“CATTLE WOULD WINTER IN THESE VALLEYS WITHOUT OTHER FOOD OR SHELTER.”
GENERAL CUSTER PROMOTED BLACK HILLS AGRICULTURE
BY JACK MCCULLOH, RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA
The map of South Dakota has over 49 place names because of one trip the US Frontier Army took through the territory. Tilford, Ludlow, Custer Peak, and Trail City in Corson County are on the map to memorialize the Army’s trip through The Great Sioux – Cheyenne reservation led by George Armstrong Custer. When the territory eventually became a state in l889 one of the first names chosen for a County seat west of the Missouri River was Custer County located in the southwest corner of the new State.
The Mormon Church had accomplished a major population shift into a new territory in the West from Missouri and Illinois. For years thousands had struggled overland for California Gold; and the Montana Gold Rush moving west along the Platte River on established roads. Those with goals of reaching the West had no interest in the Black Hills guarded by hostile Indians on their trip through “the Great American Desert.” 1
CUSTERS ORDERS TO THE TROOPS TO THE BLACK HILLS
……… care will be taken not to molest or in any manner disturb any Indians who may be encountered on the march, unless the latter should first act in a hostile manner . . . This command is about to march through a country infested by Indians, more or less hostile, and even should the latter, as it is hoped, not engage in general warfare and the usual acts of hostilities, there is no doubt but that they will endeavor to make captures of stock and to massacre small parties found imprudently beyond the lines . . .” his military dispatch of July 15, 1874 from Prospect Valley, Dakota (” . . . Our march thus far has been made without molestation upon the part of the Indians . . . As I sent pacific messages to all the tribes infesting this region before the expedition moved, and expressed a desire to maintain friendly relations with them . . . [o]ur Indian guides think differently, however, and believe the Indians mean war. Should this be true they will be the party to fire the first shot . . .”); and his second military dispatch, from Harney’s Peak, August 2, 1874 (” . . . gold has been found at several places, and it is the belief of those who are giving their attention to this subject that it will be found in paying quantities. I have upon my table forty or fifty small particles of pure gold, in size averaging the size of a small pin-head, and most of it obtained to-day from one panful of earth . . . Until further examination is made regarding the richness of the deposits of gold no opinion should be formed . . .”). 2
The Black Hills of Dakota Territory are different than the nearby Black Hills around Laramie, Wyoming. The Northern Black Hills are a lot like an inverted bath tub on a flat prairie – 40 miles wide and 80 miles long with a geological rim running around the base of the Hills. These Black Hills are about the size of the present day state of Israel.
The Army explored around the Black Hills of Dakota several times before Custer’s trip. Before the Civil War the army had sent expeditions around the Black Hills including Harney in 1855, Warren/Hayden in 1857, and Raynolds in 1859. These military expeditions did some mapping but none had entered the Black Hills before Custer. In 1868 the US War Department sat down with the Great Plains War Chiefs and in the Treaty setting up the Great Sioux – Cheyenne Reservation the Indians agreed to stop fighting people for a price. 3
Proclamation of Gen. McCook against
Occupation of the Black Hills of Dakota
I, Edwin S. McCook, Acting Governor of the Territory of Dakota, by direction of the President of the United States, do … warn all unlawful combinations of men …, that any attempts to violate our treaty with these Indians, … by an effort to invade … said reservation, will not only be illegal … but will be disapproved , and Government will use … military power … to remove all .. who go there in violation of law.4
The first time the Army actually entered the Black Hills was in 1874. Everyone at that time knew you could find gold. The only question was how much and could you get it?
The War Chiefs agreed they would hunt in certain areas for a limited time, receive annual issues of sugar, coffee and cattle, and would stop harassing the railroads and settlers. The US Government agreed to remove the manned forts they had established protecting the Bozeman Trail. It’s the only treaty with Indians the government ever entered into that removed military posts from territory to be settled by the spreading population.
CHEAPER TO FEED THAN FIGHT
In the Secretary of War’s report of 1874 he wrote; “The feeding process by 1874 has been now continued for six years with the Sioux, has so far taken the fight out of them….They have been sitting down at the agencies along the Missouri River, to risk the loss of coffee, sugar, and beef in exchange for the hardships and perils of a campaign against soldiers. As a result the Custer expedition penetrated to the very heart of their wild country, and returned without any opposition; and the military camps at Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies are in safety, though surrounded by a force of fighting men from ten to twenty times larger than their own number. To have tamed this great nation down to this degree of submission by the issue of rations is in itself a demonstration of what has been so often argued – that it is cheaper to feed than to fight wild Indians. 5
The purpose of a thousand men and their supply wagons entering the Hills and finding a route was to record what was there. President Grant was near the end of his second term as President, and he spoke bluntly to the Indian Chiefs when they visited him in Washington D.C. that he expected them to live in peace on reservations. He would not allow free roaming Indians to check in just to receive food, clothing, and money. Grant’s policy was — if you choose to roam/live free off your reservation; your tribe will not receive annuities – or land grants – or cash payments. Sioux Chiefs such as Spotted Tail and Red Cloud resisted being counted in the census claiming it was against their religion. Grant put a stop to their tribes receiving anything until they were counted.
Grant would not negotiate directly with the Chiefs; instead, they must negotiate with the Secretary of the Interior and the Church run (Quakers) head of the Indian Bureau.
Grant wanted Indians treated as citizens of the United States and insisted they deal with the Government through the responsible agencies. He amended the law to make Indians citizens instead of banning them as citizens. He expected them to learn English, and make their own way in a short time by working land. Indians were issued plows, seeds, and farm equipment.
The chiefs on the Northern Plains knew that Congress had designated reservations as sovereign areas and the army could not enter reservations except by permission of the tribal councils. Some insisted as heads of “Sovereign nations” they would deal only with the President – not with Indian Agents assigned by the Government – because as heads of nations they had equal rank of the President and they did not like Indian Agents telling them anything. The chiefs wanted to select their own agents to act for the Government in providing for them.
Grant lost his patience with argument and ordered the Secretary of the Interior (Columbus Delano) at the time which was essentially a privately run church related welfare operation financed largely by Government manpower and money, to feed and cloth only those Indians living full time on reservations .He also ordered the army headed by General Sherman to remove tribes from non reservation land after a two year deadline to their reservation. Trail herds of cattle from Texas had for several years been grazing during wintertime in Montana territory, replacing the depleted Buffalo herd on the Plains , and cattlemen wanted Indians put on reservations , not free and able to steal horses , raid local ranchers and run off their cattle herds.
In the Great Plains the Sioux and Cheyenne claimed hunting areas by treaty. They argued Grant could not take away rights approved by Congress in 1869, but never signed by two thirds of the bands affected called for by the treaty. The treaty let the railroads through the Great Sioux Reservation along the Platte River. Congress let the time limited parts of the 1868 Treaty run out (food and clothing) and expected Indians to be in “Indian Territory” (present Oklahoma) – or on reservation they set up in limited states on a case by case basis.
