By 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) had reached Bismarck, with the objective of extending its line to the Pacific Coast in the next few years. However, Bismarck was as far as the trains would go for the next six years. The reasons given for that are largely the obstacle of building a bridge across the Missouri River and the financial collapse of the railroad, which triggered the national Panic of 1873.

One more problem that the NPRR had to contend with was the constant threat that railroad workers laying the tracks and surveyors were subjected to being harassed and even attacked by Lakota Indians. The war chiefs in Northern Dakota Territory who posed the biggest threat were Gall and Sitting Bull.

Gall had led attacks on the soldiers escorting the NPRR survey crews in 1872 and again in 1873, as he attempted to discourage the railroad surveyors from continuing to map out exactly where the tracks were to be laid. Escort soldiers who witnessed the ferocity with which he led his warriors in the attacks reported that the sight of Gall in battle was a very terrorizing thing, and they called him the “Fighting Cock of the Sioux.”

In order to try and put an end to these attacks, the U.S. government insisted that all Lakota people were to settle on the Great Sioux Reservation, which encompassed all of western South Dakota and portions of northern Nebraska and western Montana. However, by 1875, many of those who were still roaming the territory north of the reservation refused to comply with the government’s demands, and this “caused great alarm in Washington, D.C.”

On Jan. 31, 1876, the government issued an ultimatum to Lakota people who refused to settle on the reservation, which stated that if they did not relocate to the reservation, they would “face the consequences.” In order to enforce this ultimatum, Gen. Philip Sheridan drew up a plan for a three-pronged attack against the large Lakota and Cheyenne settlement that had gathered near the Yellowstone and Little Bighorn rivers in south-central Montana. With a population of over 10,000, “it was perhaps the largest single gathering of Indian forces yet seen in the Northern Plains area.”

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Gen. Alfred Terry led the eastern prong out of northwestern Dakota Territory, which had the 7th Cavalry under the command of Col. George Custer, in it. When both Custer and Terry reached the location where the Native Americans had settled, Terry planned on a coordinated attack with Custer’s regiment.

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On June 24, Custer and his 7th Cavalry arrived on a bluff that overlooked the Little Bighorn River from the south, and they spotted an encampment on the west side of the river. Correctly assuming that Lakota scouts had already observed his regiment, Custer decided to launch an attack the next morning, even though Terry’s regiment had not yet arrived.

Custer split his regiment into three large military groups and ordered Maj. Marcus Reno and his three companies to attack the Native American encampment from the south, while he and his five companies would attack from the north. Custer also ordered Capt. Frederick Benteen to take three companies and proceed along the south bank of the Yellowstone River to secure any escape routes.

When Gall’s scouts told him that many soldiers were approaching the encampment, he left his two wives and children in the village to go and spy on Custer’s troops. Having previously engaged Custer’s soldiers in battle, Gall already knew many of the tactics his opponent would employ, but what Gall did not know was that Custer had already sent three companies under Reno to attack his village.

Gall, seen here in a portrait taken in the 1880s, was born in about 1840 in what is now northwestern South Dakota. Public Domain / Special to The Forum
Gall, seen here in a portrait taken in the 1880s, was born in about 1840 in what is now northwestern South Dakota. Public Domain / Special to The Forum

When he learned that fighting had already broken out in part of his village, “Gall sprang into action and, with many of his warriors, out-flanked Reno’s men, killing one-third of his soldiers and forcing the remaining men to retreat” into the wooded bluffs overlooking the river. Gall then assessed the damage done to his village and learned, to his horror, that Reno’s Arikara and Crow scouts, led by Bloody Knife, had killed his two wives and three children.

After his initial shock and grief subsided, Gall was filled with rage, and he later said, “It made my heart bad.” Armed with just a hatchet, he mounted his horse and led a group of warriors north to face Custer’s troops. He joined Chief Crazy Horse and his warriors, and soon after they crossed the Little Bighorn, “Gall led a resolute charge" against the dismounted troopers of Capt. Myles Keogh, commander of three of Custer’s companies.

The first thing Gall’s warriors did was stampede the soldiers’ horses, making it impossible for Keogh’s men to escape. After eliminating Keogh’s soldiers, Gall and Crazy Horse encountered Company F, under the command of Capt. George Yates, who they quickly defeated. Gall and Crazy Horse were then joined by Crow King and his warriors, and together they moved against Custer and his remaining troops on what became known as “Last Stand Hill.”

Having annihilated most of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Chiefs Gall, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull knew they needed to move their people from the Little Bighorn area since the other U.S. military regiments would soon arrive. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was the first major battle in what became known as the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877.

For the rest of 1876 and into 1877, Col. Nelson Miles pursued the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians under the guidance of Sitting Bull, and some minor battles took place. In September 1877, Crazy Horse was killed, and Sitting Bull made the decision to settle on the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, where they would be safe from the pursuing U.S. soldiers.

It was remarkable that the Hunkpapa Lakota were able to defeat the military forces of Custer and, for the next two years, elude the U.S. Army soldiers who were ordered to capture them. I believe much of the credit goes to the spiritual leadership of Sitting Bull, who kept his Lakota together under very adverse conditions, and to the battlefield leadership of Gall and Crazy Horse.

Gall as photographed in 1881 by David Francis Barry at Fort Buford, N.D. Public Domain / Special to The Forum
Gall as photographed in 1881 by David Francis Barry at Fort Buford, N.D. Public Domain / Special to The Forum

Gall and Sitting Bull had remained very close since childhood, and they had worked well together in their opposition of being forced to live on the reservation. However, the living conditions for the Lakota people in Canada became extremely difficult, especially because of the lack of food, and the relationship between the two chiefs became strained.

In the fall of 1880, Gall “quarreled with Sitting Bull, calling him a fraud and a coward.” Gall announced that he was returning to the U.S., and “about 300 ledges of his Hunkpapa warriors and their families” agreed to go with him.

On Jan. 3, 1881, Gall surrendered to the U.S. Army, and he and his followers settled on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in present-day North and South Dakota. Gall became a farmer on the reservation in west-central Dakota Territory, and he encouraged his people to assimilate to reservation life. He became a good and trusted friend of the Indian agent James McLaughlin, and the two men worked together to encourage Lakota parents to send their children to school.

Gall later donated his land allotment to build a school so Native American children wouldn't be separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools. With more of his people starving, in 1881, Sitting Bull and his followers returned from Canada and surrendered and were assigned to Standing Rock.

The two former close friends never reconciled, and Gall opposed his hostile intentions toward white people. “Gall became highly regarded by the Whites for his wisdom and honesty” and, in 1889, was appointed as a judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. Gall converted to Christianity and was appointed “envoy to Washington, D.C. on behalf of his tribe.”

Pizi/Chief Gall died on Dec. 5, 1895.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.