Tag Archives: Montana

Remembering Greasy Grass in World History

I remember the first time I started piling over the historiography of Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn at some point in 1999 or 2000, this with a short historical article included in one of those military history readers. This article happened to be by the late Stephen Ambrose (I think he published it sometime in the 1970s), and as a reflection of the scholarly times, it focused exclusively on what we call white military history. Looking back on it, and considering how even by the 1870s the American military was such a small cross section of elite Anglo-Americans that guided policy (as opposed to the lot of our non-English-speaking immigrant great and great-great and great-great-great grandparents who were entering the country at the time), it is much more accurate to refer to the traditional historiographic body of white 19th century American history as Anglo-American or Victorian Military History. This is not meant in a conspiratorial way. Rather, it is meant to point out how institutions are composed of individuals, and if the individuals within those institutions have certain outlooks on the world, then the institutions are going to operate accordingly.

For at least a couple decades, now, enough individual scholars within the academies have created a social structure so that they can shift the direction of the scholarship (archaeologists are sometimes calling this “counter-modern” while other historians refer to it as multivocal). For example, instead of once again combing over what happened on June 25, 1876 at Greasy Grass, scholars have taken to looking at the conflict as a broader segment that needs to be contextualized in World History. James Gump has a work out there entitled, The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and Sioux (University of Nebraska Press, 1994), and it considers how the Anglosphere mythologized themselves after a confederation of Lakota, Cheyenne and Native America decimated the 7th at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and after the Zulu wiped out a British force of 1,500 at Isandhlwana on January 22, 1879. Check out the Zulu monument to the fallen Zulu at Isandhlwana with this link here.

Isandlwana landscape from the Wikipedia public domain page.

Isandlwana landscape from the Wikipedia public domain page.

These broadened world historical treatments help pave the way for other scholarship (for example: so we’re not incessantly sitting around wondering what Custer did wrong; but rather what the Lakota and Cheyenne forces did themselves to bring about George’s demise). The latest and greatest public historical treatment of Greasy Grass comes by way of Debra Buchholtz’s The Battle of the Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn: Custer’s Last Stand in Memory, History, and Popular Culture (Routledge, 2012). This work gets the reader to think secondarily about the actual events of June 25, 1876, and primarily about how the public has remembered the events since 1876. It was, after all, a centennial year (from 1776 to 1876), and the general Anglo-American reading public was nonplussed and aghast to think that Custer (or anyone Anglo-American for that matter) would be capable of losing a battle within the interior of the American nation, and this so close to the centennial anniversary of the nation’s declaration of independence.

Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn from the Google Earth imaging.

Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn from the Google Earth imaging.

So this is where a lot of the contemporary scholarship is at these days: not just looking at the historical event itself, but also looking at what the popular press and academically trained thought about the historical event in and of itself (for example, William Blair and David Blight, among others, have taken a hard look at Civil War memory and memorialization in this way too). And that’s what I’ve kind of been thinking about on this 137th anniversary of the day the Lakota and Cheyenne (and others) stuck it to George at Greasy Grass in eastern Montana.

In closing, I leave you with a paragraph quote from the 1986 work of James Belich, The Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986 and 1989). This is so you don’t have to lug around numerous books while you’re taking in the various Lakota and Cheyenne holiday celebrations that commemorate the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Greasy Grass — Aaron Barth Consulting does this work for you.

Okay, to quote Belich, and to consider it in the context of Custer as a trained Victorian operative for Anglo-America:

“Racial ideas are not just images of others, but of one’s self and one’s own society. Superiority and inferiority, inevitable victory and inevitable defeat, higher faculties or the lack of them; each are two sides of the same coin. To question one is to question the other, and thereby cast doubt on an individual and collective self image. Victorians, like other people, were not eager to ask such questions.” (Belich, 1989: 327)

Ernest Staples Osgood, “The Day of the Cattleman” (1929)

Central to Ernest Staples Osgood’s 1929 scholarship is how cattlemen in Wyoming and Montana ignored previous perceptions of the Great Plains as an uninhabitable desert, and instead recalibrated their perspective to make a life on the North American steppe. Once the cowboy got to the Great Plains, Osgood said,