CUSTER BOOSTS AGRICULTURE FROM HARNEY PEAK
“Twenty six days were spent traveling inside the Black Hills, and about 300 miles of valley were traveled by the command. Placer Gold was found …; The search for gold was not exhaustive, … but at one point a shaft was sunk to a depth of eight feet, and gold was found amounting to five cents per pan at the top, … to twenty cents at … eight feet. ……Custer’s Gulch, where twenty of the explorers took gold claims, declaring their intention to work the claims as soon as a possession of the country can be obtained, seven miles south of Haney’s Peak.”6
When he climbed Harney Peak Custer wrote a promotional pitch. He said
“Cattle could winter in these valleys without other food or shelter than that to be obtained from running at large.” His published report caught the attention of Gen. William B. Hazen, commander of Fort Union, at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, who was convinced the Great Plains was the Great American Desert.
‘”The lands are not worth a penny an acre,” said Hazen, and in the winter “men and beasts perish from cold.”
Custer thought General Hazen was fond of notoriety and “consequently scribbles a great deal for the papers.” Custer wrote a nine column article in the Minneapolis Tribune (published April 17, 1875, shortly after the Black Hills Expedition) refuting Hazen ……Custer had extravagant praise for the Black Hills country.7
“Agriculture in no portion of the United States, not excepting the famous Blue Grass region of Kentucky, have I ever seen grazing superior to that found growing wild in this hitherto unknown region. I know of no portion of our country where nature has done so much to prepare homes for husbandmen, and leave so little for the latter to do as here. In the open and timbered spaces a partly prepared farm of almost any dimension, of an acre and upward, can be found here. Not only is the land cleared and timbered for both fuel and building, conveniently located with streams of pure water flowing through its length and breadth, but nature oft times seems to have gone further, and placed beautiful shrubbery and evergreens in the most desirable locations ….The soil is that of a rich garden, and composed of a dark mould of exceedingly fine grain….Nowhere in the States have I tasted cultivated raspberries of equal flavor to those found growing wild here…Wild strawberries, wild currants, gooseberries, and wild cherries are also found in great profusion and of exceedingly pure quality. Cattle would winter in these valleys without other food or shelter than that can be obtained from running at large.”8
Joe Reynolds read these reports in the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper while working successfully his gold claim in the mountains of Colorado. He was working a claim in high country near Leadville and decided to pack up his mule and head for the Black Hills. He settled in Custer, and returned to Colorado to bring back a wife. He developed a homestead in what today is known as Reynolds prairie. Today Ivan’s son is still operating a ranch on Reynold’s Prairie
CUSTER TAKES REPORTERS TO THE BLACK HILLS
What the first journalists in the Black Hills reported stimulated thousands moving to the Hills from all directions, filling up of the country to overflowing in 1875. Thousands of jobless, underemployed and immigrant men read in the papers the word “gold” and decided to head for the Black Hills.
New York City’s population at the time was near 2 million; Chicago was near 400,000, Kansas City was 350, 00, and Minneapolis was just short of 100,000.
Newspapers sent reporters with the Army to report on what was out their in unknown territory. The public was always interested in the activities of the hyperactive Civil War cavalry officer – George Armstrong Custer. Reporters invited along paid their own way, including horses, to be on the outing. 9
Promoting Agriculture and Grazing
“Portions of the Black Hills are well fitted for agriculture, especially those from two to three thousand feet above the level of the sea, and all are adapted to grazing. The general elevation of the hills varies from four to seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, their base alone having an altitude of from fifteen to twenty-five hundred. From this it will be seen that they are not very high, taking their altitude from base to summit.
“When the present expedition returns, mining companies will be organized to test the value of the minerals found, and they will go fully prepared to overcome all opposition from the combined force of Sioux, Arapahoes, and Cheyennes, who will soon throng the region in quest of game for their Winter food; and if they contain any treasures of importance these Argonauts will soon make the fact known.”10
The Acting Secretary of Interior Smith in his annual report of 1874 wrote;
“A military expedition to the Black Hills caused great excitement among all of the Sioux people. They regarded it as an infraction of their treaty, and were filled with the fear it might lead to their exclusion from a country they highly prized.
“The exaggerated accounts of rich mines and agricultural lands given in dispatches of Custer and news reporters with the expedition increased the eagerness of people to take possession of the country. The correction of these exaggerated claims, by statements that no indications of mineral wealth were found, and that the lands were undesirable for white settlements, along with the strict prohibition of the War Department of any intrusion into the Territory did not stop parties from fitting out and leaving from Yankton, Bismarck, Denver, and Helena Montana.”11
The dispatch of Custer announcing gold in the Black Hills set off a stampede of fortune-hunters into Lakota territory. Although the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty requires the government to protect Lakota lands from intruders, federal authorities were asked and felt they had to protect the miners traveling along the road Custer blazed for them, which they call “Freedom’s Trail” and the Lakota call “Thieves Road.
The Army with less than 25,000 men on active duty in the entire Army failed to keep Gold seekers out of the Hills with several companies. So did the 25,000 Sioux who were not fighting among themselves and other bands scattered all over the Great Sioux Reservation.
Both the Army and the Indian Tribes failed to keep the public out of the Hills when the public got Gold Fever.
THE LAKOTA WAR – 1876
A Senate commission meeting with Red Cloud and other Lakota chiefs in 1875 to negotiate legal access for the miners rushing to the Black Hills offered to buy the region for $6 million. But the Lakota refuse to alter the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and declare they will protect their lands from intruders if the government will not. So Congress repealed the 1868 treaty in 1877, stopped all benefits the Indians argued they were to receive, and Congress took back 40 million acres of land.
(1) The Northern Pacific Railroad was built during the years of 1872-1873 to Bismarck across the River from the site of Ft Lincoln Custer was assigned to build. During those years, the country west of the 100 Meridian (which runs through the middle of South Dakota) had an above average rainfall. This resulted in a perception the land was suitable for farming. Custer reported the abundant grass on his 1873 expedition to Montana. His reports along with the railroad’s advertisements designed to sell land and entice settlers west, painted the country as conducive to settlement. Hazen refutes these claims by reports from those who experienced the normal seasons that received little rainfall.
(2) Samuel J. Barrows went with the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873 and with the Black Hills Expedition in 1874 as a reporter for New York newspapers. Barrows was elected to Congress in 1897. He promoted legislation to remove Indians from reservations, believing assimilation would lead to equality.
(3) Wikipedia encyclopedia – Internet
(4) The New York Times, published April 9, 1872
(5)Newspaper Chronicle of the Indian Wars, Volume 4, compiled by Marc H Abrams, Published 2010, Page 16
(6) The New York Times, published September 1, 1874
(7) My life on the Plains by Custer, representing the major part of Custer’s life, was first published some two years before the General’s Death. It is a vivid picture of the American West, the rigors of life for the settlers, and the horrors of Indian warfare. The first edition of the book included a chapter by General W R Hazen which Hazen later privately published separately as a pamphlet entitled These Barren Lands.
(8)His articles on the Plains Indians were first published in the Galaxy Magazine 1872-74, and then incorporated into his book, My Life on the Plains, or, Personal Experiences with Indians, published in 1874.
(9) Robert Strahorn spent his life writing and promoting. Instrumental in settling west of the Missouri river and developing its resources. He was one of the best at selling something that existed only in dreams. He touted farmland Often land so tough it would take 3 generations to succeed.
