What’s in a name? Well… everything if you are a Cheyenne Elk Warrior. This is a story about Wooden Leg, a brave and honorable man who fought in the battle we know as “Custer’s Last Stand,” and known to the Sioux as the battle of the “Greasy Grass.” A horrible slaughter or a great victory, depending on the name.
Most of what follows (and all of the quotes, unless noted) come from a book written by Thomas B. Marquis, titled Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer. Beginning in 1922, Wooden Leg told his story to Marquis – a doctor – using sign language. Wooden Leg’s story opens a fascinating window into the culture and life-ways of the Cheyenne and their Sioux cousins in the 19th century. Where is the time machine when you need it?
Kum-mok-quiv-vi-ok-ta is Cheyenne for Wooden Leg, and the name of our hero’s uncle, who was actually a Crow. It’s complicated – the first Wooden Leg was captured from the Crow as a small boy. He remained with the Cheyenne. His prowess was walking long distances without tiring and covering ground at great speed. And it was said of him, that “His legs must be made of wood, since he never becomes tired.” So Wooden Leg it was. Kum-mok-quiv-vi-ok-ta married our Wooden Leg’s mother’s sister and the name was passed down to the nephew who shared the same ability for walking.
Wooden Leg explained, “I liked the name, I liked the man who bore it, and I liked the honor of comparison with him. I told my father I wished to be known as Wooden Leg.” Wooden Leg’s first name was Eats From The Hand.
June 25, 1876. Custer, along with Companies C, E, I, F and L of the 7th Cavalry are wiped out on a ridge on the east side of the Little Big Horn River. On July 6, 1876 the front page headline of the Bismark Tribune blared:
Massacred…Gen. Custer And 261 Men The Victims.
No Officer or Man of 5 Companies Left To Tell The Tale.3 Days Desperate Fighting by Maj. Reno and the Remainder of the Seventh.
Full Details of the Battle.
List of Killed And Wounded.
The Bismark Tribune’s Special Correspondent Slain.
Squaws Mutilate and Rob the Dead.
Victims Captured Alive Tortured in a Most Fiendish Manner.
What Will Congress Do About It?
Shall This Be the Beginning of The End?
There is an aphorism that says history is written by the victors. Here the early history, however vague, of Custer’s Last Stand was written by the vanquished, and those who called it Greasy Grass stayed mute. And with good reason.
Folks were angry. Custer was a fair-haired hero. And calls for retribution like the headline above came out loud and clear. So when they say no one left alive to tell the tale… that’s not exactly true, is it? There were several thousand Sioux and Cheyenne who saw what happened.
“Soldiers are here! Young men, go out and fight them.”
The night before the great battle, the Indians held dances. Not war dances, but social ones. In Wooden Leg’s words… “I had no thought then of any fighting to be done in the near future. We had driven away the soldiers (General Crook, June 17, 1876), on the upper Rosebud, seven days ago. It seemed likely it would be a long time before they would trouble us again. My mind was occupied mostly by such thoughts as regularly are uppermost in the minds of young men. I was eighteen years old, and I liked girls.”
So Wooden Leg and three friends went to the camp of the Arrows All Gone Sioux (Sans Arc) to dance with the Sioux girls. The dance lasted all night. Morning brought a return to the Cheyenne camp, breakfast and orders from his mother: “You must go for a bath in the river.”
After splashing in the river with a crowd of other Indians, Wooden Leg and his brother, Yellow Hair, sprawled in the shade of some trees and fell asleep. “… 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…”
The shots were probably Reno and his men, who had approached from the south and run into the Uncpapas whose, teepees were pitched at the upstream, or south end of camp. Reno knew he was hugely outnumbered and dismounted his men to fight from a skirmish line. He was soon encircled by the Sioux, and his men were being picked off.
Wooden Leg continued, “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 my lariat and my six shooter.”
“My father had caught my favorite horse from the herd… 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 inside the 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 buckskin thong 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.”
When he reached the site of all the commotion, he had traveled in a wide circle around the Uncpapa teepees and… “Many hundreds of Indians on horseback were dashing to and fro in front of a body of soldiers.” Reno had 140 men.
“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.”
At this point, Reno had ordered a retreat into a wooded area alongside the Little Bighorn, a position that was also untenable. Arrows rained down on the cavalry troops, and Wooden Leg observed, “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.” Reno mounted his men once again and on exhausted horses charged through the Indian encirclement and crossed the river. The Indians pursued.
“Little Bird and I were after one certain soldier. Little Bird was wearing a trailing warbonnet. He was at the right and I was at the left 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.”
Reno and his men had climbed, crawled and scratched up to the top of the ridge on the east side of the river. Here he would hook up with Benteen, who Custer had sent south to block any escape by the Sioux. They dug rifle pits using whatever they could find to scratch shallow depressions in the rocky ground. Some of the pits remain visible today. They set up a field hospital in a shallow bowl just over the top of the ridge on the east side and circled the depression with what horses and mules remained.
Even after the retreat, Reno had heard nothing from Custer who had promised to support Reno in his attack from the south. I don’t think he had emerged yet at the northern end of the Indian Camps. Wooden Leg certainly did not know anything about Custer. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime much later that any of the Indians knew who they fought.
