Excerpt from Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer
Interpreted by Thomas B. Marquis
Published in 1931
For years after the Sand Creek Massacre, U.S. soldiers and Indian warriors met in dozens of battles and skirmishes across the Plains region, with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. Eastern newspapers mocked the American forces for their inability to capture the relatively small bands of Indians who were causing so much trouble. The final conflict between these two forces came in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sacred ground to many of the Plains tribes, the Black Hills had been protected by many treaties over the years. However, General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to protect white settlers who believed that there might be gold in the region. When gold was found, tens of thousands of fortune seekers and settlers moved into this sacred territory. The Indians had no choice but to respond.
In the winter of 1875, thousands of Indians from a number of different groups began to gather on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana. There they planned their strategy for the defense of the Black Hills, unaware of (or ignoring) the army's threat to hunt down and kill any Indians found off their reservations. For its part, the U.S. Army planned a major attack on the tribes for the spring of 1876. Three contingents of men led by Generals George Crook, John Gibbon, and Alfred Terry and George Custer would storm the Indian camp and put an end to the Indian resistance.
As the U.S. troops approached the Indian camp at Little Bighorn, George Custer was eager to fight. Always impulsive, Custer ignored his orders to wait for all of the forces to be in place. He marched his force of some 675 men forward, hoping to take all of the glory if he and his men alone could defeat the Indians. Dividing his soldiers into three groups, Custer and his commanders attacked on the morning of June 25, 1876. The first group to meet the Indians, 280 men led by Major Marcus Reno, faced a vicious attack from Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa Sioux forces. Though they fought valiantly at first, the troops were soon overwhelmed and were forced to retreat. Digging into a nearby hill, Reno's men were reinforced with 125 troops led by Captain Frederick Benteen. Yet as they fought, they became aware that more and more Indians were heading off in another direction. Something was drawing the Indian attack away.
The Indian camp was being attacked from the other side, this time by a band of 267 men led by Custer himself. Three groups of Indians responded to this attack—the Cheyenne under Lame White Man, Hunkpapa Sioux under Gall, and the Oglala under Crazy Horse—and they soon surrounded Custer's men on all sides. According to Indian Wars author Don Nardo, "Thousands of Indians took part in the bloody assault, during which most of the soldiers dismounted and separated into small groups. Here, Crazy Horse's new battlefield strategy worked brilliantly. The Indians attacked in well-coordinated waves, overwhelming the troops. In the space of about forty-five minutes, Custer and all of his men were killed."
The Indians dispersed, preparing for battles to come. On the battlefield American soldiers discovered hundreds of dead comrades—268 in all—at the center of which lay a gathering of officers who had surrounded General Custer and fought to the bitter end. This final standoff, which ended in the death of all the soldiers, has become famous as Custer's Last Stand. The Indians had won their greatest victory ever over white forces. It was the high point for the Indian alliance, but it spurred a devastating army response. Within just a few years, army forces would track down and subdue all of the remaining Native American groups.
The following account of the Battle of Little Bighorn is excerpted from the autobiography of Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne warrior who fought in the battle when he was just eighteen years of age. Pay attention to how different Wooden Leg's account of battle is compared to what you would expect from an American soldier of similar age.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer:
- Wooden Leg's story offers rare insights from the Native American perspective. Several other Indians who fought in the battle reviewed his story and all agreed it was accurate.
- Prior to the Battle of Little Bighorn, Indian chiefs such as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull began to teach their warriors more sophisticated methods of fighting. Rather than leaving battle actions entirely up to the individual warriors, as had traditionally been done, Indians began to coordinate their actions. They sent parties of decoys out to draw white forces in certain directions; then another group of Indians would attack the white forces from hiding places. Wooden Leg's account reflects some of these battle strategies.
- The Battle of Little Bighorn was Wooden Leg's first real experience fighting white soldiers; moreover, it represented his passage into manhood.
- Wooden Leg describes how army soldiers took their own lives rather than being captured by Indians. Why might soldiers have done this?
Little is known about the young warrior who provided such a dramatic account of the Indians' perspective on the Battle of Little Bighorn. Kummok'quiviokta, as he was known among the Cheyenne, was born along the Cheyenne River in present-day South Dakota in 1858. His people were routed in a battle with Colonel Joseph Reynolds in March 1876; a few months later, they joined their Sioux allies as they gathered along the Little Bighorn River. As his account illustrates, Wooden Leg took part in a number of skirmishes the day of the battle. By the spring of 1877, Wooden Leg surrendered to army soldiers and, with other members of his tribe, relocated to Indian Territory.
