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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Rattlesnakes Little Bighorn Country

Webmaster's Note: Warning! Do not attempt any of this at  home! Do you have a rattlesnake story at Little Bighorn or other National Parks that you would like to share? If so, please email us at

Sharon Small, Chief Curator at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument snapped these photos of rattlesnakes coming out of hibernation. Photos are located at the bottom of the page.

Rattlesnakes return each fall to the den of their birth. That is why we see so many flowing from underneath the ground in one place. These photos were taken in the Powder River country instead of the battlefield. However, the battlefield is also in rattlesnake country. When you visit the battlefield, please take seriously the National Park Service brown signs that warn you to watch out for rattlesnakes along the trail.

I've personally encountered rattlesnakes, on two occasions, in my 27 years visiting Custer Battlefield.  The first was during the archeological dig of 1989 at the end of a long day searching for the 28 missing troopers inside the Deep Ravine. The five of us were walking back to the staff housing along the trail when suddenly a rattlesnake crossed in front of us. We all froze and so did the snake. And, it was looking directly at us. We had a real cowboy in our crew who lived all of his life in rattlesnake country. The great western artist, Ralph Heinz told us to continue to stay motionless as he worked his way around the back of the snake to within a few feet of it. Ralph bent down, lightly snapping his fingers while he made gentle clicking noises. Ralph's herding of the snake was amazing to watch. The snake started to move, but away from us and soon out of sight as it made its way toward Calhoun Hill. I do not suggest you try Ralph's trick if ever you encounter one of these marvelous creatures. He obviously knew what he was doing.

My second encounter was in May 2003. Joanne and I arrived at the battlefield early in the morning with friends Brian and Chris Dolby. Thank goodness it was a gray and cold morning because snakes would be moving slowly. I parked the car at the Cheyenne Wayside exhibit with the car pointing north, so my door (drivers) was next to the curb. I had the window down. After I stepped out of the car and closed the door, I suddenly heard the rattling sound. I froze while my eyes instinctively and quickly scanned the immediate environment. What's always consistent in all my encounters with these reptiles is the weird effect on acoustics their rattle sound makes in the natural environment. Unless the snake is in view, people will hear the rattle in a direction different from where the snake actually lurks. It happened to five of us when visiting the Rosebud Battlefield in June 1985. We were walking spread out instead of a straight line when we heard the sound that makes one freeze. Immediately, all of us said, "I think it's over there" while each of us pointed in a completely different direction!

Listen to the sound of a rattlesnake

So, back to the battlefield where I was standing beside my car looking for a rattlesnake giving me clear warning that I better leave it alone: My eyes finally found the snake and it was directly in front of me only a foot from my feet. My feet touched the curb; the snake must have been moving toward the asphalt to warm itself because it was on the grass next to the curb. Something happened in my brain. My eyes saw what I thought was a baby snake and I could not see a rattle. My brain was telling me that this was not a rattlesnake (although it sounded and looked very much like a prairie rattlesnake). Yet, there was no doubt that this unique creature was curled up and ready to strike. I calmly said to my friends still in the car, "Hey look, here's a baby snake!" Brian and Chris are from England and were visiting the battlefield for the first time. This would also be their first encounter with a rattlesnake. As they started to get out of the car, my brain finally realized what was curled up at my feet: a young prairie rattlesnake and it was not happy. I yelled out, "Stay in the car! It's a rattlesnake!"

Young gopher snake beside my car -- photo courtesy Chris Dolby


Racing through my mind at that moment was how to get myself out of that situation. I didn't think it would be a wise idea to open the driver's door and get back into the car because the door would actually pass over the snake and really upset him. The only action I could take (since I still had not learned how to herd a rattlesnake like Ralph Heinz) was to move toward the front of the car which I did very slowly. As I made my move, the snake followed my every movement and never took its eyes off of me. Once I reached the front of the car, I began to move more quickly around its other side.

I climbed over Joanne in the front passenger seat to make my way to the driver's side. Finally, I felt safe. Chris was laughing hard. She kept saying over and over how I said, "Hey look, it's a baby snake" then screaming out, "It's a rattlesnake, stay in the car!" I even started to laugh.

Looking out my window, I saw that the snake was still curled up and watching me. I started to take photos of the snake when my brain woke up even more. I quickly realized I could hear the snake's rattle so well because my window was down. That snake could have jumped into the car! Thank goodness for power windows. I had the window up in seconds!

Webmaster's Note: I've recently learned from Friends member William Altimari that this baby rattlesnake is actually a gopher snake. He told me that gopher snakes do curl up and "rattle" in order to fool their opponent into thinking they are just as dangerous. The adrenaline pumping in my body told me to flee. That's just what that gopher snake wished for.

Whenever you visit Custer Battlefield please take the signs warning of rattlesnakes seriously (actually, take any of the brown warning signs in any of our National Parks and Monuments seriously). The good news is, it is rare to see a rattlesnake while on the trails during the busy summer season. The foot traffic of thousands of visitors usually keeps the snakes hidden. However, if you find yourself being one of the first visitors walking on any of the trails, keep your ears and eyes open. You never know what you might encounter.

Bob Reece

May 2008

Photos courtesy Sharon Small

Sharon approaches den of rattlesnakes



As she comes closer we see many warming themselves in the Montana spring sun


Some big snakes in there


Look at the size of that snake! Notice the mature rattles.


John Doerner recently took this photo of a young rattlesnake at Little Bighorn



Death in Yellowstone by Yellowstone's Chief Historian, Lee Whittlesey. A fascinating look at the history of all deaths in Yellowstone. It's a testament for how we should heed all NPS warning signs.

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