The solitude of the desert passed, and men began to realize that this, our last frontier, was not a barrier between the river settlements and the mining communities in the mountains but an area valuable in itself, where men might live and prosper. (Osgood, 1929: 9)

The chapters that follow elaborate on how the nineteenth-century Euro-American pushed west of the Mississippi River to initially make their way across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. By the time enough overland wagon trains arrived to the mountain basin, though, frontier fur traders and trappers had come down out of the Rockies to form encampments, and these settlements became stopping points and places of trade. The fur trader and trapper sold supplies to the wagon trains, swapping out locally-grazed cattle with emaciated wagon train cattle, the latter worn out from walking the hundreds of miles west. Once traded, the emaciated livestock revived themselves on the lush grasslands of the Great Plains, and they would fatten themselves up to be traded, sold or slaughtered.

Osgood LivestockThe increased arrival of the railroad supplanted the need for overland wagon trains, but the railroad itself brought laborers hungry for beef and protein. By this time, rumors about frontiersmen J.R. (Jim Bridger), Captain Richard Grant, and the firm Russell, Majors and Wadell making $15,000-to-$75,000 as cattlemen had landed in the ears of investors back east. (Osgood, 1929: 12-16) The response was profound in the post-Civil War world of the Great Plains. Texas ranchers utilized the warmer climes of the southern Great Plains as a place to breed cattle. After growing the herd, they then drove the cattle north to the lush grasslands of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. After fattening up the cattle, the cowboy would drive them to railroad loading points and ship the livestock to markets in Chicago and beyond. Osgood explains a local Wyoming example of this, as in 1873 approximately 286 railcars of cattle were shipped from Wyoming to eastern markets. By 1877, only four years later, the number of rail cars shipping cattle east had increased to 1,649. (Osgood, 1929: 51)

Between 1879 and 1885, the Federal government did not care to impose legislation to manage the chaos intrinsic to the ranching industry on the Great Plains. This gave rise to local cattle and stockmen associations that sought, at least in ideal, to preserve an individual’s ownership of the herd, protect the herd, and regulate public grazing to prevent overcrowding. (Osgood, 1929: 114-115) In this vein, Osgood’s scholarship sets a stage for later works that might consider what the industrialization of the Great Plains meant for a growing world population, and this also speaks to World and Public historians. Today, non-American restaurants can be seen advertising “American” beef, and ruins of yesterday’s mining towns — Bannack, Montana included — still dot the landscape.

The ruins of the mining town of Bannack, Montana. Photo by archaeological comrade Brian Herbel of Missoula, Montana.

The ruins of the mining town of Bannack, Montana. Photo by archaeological comrade Brian Herbel of Missoula, Montana.

The big idea in Osgood’s book is that the large-scale Euro-American perception of the Great Plains had altered, once thought of in the first decade of the nineteenth century as a desert and by mid-century as an oasis for cattle and cowboy. Published in 1929, this book also reflects the language of the times, as Chapter 4 is titled “The Indian Barrier.” Whether the Euro-American understood it or not, they appropriated the positive perception of the Great Plains that the Native American already had. This is something Osgood could have drawn out quite a bit more in his work, but 1929 is far enough removed from 2013 that it makes a bit more sense to understand this piece of scholarship as history as much as it is understood as central to Great Plains historiography.

Two Artistic Notes

About a week ago a group of us dropped in on the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture at 111 South Grand Avenue in downtown Bozeman, Montana. The center has been re-adapted from its original progressive school function. Today, or as of January 2013, there are a variety of art pieces and galleries within, and two pieces of material culture caught my eye. They are machines that dispense art.

The first was a former pull-handle cigarette machine that had been converted into an art, music, writings and idea dispensing machine. Go to this website here for more details. This is what the former cig machine looked like.

Art Dispenser

The second was a paper towel dispenser that now serves as a poetry dispenser. This is what the poetry dispenser looks like:

Poetry Dispenser

I pulled a sheet of poetry from that dispenser, and here is the poem in full.

Bloodied and Humbled, by Alexis W.

