Saturday and hot, probably not unlike the day of Aug. 14, 1872, when, during the previous night, Lakota and Oglala Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho decided to attack a U.S. Army bivouac a few miles downstream on the Yellowstone River from Billings.
It was the young braves who started it all; the older and wiser men knew they didn’t have enough ammunition to engage a well equipped Army unit.
One young brave sneaked into the sleeping Army camp and attempted to steal a rifle leaning against a tree near its sleeping owner.
Unfortunately, the latter was an old fox on the dangerous frontier and saw the attempt. He shot the warrior, arousing the whole camp; the battle started.
This is the site that some men came from all over the country to see on a recent tour led by Neil Magnum, former superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
A local historian and crusty Army veteran of a later era, Harold Hagen, explained the battlefield to the men, who had also been to the Little Bighorn and Canyon Creek battlefields as part of their tour.
Very near Billings, this battle site is largely neglected except for the efforts of men like Hagen, the Frontier Heritage Alliance, and the more than noteworthy caretaking of the landowners, the Michaels.
As Richard Upton, publisher and Custer historian, said recently, “All things turn on Custer!” None of this would be important without him.
The Baker Battlefield site is important for several reasons. Some historians feel it was the first skirmish that finally ended with the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Secondly, major players were involved: Crazy Horse, the almost mythic warrior who’s personae is largely unknown and still being explored, although his name is familiar to most Americans. In 1872 this young and restless warrior rode back and forth across the battlefield in front of the Army, daring soldiers to shoot him; they tried.
Then there is Sitting Bull, old for a warrior by this time – and wise as he needed to be. He knew the futility of the coming fight but was unable to control the young men in his war party.
Finally, Sitting Bull laid down his weapons and, taking only his pipe and tobacco, went out a hundred yards in front of his companions. There he sat and smoked as the dust from the heavy 50-70 caliber bullets of the Army kicked up around him.
When done with his smoke, he got up and calmly ambled back to his warriors, who now were more than willing to listen to him.
Hagen, an old 10th Special Forces paratrooper, is more than qualified to explain the battle. He, David Eckroth and the Frontier Heritage Alliance have pulled together every single bit of data about the site.
Eckroth, a master at metal detecting, was the first to investigate the site. Because the Army had standard deployment locations during battle, he was able to determine such locations by the empty cartridges found. Once he found the Army positions, he went to where they were probably shooting and found the bullets themselves.
Each shell casing has a unique firing pattern. The Indians used a different rifle than the Army, and some of the Indian shell casings had been recycled four and five times. Little wonder Sitting Bull was concerned.
The commander of the eight troops of the 2nd Cavalry and 7th Infantry was Major Eugene Baker, a battle-hardened soldier probably suffering post-traumatic stress from his bloody experiences in the Civil War.
He drank a lot, the only medicine available for a mental illness gotten in service to his county.
He had been drinking and playing cards late the night before. So when the shout went up, his command abilities came into question.
Two years earlier, Baker had been ordered to teach a lesson to a recalcitrant Piegan chief who had killed a settler. It was January and 40 below zero on the Marias River.
Fueled by alcohol (for the cold) and guided by an untrustworthy scout, Baker attacked the wrong village.
Of the 173 known dead, the Blackfoot superintendent later reported that, except for 15 men, all killed were sick or women, children and old men; all able-bodied men had been far away hunting buffalo.
Baker lost one man as he did here on the Yellowstone (Sgt. McLarren). Indian dead are unknown, but historians are sure that Indian weapons and warriors from this fight showed up later at the Little Bighorn. Baker died at 48 from cirrhosis of the liver.