- Historic Sites
The Man Who Killed Custer
To Stanley Vestal, the old Sioux warrior White Bull describes the day when he counted his greatest coup
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Soon after the allied tribes defeated General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, June 17, 1876, they pitched their camps on the prairies just west ot the winding Little Big Horn River. As White Bull related it to me, each tribe had its own camp circle, each band in its own segment, each tepee in its proper place. The Cheyenne camp circle lay farthest north, with the four Sioux cirdes-Sans Arc, Ogalalla, Minniconjou, Hunkpapa-upstream. Chief White Bull’s tepee stood in the Sans Arc circle, since his wife of that time was a Sans Arc woman. That morning he was out with his grazing ponies about a thousand yards from the river, trying to keep them together. As usual, he carried his seventeen-shot Winchester and wore two filled cartridge belts. It was very dry and dusty with little wind, and his horses were restless, for the flies were a plague on the Little Big Horn that summer.
It was not yet time for the midday watering when White Bull heard a man yelling the alarm. Immediately he jumped on his best running horse, a fast bay, and ran his ponies back to camp. By that time he could see the column of dust to the south. First of all White Bull saw his own family mounted and sent on to safety. Then he rode as hard as he could the three miles to the camp of his uncle, Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa circle, which Reno’s troopers were approaching. By the time he reached it, the women and children had fled and nearly a thousand warriors had gathered to resist the troops. Already some Sioux had been shot down, and Major Reno’s Indian scouts were running off the Sioux ponies.
Before White Bull could take any effective part in the fight, the soldiers fell back to the timber along the river, and soon after climbed into their saddles and raced away up the river looking lor places to cross.
Said White Bull, “Then the Indians charged them. They used war clubs and gun barrels, shooting arrows into them, riding them down. It was like a buffalo hunt. The soldiers offered no resistance. I saw one soldier on a gray horse, aimed at him and fired, but missed. Just then I heard someone behind me yelling that soldiers were coming from the east [Custer’s force] to attack the north end of the camp where I had left my ponies. We all raced downstream together. Some rode through the camps and crossed the river north of them, but I and many others crossed and rode up a gully to strike the soldiers on the flank. Alter a while I could see five bunches of soldiers trotting along the bluffs. I knew it would be a big fight. I stopped, unsaddled my horse, and stripped off my leggings, so that I could fight better. By the time I was near enough to shoot at the soldiers, they seemed to form four groups, heading northwest along the ridge.
“All the Indians were shooting. I saw two soldiers fall from their horses. The soldiers fired back at us from the saddle. They shot so well that some of us retreated to the south, driven out of the ravine. Soon after, the soldiers halted and some got off their horses. By that time the Indians were all around the soldiers, but most of them were between the soldiers and the river, trying to defend the camp and the ford. Several little bunches of Indians took cover where they could, and kept firing at the white men.
“When they ran me out of the ravine I rode south and worked my way over to the east ot the mounted bunch of soldiers. Crazy Horse was there with a party of warriors and I joined them. The Indians kept gathering, more and more, around this last bunch of soldiers. These mounted soldiers kept falling back along the ridge, trying to reach the rest of the soldiers who were fighting on foot.
“When I saw the soldiers retreating, I whipped up my pony, and hugging his neck, dashed across between the two troops. The soldiers shot at me but missed me. I circled back to my friends. I thought I would do it again. I yelled, ‘This time I will not turn back,’ and charged at a run the soldiers of the last company. Many of the Sioux joined my charge and this seemed to break the courage of those soldiers. They all ran, every man for himself, some afoot and some on horseback, to reach their comrades on the other side. All the Indians were shooting.”
Such fighting, though necessary in defending the camp and killing enemies, was to the Indians “just shooting.” For, to the Sioux warrior, the striking of a blow or “coup” upon an enemy’s person with the hand or something held in the hand was the most glorious deed a warrior could perform, and his rating depended upon the number of such coups he could gather. Among the Sioux, four men might count a coup upon the same enemy in the same fight, and on that occasion ranked in the order of their striking him. To strike first was the greatest honor possible and the man who had done that could wear the Indian’s medal of honor—an eagle’s tail feather—upright in his back hair. To shoot or scalp an enemy, to capture his gun or his horse, were creditable, but none of these compared as war honors with the coup.