(10) The New York Times, published April 28, 1874
(11) The New York Times, February 1, 1874
By Jack Pennington
I have just finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, LAST STAND. I thought it was very interesting and well written from a literary standpoint, but from an analytical perspective it portrays the same accepted view of the battle. I do recommend it as required reading for the overall coverage and personnel highlights.
In my books and articles I have brought out the “cover-ups” that resulted from the Reno Court of Inquiry, and were necessary in protecting Major Reno, Captain Benteen, other officers and the Army. The main cover-ups could be listed under the headings of timing, sightings, and orders.
What is difficult for me to understand is how contemporary writers such as Philbrick can ride over the battlefield, read the books and articles he claims to have done, and still not question or make any essential connections. The following are examples related to one period of time:
(1) As Reno reached Ford A he sent a message to Custer which supposedly said the Indians were strong to his front. Reno starts down the valley, and Philbrick mentioned several times how Reno is unaware of the Indians because he can’t see their camp. According to the message Reno sent Custer, the Indians had to be aware of Reno’s troops, and we know if they were that there would be warriors harassing his troops all the way down the valley in order to protect and give time for their village to flee or prepare. This doesn’t raise a question to Philbrick or too many other writers whether the Indians coming down the valley could actually have been what Reno’s message was about. If writers put together Custer’s orders as reported by Reno’s orderly Davern and Custer’s orderly Martin, might they not assume that Reno’s message was more apt to have asked if he should wait for Benteen? Later, of course, he couldn’t say this, and so used a similar message to the one Girard said he sent in his attempt to trap Reno.
(2) Reno moves down the valley and he wasn’t able to see the village or any number of Indians coming to meet him. He realizes that the Indian camp is around the bend and he can see warriors and a great amount of dust being raised. Reno sets up a skirmish line. There are those that believe he should have attacked, but most believe he was wise not to. His reason was sound since he didn’t see any of his promised support coming. According to Reno he was looking for this support from behind and that it would be Custer. Shouldn’t the orders Custer gave as reported by Reno’s and Custer’s orderlies raise the question that Reno might have been looking for Benteen coming from behind, while hoping for some sign of Custer as he flanked the village?
(3) If Reno was waiting for Benteen and a sign that Custer had launched his flanking attack, why didn’t Reno say that was the reason he didn’t continue his attack and instead set up a skirmish line? Reno was right in waiting for the support or the rest of the attack to materialize, but he couldn’t say that for he knew it would mean that he knew there was a plan of attack. Reno and Benteen had to say they had no orders except for Reno to move against the village and he would be supported. Reno could have moved into the timber but he could not have justified fleeing the timber. This would definitely have been a court-martial offense. Any statement would also mean that Benteen would have been sent orders, undoubtedly carried by Sgt. Major Sharrow, and that Benteen should hurry to the Little Big Horn and enter the attack in support of Reno.
(4) Timing, as I have tried to bring out in my writings, was a major cover-up at the Reno Court. There had to be a timing cover-up because of the following: Major Reno’s report after the battle that he “charged” to the bluff and met Captain Benteen at 2:30 p.m. The accepted version as brought out by Philbrick is 4 p.m. I wish Philbrick and other writers would answer the question asked Reno by General Rosser. Rosser: “You do not state, but I have the impression from some of the accounts sent in from the field, that you began your skirmish with the Indians about half past twelve to one o’clock, and that you recrossed the river and occupied the bluff about two o’clock. Now, to the reporter of the New York Herald you state that you made a reconnaissance in the direction of the Custer’s trail about five o’clock. The Indians appear to have withdrawn from your front as soon as you recrossed the river. Why then could you not have gone in pursuit of Custer earlier?”
I have never been able to figure out how most writers know there were cover-ups at the Reno Court, but they will not accept Reno’s and Custer’s orderlies as to the orders Custer gave or Reno received, and by inference were sent to Benteen. No, they are enlisted men and Reno said his orders were only to attack the Indian village and he would be supported by Custer whom he thought would be following him. Benteen said he didn’t receive any orders except to go to some unknown valley, and I guess sit there after he got there. Davern had said Reno’s order was that Benteen would be on his left. Benteen should have reached the Little Big Horn valley south and west of Ford A and when moving to aid Reno would have been on his left. Martin said Custer in his order to Reno said he was going down to the other end and drive the Indians. The whole regiment would then be aiding Reno and in Custer’s circling movement Benteen would be in the center.
Shots were heard from the Custer field soon after Reno’s troops had reached the ridge. Could the 4 o’clock time have come about because Reno and Benteen could not justify a wait of two and one half hours while Custer’s men were getting slaughtered? Benteen had orders to come to Custer’s aid. The five o’clock time was too well known and accepted to change it to 4 o’clock, so the 2:30 time was changed to 4 o’clock. Going to check on Lt. Hodgson’s body would not have sufficed, nor would attempting to string out the time the packs arrived since there were too many reports that ammunition packs were not that far behind Benteen. However, changing the meeting to 4 o’clock, along with the need to take care of the wounded, waiting for the packs, and then moving at five o’clock, could be accepted. Changing the 2:30 time to 4 o’clock meant that earlier officer’s times had to be changed and enlisted men’s and Indians’ ignored.
Orders, timing, and sightings were cover-ups at the Reno Court of Inquiry that were necessary to prevent Reno and Benteen from court-martials, and protect the Army’s good name. I won’t get into the “accepted” picture of how the “attack minded” Custer, at a time when the Indian village was in a state of panic and the need to coordinate his attack with Reno’s was essential, is sitting around Medicine Tail Coulee, feinting at the Indians, waiting for Benteen, having conferences, and planning strategy.
I guess when I read accounts of the battle I’m still too concerned, and it is hard for me not to express my opinion. Although I have been critical of other writers, I know without their interviews and writings I could not have formed my views of the battle.
Compiled By Michael L. Nunnally, 1948-2010
Before the smoke could clear at the Little Bighorn a great number of men claimed to be the only survivor of Custer’s command. The claims lasted from the 1870s well into the 1930s. Over 200 men made claims of being a Custer scout or last messenger but all were proven to be frauds. The newspapers of the day ran hundreds of such stories. Most of the accounts are complete flights of fantasy and offer no documentation to support their claim. Some of the men and their fanciful tales have believers to this day and have entered the realm of Little Big Horn folklore. Here are just a few:
Henry Benner– Benner said he escaped the last stand by riding through Indian lines on Custer’s “fast horse” to Major Reno who was “sixty-five miles away.” The Seventh, he said, was ambushed in a “narrow canyon.”
Charles L. Berg– “Captain” Charles Berg claimed to be the first person to discover the Custer Battlefield, a claim which was made by over two dozen other men and Calamity Jane.
Joe Blonger– Blonger (Belonger) (1847-1933) Claimed he missed the Battle of the Little Bighorn because there weren’t enough horses to go around. He said he arrived on the battlefield after the massacre and questioned the Indian children about what really happened. The Indian children also told him who killed Custer, a secret he only shared with family members. Blonger was good friends with Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise and Wild Bill Hickock. He also scouted with Buffalo Bill. The Apaches called Blonger “Joe straight tongue.” Died 1933 Seattle, WA.