Wooden leg returned to the west side of the river and joined many other Indians who were seeking dead and wounded soldiers to kill. “All of the weapons and clothing and all other possessions were being taken from the bodies. The warriors were doing this. No old people or women were there. They all had run away to the hill benches to the westward.” During this foraging expedition, he finds two pasteboard boxes. Each with 20 cartridges.
“Now I need not be so careful in expending ammunition. Now I felt very brave. I jumped upon my horse and went again to fight whatever soldiers I might find on the east side of the river.”
But not to the rescue. If you want a brief and factual account of what happened before and during the battle, Robert Utley’s excellent Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custer’s Last Stand is a fairly short and traditional view of those events. I have drawn from it here.
Custer and the 7th Calvary departed the Yellowstone at the mouth of Rosebud Creek. They rode hard for several days, camping along the Rosebud. Today, you can drive the same route, and signs indicate where Custer and the 7th camped. It’s a long enough ride in a jeep, but it took three days of hard pushing for Custer to reach the top of the divide between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn Valleys. Utley wrote, “… Lt. Charles A Varnum and several of his scouts climbed a high hill to the south, known as the Crow’s Nest, and at dawn scanned the wrinkled landscape stretching off to the Bighorn Mountains. Some 15 miles to the west, where a thread of green traced the course of the Little Bighorn, the Crows discerned smoke rising from the Sioux village and on the benchland beyond a vast undulating mass that represented the Sioux pony herd. Lieutenant Varnum could not see these things, and neither could Custer when he arrived in response to a message from the lieutenant.” There must have been thousands and thousands of Indian ponies in that herd. If you figure a minimum of 2,000 warriors and 4 ponies each plus ponies used by women and old men, it might have been 10,000 horses grazing. Undulating mass indeed.
Here, Custer divided his command – sending Benteen and 125 men south to block any retreat and to “pitch into anything he might find,” and later splitting Reno off to attack the south end of the camp with about 140 men. This left Custer with a force of 215 men.
We know what happened to Reno. But what happened from Wooden Leg’s perspective when Custer finally made an appearance on the ridge to the east of the northern end of the Sioux Camp?
“I saw them 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.”
“Most of the Indians were working around the ridge now occupied by the soldiers. We were lying down in gullies and behind sagebrush hillocks. The shooting at first was at a distance, but we kept creeping in closer all around the ridge. Bow and arrows were in use much more than guns. From the hiding-places of the Indians, the arrows could be shot in a high and long curve, to fall upon the soldiers or their horses.”
This was the beginning of the end – Custer’s Last Stand. Legend says that all of the men with Custer died at the hands of an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. But exactly how this happened can never be known with certainty – since everyone died. That is the Last Stand Legend. But wait…
Not everyone. Wooden Leg was there and survived, and here is what he said about what happened. “Then Lame White Man, the Southern Cheyenne Chief, called out: ‘Come. We can kill all of them.’”
Custer who had circled way around after separating from Benteen and Reno so as to reach the Indian encampment undetected, had ridden down the ridge to the Little Bighorn. At least one Indian account of the battle has Custer and scout Mitch Boyer shot dead with Custer falling off his horse into the river. At any rate Custer, either dead or alive at this point, retreated back up the ridge near where the monument stands today, and this is where his body was found.
Wooden Leg: “All around, the Indians began jumping up, running forward, dodging down, jumping up again, down again, all the time going toward the soldiers.” This was in response to a group of about 40 soldiers who had left the main body and charged down the ridge toward the Indians. “Right away, all of the white men went crazy. Instead of shooting us, they turned the guns upon themselves. Almost before we could get to them, every one of them was dead. They killed themselves.
“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 my horse and rode around beyond the east end of the ridge. By then 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.”
Wow. Certainly not the stuff of legend here. No Errol Flynn riding gallantly to his death accompanied by an orchestra playing “Garryowen.” No “Victims Captured Alive Tortured in a Most Fiendish Manner” as reported on various front pages. So why hasn’t this side of the story received more attention, and why was it not told until 1922 – about 46 years after the fact?
The Sioux and Cheyenne won the battle but lost the war. Worse, they lost the one thing that sustained them – buffalo. The buffalo herd was their corner store. When they needed anything the buffalo provided. When the buffalo became scarce, and when the Indians were forced onto reservations, they became dependent on the government for food, blankets and all things previously furnished by unending herds of bison.
Many – but not Custer – of the fallen soldiers were scalped and mutilated. And of course many were killed by Indians in the first place. There might be repercussions if one told his story of battle to the white man. Besides, why piss off what has now become your only source of sustenance? Better to remain silent.
So they did remain silent, and the story of Custer’s Last Stand, the Legend, is what it is today. The Legend of the Greasy Grass drifted up with tobacco smoke around evening campfires.
The tale of his life, written in his own words or signs if you will, was for me a fascinating and revealing look into the life and culture of those tribes. I have quoted much of Wooden Leg’s battle story here, but there is so much more in the book… well worth a read.
Now we are stuck with two versions; Greasy Grass and Last Stand. Heroic fight to the last man or mass suicide. I guess I am sympathetic to Wooden Leg, after getting to know him via Dr. Marquis’ book. Anyway, why would he lie? It seems his tale is not in any way embellished to make him look braver, stronger or fiercer. His version of the first part of the battle with Reno jibes fairly well with the army’s accounts. The only way we’ll ever know for sure is to travel back in time and see for ourselves. Where is that time machine when you need it?