By the mid-1880s Wooden Leg had returned to Montana, where he found work as an army scout. He participated in the Ghost Dance religious movement that swept the Plains in 1890, but in 1908 he converted to Christianity. Wooden Leg died in 1940, nine years after he narrated his dramatic autobiography to Thomas Marquis.
Excerpt from Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer
Chapter IX: The Coming of Custer
In my sleep I dreamed that a great crowd of people were making lots of noise. Something in the noise startled me. I found myself wide awake, sitting up and listening. My brother too awakened, and we both jumped to our feet. A great commotion was going on among the camps. We heard shooting. We hurried out from the trees so we might see as well as hear. The shooting was somewhere at the upper part of the camp circles. It looked as if all of the Indians there were running away toward the hills to the westward or down toward our end of the village. Women were screaming and men were letting out war cries. Through it all we could hear old men calling:
"Soldiers are here! Young men, go out and fight them."
Lariat: A rope used when tending horses.
Six shooter: A pistol that carries six bullets.
Picketed: Tied out or fenced in.
We ran to our camp and to our home lodge. Everybody there was excited. Women were hurriedly making up little packs for flight. Some were going off northward or across the river without any packs. Children were hunting for their mothers. Mothers were anxiously trying to find their children. I got mylariat and mysix shooter. I hastened on down toward where had been our horse herd. I came across three of our herder boys. One of them was catching grasshoppers. The other two were cooking fish in the blaze of a little fire. I told them what was going on and asked them where were the horses. They jumped on theirpicketed poniesand dashed for the camp, without answering me. Just then I heard Bald Eagle calling out to hurry with the horses. Two other boys were driving them toward the camp circle. I was utterly winded from the running. I never was much for running. I could walk all day, but I could not run fast nor far. I walked on back to the home lodge.
My father had caught my favorite horse from the herd brought in by the boys and Bald Eagle. I quickly emptied out my war bag and set myself at getting ready to go into battle. I jerked off my ordinary clothing. I jerked on a pair of new breeches that had been given to me by an Uncpapa Sioux. I had a good cloth shirt, and I put it on. My old moccasins were kicked off and a pair of beaded moccasins substituted for them. My father strapped a blanket upon my horse and arranged the rawhide lariat into a bridle. He stood holding my mount.
"Hurry," he urged me.
I was hurrying, but I was not yet ready. I got my paints and my little mirror. The blue-black circle soon appeared around my face. The red and yellow colorings were applied on all of the skin insidethe circle. I combed my hair. It properly should have been oiled and braided neatly, but my father again was saying, "Hurry," so I just looped a buckskinthong about it and tied it close up against the back of my head, to float loose from there. My bullets, caps and powder horn put me into full readiness. In a moment afterward I was on my horse and was going as fast as it could run toward where all of the rest of the young men were going. My brother already had gone. He got his horse before I got mine, and his dressing was only a long buckskin shirt fringed with Crow Indian hair. The hair had been taken from a Crow at a past battle with them.
The air was so full of dust I could not see where to go. But it was not needful that I see that far. I kept my horse headed in the direction of movement by the crowd of Indians on horseback. I was led out around and far beyond the Uncpapa camp circle. Many hundreds of Indians on horseback were dashing to and fro in front of a body of soldiers. The soldiers were on the level valley ground and were shooting with rifles. Not many bullets were being sent back at them, but thousands of arrows were falling among them. I went on with a throng of Sioux until we got beyond and behind the white men. By this time, though, they had mounted their horses and were hiding themselves in the timber. A band of Indians were with the soldiers. It appeared they were Crows or Shoshones. Most of these Indians had fled back up the valley. Some were across east of the river and were riding away over the hills beyond.
Our Indians crowded down toward the timber where were the soldiers. More and more of our people kept coming. Almost all of them were Sioux. There were only a few Cheyennes. Arrows were showered into the timber. Bullets whistled out toward the Sioux and Cheyennes. But we stayed far back while we extended our curved line farther and farther around the big grove of trees. Some dead soldiers had been left among the grass and sagebrush where first they had fought us. It seemed to me the remainder of them would not live many hours longer. Sioux were creeping forward to set fire to the timber.
Thong: A narrow strip of leather.
Suddenly the hidden soldiers came tearing out on horseback, from the woods. I was around on that side where they came out. I whirled my horse and lashed it into a dash to escape from them. All others of my companions did the same. But soon we discovered they were not following us. They were running away from us. They were going as fast [as] their tired horses could carry them across an open valley space and toward the river. We stopped, looked a moment, andthen we whipped our ponies into swift pursuit. A great throng of Sioux also were coming after them. My distant position put me among the leaders in the chase. The soldier [sic] horses moved slowly, as if they were very tired. Ours were lively. We gained rapidly on them.