Life will leave you,

If you’re lucky,

Bloodied and humbled

Now bloodied washes off

The wounds from which it came will

Mend over, scars will fade

A commentary on

The unimportance of the physical

But the humbled will stick

A commentary on

The strength of the mind

And if, for some reason, it doesn’t

If you’re lucky

Life will come to leave you

Bloodied and humbled


Some Notes On Chico Hot Springs, Montana

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

This last weekend I had the opportunity to be absorbed by a delegation from North Dakota and gladly pulled into the gravity of Chico Hot Springs, Montana. Once there, and while sauntering around the complex, I finally paid attention to a shiny placard (just next to the entrance I had been through multiple times) that noted Chico’s National Register of Historic Places status. So that compelled me to track down the registration nomination, and this is what we have.

The hot springs at Chico exist because of geology.  Water is heated sub-terra, and this eventually makes its way to the surface, flowing into places within and beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park. At Chico, it arrives to the surface at around 112 °F. Water was first tapped and channeled at these springs as early as 1866 (10 years before Custer was shown mortality at the Battle of Greasy Grass — aka, the Battle of Little Big Horn). In 1900, a complex was built at Chico.

The historic buildings at Chico include the main hotel (1900) in the Georgian Revival style, an auto garage (1916), a smoke house (1915), a boiler house (1910) and horse barn (1916), pools, shower house and pool building (1917). Teddy Roosevelt visited the hotel in 1902 (he seems to be everywhere throughout the American West).

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

By 1969 a concrete-lined channel was added to divert hot spring overflow and regulate water temperature. Between 1900 and 2013, the owners of Chico added several structures to accommodate demand and growth. Before the Euro-American arrival on the scene, though, hot springs had been utilized extensively by Native America. The following is the description of how local Native America used the hot springs in and around Chico, this description from the National Register nomination for Chico:

…Springs, and in particular hot springs, were revered and often visited as places of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Water as a basis of life was important to Indian spirituality, as the Crow sang: bire daxua kok (water is your life).

Considering the experience had at Chico Hot Springs in 2013, it’s appropriate to say that this cleansing and renewal continues. The public placard next to the hotel lobby entrance at Chico reads as follows:

Generous verandas, period furnishings and healing waters invite the visitor to experience turn-of-the-century hospitality under the shadow of Emigrant Peak. The hot springs, long appreciated by native peoples, got their commercial start during the territorial period when miners stopped by to bathe and “wash their duds.” In 1876, an inventive settler tapped into the 112 degree water, piping it under his greenhouse to grow vegetables for local residents. A hotel was planned in the 1880s, but in 1892, there were still no facilities and families camped nearby to enjoy the springs. Percie and Bill Knowles inherited the property in 1894. They ran a boardinghouse for miners and in 1900, built the long-awaited hot springs hotel. Under Knowles’ active promotion, uniformed drivers ferried such guests as Teddy Roosevelt and artist Charlie Russell from the Emigrant depot to the springs. When Bill Chico NRHPKnowles died in 1910, Percie and her son Radbourne transformed the luxurious hotel into a respected medical facility. Dr. George A. Townshend joined the staff in 1912 and under his direction, the hospital and healing waters gained renown throughout the northwest. After the 1940s, new owners and new directions included gambling and dude ranching. In 1976, Mike and Eve Art began recapturing the once-famous hotel’s turn-of-the-century ambiance. Chico Hot SPrings, with its Georgian-inspired architecture and warm Craftsman style interiors, is one of Montana’s best preserved examples of an early twentieth century hot springs hotel and health resort.

I can only add that one ought to go to a hot spring within the continental interior of North America. It is worth your while.

Sharp’s “Whoop-Up Country” (1955) in Great Plains Historiography

Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. By Paul F. Sharp. (Norman: University of Minnesota Press, 1955. 347 pages.)

Review by Aaron L. Barth

In 1955, Paul F. Sharp pushed the Turnerian model north across the 49th parallel with his Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. In doing this Sharp turned Turner’s national model into an international one, describing the two-decade history of the trail that linked Fort Benton in west-central Montana with Fort McLeod in western Canada. In Sharp’s words, “Here on the northern plains, the two great streams of Anglo-Saxon pioneering that had pushed across the continent finally reached their last west in the same environment.” (Sharp, 1955: 8) A shortcoming of Sharp’s use of “whoop-up” is that he never defines its origins (for example, why would Euro-Americans use this phrase?). Grasslands united the United States and Canada, the matching physiographic and semi-arid plain transcending the geopolitical borders, yet culture carried on in its own respective way. Merchants arrived to these grasslands, acting on behalf of “their London masters — Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Henry Kelsey, David Thompson, Peter Skene Ogden, and scores of others.” (Sharp, 1955: 33) Castor Canadensis, or beaver (and the Euro-American fetish for top hats), compelled these trappers to move into this area, and with them arrived vestiges of Anglo-American culture.

