Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custer's Last Stand

Road Journals Blog—Whenever I visit the museum at the Little Bighorn Battlefield—the site of George Custer’s famous “last stand” in Eastern Montana—I come away with two major reactions.

First, Custer’s buckskin suit is comically tiny, especially for a man who supposedly stood 5 foot 11. If that suit is typical, he must have spent a lot of his time walking stiff-legged and bug-eyed across the plains. You can picture him surveying the distant Sioux camp while his jacket cut off the blood flow to his brain. It explains a lot.


The war cemetary from Custer's last stand.

If Custer’s suit was too restrictive, it has nothing on the museum itself, an institution far too small for such an important and historic spot. (As an article in the Billings Gazette recently put it: “Exhibit space in the museum is marginal; storage for historic documents and artifacts is insufficient; parking is woefully inadequate.”)

In 1986 the Park Service proposed expanding the museum and visitor center, adding 11,000 acres to the adjacent battlefield site’s 765, and building a new road to connect Last Stand Hill and the starting point of the battle.


The monument at Custer's hill, containing bones found at the site; circa 1876.

Twenty-five years later, none of those proposals has come to pass. (The short story: Mixing federal and tribal politics isn’t exactly a recipe for fast action. The Crow Tribe, whose reservation surrounds the site, has been loathe to give up its land.)

The Battlefield superintendent is still talking about expansion, but there are no immediate plans.

Even though the museum is small, it definitely adds to the Battlefield experience. In addition to the XS buckskin suit, you can see an arrow-strewn diorama, cavalry uniforms, warrior headdresses, and guns used in the battle (including Indian rifles decorated with war paint).

After the Battle, a large painting by J.K. Ralston, shows native men and women swarming over the defeated 7th Calvary. The eye is quickly drawn to a smiling woman standing over Custer’s slumped body. She’s holding up a big knife—leaving you to imagine what happens next.

Q: Is there a monument or marker you feel should receive more attention than it does? Tell us about it.

Chris Woolston's essay on Little Bighorn ran in February 2011 at VIAmagazine.com.

This blog post was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.