Thursday, January 3, 2008

Rails Along the Greasy Grass

Charles Kuralt called it "the saddest place I know." Even in these post 9-11 times, I would agree with his assessment. The valley of the Greasy Grass is a pleasant spot. Running north and south, the wandering river is marked by groves of elm and cottonwoods, providing shade from the midday heat and shelter from the wandering thunder cells dropping off the Bear Tooth Range far to the west. The eastern side of the valley rises abrupt, the ground broken with deep ravines, parallel ridges and cresting sidehills.

Standing on the east flank of the valley, on the first ridge running southward, I looked down on the flat floor. Green alfalfa fields were being irrigated. The sprinklers sent out their interrupted streams of water, always turning, never traveling. Through the middle ran the modern commerce of I-90 and the BNSF main stretching north from Sheridan and the Powder River. Behind me on the hills to the east, horses grazed the green, but short grass. Still it was quiet, a pleasant wind blowing.

But this is a sad place. Stretched out south of me, for nearly five miles are sporadic clusters of white markers. Not gravestones, not really, but markers of the dead to be sure. Nearly all had the same engraved inscription, "A soldier of the US 7th Calvary fell here June 25, 1876".

There was so much death that day. Not just the soldiers of Custer's command, not just warriors of the non-treaty Plains Tribes. Certainly the death toll, from both sides pales in comparison to the bloody battles of the Civil War, or even the attack on the World Trade Centers. Yet this is the saddest place I know.

What was lost that hot afternoon in June was an entire culture. For the nomadic tribes of the Plains, the fight on the hills above the Greasy Grass was a clear case of winning the battle and losing the war. Public outcries lead to the final push that forever took the plains away. Not to judge good or bad, the final conquest of the native people's of our country began that sad afternoon.

It is a sad place. Looking down the grassy slope towards the Greasy Grass, known now as the Little Big Horn, past the white stone markers of the men of the 7th, cut down that day, and across the flat valley,I see the nation's commerce rumbling north out of the Powder River country. I wonder if the crews on the trains know they are rolling unharmed through the middle of what once was an encampment of nearly 7000 Indians? Indians, under the direction of such historic names as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse,who butchered the troopers of the 7th Calvary. Do they feel a slight sense of sadness as their loud horns echo above the panicked calls of a dying Calvary bugler? I wonder if they realize the pony soldiers dotting the hillside above them failed to do what their Iron Horse so quickly accomplished?


MTengr said...


You might enjoy this exceprt from our family lore...Jame Turley was probably the first man killed a Little Big Horn...

"Hears First Shot

Before we arrived at the timber, there was one shot fired away ahead of us. I did not know whether it was fired by Lieutenant Varnum's scouts or one of the hostile Indians. That was the first shot that I heard in the opening of the battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, and I had pretty good ears about that time.

Private James Turley of my troop when we arrived at the timber and had orders to halt, could not control his horse which carried him towards the Indian camp. That was the last I saw of him. He was a very nice young man. A little incident happened a day our two before we left Fort Rice to go on the expedition. Turley asked me if I would allow him to put some of his property in my clothes chest. I told him that I would with the understanding that if he was killed the contents of the chest would belong to me and if I was killed it would belong to him. After coming back from the expedition the property belonging to those men that were killed was sold at public auction and the proceeds turned over to the paymaster."

take care, Michael Turley

Matt said...

Another great piece you have written here. I have been enjoying your photos and writing since I found your photo essay on "The Gulch." I certainly appreciate the look to the past that your work exhibits. There always seems to be a touch of melancholy or a twinge of reminiscence. Your black and white photography has certainly made me reexamine subjects that I shoot, and I find myself taking just as many monochromes as colors. Your photos and your words are quite strong standing alone, but together are greater than their sums. Well done.

Thank you and Happy New Years.
Matthew Schutty

ABC said...

Nicely done, Martin. A very good crossover piece. I do wish the page format allowed you to post larger images in the body itself. I think if you had this page more customized you could really make the blog a standout site.

Rex, the Wonder Blog said...

Yes, very nicely done. I compliment your writing. The pics are quite good, artistic but not overly so. Thank you.

Glenn Mark Cassel said...

On the Marker is this name.
Pvt. Richard K. Dorn.
My Mother's Cousin's Grandfather's Brother. I knew that brother as a very little boy in Malta, Montana from 1958 to 1963.