Road Trip with Jess’ Family | Bighorn National Forest to Omaha, NE | Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument | Toadstool Geological Park | July 2021 | Written by Curtis
On our second to last day of driving, we had made the goal of reaching South Dakota, or maybe even the Northwestern corner of Nebraska. We had discussed during the planning phase of this vacation of maybe camping in the Black Hills, but this close to the 4th of July put that as an unlikely candidate. We decided that we would shoot for the Chadron area of Nebraska and some of the campgrounds we had scoped out during our trip there the previous month. But that meant plenty of driving across the high plains.
We left our campsite and continued heading East on US-14, climbing through and over the Northern reach of the Bighorn Mountains. Once on the other side, we stopped for gas, coffee, and pastries in Ranchester before getting on I-90 and heading North back into Montana.
While not as direct, we chose this route in order to stop at the site of Little Bighorn Battlefield, just off of I-90 on the Crow Reservation. Commonly referred to as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, the battlefield marks the site of the largest action of the Great Sioux War and the Plains Wars in general.
Following failed diplomatic negotiations over the ownership of the Blackhills, President Grant and Generals Sherman and Sheridan opted instead to take direct action and, during the dead of winter, ordered all the Lakota and Cheyenne to return to their respective agencies, or to be considered enemy combatants. Owing to the weather, distance, and disdain for the US Government, most of the ‘free’ tribes declined.
After a brief winter campaign, the US Army undertook a three column assault upon the heart of the Lakota country centered around the Bighorn, Powder, and Tongue Rivers. Over the summer, the US Army engaged in multiple rolling fights, culminating with the Battle of the Rosebud where the Cheyenne and Lakota effectively checked General Crooks column from the South. The tribes then moved Northwest from the Rosebud to encamp along the Little Bighorn River.
To their North, the remaining two columns joined forces and the 7th Cavalry was sent out as a reconnaissance force under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The Northern forces were unaware of their proximity to the unified tribes, nor of the recent battle along the Rosebud. By chance, Custer’s Crow scouts spotted the tribes encamped along the river and Custer decided to make an attack. On June 25th, 1876, he divided his force into two in an effort to make a pincer movement. The diversionary force of 3 companies under the command of Major Reno would attack first from the South while Custer and 5 companies snuck around from the North.
Reno’s first assault was met with fierce opposition by the Lakota, rallying under the leadership of Gall – a Hunkpapa Lakota chief. Facing possible envelopment, Reno ordered a retreat from the river valley and entrenched himself along a ridge overlooking the river where he was soon reinforced by three more companies under command of Capt. Benteen who were returning from a separate recon expedition.
Meanwhile, Custer’s troopers had been spotted and were soon engaged by the remainder of the Cheyenne and Lakota warriors. What occurred during that battle is truly the work of forensic archaeology and conflicting accounts, and has been studied so extensively to place it in its own legendary status. It is believed that once engaged, Custer led a rolling battle among the coulees and ridges, but was ultimately overwhelmed and surrounded by the shear number of combatants. Part of the reason so little is known about this leg of the battle is that every member of Custer’s 5 companies was killed and the only corroborated eyewitness accounts were that of the Cheyenne and Lakota warriors – who (by the time their stories were considered valued) were often contradictory. In fact, despite hundreds of claims to be the ‘sole survivor of Custer’s command’, the only known member of Custer’s command to survive at Little Bighorn was Captain Keogh’s horse – Comanche.
The Cheyenne and Lakota harassed Reno and Benteen’s forces through the night before withdrawing their villages to the west at which time Major Reno had the misfortune of recovering the remainder of the 7th Cav. Many of the killed soldiers were buried where they lay, and in 1881 a monument was erected and ultimately the site was preserved, first as a National Cemetery, then as a National Park site called Custer Battlefield National Monument.
