A childhood interest in the west: cowboys, Indians, mountain men and explorers lead to a lifelong job as a history teacher (now retired). I remember well my first lesson in the Indian wars, Custer and the famous last stand, what else?
That day we learned everyone died in the fight on the Greasy Grass river (Little Big Horn), everyone. None of us questioned this fact. But what about the Indians, why didn’t we ask? Not sure, but years later I still remember being taught that the Calvary horse Comanche was the only survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Maybe we didn’t really study the Indian wars in the west, we were just told about them. Told about them by a teacher not so many generations removed from the plains battles and maybe still just a little bit prejudiced.
My question since I became a teacher of western history has always been why had Custer not followed General Terry’s orders, instead following his own wrong instincts? He should have known of the great camp of Cheyenne and Sioux, must have known. Some historians speculate he knew but expected the warriors to fight and retreat to fight another day, (a common practice among plains tribes). But this day they outnumbered Custer and the 265 members of his 7th by such a huge margin that they stood their ground and in less than two hours the battle was one for the history books.
Hundreds, or maybe thousands of Indians survived and much of what we know of the actual battle comes from their stories. Much has also been made of Benteen and Reno and the rest of the 7th that day, but that will be for another time.
I hope that today’s teachers are doing a better job of presenting both sides of the western Indian wars today than they did in the past. That is if today’s schools have enough time to squeeze in some history as they fight battles over, No Child Left Behind and the multitude of new government mandates to teach better and for students to learn better than they have in the past. But that will also be left for another time.