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Journey back in time: Places to experience history in southeast Montana

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Southeast Montana has seen its fair share of history. The Great Sioux War began here when Chief Red Cloud declared war on the forts along the Bozeman Trail and the soldiers trespassing on his land. The Lewis and Clark Expedition left its mark in the rock as it passed through. And great chiefs of the Crow, Sioux and Cheyenne led their people through war and peace. In our region you can learn about these stories and experience these places for yourself. Here are three of the best historical sites in Southeast Montana.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
There have been more books written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn than any other battle in history. This is partly due to the fact that to this day, nobody really knows why Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made the decision to lead his men into a massacre, or the grisly details of how and where he spent his final moments. Even the mention of the name Custer elicits an emotional response all over the world. Some view him as a monster, while others believe he’s a war hero. At the national monument, park rangers and tour guides from the Crow tribe help tell the story at this site, letting the visitor make up their own mind as to what Custer’s true motives were and what his legacy should be. Guided tours are available throughout the year. Monuments have existed for many years honoring the U.S. soldiers who fell during the battle, but it is only recently that a monument was established honoring the Native Americans who died fighting there to maintain their traditional way of life.

Chief Plenty Coups State Park
Located just 30 minutes south of Billings, Montana, is a state park dedicated to preserving the legacy of the last traditional chief of the Crow tribe, Chief Plenty Coups. As a young man, Plenty Coups received a vision prophesying the end of the buffalo and the spread of the white man’s cattle across the prairie. During the vision he understood that the only way the Crow people would survive would be to adopt the lifestyle of the white man. He chose to lead by example. Taking advantage of government programs to help Native Americans purchase land, he established a ranch and general store on the Crow Reservation shortly after he became chief in 1876. Chief Plenty Coups lived an interesting life, traveling often to Washington D.C. to lobby for his people. He was the only Native American representative at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. During one of his trips to Washington he had the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon, and decided he wanted his home and his lands preserved as a museum for his people, just as George Washington’s home was preserved for all Americans. Today visitors can tour his home and grounds at this state park, as well as visit a museum onsite which tells the story of his life and his accomplishments.

Rosebud Battlefield State Park
If there is one historic site in Southeast Montana that doesn’t get its fair share of attention, it is Rosebud Battlefield State Park. The Battle of the Rosebud, which was arguably the largest battle ever fought between U.S. soldiers and Native American warriors, took place just a few days before Custer’s famous last stand. About 1,500 Sioux and Cheyenne ambushed 1,000 U.S. cavalrymen, eventually forcing the soldiers to withdraw and keeping them from joining and helping Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Though the U.S. Army said the battle ended in a draw, keeping the soldiers from the Little Bighorn likely led to its defeat in the famous battle that followed. The park is mostly undeveloped, but there are interpretive signs that tell the battle’s story. While walking the hills and draws of the battlefield, it isn’t hard to imagine what it was like that day 140 years ago.

Story by Nick Mann, Courtesy Visit Southeast Montana

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