"Whoop-Up" country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

“Whoop-Up” country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

The way in which Sharp breaks with earlier Anglo-Americentric histories is in his portrayal of the May 1873 massacre (rather than a battle) at Cypress Hills. In the nineteenth century American mind, when Custer and his Seventh Cavalry died at Bighorn, it remained a “massacre.” Yet when the Union army fell upon Native American villages with rifle, cannon and sabre, it remained a “battle.” According to Sharp, neither interpretation did the historical record any justice, or benefit, as they did no “credit to the objectivity or scholarship of those who, by reason of inadequate research or national bias, have perpetuated legend as history or myth as truth.” (Sharp, 1955: 55) Bringing up the topics of legend and history, or myth and truth, is where Sharp slips into a Positivistic, 1950s frame of mind. Three decades later, in 1986, William McNeill would cover this topic with more rigor and tenacity in Mythistory.

In other ways Sharp’s scholarship is dated, at least in his victimization of the Indian as a “drunk,” this inebriation described as the malefactor of the Cyprus Hills massacre. In Sharp’s words, “Whisky was the real culprit and this fight was another of its fearful effects upon the western Indians,” since this was a “frontier society which tolerated the sale of whiskey to the Indians and encouraged violence against them when disagreements arose.” (Sharp, 1955: 77) While Sharp’s scholarship broke from earlier Anglo-American histories, he continued to use paternalistic condescension toward Native America in his interpretation. When it came to interpreting the behavior of whites, however, he aptly allowed for individual agency and explained the differences in how it played on each side of the 49th parallel.

Four years before the massacre of Cyprus Hills, the Hudson’s Bay Company “transferred to the government of Canada its title to the vast preserve granted in its charter of 1670 and known as Rupert’s Land.” Sharp says it was approximately 2,300,000 square miles (italics mine) of land, this unit of measurement a subtle and slight reminder that Sharp’s readership still obliged American rather than Canadian interests. The establishment of a police force (“Law in Scarlet Tunics”) in the Northwest Territories on April 28, 1873 arguably denied the Canadian west a type of “lawlessness” and chaos so typical of the American West. Sharp addressed this, saying that if “every westerner lived by the myth and defended his honor with Colt’s ‘Great Equalizer’ at the slightest provocation, only one honorable man would have survived in each community” (Sharp, 1955: 107) Yet violence still held true, since the decentralized authority in the American West invariably could not stand up against large, roving gangs (unofficial social institutions in their own right). “Decentralization of authority in local governments was the heart of the matter, for through them law enforcement and judicial administration functioned.” (Sharp, 1955: 108) Local and regional laws guided the development of the American West, until they gave way to organized State and Federal systems that replaced the territories. Under the British-Canadian system, though, the myth or reality of disorder compelled London and Ottawa to bring the Empire immediately to bear on their western wilderness. Thus, in the western United States, chaos theory, regionalism, might-is-likely-right, and individual wits reigned. In the British-Canadian west, imperial order for god and country carried the day.

It is important to keep in mind that this history, when launched onto the scene in 1955, was nudging the interpretation of the Indian as “barrier” (as Walter Webb did in his Great Plains, 1933) to the Indian as understandable victim of United States and Canadian policy. A decade later, Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. and M. Scott Momaday (among others) would further this, an intellectual contribution that coincided with advances made by the American Indian Movement. Today, at least in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, scholarship has again shifted. Note, for example, Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), or Elizabeth Fenn’s forthcoming work on the Mandan, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. This scholarship demonstrates how Native American cultures acted rather than reacted to Euro-American encroachment. It is up to Native and non-Natives scholars today to push these interpretive boundaries, and help reshape the understanding of the past, and even the present.