The Battle of the Little Bighorn & 
The Legacy of Little Shield
The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place on June 25 and June 26, 1876, 144 years ago this week. The Sioux Tribes under the leadership of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other chiefs were able to defeat and effectively destroy the 7th U. S. Cavalry regiment under Lt. Col. George Custer. This battle was part of a larger conflict known as The Great Sioux War, with the Sioux attempting to resist continued encroachment of their lands and the Army was fighting to push back the borders of the Sioux lands to allow for exploitation of the Black Hills. While the Sioux successfully defeated Custer’s force, several other columns were operating against them at the same time. The War continued into April of 1877 when the Sioux were forced to surrender or escape to Canada to avoid capture.

It was not until the 20th Century that Native American narratives of the 19th Century conflicts began to become subjects for popular histories. For years the Battle of the Little Bighorn was shrouded in mystery, in part because such key Native sources had long been ignored. The St. Louis Mercantile Library holds a notable primary source, a Native American analogous sketchbook for those days of conflict in the West. This series of sketches, a visual autobiography of "Little Shield, Chief of the Arrapohas," shows his exploits of valor and historical enemies in pictographic form. Little Shield's figure is riding a horse into battle in each sketch. This journal is one of the earliest extant examples of Plains Indian ledger art, a key transitional form of artistic narrative and expression on the Great Plains among Native Americans dating from the end of the glorious days of buffalo hide painting to the use of ruled paper given in trade. The work contains 23 pencil sketches, colored on lined tablet paper.  Possibly donated in library legend by the Cody family of Wild West Show fame to the Mercantile in the mid-19th century, the largest library of its time west of the Mississippi, the ledger was shelved for many years in a huge reading room “Extra Case” of art books, only to be rediscovered in the wave of scholarship on these magnificent sources  at the end of the twentieth century.  The exploits of Little Shield are dramatically drawn in these colored pencil vignettes, and reveal a precious autobiographical statement firsthand from a native leader of the Plains in the days of Custer, rather than described, no matter how conscientiously, secondhand.

Here are two images from this sketchbook. The first shows Little Shield on horseback fighting a soldier from Texas. The second shows Little Shield defeating a warrior from the Ute tribe. Often Little Shield identifies himself through his shield in his drawings. 
Little Shield on horseback fighting a soldier from Texas.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
Little Shield defeating a warrior from the Ute tribe.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
The entire sketchbook has been digitized and is available for viewing here.
In addition to these images, the Pott Library Collection at the Mercantile Library has this model of the steamboat Far West, a steamboat built specifically for operating on the shallower Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The Far West brought back some of the wounded cavalrymen and with them, the first reports of the outcome of the fight along the Little Bighorn to the rest of the world. This model was built by master model maker and long-time member of the library, Glenn Hensley. Mr. Hensley worked on this piece for many years before it was completed and donated to the library.  Mr. Hensley passed away in 2018.
nota bene: Little Shield’s entire sketchbook will be displayed in the Mercantile’s 175th Anniversary exhibition next year, A Nation, A City and It’s First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years and in its accompanying catalogue by John Hoover.
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