Montana and Wyoming – Big Horn / Bighorn / Little Bighorn

With an 80-mile-an-hour speed limit you would think that it wouldn’t take long to travel the 178 miles from Cheyenne to Casper, Wyoming, (the first leg of our drive to the Little Bighorn Battlefield) but as usual we found things to see along the way.  We still had the magnificent landscape with the vast plains on the right side of the road, and now on the left the foothills were more dominant with their shadowy pine slopes and snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance. 

For companionship we had long coal trains with two to three engines at each end running parallel to the road.  Some trains hauled nothing but cars fully loaded with Wyoming coal, traveling east to fill the seemingly endless demand for that commodity while their empty counterparts were being hauled back to be refilled.  Other trains went on for what felt like miles, loaded with semi-truck trailers.  The impact of the railroads was being played out before us each day of our travel.

Outside Wheatland, Wyoming, I read a road-side sign advertising the services of a private irrigation company.  It was soon followed by the appearance of large green fields that showed what happened to this barren soil when water was added.  I wasn’t the only one appreciating the impact of irrigation.  At least a hundred Pronghorn antelope were grazing and even lying in the lush green fields.

In Douglas, Wyoming, we cruised the quiet city streets looking for Jackelope Square.  The jackelope is a fanciful creation of local taxidermists and is never seen on the open range, but it can be spotted on postcards in tourist areas.  The now sleepy streets of Douglas had once been filled with soldiers, railroad workers, ranchers, wranglers, gamblers and all the others who were building towns as fast as the railroad was laying rail beds. 

According to the AAA TourBook, things had gotten so out of hand here in Douglas that some of the cattlemen hired George Pike, the most notorious local cattle rustler, to work for them and when he died they erected an expensive tombstone with a colorful inscription.  Don and I drove to the cemetery and meandered some of its quiet lanes looking for Pike’s tomb but we did not find it.  Instead we saw family monuments attesting to the generations of people who built the community of Douglas.  Just as we were leaving, I spotted a headstone with the family name and their ranch brand cut into the granite.  A fresh lariat hung from one end of the headstone…a touching and somber tribute to a cattleman’s life.

There were a couple of restaurants that sounded interesting, so we drove around town to look at them.  We found ourselves drawn back to the downtown square and the Gaslight Social Club, which proved to be a fun choice with lots of beers on tap, excellent food, and even a full-size volleyball court if we wanted to get involved in a little active sport.  Instead we ate dinner at the bar and watched the activity at the pool tables nearby.  We skipped their daily fresh baked dessert, thinking we had already enjoyed a big enough slice of Wyoming for one day.

The next morning we drove for a while before pulling off the highway to visit Buffalo, Wyoming, a town formerly known as a “Rustlers’ Capital” where the hostility between farmers and cattlemen became so violent that the U.S. Army was called in to tame the conflict.  Now it is safe to sit on a rocking chair in front of the Occidental Hotel or to dine in its colorful restaurant, which over the years has served meals to many historic Western figures.  The hotel’s interior is beautifully restored and rooms are available for guests wishing to stay and enjoy the local scenery and history.

Along the route we had learned of The Brinton Museum and were surprised when our GPS routed us out into the country.  Somehow we hadn’t realized that the museum was located on a former working cattle ranch, which is three miles outside Big Horn and several more miles from the highway…and it was well worth the drive!  The 620-acre Quarter Circle A ranch was a country getaway for Bradford Brinton, a businessman, outdoorsman and collector of books and fine art who also owned homes in Chicago and New York City.  Upon his death his sister, Helen Brinton, inherited the ranch and used it as her summer home until her death in 1960 when she left the ranch in trust to be administered as a memorial and museum in her brother’s honor.  Helen decided to share her brother’s American Indian collection, fine art collection and ranch memorabilia with the public, and she also wanted the ranch lands maintained in a natural state as an animal sanctuary.  Forrest E. Mars, Jr. (of the candy company fame), served as the first President of The Brinton Museum Board until his death in 2016.  The museum’s magnificent new building opened in June 2015 and was named in his honor.  

For us the museum building was a wonderful and most unexpected surprise as we drove onto the ranch property.  Its modern razorback walls jut out of the hillside like a prehistoric beast waking and rising from a long slumber.  The museum feels like that as well.  It is a strong force that is proclaiming the rich heritage of the cultures of the people who have occupied the surrounding land.  But that is only one side of the story.  As I walked around the museum toward the back side of the property, the building almost receded from view as if submitting to the superior force of the natural landscape and the enduring majesty of the neighboring Bighorn Mountains.

Much of the museum is set deep within the earth.  The rotating exhibits are safely displayed on three floors of state-of-the-art, spacious galleries while the rest of the collections wait in climate-controlled storage far from environmental threats.  It almost seems ironic that those hardy artists like Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and Edward Borein, whose works captured the raw harshness of life would now be kept in such pampered conditions…but I am grateful that they are being so carefully preserved and shared according to Brinton’s wishes.

The collection is really a collection of collections, starting with the Brinton’s comprehensive holdings of 19th, 20th and 21st century Western Art.  Also, I found myself drawn especially into the museum’s American Indian displays which include art and artifacts representative of tribes living in the vast area from the Plains down to the Southwest and extending up to tribes along the Northwest Coast.  The Goelet and Edith Gallatin Collection of American Indian Art, formerly housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, was gifted to the museum and has added significantly to an already substantial collection.

