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The Short, Violent Life of Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Part 1: The Battle of the Rosebud)

December 8, 2016

It was  almost 130 years after the most thoroughly investigated, written about and discussed incident in United States military history, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, before the Northern Cheyenne tribe would make public their oral history of the June, 1876 fight. When they finally did, they insisted it was Buffalo Calf Road Woman who fired the shot that knocked Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer from his horse on the day he died.

It is not clear when or where Buffalo Calf Road Woman (sometimes called Brave Woman), was born. She was between twenty-five and thirty years old when she died of diphtheria in late April 1879 while in the custody of the Montana Territorial Court in Miles City. She was the sister of minor Cheyenne Chief Comes in Sight and the wife of warrior Black Coyote. She had two children of whom little is known. Buffalo Calf Road Woman has achieved heroic status among her own people and deserves to be remembered and honored by her enemies, as well.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Brave Woman)


The Battle of the Rose Bud

The first place history records Buffalo Calf Road Woman is in reports from the Battle of the Rosebud,  which was fought on June 17, 1876. That day, a U.S. Army column under the command of General George Crook engaged a combined force of Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux warriors under the command of Oglala War Chief Crazy Horse (and other Indian leaders), at the headwaters of Rosebud Creek in southeastern Montana.

By 1876 tensions between the aboriginal tribes of the high plains and the United States government had reached another climax. The 1867 Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed after an Indian victory in Red Cloud's War, was being violated by the 1874 Black Hills Gold Rush. Outraged at the intrusion into their sacred territory many Natives left the reservations with hostile intent and joined their free-roaming tribesmen.

After it was called for by Hunkpapa Holy Man Sitting Bull, 'renegade redskins' were joined on the Rosebud Creek by other "Agency Indians" for a traditional Sun Dance*. Sioux tribes under Chiefs Gall and Crazy Horse, Cheyenne under Two Moon and Lame White Man, as well as some Arapaho attended the religious ceremony in the thousands. It is said to have been the largest gathering of Plains Indians in history. During the Sun Dance, Sitting Bull gave 100 strips of skin cut from his arms to warriors who participated in the Ordeal. During the experience he had a vision. He saw "soldiers falling into camp like grasshoppers from the sky."

* Sun Dance: a tradition among the aboriginal plains tribes of North America.  It was the most important religious event of the year, a holy time of continuous prayer and ceremony, a time for annual renewal, for making personal vows, for seeking visions and a time for many of the young men to make the transition to warrior status by enduring a painful ordeal.

A Sun Dance Ordeal

The huge, off the reservation, gathering was a frightening violation of the Treaty of Laramie by the Indians.  In response, the U.S. Army initiated a three pronged campaign to encircle the tribes and bring them back under control. Colonel Gibbons marched east from Fort Ellis in Montana, General Terry (accompanied by Col. Custer's 7th Cavalry), marched west from Fort Lincoln, North Dakota and General Crook came north from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory.

General George Crook

General Crook followed the  Bozeman Trail (closed to White Men since Red Cloud's War), to the Tongue River, arriving on June 8th. Crazy Horse sent word that he would fight if "Three Stars" (Crook), crossed the Tongue. On June 9th the Indians fired long-distance shots into the camp, wounding several soldiers, to confirm their intent. Crook waited on the Tongue until friendly Crow and Shoshoni warriors joined him. Crook was renowned for "using Indians to catch Indians," but they warned him that the Cheyenne and Sioux were "as numerous as grass."

Crook left his wagons and pack train behind and, on June 16th with a force of about 950 soldiers, 100 armed civilians and 250 Indian allies, crossed the Tongue River. He proceeded toward the headwaters of Rosebud Creek, where he expected to find the village. He was unaware that the Indians had already moved west to Ash Creek. Each of Crook's soldiers carried four days rations and 100 rounds of ammunition. He anticipated facing the usual Indian tactic of hit-and-run skirmishes. He certainly did not foresee a pitched, organized battle. But, that is what Crazy Horse had planned for him.

After learning of Crook's movement, an Indian force of about 1,000 mounted, well armed Cheyenne and Sioux warriors left their village on the evening of June 16th. They rode all night, resting their horses only briefly, seeking out Three Star's force. They made contact with the Crow and Shoshoni scouts early on the morning of June 17, 1876.

Crook's army, particularly the mule-riding infantry, was fatigued by their 35 mile march on the 16th, but, after a 3am reveille, they were on the move again. At 8am Crook stopped to rest the men and animals. He did not break marching formation even though they were deep in enemy territory. Suddenly, gunfire was heard on the bluffs to the north. As the intensity increased, two Crow scouts rode up to Crook shouting, "Lakota, Lakota!" The Battle of the Rosebud had begun. Crook quickly deployed his troops.