I fired four shots with my six shooter. I do not know whether or not any of my bullets did harm. I saw a Sioux put an arrow into the back of a soldier's head. Another arrow went into his shoulder. He tumbled from his horse to the ground. Others fell dead either from arrows or from stabbings or jabbings or from blows by the stone war clubs of the Sioux. Horses limped or staggered or sprawled out dead or dying. Our war cries and war songs were mingled with many jeering calls, such as:
"You are only boys. You ought not to be fighting. We whipped you on the Rosebud. You should have brought more Crows or Shoshones with you to do your fighting."
Warbonnet: A headdress worn in battle.
Little Bird and I were after one certain soldier. Little Bird was wearing a trailingwarbonnet. He was at the right and I was at theleft of the fleeing man. We were lashing him and his horse with our pony whips. It seemed not brave to shoot him. Besides, I did not want to waste my bullets. He pointed back his revolver, though, and sent a bullet into Little Bird's thigh. Immediately I whacked the white man fighter on his head with the heavy elk-horn handle of my pony whip. The blow dazed him. I seized the rifle strapped on his back. I wrenched it and dragged the looping strap over his head. As I was getting possession of this weapon he fell to the ground. I did not harm him further. I do not know what became of him. The jam of oncoming Indians swept me on. But I had now a good soldier rifle. Yet, I had not any cartridges for it....
I saw [soldiers] on distant hills down the river and on our same side of it. The news of them spread quickly among us. Indians began to ride in that direction. Some went along the hills, others went down to cross the river and follow the valley. I took this course. I guided my horse down the steep hillside and forded the river. Back again among the camps I rode on through them to our Cheyenne circle at the lower end of them. As I rode I could see lots of Indians out on the hills across on the east side of the river and fighting the other soldiers there. I do not know whether all of our warriors left the first soldiers or some of them stayed up there. I suppose, though, that all of them came away from there, as they would be afraid to stay if only a few remained.
Not many people were in the lodges of our camp. Most of the women and children and old Cheyennes were gone to the west side of the valley or to the hills at that side. A few were hurrying back and forth to take away packs. My father was the only person at our lodge. I told him of the fight up the valley. I told him of my having helped in the killing of the enemy Indian and some soldiers in the river. I gave to him the tobacco I had taken. I showed him my gun and all of the cartridges.
"You have been brave," he cheered me. "You have done enough for one day. Now you should rest."
"No, I want to go and fight the other soldiers," I said. "I can fight better now, with this gun."
"Your horse is too tired," he argued.
"Yes, but I want to ride the other one."
He turned loose my tired horse and roped my other one from the little herd being held inside the camp circle. He blanketed the new mount and arranged the lariat bridle. He applied the medicine treatmentfor protecting my mount. As he was doing this I was making some improvements in my appearance, making the medicine for myself. I added mysheathknife to my stock of weapons. Then I looked a few moments at the battling Indians and soldiers across the river on the hills to the northeastward. More and more Indians were flocking from the camps to that direction. Some were yet coming along the hills from where the first soldiers had stopped. The soldiers now in view were spreading themselves into lines along a ridge. The Indians were on lower ridges in front of them, between them and the river, and were moving up a longcoulee to get behind the white men.
"Remember, your older brother already is out there in the fight," my father said to me. "I think there will be plenty of warriors to beat the soldiers, so it is not needful that I send both of my sons. You have not your shield nor your eagle wing bone flute. Stay back as far as you can and shoot from a long distance. Let your brother go ahead of you."
Two other young men were near us. They had their horses and were otherwise ready, but they told me they had decided not to go. I showed them my captured gun and the cartridges. I told them of the tobacco and the clothing and other things we had taken from the soldiers up the valley. This changed their minds. They mounted their horses and accompanied me....
After the long time of the slow fighting, about forty of the soldiers came galloping from the east part of the ridge down toward the river, toward where most of the Cheyennes and many Ogallalas were hidden. The Indians ran back to a deep gulch. The soldiers stopped and got off their horses when they arrived at a low ridge where the Indians had been. Lame White Man, the Southern Cheyenne chief, came on his horse and called us to come back and fight. In a few minutes the warriors were all around these soldiers. Then Lame White Man called out:
"Come. We can kill all of them."