Billy Boutwell– According to Boutwell he and his fellow prospectors witnessed Custer and his men being ambushed in a narrow canyon. Boutwell said his fellow prospectors were killed and he made his way to a small settlement where he was nursed back to health.
William J. Carlyle– Claimed to be the “only living white man that saw the fight” where he witnessed Custer fall with a bullet in his breast. Died in Boston, Massachusetts.
Alfred Chapman- (?-1941) A Buffalo Bill look-alike Chapman claimed he was a scout for Custer and was captured by Indians and forced to watch the slaughter of Custer and his command. Chapman was more of a showman than the rest and appeared as himself in the 1915 silent motion picture Custer’s Last Scout and made numerous appearances at carnivals and fairs signing autographs and showing off the “bullet that killed Custer.” Died Portland, Oregon 1941.
S.B. Clark– Claimed to have been captured by Indians and forced to watch the destruction of Custer and his troops.
Jack Cleybourne– Said he had fought alongside the general at the Battle of the Washita and also the Little Bighorn where he was the only survivor.
Charles M. Davis– Wounded in both legs Davis escaped the last stand and fought his way through the Indians to Reno.
William Theodore Dugard– (1864-1937) Dugard claimed to be one of Custer’s ‘Mississippi Scouts.” Unfortunately Dugard was only twelve years old at the time of the battle and Custer had no “Mississippi Scouts.” During his lifetime Dugard was somewhat of a celebrity in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., and played organ from the back of a wagon during parades. Buried Tupelo, Miss. In 2001 Mississippi erected a military tombstone with the inscription- “Custer Co. -Mississippi Scouts- Battle of the Little Bighorn .”
Harvey S. Faucett– Learned of the overwhelming number of Indians waiting for Custer and tried to warn him but Faucett’s horse died in the attempt.
Frank Finkel– (1854-1930) Finkel claimed to have escaped the last stand on a fast horse which carried him unconscious through the Indian lines. He then made his way to a remote cabin where he was nursed back to health from his wounds by two mysterious men. Finkel first made his claim in 1920 during a horseshoe tournament. No documentation exist to support his story although he still has his believers. The Frank Finkel Story: Possible Custer Survivor? by Dr. Charles Kuhlman relates Finkel’s claim. The subject of numerous books and articles. Buried Dayton, Washington.
Frank Fleck- Claimed he and 40 other men were left at the river due to “lame horses.” Fleck and his group were cut off and fought their own mini last stand with Fleck being the only survivor. When found wounded he was sent back to where the “women and children were.”
Thomas Frost– Claimed to be part of a relief force sent to rescue Custer.
Raymond Hatfield Gardner– (1845-1940) “Arizona Bill” Gardner claimed he entered Sitting Bull’s camp disguised as a “Canadian Indian.” He tried to warn Custer but was accused of treason by the general. In the 1930’s Arizona Bill had his own radio show in San Antonio, Texas. Documentation signed by Gen. Nelson Miles and Buffalo Bill exists supporting Bill’s tale although some researchers question the authenticity of the signatures. Died 1940, buried Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio.
Charles Hayward– In his tale Hayward said he was the last man left alive after Custer and his men were killed and attempted to escape on Comanche but was captured and held prisoner until 1900 when he escaped his Indian captors.
Billy Heath– (1848-1891) A Pennsylvania miner, Heath told his family he had survived the last stand and was listed on the battlefield monument as “killed in action.” Other than the same name no evidence exists that supports the fable. The subject of a book, Billy Heath: The Man Who Survived Custer’s Last Stand, Heath claimed to have been nursed back to health by a family named Ennis or Evans who were living in Sioux country. The story is similar to the Finkel tale but Heath’s fable is strictly “family oral tradition” since he left no written accounts behind. Heath died in 1891 and is buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery, Tamaqua, Pennsylvania.
Curly Hicks- Sent to Gen. Terry for reinforcements, Hicks escaped the battlefield by using two dead Indians as a shield. Hicks claimed he was the famed scout for Custer known as Curly.
John C. Lockwood– (1857-1928) Claimed to have survived the last stand. Subject of the 1966 book, Custer Fell First: the Adventures of John C. Lockwood. Lockwood attended the 1926 Little Big Horn battle reunion and passed himself off as a veteran of the fight and appears in several photographs taken at the event. He was later dropped from membership in the Veterans of the Indian Wars Association for “unsubstantiated pretensions.” Lockwood had been a member of the Seventh Cavalry enlisting in August 1876, less than two months after the battle, but had no connection to the regiment at the time of the battle.
John A. Martin– A private in the Fifth Cavalry, Martin claimed he was the last messenger sent by Custer. John D. Martin (Giovanni Martini) of the Seventh Cavalry was the actual last messenger. Records indicate John A. was with the Fifth Cavalry over 250 miles away the day of the battle. John A. Martin is buried Oak Hill Cemetery, Plymouth, Indiana, with tombstone inscription: “Custer’s last messenger.” He wasn’t.
James Mannion– In one of the more outrageous tales Mannion says Custer attempted to lead his troops through a “gauntlet of 2,000 rifles.” His men failed to follow and Custer rode back and again attempted to lead his men through the 2,000 rifles but is trapped and dies with his men. Mannion said he was with Reno at the time although his name is listed nowhere in connection with the battle.
Willie McGee– (1857-?) Claimed Custer sent him and a bugler named Wagner for help during the battle. Wagner was killed and only McGee made it through to “General” Reno. Also claimed to be a Medal of Honor winner. Sentenced to eight years in Sing Sing prison in 1905 for killing his best friend in an argument over how to cook beef stew. During his murder trial a number of newspapers ran sympathetic stories on “Custer’s sole survivor'” which probably helped McGee receive only an eight year sentence for murdering his friend.
John McGrath– was an actual Seventh Cavalry veteran and survived the last stand by riding through Indian lines “disguised as an Indian, on an Indian pony.” Unfortunately McGrath’s enlistment ended in 1872 and he was living in North Carolina at the time of the battle.
Ben McIntosh– Claimed to be the Custer scout “Curley.” In his tall tale “Curley” Ben claimed he carried Custer’s body from the field to Mrs. Custer at Ft. Custer. Also claimed to be known as “Bloody Knife.” McIntosh claimed Custer died in his arms. “Curley Ben” was later sent to prison for raising cash for a fictious Indian school and pocketing the proceeds.
Robert Nixon– In 1927 Nixon claimed he was the first person to visit the Custer battlefield after the battle and saw Custer’s “severed head.”
D.H. Ridgeley– Claimed he witnessed the last stand and watched as Custer’s wounded were “burned at the stake.” One of the first sole survivor claims, his story was printed in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press less than three months after the battle in September of 1876. Ridgeley’s employer soon came forward and said Ridgeley was working for him at the time of the battle.
Ed Ryan– In 1950 Ryan wrote a book Me and the Black Hills in which he claimed to have served in the Seventh Cavalry under Custer. He was said to have appeared on an early Groucho Marx radio show in which he told his tale. The Chicago Daily News and Billings Gazette featured articles on the famous “sole survivor” in August of 1951. Ryan was later exposed to be 65, not the 95 he claimed. His hometown of Custer, South Dakota, labeled him the biggest liar in South Dakota.