Crazy Horse

The ensuing fight lasted for over six hours. There were disconnected skirmishes over a fluid, three mile front with innumerable charges and counter-charges. For the first time, Crook witnessed the Sioux using contemporary military tactics. On foot, they formed a fixed battle line below the crest of a ridge.  As the soldiers advanced on the Indian position they were repeatedly hit on the flanks by organized cavalry attacks.

At about 9:30am, having made no headway, Crook ordered six troops of cavalry under Captain Anson Mills to charge the Indians' position. The mounted assault managed to break the Sioux and Cheyenne's line. A follow-up charge drove them back to another hill to the northwest. Mills then assumed a defensive position and the rest of the U.S. forces joined him on what was to become known as, "Crook's Hill". Headquarters was set up there and the general rested his troops while considering his next move.

It was during Mill's second charge that an event occurred which inspirited the battlefield and inspired the Cheyenne's name for the engagement. During the Indians' withdrawal from their initial position, a horse was shot out from under Comes in Sight. As the warrior scrambled for safety amid the violent, swirling chaos of the cavalry fight, his sister, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, burst from her observer's position near Crazy Horse and the other chiefs (why she was the only woman on the battlefield is not known). Unarmed, she frantically galloped to her brother's aide. Comes in Sight grabbed hold of the horse and desperately hung on. Dodging slashing sabers and zinging bullets, the two escaped to safety. Because of this stunning act of heroism, the Cheyenne named the fight, "The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother."

Captain Mills also witnessed Buffalo Calf Road Woman's ride. He was amazed at her courage and riding skill and documented the event in his official report. Mills was immensely impressed by the riding and fighting skill his adversaries. "They were the best cavalry soldiers on earth. In charging up toward us they exposed little of their person, hanging on with one arm around the neck and one leg over the horse, firing and lancing from underneath the horse's neck, so that there was no part of the Indian at which we could aim."

The Battle of the Rosebud was far from over. The Lakota and Cheyenne had been driven back, but suffered little damage. Crazy Horse quickly established new battle lines and kept up fire on the soldiers from long range. Probing attacks by small groups of warriors put constant pressure on Crook's Hill. Any attempt at a counter-attack sent the Indians scurrying out of range on fast ponies and brought the U.S. soldiers under heavier fire.

Realizing that his tactics couldn't win the battle, Crook sent his cavalry to find and attack the Indian village, assuming it would force the warriors to withdraw. He didn't know that Crazy Horse, contrary to previous Indian practice, had come far out to meet him in battle. The village was nowhere near. Neither did Crook realize that he was facing only a small portion of the enemy's force. Sitting Bull had opposed Crazy Horse's strategy and a majority of the warriors had not joined the fight. It is, perhaps, the only thing that saved Crook from complete annihilation.

Captain Mills, accompanied by Captain Noyes, pulled their horsemen away from the battle front, descended into the Rosebud Valley and headed downstream (north) in search of the village. There was no village but the move had the desired effect.  It outflanked Crazy Horse's position, got behind his left 'wing'. He shifted his battle front from against Crook's Hill toward the positions of Lt. Colonel William Royall, Crook's second in command.

After an ill-conceived assault, Royall's force (which lost by far the most men during the battle), found itself separated from the main force on a knoll across Kollmar Creek from Crook's headquarters. They were hard pressed and often surrounded over the next several hours. The men began to panic. Were it not for a series of desperate counter-charges by the Crow and Shoshoni allies and long range supporting fire from Crook's Hill, Royall's six companies would have been wiped out. 

The Battle of the Rosebud  June 17, 1876

Crook desperately sent Captain Mills new orders to immediately give up his hunt for the village and advance quickly toward the gunfire. He arrive on the field at about 2:30pm and formed up his troops on Crazy Horse's left flank. Out of position and feeling there was little more to be gained but their own destruction, the Lakota and Cheyenne broke contact and retired from the field in an orderly fashion. They returned to their village to celebrate their victory, and to glorify the heroic actions of Buffalo Calf Road Woman.

The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother

Crook's forces buried their scores of dead, tended to their many wounded and rested for a while before retreating back across the Tongue River to encampment at Goose Creek in Wyoming. They remained there for seven weeks, awaiting reinforcements. A few days later, the Indians again moved their village. They consolidated along the Greasy Grass River, known to White Men as the Little Bighorn. It was there they were attacked by George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry on June 25th. 

{To follow: The Short, Violent Life of Buffalo Calf Road Woman: Part 2--The Battle of the Little Bighorn}

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