All around, the Indians began jumping up, running forward, dodging down, jumping up again, down again, all the time going toward the soldiers. Right away, all of the white men went crazy. Instead of shooting us, they turned their guns upon themselves. Almost before we could get to them, every one of them was dead. They killed themselves.
Sheathknife: A knife held in a sheath, or sleeve.
Coulee: A deep gulch or ravine with sloping sides.
The Indians took the guns of these soldiers and used them for shooting at the soldiers on the high ridge. I went back and got myhorse and rode around beyond the east end of the ridge. By the time I got there, all of the soldiers there were dead. The Indians told me that they had killed only a few of those men, that the men had shot each other and shot themselves. A Cheyenne told me that four soldiers from that part of the ridge had turned their horses and tried to escape by going back over the trail where they had come. Three of these men were killed quickly. The fourth one got across a gulch and over a ridge eastward before the pursuing group of Sioux got close to him. His horse was very tired, and the Sioux were gaining on him. He was moving his right arm as though whipping his horse to make it go faster. Suddenly his right hand went up to his head. With his revolver he shot himself and fell dead from his horse....
The shots quit coming from the soldiers. Warriors who had crept close to them began to call out that all of the white men were dead. All of the Indians then jumped up and rushed forward. All of the boys and old men on their horses came tearing into the crowd. The air was full of dust and smoke. Everybody was greatly excited. It looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight. All of the Indians were saying these soldiers also went crazy and killed themselves. I do not know. I could not see them. But I believe they did so.
Seven of these last soldiers broke away and went running down the coulee sloping toward the river from the west end of the ridge. I was on the side opposite from them, and there was much smoke and dust, and many Indians were in front of me, so I did not see these men running, but I learned of them from the talk afterward. They did not get far, because many Indians were all around them. It was said that these seven men, or some of them, killed themselves. I do not know, as I did not see them.
After the great throng of Indians had crowded upon the little space where had been the last band of fighting soldiers, a strange incident happened: It appeared that all of the white men were dead. But there was one of them who raised himself to a support on his left elbow. He turned and looked over his left shoulder, and then I got a good view of him. His expression was wild, as if his mind was all tangled up and he was wondering what was going on here. In his right hand he held his six-shooter. Many of the Indians near him were scared by what seemed to have been a return from death to life. But a Sioux warrior jumped forward, grabbed the six-shooter and wrenched it from the soldier's grasp. The gun was turned upon the white man, and he was shot through thehead. Other Indians struck him or stabbed him. I think he must have been the last man killed in this great battle where not one of the enemy got away.
This last man had a big and strong body. His cheeks were plump. All over his face was a stubby black beard. His mustache was much longer than his other beard, and it was curled up at the ends. The spot where he was killed is just above the middle of the big group of white stone slabs now standing on the slope southwest from the big stone. I do not know whether he was a soldier chief or an ordinary soldier. I did not notice any metal piece nor any special marks on the shoulders of his clothing, it may be they were there. Some of the Cheyennes say now that he wore two white metal bars. But at that time we knew nothing about such things.
One of the dead soldier bodies attracted special attention. This was one who was said to have been wearing a buckskin suit. I had not seen any such soldier during the fighting. When I saw the body it had been stripped and the head was cut off and gone. Across the breast was some writing made by blue and red coloring into the skin. On each arm was a picture drawn with the same kind of blue and red paint. One of the pictures was of an eagle having its wings spread out. Indians told me that on the left arm had been strapped a leather packet having in it some white paper and a lot of the same kind of green picture-paper found on all of the soldier bodies. Some of the Indians guessed that he must have been the big chief of the soldiers, because of the buckskin clothing and because of the paint markings on breast and arms. But none of the Indians knew then who had been the big chief. They were guessing at it.
Forenoon: The time between morning and noon.
The sun was just past the middle of the sky. The first soldiers, up the valley, had come about middle of theforenoon. The earlier part of the fighting against these second soldiers had been slow, all of the Indians staying back and approaching gradually. At each time of charging, though, the mixup lasted only a few minutes.
I took one scalp. As I went walking and leading my horse among the dead I observed one face that interested me. The dead man had a long beard growing from both sides of his face and extending several inches below the chin. He had also a full mustache. All of the beard hair was of a light yellow color, as I now recall it. Most of the soldiers had beard growing, in different lengths, but this was the longest one I saw among them. I think the dead man may have been thirty or more years old. "Here is a new kind of scalp," I said to a companion. I skinned one side of the face and half of the chin, so as to keep the long beard yet on the part removed. I got an arrow shaft and tied the strange scalp to the end of it. This I carried in a hand as I went looking further....
