Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on July 7, 2023.

Revealed By Fire

40 years after the Little Bighorn Wildfire


The summer of 1983 was hot and dry in southeastern Montana, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument baked under the August sun. When a visitor flicked a cigarette from the window of a moving car, it wasn’t difficult to ignite the roadside grasses, sagebrush, and yucca that had been dried to a crisp. A small fire rapidly grew into a fast-moving wildfire, sending visitors and National Park Service employees running for their lives. The visitor center and the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery were spared, but the fire scorched about 600 acres of the site, burning off the vegetation down to the dirt.

The blaze was initially viewed as a catastrophe, but not for long. The site hadn’t experienced a burn since the creation of the monument in 1879, three years after the famous battle where 263 US Army soldiers, including Lt. Col. George Custer, died when they were overwhelmed by a vastly superior force of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Soon after the 1983 fire, observers at the site began finding artifacts laid bare on the ground, including bullet casings. The battles that had occurred in the area on June 25–26, 1876, had long been surrounded by questions—including why Custer and his men of the 7th Cavalry had moved and taken up the positions they did—and historians recognized that these newly revealed artifacts could hold clues as to what may have occurred.

A series of archaeological surveys of the site were conducted, and the artifacts—especially the spent bullet casings—indeed told a story. Using metal detectors, researchers located and identified casings used by the US Army soldiers and by the Indian fighters, and mapped patterns in the casings’ dispersal that indicated skirmish lines and other important points of engagement. Researchers also identified marks made in the casings by a weapon’s firing pin—a unique signature that helped them determine that Indian fighters had retrieved US Army weapons from the decimated forces at Little Bighorn and used them to fight other federal troops miles away. 

Modern historians have scoffed at the notion that there were “no witnesses” to Little Bighorn as a result of Custer’s troops being wiped out to a man—in fact, there were as many as 2,000 eyewitnesses in the form of the Indian fighters. A wealth of this eyewitness testimony existed, but for a century it was given little regard due to deep-seated biases against Native Americans. But the surveys conducted of Little Bighorn following the 1983 wildfire suggested a series of events that largely corroborated the Native American accounts. Questions remain, but the historical record of Little Bighorn has been forever altered; at the battlefield monument, the focus of its programming shifted and the interpretive program was changed, with a greater emphasis on the Indian account. The fog of war may not have lifted, but in certain spots, at least, it might not be quite as dense.

TOP CAPTION: The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, circa 1960. Surveys of the site following a 1983 wildfire helped provide a more accurate description of the 1876 battle and largely supported long discredited Indian accounts of the event. CREDIT: Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images
The NFPA Library and Archive holds a rich collection of books, reports, and photographs that document important moments in fire history. To provide better electronic access for researchers and to preserve our unique archival holdings, work has begun to digitize the files of the Fire Record Department, the original NFPA department responsible for collecting and analyzing information and compiling statistics about key fires and other events. The incidents featured in “Looking Back” are drawn from this collection and will eventually be part of NFPA’s online archive. For information, visit