“I did nothing great.” These were the words uttered by Curly, a member of the Crow Nation who served as a scout for the Seventh Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Despite his claim to have left the battlefield and to have done nothing great, he became the most famous of all the scouts with Custer that day—he was sought after by the press to tell his version of the battle. His story became front page news as Americans became increasingly obsessed with the story of Custer and the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry.
Curly’s version of the battle of the Little Big Horn has remained one of the most controversial. He has been identified both as a hero and a coward for his part in the battle. Known mainly as the sole survivor of Custer’s command, there is much more to this famous Crow scout.
The famous scout was born in 1856 on the Little Rosebud Creek, located in what is now southeastern Montana. His father Strong Bear, and mother, Strikes by the Side of the Water, were members of the River Crow band—one of three bands of the Crow. Curly, now a part of the River Crows, belonged to his mother’s clan, the Whistling Waters. He was raised as a warrior just like many of the other boys during a time of intense intertribal warfare.
Curly, by the time of the 1876 campaign, had been on several war parties against the Sioux. They greatly outnumbered the Crow, and always made war against them. The Crows, however, were not easily intimidated by the Sioux, and often went against them to take horses or scalps. One of the biggest battles on the northern plains prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn occurred between the Crows and the Sioux. According to Crow Tribal Historian, Joe Medicine Crow, the Sioux made several attempts to wipe them out. On one such occasion in 1860, thousands of Sioux warriors moved against the Crows at what is now Pryor Creek, located about 40 miles south of present-day Billings, Montana. Joe Medicine Crow remem-bered hearing about the battle from his elders, who at the time of the battle were young boys. The plan of the Sioux chiefs was to kill all of the Crows except the young boys, who would be raised as Sioux warriors to fight the whites. Fortunately, the Crows were able to hold off the attackers. If the Sioux had been successful, it is likely that Curly, White Swan and the other Crow scouts may have been fighting Custer, rather than scouting for him.
The Sioux attacks began to take a toll and the Crow elders looked for help against their traditional enemies. That help arrived in the spring of 1876 when Lt. James Bradley, authorized by Colonel John Gibbon, approached the Crows to enlist warriors to serve as scouts against the Sioux and Cheyenne. The army needed them because they were familiar with the land. More importantly, the army knew that they were enemies of the Sioux, a major factor in recruiting the warriors. The Crow chiefs were reluctant to send any warriors with Gibbon. Sits In The Middle Of The Land, head chief of the Mountain Crows was particularly vocal about his opposition to this request. Through the interpreter, Mitch Boyer—a half-Sioux and half-French scout—he began telling Gibbon of his concerns. The chief feared that if he let any of the warriors go, the camp would be unprotected from a Sioux attack. By the end of the parley, Curly and 24 others decided to enlist as scouts for the Seventh Infantry and help push their enemies out of Crow lands.
Armed with the 25 Crow scouts, Colonel Gibbon moved down the Yellowstone River toward General Alfred Terry’s command coming out of Fort Abraham Lincoln. Curly, only 17 at the time, was the youngest of the scouts. His elder brother White Swan also enlisted, probably to watch over him. Many of the Crow scouts including Curly, were un-accustomed to army life. They complained bitterly to the elder scouts after their sleep was interrupted by the sounds of the bugle their first morning out, but eventually Curly and the other scouts adapted to this new style of warfare.
As Gibbon and his men moved down the Yellowstone River, the scouts encountered the Sioux on several occasions, even losing their horses to them at one point. Despite this minor setback they continued performing their duties. Gibbon’s command eventually met up with General Terry’s command near the mouth of Rosebud Creek. The Crow scouts were told that the Sioux trail was found heading up the Rosebud Valley. Apparently, the Seventh Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Custer, who was called Son of The Morning Star by the Crows, was going to lead an expedition to track down the enemy forces.
Curly and the other Crows were informed that six of them would be going with Son of The Morning Star to run down the Sioux. The others would remain with Gibbon. and head back up the Yellowstone River. The six selected to lead the Seventh Cavalry were White-Man-Runs-Him, Hairy Moccasin, White Swan, Half Yellow Face, Goes Ahead, and Curly.
The land they were about to enter was traditionally Crow hunting grounds which made it important to have the Crow scouts lead the expedition. This was the first meeting that Custer had with the Crows. Very impressed with them, he wrote to his wife Libby: “I now have some Crow scouts with me, as they are familiar with the country. They are magnificent looking men, so much handsomer and more Indian-like than any we have ever seen, and so jolly and sportive; nothing of the gloomy, silent Redman about them. They have formally given themselves to me, after their usual talk. In their speech, they said they had heard that I never abandoned a trail, that when my food gave out, I ate mule. That was the kind of man they wanted to fight under; they were willing to eat mule too!”