Jay O. Spencer– Spencer claimed to have been in Custer’s ‘infantry’ during the battle of the Little Big Horn and survived the last stand by hiding in a nearby log. He applied for a pension over a period of several years but no records could be found of his service in the Seventh Cavalry. Spencer’s neighbor suggested he might have suffered from dementia.
Thomas Stowers– (1848-1933) Stowers was a member of B Company and an actual veteran of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and fought on Reno Hill. But his tombstone in Baxter, Tennessee, is inscribed “Sole Survivor of the Custer Massacre.” Stowers’ family oral tradition says he survived the last stand by hiding under a wagon or inside a large cooking pot.
Frank Tarbeaux- Tarbeaux claimed to have survived the last stand but was later exposed as a fraud. Tarbeaux changed his story to being a scout with Custer and being with troops nearby when the battle happened. This tale was believed by the public. A book written about Tarbeaux, The Autobiography of Frank Tarbeaux, was full of unbelievable adventures.
Charles L. Von Berg– Claimed to have carried messages for Custer and arrived on the battlefield after the battle was over.
Resources and Books
Boyes, William – No Custer Survivors: Or, the Unveiling of Frank Finkel. Booklet/pamphlet, 16 pages – Self published, 1977. Out of print. Boyes strips away the Finkel claim as nothing more than pure fable. At only sixteen pages a much sought after collectible by LBH enthusiasts.
Brininstool, E.A.- Was there a Custer Survivor? Hunter-Trader-Trapper magazine, April 1922. Brinistool researched a number of sole survivor claims and believed them all fraudulent. Also, Chapter 11 of Troopers with Custer;: Historic incidents of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Clarke, Donald Henderson- The Autobiography of Frank Tarbeaux. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930. “The Great Adventurer’s” account of his days in the wild west hobnobbing with Custer, Hickock, Jesse James, Oscar Wilde and Calamity Jane by his side. Pure fiction. One of the first outlandish stories to be published in book form.
Dippie, Brian W.- Sole Survivor Liars. True West Magazine, May-June 2001, pg.55. Dr. Dippie’s humorous look at a sole survivor convention.
Doran, Robert E.- The Man Who Got to the Rosebud. Research Review: The Journal of the Little Big Horn Associates, pg. 11. El Paso, TX: Winter 2002, Vol. 16, No. 1. Researcher Robert Doran’s argument on the Nathan Short-Rosebud saga.
Ellison, Douglas W.- Mystery of the Rosebud. Self published, 2002. Ellison’s excellent expose on the Nathan Short fable. The small booklet picks apart testimonies on a number of so called eyewitnesses who claimed to have viewed Short’s body.
Ellison, Douglas W.- Sole Survivor: An Examination of the Frank Finkel Narrative. Aberdeen, South Dakota, North Plains Press. 1983.
Koster, John- Survivor Frank Finkel’s Lasting Stand. Wild West Magazine, June 2007, pg. 40. Frank Finkel rides again. More on the king of sole survivors.
Kuhlman, Dr. Charles- The Frank Finkel story: Possible Custer Survivor? (edited by Michael J. Koury) Bellevue, NE: The Old Army Press 1968.
Nunnally, Michael L.-I Survived Custer’s Last Stand! Booklet/pamphlet 39 pages-Moonwolf books, self published, 2006. A listing of a number of “sole survivors” and other bizarre claims.
Nunnally, Michael L.-Sole Survivor: Fakes, Frauds, Impostors and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Research Review: The Journal of the Little Big Horn Associates, pg. 25. Rockville, MD: Winter 2007, Vol. 21, No.1.
Ryan, J.C.(edited & compiled by)- Custer Fell First: the Adventures of John C. Lockwood. San Antonio, TX: The Naylor Company, 1966. Lockwood’s fantasy account of being Custer’s last messenger and also seeing the general killed.
Members of the Seventh Cavalry Who Later Lived and/or Died in the LBH Region (Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota) Including the Indian Scouts but Excepting Those Who Died in Other Battles
Joseph Bates, a private in M Company who participated in the valley and hilltop fights, died on September 13, 1893, in Sturgis, South Dakota, and was buried there in St. Aloysius Cemetery.
Black Calf, an Indian scout also known as Boy Chief, was with Reno’s Column. He died on June 4, 1922, in Armstrong, North Dakota.
James P. Boyle, a private in G Company who participated in the valley and hilltop fights and was wounded in the back, died on September 2, 1920, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was buried on September 14, 1920, in St. Mary’s Cemetery, in Bismarck (Lot 8, Row 8, Block A).
Carl August Bruns, a private in E Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on January 4, 1910, in Mandan, North Dakota.
John W. Burkman, also known as Old Neutriment, committed suicide on November 6, 1925, in Billings, Montana.
Michael C. Caddle, a sergeant in I Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on May 1, 1919, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Charles A. Campbell, a Private with Company B who was with the pack train and in the hilltop fight, died on August 2, 1906, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
John C. Creighton, also known as Charles Chesterwood, resided at 107 Seventh Avenue, Mandan, North Dakota, in 1927.
William Cross, a scout, died in July 1894 in Culbertson, Montana.
Curly, an Indian scout, died on May 21, 1923, at the Crow Agency.
William A. Curtiss, a sergeant with F Company, died on October 27, 1888, in Helena, Montana Territory.
John F. Donohue died on December 3, 1924, in Butte, Montana.
Peter Eixenberger, one of the musicians who stayed aboard the Far West, died on September 12, 1917, in Sykes, Montana, and is buried at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
James Flanagan, a sergeant in D Company who was in the hilltop fight, died on April 21, 1921, in Mandan, North Dakota.
Moses E. Flint, a packer with the Quartermaster staff, was with the pack train and in the hilltop fight. He died in 1902, presumably in South Dakota, and was buried at Spring Valley Cemetery in Pollock, South Dakota.
Harvey A. Fox, who was not at the battle, died on March 28, 1913, in Warm Springs, Montana.
Peter Gannon, who was not at the battle, died on June 12, 1886, at Fort Assinniboine, Montana Territory, where he was originally buried. He was reinterred on March 27, 1905, at the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, Montana, in Section B, Site 1285.
Edward Garlick, First Sergeant in G Company, was on furlough at the time of the battle. He died on January 25, 1931, in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Goes Ahead, an Indian scout, died on May 31, 1919, at the Crow Agency and is buried in Custer Battlefield National Cemetery.
Hairy Moccasin died on October 9, 1922, in Lodge Grass, Montana, and was buried on October 11, 1922, in Saint Ann’s Cemetery in Lodge Grass, Montana.
Half Yellow Face died in 1879 at Fort Custer, Montana Territory.
John E. Hammon, a corporal in G Company who participated in the valley and hilltop fights, died on January 19, 1909, in Sturgis, South Dakota. He was buried in Bear Butte Cemetery, in Sturgis, South Dakota.
George B. Herendeen died on June 17, 1918, in Harlem, Montana.
Max Hoehn, a private in L Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on January 6, 1911, in Sturgis, South Dakota. He was buried at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Sturgis.
Jacob Horner, a private in K Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on September 21, 1951, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
John J. Keller died on February 8, 1913, in Butte, Montana.
Ferdinand Klawitter, a private in B Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on May 17, 1924, in Nax, North Dakota.