I found a metal bottle, as I was walking among the dead men. It was about half full of some kind of liquid. I opened it and found that the liquid was not water. Soon afterward I got hold of another bottle of the same kind that had in it the same kind of liquid. I showed these to some other Indians. Different ones of them smelled and sniffed. Finally a Sioux said:
Bottles of this kind were found by several other Indians. Some of them drank the contents. Others tried to drink, but had to spit out their mouthfuls. Bobtail Horse got sick and vomited soon after he had taken a big swallow of it. It became the talk that this whisky explained why the soldiers became crazy and shot each other and themselves instead of shooting us. One old Indian said, though, that there was not enough whisky gone from any of the bottles to make a white man soldier go crazy. We all agreed then that the foolish actions of the soldiers must have been caused by the prayers of our medicine men. I believed this was the true explanation. My belief became changed, though, in later years. I think now it was the whisky....
Mourning cuts: The wives and daughters of killed warriors sliced their skin so that they would participate in the pain of the warrior's death.
Coups: Feats of bravery performed in battle, especially the touching of an enemy's body without causing injury.
[In the days after the battle the] Cheyenne warriors had a dance at this Greasy Grass camp. Charcoal Bear, our medicine chief, brought the buffalo skin from the sacred tepee and put it upon the top of a pole in the center of our camp circle. We danced around this pole. No women took part in the dancing. Many of them had sore legs from themourning cuts. Our dance was not carried very far into the night. It was mostly a short telling of experiences, a counting ofcoups . My father told, in a few words, what his two sons had done. When he had ended the telling of my warrior acts, he said: "The name of this son of mine is Wooden Leg." Up to this time somepeople still used my boyhood name, Eats From His Hand. But now this old name was entirely gone. [Marquis, pp. 217–22, 226–8, 231–2, 237–41, 246, 274–5]
What happened next . . .
Following the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Indians separated into smaller units: Sitting Bull and his band escaped into Canada; and Crazy Horse was hounded by soldiers until 1877, when he finally surrendered and led his people onto a reservation. Other tribes were slowly rounded up and led to reservations. Their spirit had been broken by the never-ending pursuit of white soldiers and the continuing stream of white settlers who claimed Indian land as their own. By the 1880s there seemed to be no land left to them but the land on the reservations.
Wooden Leg was with his people when they surrendered, and he traveled to several reservations on the Plains before settling on a reservation near the Tongue River in Montana. "It is comfortable to live in peace on the reservation," Wooden Leg concluded his story. "It is pleasant to be situated where I can sleep soundly every night, without fear that my horses may be stolen or that myself or my friends may be crept upon and killed. But I like to think about the old times, when every man had to be brave. I wish I could live again through some of the past days when it was the first thought of every prospering Indian to send out the call: 'Hoh-oh-oh-oh, friends: Come. Come. Come. I have plenty of buffalo meat. I have coffee. I have sugar. I have tobacco. Come, friends, feast and smoke with me.'"
Did you know . . .
- The defeat of General Custer enraged many Americans and drew widespread support for the army's campaign to remove the "Indian menace" on the Plains.
- After the battle, Sitting Bull led his people in an exhausting winter journey north to Canada. Crazy Horse battled the forces of Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles during the winter, but on May 6 he led a band of three hundred Cheyenne and Oglala warriors to a defiant surrender at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.
- Crazy Horse remained a powerful leader among his people on the reservation. Fearful of Crazy Horse's influence, white authorities attempted to place him under guard. When he resisted, Crazy Horse was bayoneted to death by Indian soldiers.
Consider the following . . .
- What is Wooden Leg's attitude toward the white soldiers?
- What does Wooden Leg think of the behavior of the white soldiers in battle? What do they do that mystifies him and the other Indians?
- How does Wooden Leg decide what he should do in battle? Does he take commands from a leader? How might his account differ from the account of a white soldier following the orders of an army general?
- Did you find anything unexpected in this Indian account of the Battle of Little Bighorn?
For More Information
Halliburton, Warren J. The Tragedy of Little Bighorn. New York: F. Watts, 1989.
Henckel, Mark. The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Helena, MO: Falcon Press Publishing Co., 1992.
Krehbiel, Randy. Little Bighorn. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1997.
Nardo, Don. Indian Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1991.
Rice, Earle, Jr. The Battle of the Little Bighorn. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.
Wills, Charles A. The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1990.
Wooden Leg. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer. Interpreted by Thomas B. Marquis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1931.