On June 22, Curly and the other Crow scouts lead Custer and the Seventh Cavalry up the Rosebud valley. They constantly moved ahead of the column looking for any indication of the enemy village. It was not until the second day that they found the main trail which Curly and the other Crows knew would lead to a large camp. They also found a site where the Sioux had conducted a Sundance, which many of the scouts believed was powerful medicine. The clearest in-dication, however, of the Sioux village and its whereabouts was found on the evening of June 24. Curly and the other scouts reported that the trail left the Rosebud valley, crossed the divide and was somewhere in the Little Big Horn valley. When this news was reported to Custer he quickly decided to follow the trail. Riding through the darkness ahead of the Seventh Cavalry, Curly and the other scouts made their way up what is now Davis Creek, eventually climbing atop a high hill overlooking the valley. As the sun climbed higher into the sky on the morning of the June 25, the Crow scouts spotted smoke rising from the Sioux and Cheyenne campfires. Beyond the smoke they spotted a large dark spot, obviously the pony herd, which one of the scouts described as looking like “maggots on a buffalo robe.”
A message was sent to Custer informing him that they had spotted smoke rising from the fires in the village, but were unable to see the village itself. Shortly thereafter he made his way to the top of the hill, but by then the morning haze covered the valley making it difficult to see. While he continued examining the valley, Curly and the other scouts discovered two Sioux warriors heading in the direction of the Seventh Cavalry. The scouts were planning to go down and kill them but the two moved off in a different direction. Custer, however, believed that his camp had been spotted and decided to attack the village at once before the Indians could escape.
Curly and the Crow scouts moved cautiously ahead of the soldiers as they headed down the valley toward the village. They continued down Ash Creek [Reno Creek] coming across a lone tepee, which was located near the previous campsite of the Sioux and Cheyenne four miles from the Little Big Horn River. They remained at a distance watching what appeared to be a family gathered by the tepee mourning the death of a loved one. When the soldiers approached, the Sioux discovered them and ran down the valley toward the main camp. Major Marcus Reno and his men were ordered to give chase while Curly and the other scouts remained with Custer. They followed Reno’s trail for a short while, then veered off, heading north. It was from this point that Curly’s role in the battle becomes controversial. Many interviews have been done with him, but probably the most accurate were done by Walter Camp who befriended Curly. The movements according to Curly as related by Camp, are as follows:
Curly explained that as they headed north in the direction of Medicine Tail Coulee the Crow scouts divided up. White Swan and Half Yellow Face were ordered by Custer to scout in advance of his command, but instead joined Reno’s command. They remained with him until after the battle. Curly and the other three scouts, along with Boyer, moved along the ridge overlooking the Little Big Horn valley. Custer and his command continued to remain east of the ridge that Curly and the other scouts were on. Eventually, Custer and his men made it into Medicine Tail Coulee by way of Cedar Coulee, and headed toward the Little Big Horn River. Curly and Boyer spotted them from the ridge and rode down toward them. White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, and Hairy Moccasin doubled back along the ridge. “This was the last I saw of them,” Curly said of the three Crow scouts, “until some weeks after the battle.”
Curly and Boyer caught up with Custer as they neared the river. After joining the troopers Curly said they moved down to the river where some of the soldiers tried to cross. Curly remembered that they were forced back by the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors firing at them from across the river. After this unsuccessful attempt, the troopers retreated up the north ridge into the vicinity of Calhoun Ridge. As they retreated, hundreds of warriors began to attack them from the rear, and the flanks, “going up, the Sioux on all sides except the front,” said Curly. They managed to make it to the top of the ridge, and he was uncertain if any of the soldiers were killed. He remembered that the gunfire was very heavy as they ran up the ridge: “I do not know whether or not any one was killed on the way to the ridge but the firing was so heavy that I do not see how the command made the ridge without some loss.” Once on top of the ridge the battle intensified, with warriors coming from every direction. “After we made the ridge just west of where Calhoun’s marker is placed,” Curly recalled, “we were twice ordered to load and fire together. It occurred to me at the time that this must be some signal.” He watched as the soldiers tried to hold off the advancing Sioux.
He told Camp that the soldiers began to position themselves along the ridge [Calhoun Hill]. Some of the men, he observed, were moving toward the north end of battle ridge [probably Lieutenant Colonel Custer]. The battle intensified as warriors began to come from everywhere, he remembered. He saw a group of men charging the Indians, but they were cut off and a good many of them killed. The rest began to run toward the direction of Last Stand Hill, running on the west side of battle ridge. They were forced, however, to move to the east side as warriors moved up the ravine from the direction of the river. When asked to describe the battle he clapped his hands repeatedly and said, “heap shoot, shoot shoot.” Evidently, it was at this point that Boyer told Curly that Captain Tom Custer wanted the scouts to save themselves. Curly insisted that Boyer go with him, but Boyer said that he was injured too badly. He said: “I saw Mitch talking with the general [he was probably referring to Captain Tom Custer]. Mitch said that Custer told him the command would very likely all be wiped out and he [Tom Custer] wanted the scouts to get out if they could. I was riding my own horse. I found a dead Sioux and exchanged my Winchester for his Sharps rifle and belt of cartridges. On my saddle I had a coat made of a blanket with holes cut out for arms, and a hood over my head. In this fashion I rode out.”
