meandering gravel Tongue River Road to the Battle of Wolf Mountain. Look for the swaying “Battle of the Butte” sign on the left.
At Birney Day, back on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the road crosses the Tongue River and the right fork follows the river to Ashland with services and the Cheyenne Museum and Gift Store. If you continue straight at Birney Day, you’ll head to Lame Deer which has gas and burgers at the Chief Dull Knife.
Drive west on U.S. 212 and close your loop at Busby en route to the final battlefield, the Battle of Canyon Creek via Billings. The Nez Perce tribe’s 1,170-mile “trail of tears” under Chief Joseph in the summer of 1877 is the most chronicled march. The Nez Perce eluded soldiers throughout the summer. They started in their traditional homelands in eastern Oregon and surrendered several months later in northern Montana. They were 40 miles from safety in Canada. The penultimate skirmish was at Canyon Creek, in what is now an agricultural area.
Elsewhere, the Haystack Fight near Fort Smith, Battle of Powder River (March 1876) outside of Broadus, and Battle of Cedar Creek (October 1876) near Miles City were all part of the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne wars.