This Date in Native History: On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse fought his final battle against the United States Army before agreeing to come into Fort Robinson, Nebraska in May that same year. The battle is often known as Wolf Mountain, however, to be more accurate about the exact location, Donovin Sprague, Lakota historian, author, and descendant of Crazy Horse, refers to it as the Battle of Belly Butte.
The signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 had granted the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes continued access to their original homelands in the Black Hills. However, once gold was discovered in the hills, an influx of miners and other settlers flooded the area. When the tribes tried to defend their rights, the U.S. abrogated the treaty and threatened to use force against any Indians who were not on the Great Sioux Reservation by January 31, 1876.
At that time, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were the most influential leaders who had still not brought their people into the agencies or signed any agreements with the government. Their resistance was a thorn in the side of the government, and the army believed if Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were brought into the agencies, the Plains Wars would be over.
However, in the fall of 1876, even those who had already come into the agencies were not so quick to return after their summer of hunting. Disillusioned with the government’s lies and broken promises, relationships between the agencies and the tribes grew even more strained. Congress threatened to withhold rations until the tribes released the Black Hills to the U.S., and there was growing concern that the tribes’ horses and guns would be seized by the Army. Between 1,200 and 2,500 lodges of Indians had left the agencies for their summer hunt, but as fall approached, many of those expected to return to the agencies did not.
Even though a cold, early winter caused a scarcity of food, the Army recognized that Crazy Horse’s band had increased in size with nearly 250 lodges made up Oglalas, Brules, Northern Cheyenne and perhaps others.
According to Sprague, “The U.S. and Colonel Nelson A. Miles had decided on a strategy of constant pursuit and attack upon the Lakota and Cheyenne villages who had not surrendered. The plan was to attack Indian villages in the coldest weather, despite frigid temperatures and deep snow.”
Camped among the Wolf Mountains, Montana’s winter cold and snow increasingly taxed the resources of Crazy Horse’s band. As horses died of starvation, they became a source of food. Crazy Horse knew that Dull Knife’s band of Cheyenne had escaped from Fort Robinson and endured terrible hardships including frozen limbs and babies who froze to death at their mother’s breast. The Montana Magazine of Western History wrote that Black Elk, who was a young man at the time, was aware of the pressure Crazy Horse was feeling.
Usually, Sprague said, the winter was a relaxing time in the lodges with storytelling, and except for hunting, most of the Lakota did not venture too far from the camps. However, in the winter of 1876, Colonel Miles knew their life and made constant attacks “pursuing these so-called hostile groups throughout the Tongue River and Powder River country,” Sprague said, adding that when the Army came upon the band at Belly Butte, the soldiers were not sure who was in the camp until they engaged in battle, or possibly even later.
On New Years Day, 1877, Miles came upon Crazy Horse’s camp, which was occupied by 600 lodges that stretched across three miles of the Tongue River Valley. Miles led attacks on January 1, 3, 5, 7, and finally a five-hour battle on the 8th.
Crazy Horse’s band was attacked in three feet of snow, and the entire battle took place with Crazy Horse’s warriors on foot due to the weakness of the starving horses. The band quickly ran out of ammunition and resumed the use of bows and arrows. Throughout the battle, the Lakota lost three men including Big Crow.
After the battle, scouts and couriers from Fort Robinson arrived and promised Crazy Horse that if he brought his band in, they would all be treated well. A month later, Few Tails and Hunts the Enemy returned to Fort Robinson with the news that Crazy Horse would come into the agency. Other major figures such as Sitting Bull, Gall, and their followers moved their camps to Canada.
“Our warriors held out as long as they could—starvation and death would have been the next step had they not surrendered,” Sprague noted. He also said that there is a quote from an interview with High Backbone, also known as Hump II, who was present at the battle. High Backbone said they never attacked the soldiers or knew why the soldiers attacked. “Hump fought because he had no choice—fight or be killed. During this interview he looked at some of the soldiers and asked them, ‘Why did you attack us?’ No one replied to his question,” Sprague said.