The art and artifacts are displayed in cases that allow full 360° viewing of the items and the identification signs are complete and informative.  For example, I learned that this Crow coat was worn by a horse healer and “blesser,” and the red-topped pouch on the back of the garment held an herb that was believed to have supernatural properties that would protect both the animal and its rider.    

We were fortunate to visit the museum in time to see the Brinton Artists in Residence exhibition where new 21st century works were on display.  The annual show features pieces for sale produced by nationally recognized artists.  Each summer six artists are selected and invited to spend two weeks in residency at the ranch where they create pieces that reflect their impressions of the lands.  The vibrancy and variety of their works brought both the ranch itself to light as well as emphasizing the ongoing efforts of the museum to encourage Western Art and to serve as a resource for further study.

We couldn’t help being drawn by the alluring aromas from the Brinton Bistro on the top floor of the museum.  After seeing their offerings, we made a vow that on our next visit we would plan to include either their Sunday brunch or a weekday lunch.  Guests dine either indoors or on a terrace outdoors with unobstructed 180° views of the Bighorn Mountains.  On another terrace herbs and vegetables are grown in raised garden beds for use in the dishes on the restaurant’s menu.  Sadly, we had already eaten breakfast and we had to move on because our visit was not yet complete.

We met with a guide and took a tour of the ranch house.  The home is kept as it was during Brinton’s time of residence with his art and other collectables still on display.  We strolled through the rooms, observing the lifestyle of this passionate collector.  The framed letters and memorabilia speak of the close friendship he had with so many of the famed artists of his day.  Be sure to pay special attention to the frieze in the living room by Edward Borein.  He and Brinton carried on years of active correspondence and many of Borein’s illustrated and hand-colored letters are framed and hanging in different rooms. 

The place we most loved in the home was Brinton’s reading nook, a cozy corner in the library where he could read and be surrounded by some of the 5,000 volumes he collected.  I could envision spending long evenings tucked in this space…and that reminds me, the museum encourages scholarly research with historic photographs and papers in the collection available by appointment. 

When it was finally time for us to leave The Brinton Museum we did so with profound gratitude for the gem we had discovered and with the knowledge that we would return again to this marvelous ranch with all its beauty, history and wonders.  Until you are able to visit The Brinton Museum for yourself, I strongly urge you to visit their website to explore this wonderful resource. 

On our way into the town of Big Horn, we pulled off the road to take photos of these long-horn cattle.  I don’t know the full extent of their horns…I wasn’t going to get close enough to measure…but they appeared to be some of the longest I have ever seen, and they seemed accustomed to the attention because my presence did not disturb their grazing. 

Just about half an hour north of Big Horn, Wyoming, is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, so we crossed into Montana and drove north to see a place we have heard so much about in history.  The famous site is a hill, not unique in this landscape, with a lot of visibility…plenty of visibility for the soldiers who would die here to see the masses of Lakota and Sioux warriors encircling the hill on their swift mounts. 

The treaty, signed at Fort Laramie in 1868, made land in eastern Wyoming a permanent Indian reservation and the government had promised to protect the Indians.  The 1874 discovery of gold on the Black Hills Reservation brought people streaming into reservation lands.  Government efforts were of no avail and the Indians left the reservation and began attacking the encroachers.  The conflicts between the newcomers and the Indians escalated until finally the government issued a January 31, 1876, deadline for all Indians to return to reservation lands. 

Lt. Colonel George Custer and his troops were part of the three Army expeditions that were assigned to bring the Indians back to their reservation.   But before these troops were able to converge on the Indian encampment in Little Bighorn Valley, the Lakota and Cheyenne attacked General George Crook’s column and stopped his men who were coming in from the south.  Buoyed by their victory, the Indians turned toward the Little Bighorn River.  Meanwhile, General Alfred H. Terry ordered Lt. Colonel Custer and the 7th Cavalry to follow the Rosebud Creek to the Little Bighorn Valley. 

When Custer’s scouts located the Indian camp, he divided his men and planned to attack the Indians from three directions.  The Indians quickly pinned down two of these divisions before the troops could rendezvous.  Under Sitting Bull’s leadership about two thousand Indians attacked Custer and his men.  One can only imagine what it was like for these troops to watch such a huge massing of warriors riding full speed and surrounding them in the rising dust…and leaving no hope and only the inevitability that they would all die.

After the battle, the Indians learned of other troops approaching and broke off their attacks.  The arriving troops quickly buried Custer and his men where they fell.  The following year the officers’ bodies were removed for burial elsewhere and the soldiers were reburied in a mass grave that is now marked by a memorial column bearing all of their names.

In 1999 the Park Service placed the first official red stone marker to honor the place where one of the Indian warriors had fallen during the battle.  Since that time the Park Service has created the circular Indian Memorial with its Spirit Gate Window and has added red stone markers to honor the sites of other warriors’ deaths. 

Another informal memorial to the Indians seems to have come about just beyond the Custer Memorial.  Visitors have attached pieces of cloth, many with Indian-design patterns, to the ragged bush growing on the hilltop.  Its fluttering remnants are a colorful tribute to the importance of those days in June of 1876.

This was a fatal battle, not just for Custer and his men, but for the Indians as well.  In its wake it was clear that nothing was going to stop the settlers streaming into these lands.  The open lands and their nomadic lifestyle were now lost forever to the Indian tribes.

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 5 of 11 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park.  If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is Cody, Wyoming.

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