Filed Under Birney

Where Big Crow Walked Back and Forth

Wolf Mountains Battlefield National Historic Landmark

The 1874 discovery of gold in the Black Hills triggered an influx of Americans into the region. They arrived in direct violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which gave exclusive use of the land to the Lakota. As the Lakota were committed to defending their territory and the U.S. government decided to back the gold seekers, warfare became inevitable.

Beginning in March 1876, the Northern Plains bore witness to fierce combat, including the Battle of the Greasy Grass/Battle of the Little Bighorn. In fall 1876 several family groups of Lakota and Tsétsėhéstȧhese/Só'taeo'o (Northern Cheyenne) surrendered, and Oglala spiritual leader Sitting Bull and Colonel Nelson Miles engaged in unsuccessful peace talks. However, nonviolent surrender became impossible in December after US-allied Apsáalooke (Crow) scouts murdered Sitting Bull’s delegation sent to negotiate an end to the fighting. Oglala military leader Crazy Horse called for revenge, and on December 20 Miles declared a campaign against the Lakota war chief.

Eight days later, Miles led a military strike force away from a Tongue River encampment. The Battle of Wolf Mountain/Where Big Crow Walked Back and Forth began on January 8, 1877, when a group of forty or fifty Lakota warriors ambushed five Army scouts. By the time reinforcements arrived, the Lakota war party numbered over two hundred. The Lakota and Tsétsėhéstȧhese/Só'taeo'o seized three vital flat-topped ridges overlooking the Tongue River Valley. Though the Army took the first without casualties, the other two attacks stalled due to bolstered resistance. Indigenous forces destabilized, however, when two riflemen shot Big Crow, a Tsétsėhéstȧhese/Só'taeo'o medicine man who had been dancing to rally the fighting spirits of his companions.

Big Crow’s death broke the resolve of many Tsétsėhéstȧhese/Só'taeo'o, who left the field and a majority of the Lakota force behind. By the end of the day, repeated Army assaults pushed the Indigenous force off the final two ridges, leading to a nearly two-mile pursuit through the snowy valley. The harsh winter of the next few months resulted in more surrenders, and on May 6 Crazy Horse led the remainder of his forces to Camp Robinson, Nebraska, where he surrendered to Lieutenant Philo Clark. The four-month Wolf Mountains campaign was over, ending the Great Sioux War of 1876–1877 and the final conflict between the U.S. and Indigenous peoples over control of the Northern Plains.


Where Big Crow Walked Back and Forth
Where Big Crow Walked Back and Forth View of battlefield Source: Photo on file at Montana State Historic Preservation Office, Helena, MT. Creator: Unknown photographer Date: Circa 1999


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Jules Boughton for Montana Historical Society, “Where Big Crow Walked Back and Forth,” Historic Montana, accessed July 13, 2024,