John Lattman, a private in G Company who participated in the valley and hilltop fights, died on October 7, 1913, in Rapid City, South Dakota. He was buried in Elk Vale Cemetery which is east of Piedmont, South Dakota.
Little Sioux, an Indian scout who was with Reno’s column in the valley fight, died on August 31, 1933, in North Dakota.
John J. Mahoney, a private in C Company who was with the pack train and in the hilltop fight, died on July 27, 1918, in Sturgis, South Dakota and was buried at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Sturgis.
Samuel J. McCormick, a private in G Company who was in the valley and hilltop fights, died on September 10, 1908, in Fort Meade, South Dakota. He was buried in Bear Butte Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Thomas F. McLaughlin, a sergeant in H Company who was wounded in the hilltop fight, died on March 3, 1886, in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Jan Moller, who was also known as James Moller, was a private in H Company who was wounded in the hilltop fight. He died on February 23, 1928, in Deadwood, South Dakota, and was buried there in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Lansing A. Moore died on July 27, 1931, in Rawlins, Wyoming.
William O’Mann, a private in D Company who was in the hilltop fight, died on April 26, 1901, in Fargo, North Dakota.
Daniel Newell, a private in M Company who participated in the valley and hilltop fights and was wounded, died on September 23, 1933, in Hot Springs, South Dakota. He was buried in Bear Butte Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
John Pahl, a sergeant in H Company who was wounded in the hilltop fight, died on January 28, 1924, in Hot Springs, South Dakota and was buried in Bear Butte Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
James Pym died on November 29, 1893, in Miles City, Montana.
Michael Reagan, who was not at the battle, died in 1917, in Columbia Falls, Montana.
Red Bear, who was also known as Good Elk, was an Indian scout who was in the valley fight. He died on May 7, 1934, in Nishu, North Dakota.
William Sadler, a private in D Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on November 12, 1921, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Hiram Wallace Sager may have homesteaded in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1887. See http://ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/sd/campbell/land/camp-st.txt.
James W. Severs died about 1912 in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Walter Scott Sterland, a private in M Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on August 27, 1922, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Strikes the Bear, an Indian scout who crossed the river with Reno’s Column, died on June 7, 1929, in Ree, North Dakota.
Strikes Two, an Indian scout who crossed the river with Reno’s Column, died on September 8, 1922, in Elbowood, North Dakota.
Peter Thompson, a private in C Company who was wounded in the hilltop fight and later awarded the Medal of Honor, died on December 3, 1928, in Hot Springs, South Dakota. He was buried in the Masonic Section of the West Cemetery in Lead, South Dakota.
James Weeks died on August 26, 1877, on the Crow Agency in Montana Territory.
Henry Charles Weihe, who was also known as Charles White, was a sergeant in M Company who fought in the valley and hilltop fights and was wounded. He died on October 23, 1906, in Fort Meade, South Dakota, and was buried in the Old Post Cemetery at Fort Meade.
John S. Wells, a sergeant in E Company who was on detached service at the time of the battle, died on July 16, 1932, in Dickinson, North Dakota.
Adam Wetzel died on March 20, 1909, in Bozeman, Montana.
White Man Runs Him died on June 2, 1929, in Lodge Grass, Montana, and is buried at the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery on the Crow Agency, Montana.
White Swan died on August 12, 1904, on the Crow Agency, Montana.
Felix Villiet Vinatiere, the Seventh Cavalry’s Chief Musician, was not present at the battle. He died on December 15, 1891, in Yankton, South Dakota.
Charles A. Windolph died on March 11, 1950, in Lead, South Dakota. He is buried in the Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.
James Wynn, a private in D Company who was in the hilltop fight, died on March 21, 1892, in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Younghawk, an Indian scout who participated in the valley and hilltop fights, died on January 16, 1915, in Elbowood, North Dakota.
CUSTER’S LAST BAND
By Shebby Lee
On June 22, 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer confidently led his 7th Cavalry, several officers’ wives and assorted hangers-on out of Fort Abraham Lincoln near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. With him was the regimental band, a sixteen-piece brass band mounted on matching white horses and led by Chief Musician Felix Vinatieri. They played “Boots and Saddles”, and then Custer’s favorite, the cheerful tune of “Garry Owen”, which would forever after be associated with the ill-fated 7th Cavalry and its demise.
Custer’s only concern was that the wily Sioux would escape before he could engage them in battle, but his spirits were high, and the entourage took on the air of a summer pleasure outing. Hunting and scouting parties detached themselves occasionally to canter across the prairie.
When the party reached the confluence of the Powder and Yellowstone, General Terry’s orders were explicit: the band was to turn back. Custer, taking one bugler and the handsome white horses with him, rode into an ambush. The band arrived back at the fort – on foot – in time for the frontier Fourth of July celebration.
Thus, the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2002 and 2004.
The SUPER BOWL??
The place kicker for the New England Patriots football team at that time was a young man named Adam Vinatieri, the great-great-grandson of Felix. Adam’s talented toe not only drilled the game-winning field goal as time expired in the Big Game, but he kicked five game-winning field goals during the 2001 season to get them there, including three in overtime. According to Patriots’ statistics, Vinatieri is the most reliable field goal kicker in franchise history, connecting on 80% of his kicks. He scored 24 points during the 2001 post-season and is now the top Patriots scorer in post-season annals with 54 points. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t get drafted after graduation from South Dakota State University, even though he is the Jackrabbits’ all-time leading scorer!
Now sports fans….
What if Custer had defied his superior and taken the band to the Little Bighorn that blazing hot summer day in 1876?