Curly claimed he rode east crossing the divide into the Rosebud valley, then traveled south in the direction of where they had left General Terry and Colonel Gibbon. After three days of traveling, he found the steamer Far West at the mouth of the Little Big Horn River delivering supplies to Gibbon and Terry. He approached the steamer shouting, “Absaroka, Absaroka,” which translated means, “I am Crow.” The men aboard the ship appeared to be unaware of the scout’s message, because none of them could speak or understand the Crow language. Curly tried desperately to tell the soldiers of Custer’s defeat. He placed little sticks in the ground, then with a swipe of his hands wiped them away. He pulled his hair up, and imitated a scalping. The only thing the soldiers understood was that a fight had occurred. It was not until reports from Terry arrived from the battlefield to the steamer that the soldiers understood what Curly was trying to tell them. They realized he was the sole survivor of the men who were with Custer at the time of the battle. As a result, he was identified as the first to deliver the message of Custer’s defeat, and soon became a national hero.
As Curly received more and more attention from the press, the other scouts who were at the battle became increasingly annoyed. Apparently, after White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, and Hairy Moccasin left Curly and Boyer, they returned to the Crow camp. They reported that Curly, White Swan, and Half Yellow Face had been killed in the battle. Once Curly arrived in camp without injury, tension began to mount between the four scouts. White Man Runs Him was the most bitter and said that Curly left Custer’s command near the lone tepee site before the battle commenced. He believed that Curly ran off with some of the Arikara to take horses from the Sioux village. White Man Runs Him also said that he, Goes Ahead, and Hairy Moccasin returned to [Reno Hill] after leaving Custer in Medicine Tail Coulee, and remained there well into the night. None of the soldiers on [Reno Hill] ever reported seeing any of the three that night. Goes Ahead, was also angry with Curly. He told his wife Pretty Shield that Curly left before the battle started. He said that he became sick and had never seen him after that. “Ahh, I know these things are true, because my man, Goes Ahead was there and saw them happen,” she later declared in Frank Linderman’s popular book. It appears that the two scouts, White Man Runs Him and Goes Ahead, told different stories about Curly’s role in the battle, and it’s obvious that they misinformed Curly’s family of his death.
Curly continued to receive national attention, and became something of a celebrity. He was invited to attend parades and gatherings. On several occasions he was invited to some of the eastern cities to pose for pictures and portraits. At one point he became so popular that the Crow tribe put his image on checks for the Crow State Bank. Through it all, however, he maintained that he did nothing great, and that he had left the battle when he was told to do so. Unfortunately, reporters con-tinued to write wild stories of the scout that damaged his credibility. At one point he became so annoyed with the lies that he exploded at one interviewer exclaiming: “why don’t you believe my words and why do you keep trying to make me say what you want me to say?” Eventually his fame subsided, but the occasional interviewer still arrived at his doorstep around the anniversary of the battle.
In the spring of 1884, Curly and his Crow people were relocated to the southeastern part of the Crow reservation,
near the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Curly lived near Fort Custer, located near the mouth of the Little Big Horn River, and still occasionally served as a scout. Eventually, he moved into a small cabin located about one mile west of Last Stand Hill along with his wife Takes a Shield and daughter Dora. He later became a tribal police officer and then a judge. He tried his hand at farming, but like many of his Crow neighbors, horses were his passion. He had fine stock that people often borrowed for parades and gatherings.
Toward the end of his life, the famous scout was witness to a time of great change on the northern plains, as well as in America. Curly and the Crows who had once roamed the northern plains freely were now essentially prisoners on their reservation. An invisible line represented the boundaries of the reservation where their world stopped and another world started. America had become one of the most powerful nations in the world but not before the Indians were subdued. Curly and many of the other scouts for the U.S. army aided in subduing the last holdouts, not realizing that when it was over they would suffer the same fate as all the other Indian tribes. Would he have scouted for Custer if he had known the outcome? More than likely. After all, he did name his only grandson George after the famous leader of the Seventh Cavalry. Maybe Curly realized that what was about to happen to the Crows was inevitable. In the words of Frederick E. Hoxie, “they didn’t go to America, America came to them.”
The famous scout Shi-Shia (Curly) died on May 22, 1923 and received a soldier’s funeral. He was laid to rest in Custer National Cemetery, located on the same battlefield that first brought him into the national spotlight. He will always be known as the sole survivor of Custer’s command, and his name will be forever linked with that of Son of the Morning Star.
ALDEN BIG MAN JR., a member of the Crow nation, is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. He is writing a biography of Curly.