When we arrived, we decided to drive to the far end of the park where Major Reno had made his stand and work our way back. Dogs are not allowed out of the car except for immediately by the Visitor center, but the park is oriented such that you can essentially drive by each of the history placards and read them from your vehicle. All along the road, and especially as you neared the Northern edge of the park, you could see the white marble markers where each of the members of the 7th Cavalry had died.
We finished our driving tour near the Visitor Center, and I went to get my stamps, and walked up to the summit and memorial on Last Stand Hill and the marker for Custer himself (he’s buried at West Point).
But what of the Lakota and Cheyenne, I thought in frustration. This was a major victory for Sitting Bull and the other chief, but with long lasting consequences. Within two years of this victory none of the War Chiefs would be as free as they were at the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse surrendered and was later murdered at Fort Robinson, Dull Knife and the Northern Cheyenne surrendered and were deported to Oklahoma for several years, and Sitting Bull would spend the next decade living in exile in Canada before returning to the reservations where he too would be killed.
And then I saw it. Just across the road from Last Stand Hill and the monument to the US Soldiers, intentionally blending into the surrounding plains, a small round granite wall with memorials to each of the tribes and the names of many of their warriors who had participated in the battle; known simply as ‘The Indian Memorial’. Of particular interest to me was a laser etched photo of the nine surviving members of the Oglalla Lakota who had fought in the battle, taken in the 1940’s together with their own red granite markers interspersed with the 7th Cavalries white marble, these memorials were part of a push in the late 20th century to present the battle in both the light of American Manifest Destiny as well as Native Independence. Included in the change was the shift away from glorification of Custer by renaming the site as Little Bighorn Battlefield.
From Little Bighorn, we traveled Southeast across Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota along US-212 passing through the Northern Cheyenne reservation and the Powder and Tongue river valleys. It was a long and desolate road, but certainly better than driving an interstate.
Once in South Dakota we jogged on state highways down to I-90, pointing out places along the Centennial Trail which we remembered from our last two days. And since we were driving through Rapid City, we naturally had to stop for Culvers – it’s a tradition now. From here we traveled South on SD-79, bypassing the Black Hills almost entirely until Hot Springs, where we took SD-71 further South into Nebraska and the Oglala National Grassland.
It was getting later in the day, and I was convinced that, owing to the long weekend for most people, any and every campsite even remotely close to the Black Hills would be full. But once in Nebraska, we followed forest roads to Toadstool Geological Park and Campground to find it almost completely empty. I suppose an hour drive from the Black Hills is simply too far for some. In fact it is so far that: one couple seemed to have only the vaguest sense of where they were and asked directions to the nearest town, and a biker arrived in camp severely dehydrated, expecting to find water and ultimately had to abandon his goal of biking across Northern Nebraska.
We set up camp, and walked around the badlands with the dogs. I opted to go and complete hiking a longer loop trail that we had attempted previously with Charlie and wandered along the high plains watching the sunset. It was quiet, and starkly beautiful – but that evening would prove to not be peaceful as our tents were buffeted by wind until the early hours of morning.
Despite the howling wind, we all managed to get some sleep and were soon back on the road following NE-2 South to Alliance where we showed off Nebraska’s grandest man made attraction to our parents: Car Henge.
From here we naturally opted to take a new route through the Sandhills in order to claim more counties and courthouses. We followed NE-2 west to Hyannis, where we traveled South a mile to Arthur, NE – the sole town and county seat in Arthur County which holds the distinction of being the least populace county in Nebraska, and the 5th least populace county in all of America at slightly less than 500 people. We then headed East on NE-92 pausing to take our Courthouse pictures in Tryon and Stapleton for McPherson and Logan Counties. For those curious, McPherson ranks #8 in the nation for least populace and #3 in Nebraska.
The rest of the drive along NE-92 followed one of our previous routes and it was smooth sailing. We made it back to Omaha, and Jess made dinner while we unpacked the car. We enjoyed one last dinner with Mom and Dad before they continued on to Iowa. We’re very thankful we were able to share this adventure with them, to see family and visit beautiful places, and that everything went smoothly, even with the dogs along for the ride!