William Baker, a/k/a William Bailey, born April 1850, Alexandria, Virginia
Frederick William Benteen, born August 24, 1834, Petersburg, Virginia
Christopher Criddle, born 1851, New Canton, Virginia
Benjamin C. Criswell, born February 9, 1849, Marshall County, (West) Virginia
Harry Criswell, born 1855, Marshall, (West) Virginia
Henry Harrison Davis, born January 20, 1846, Bellvernon, Virginia
Edmond P. Dwyer, born December 1850, Fairfax County, Virginia
William Etzler, born 1852, Wheeling, (West) Virginia
Thomas E. Meador, born 1851, Bedford County, Virginia
Albert Pilcher, born 1838, Parkersburg, Virginia
William C. Williams, born March 28, 1856, Wheeling, (West) Virginia
Jacob Adams, born June 25, 1852, Stark County, Ohio
Charles Clinton Barnett, born May 7, 1857, Camden, Ohio
James C. Bennett, born 1848, Shelby, Ohio
L. Edwin Bobo, born 1845, Franklin County, Ohio
George Brainard, born 1846, Brooklyn, Ohio
Hiram Erastus Brown, born December 1846, Mount Vernon, Ohio
Thomas J. Bucknell, born 1849, Cincinnati, Ohio
Charles Burkhardt, born 1846, Summerville, Ohio
James Calhoun, born August 24, 1845, Cincinnati, Ohio
Thomas Cox, born 1844, Cincinnati, Ohio
John C. Creighton, a/k/a Charles Chesterwood, born March 4, 1850, Massillion, Ohio*
Boston Custer, born October 31, 1848, New Rumley, Ohio
George Armstrong Custer, born December 5, 1839, New Rumley, Ohio
Thomas Ward Custer, born March 15, 1845, New Rumley, Ohio
David Edward Dawsey, born 1851, Belleville, Ohio
Alexander Downing, born 1845, New Madison, Ohio
William Dye, born 1850, Marietta, Ohio
Thomas J. Finnegan, born September 1, 1850, Hillsboro, Ohio
Isaac Fowler, born September 15, 1844, Darke County, Ohio
George H. Geiger, born 1843, Cincinnati, Ohio
Edward Settle Godfrey, born October 9, 1843, Kalida, Ohio
Thomas Eaton Graham, born November 20, 1831, Alton, Ohio
George W. Hammon, born 1852, Fulton County, Ohio
John E. Hammon, born December 4, 1857, Lynchburg, Ohio
Weston Harrington, born February 9, 1855, Alton, Ohio
Leonard A. Harris, born October 1851, Cincinnati, Ohio
George B. Herendeen, born November 28, 1846, Parkman Township, Geauga, Ohio
Adam Hetesimer, born 1847, Cincinnati, Ohio
Jacob Hetler, born August 2, 1852, Mansfield, Ohio
Stanton Hook, born 1845, Coshocton, Ohio
Rufus D. Hutchinson, born 1850, Butlersville, Ohio
Fremont Kipp, born October 17, 1856, Noble Hill, Noble County, Ohio
Andrew Knecht, a/k/a Knight, Knect, Knicht, born April 12, 1853, Cincinnati, Ohio
Frank Lauper, born 1852, Montgomery, Ohio
George Lell, born 1847, Hamilton County, Ohio
Jasper Marshall, born April 26, 1852, Spring Valley, Ohio
John McKee, born 1853, Meigs County, Ohio
John Morrison, born 1843, Zanesville, Ohio
Frank Neely, born 1850, Collinsville, Ohio
Jacob Noshang, born 1847, Hamilton County, Ohio
Miles F. O’Harra, born September 1851, Alton, Ohio
Henry W. Raichel, born Hamilton County, Ohio
Thomas H. Rush, born 1841, Greenville, Ohio
Christian Schlafer, born 1846, Cincinnati, Ohio
Crawford Selby, born June 5, 1845, Ashland County, Ohio
Michael Vincent Sheridan, born May 24, 1840, Ohio
William C. Slaper, born November 23, 1854, Cincinnati, Ohio
Levi Madison Thornberry, born February 3, 1853, Marietta, Ohio
Michael Thorp, born February 1843, Somerset, Ohio
Thomas S. Tweed, born 1853, North Liberty, Ohio
Cornelius Van Sant, born May 1850, Cincinnati, Ohio
Thomas Benton (or Bell) Weir, born September 28, 1838, Nashville, Ohio
John Weiss, born March 16, 1849, Cincinnati, Ohio
John S. Wells, born 1832, Rose, Ohio
Albert Whytefield, born 1846, Sandusky, Ohio
Pasavan Williamson, born 1847, Petersburg, Ohio
George A. Wilson, born 1839, Madison County, Ohio
Henry N. B. Witt, born December 10, 1852, Cincinnati, Ohio
* Creighton’s birthplace is also listed as Memphis, Tennessee.
Early History of the Custer Battlefield
and Park Superintendents, 1893 – 1958
by Michael L. Nunnally
In the years following the 1876 battle, the Custer Battlefield began a rich history of its own. The battlefield languished for a number of years until 1893 when A.N. Grover was appointed as the park’s first superintendent and guardian. Grover and a number of his early fellow superintendents faced a number of hardships in the wild and remote area of Montana. Lack of running water, shelter and the haunting isolation were the most common complaints. A great deal of praise must go to these early superintendents, known among the Crows as the “ghost herders,” and their families for their contributions to the National Park Service. Most of the information contained here comes from Don Rickey, Jr.‘s History of Custer Battlefield published in 1967. Dr. Rickey served as area historian at the park from 1955 to 1960.
1876: The Battle of the Little Bighorn.
1877: Reburial of soldiers and removal of officers.
1879: Cordwood monument built on Custer Hill. Custer Battlefield becomes a National Cemetery.
1881: Burial of Fort Phil Kearney dead on Custer Hill. Granite monument erected on Custer Hill.
1886: The Tenth Reunion of the battle drew a handful of notables including Capt. Frederick Benteen and son, Capt. Thomas McDougall, Dr. Porter, Capt . Edward Godfrey, Curley and Gall.
1890: Marble markers placed for locations of U.S. Troops.
A. N. Grover: July 11, 1893 to April 24, 1906. The first park superintendent A.N. Grover was a retired military man. With his wife and daughter in tow Grover assumed the first superintendent job at the battlefield in 1893 and was faced with extremely harsh living conditions residing in a tent until a temporary house could be built. Upon arriving at his new position Grover learned that the superintendent’s chief duty appeared to be keeping a fragile peace between local ranchers and local Crow Indians who were constantly at odds with each other over cattle herds which roamed free in the area and the timber which bordered the battlefield on the Little Bighorn River. Cattle had to be constantly herded off the national cemetery and the problem continued to plague a number of subsequent superintendents.
1894: Stone house built for custodian storage.
W. H.H. Garrett: April 25, 1906 to March 24, 1909.
Oscar Wright: March 25, 1909 to July 27, 1910. In 1910 Superintendent Wright set a stone marker for Lt. Porter whose body was never found. Wright had no evidence on the location of Porter’s death and simply chose a random spot for its location. Wright also set stone markers for Lt. Hodgson and Lt. Sturgis. Numerous questions from tourists made Wright realize that an official version of the battle was needed. “…a definite and accurate account of the Custer massacre…is desired at this place, as it would explain to visitors the facts connected with this historic event…I find nothing official in this office to guide or instruct a Superintendent intelligently along this line.”
G.W. Thomas: July 28, 1910 to June 15, 1912.
James McGowan (Acting): June 16, 1912 to July 18, 1912. McGowan acted as interim superintendent until Daniel Dommitt arrived to take over the position.
Daniel Dommitt: July 19, 1912 to December 13, 1913. Dommitt was a retired military man who had served in the 1876 campaign and had first viewed the battlefield several days after the battle when he arrived with the Terry-Gibbon column. Like his predecessors he complained of the hardships and isolation of the park and was at constant war with relic hunters and vandals who were constantly at work chipping away at the stone makers and monument. The Custer marker had to be replaced several times and a large number of other markers were severely damaged and had to eventually be replaced. Several photographs taken at around this time period show the severity of the problem.
Eugene Wessinger: December 20, 1913 to August 22, 1929. During his sixteen year tenure at the park Wessinger dealt with a number of problems including the continuing problem of vandalism to the stone markers which were being chipped away as souvenirs at an alarming rate. In 1915 Wessinger recommended to his superiors that “…a neat iron fence, high enough to keep anybody out, be paced around the markers of Custer’s last stand.” In a letter to Elizabeth Custer in 1924 Wessinger stated that the summer attendance at the battlefield was “about 10,000 people.” In December 1923, Senator Walsh of Montana introduced a bill in congress calling for the building of a structure for the comfort of the public.
Ever anxious to please the increasing tourists, or perhaps as a diversionary action to stop the vandalism of the markers, Wessinger began the practice of seeding the battlefield with empty cartridge shells which were taken from the Ft. Custer firing range. The practice continued for a number of years. In 1924 Gen. Charles King sought to have former Private Theodore Goldin appointed as the park superintendent but his action was blocked by General Edward Godfrey who believed Goldin had made several deliberate false statements about his role in the battle. During Wessinger’s administration the battlefield hosted two of the largest events in the park’s history, the 1916 celebration and the 1926 event which celebrated the park’s 50th Anniversary.
1925: Mrs. Thomas Beaverheart, the daughter of an Indian named Vehoenxne who was killed in the battle, made a request for a marker for her father to be placed upon the battlefield. The request went unanswered.
1926 Fiftieth Anniversary: No other event in the park’s history attracted such a large crowd and gathering of actual participants than the 1926 Anniversary and reunion. The crowd was estimated at over 50,000 people for the three day event. Both soldier and Indian veterans of the battle gathered for one last meeting of the famous battle. Former Sioux warriors shook hands with former cavalrymen led by Gen. Edward Godfrey. Also in attendance were scores of veterans and Indians from other Indian wars and battles. Some of the more notables in attendance were: Army veterans of the battle– Charles Windolph, Gen. Edward Godfrey, W.E. Morris, William Slaper, Peter Thompson, Theodore Goldin and Daniel Newell. Indian veterans of the battle: White Bull, Shoot Walking, Young Hawk, Little Moon, Red Tomahawk, Wm. Wolf Moon, Two Moon, White Moon, Big Beaver, Black Crain, Bob Tail Horse, Powder Face, Big Nose, White Horse, Black Whetstone, Chief Little Wolf, Beaver Heart, Dog Friend, Pine, Hollow Wood, Limpy, Sun Bear, Kills Night, Just Walks. Also: L.A. Huffman-post photographer for Miles, Thomas LeForge-scout. The 1926 event also featured the reburial of a soldier christened the “unknown soldier.” A bizarre footnote to the event was the appearance of W.C. Lockwood, a man who had posed for years as a veteran of the battle. Lockwood managed to acquire a veteran’s badge and appears in several photographs standing with veterans of the battle.
Joseph Morrow: December 2, 1929 to January 22, 1930. Morrow was unable to endure the isolation factor of the area and resigned after one year.
Alex Naylor (Acting): January 23, 1930 to August 3, 1930. Naylor was appointed on an interim basis to feel the vacancy created by Morrow.
1930: The Ft. Phil Kearney burials located on Custer hill were moved to the Custer Cemetery.
Victor A. Bolsius: August 4, 1930 to June 8, 1934. Notable achievements during Bolsius’s tenure included the planting of 13 trees in 1931 and 25 red cedar and 150 blue spruce trees in 1933. Although trees had been planted in preceding years it was under Bolsius that the Custer Cemetery took on its present day tree-lined appearance.
1931: The iron fence requested under Wessinger’s administration was finally erected on Custer Hill.
1932: Lt. John J. Crittenden’s body which had remained buried where he fell during the battle was moved to the cemetery to make room for a road to accommodate the growing number of tourists.
Harvey A. Olson: June 9, 1934 to July 14, 1938 Under Olson the park’s first pamphlet was printed (6 pages) and Battlefield Ridge road was graded. Olson encouraged William White 85, an Indian Wars veteran, to conduct tours of the battlefield for tourists. White had been a soldier under Gibbon and assisted in the burial of the Custer dead. A non-paid position his salary was funded by the sale of Marquis’s books and tips from tourists. White’s interpretation of the battle turned out to be less than accurate and his age limited him as a guide.
1938: U.S. Army grades Battle Ridge road graded.
William O. Mickle: July 15, 1938 to April 8, 1939 Charley Reynolds marker erected.
Fulton Grigsby: April 9, 1939 to November 21, 1940.
Harold Montague: December 22, 1939 to November 30, 1940.
Edward S. Luce: January 6, 1941 to May 1, 1956. Major Edward S. Luce was an actual veteran of the 7th Cavalry having served from 1907 to 1910. Prior to arriving at the battlefield Luce spent several months in training at the Arlington National Cemetery and in 1941 he became the first National Park Superintendent. Perhaps no other superintendent was more qualified for the job than Edward Luce who had a deep interest in the battle. “During Major Luce’s early years in the 7th Cavalry,” former park historian Don Rickey, Jr., said, “he spent much time working up the history of the regiment as a troop clerk in regimental headquarters.” Luce’s passion for the Custer fight earned him the reputation as an authority on the battle and in 1938 he published, Keogh, Comanche and Custer. His wife, Evelyn Luce, also a gave a large amount of her time in administrative duties at the park. A number of noteworthy achievements and events happened under Luce’s leadership.
1941: Horse Cemetery-while laying a new drain pipe on Custer Ridge workers uncovered a number of horse bones, part of the battle debris buried long ago by cleanup details from Fort Custer.
1943: Nye-Cartwright Ridge discovery.
1947: Robert Utley hired as seasonal guide.
1949: Custer Battlefield handbook written by Luce and Evelyn published and sold for 15 cents.
1949: Edgar J. Stewart served as seasonal interpreter. Dr. Stewart would later write Custer’s Luck, considered by many scholars as one of the more comprehensive studies of the battle.
1951: The 75th Anniversary of the battle. The last surviving Sioux warrior from the battle, Dewey Beard (Iron Hail), attended the event. Jacob Horner, the last surviving 7th Cavalryman of 1876, was expected to attend but ill health forced him to cancel.
1952: New visitor center opens on June 25.
1954: Battle Ridge road paved.
1955: Don Rickey, Jr., becomes area historian. Author of History of Custer Battlefield.
1958: Wooden marker placed on the battlefield indicating where Lame White Man was killed.
Sources and suggested reading:
Brust, James, Brian C. Pohanka, Sandy Barnard- Where Custer Fell. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
Rickey, Jr., Don – History of the Custer Battlefield. Old Army Press, 1967.
Swanson, Glen- Custer and His Times. Swanson Productions, Inc., 2004.
Upton, Richard (Editor)- The Battle of the Little Big Horn & Custer’s Last Fight. El Segundo, CA., 2006.
Utley, Robert – Custer and Me. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
Utley, Robert – Custer and Me. Article. True West magazine, May/June 2001.
Thanks to Philip Sheldon and his family for sharing the program for the 1898 Cadet Officers Dance held at the University of Wyoming in 1898 when Captain Charles A. Varnum was there.
Cadets signed up to dance with the young women (above). Charles Varnum and his wife were on the Reception Committee (below).
This item belonged to Philip’s grandmother Bessie, who was the daughter of George C. Crager, a well-known scout during the Indian Wars period. Bessie was born in May 1882, so she would have been almost sixteen at the time of the dance.
Bessie attended the dance with her mother, Mary Elizabeth Lee (“Mollie”) Willoughby Crager Schalk, whose marriage to Crager had ended in 1882. She married C. F. Schalk in 1888. However, she reverted to the name Crager in the mid-1920s and, upon her death in 1939, she was buried as Crager.
Mollie was the younger sister of Jim “Kid” Willoughby who was a headline performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Jim Kid probably made at least one show tour with his brother-in-law, George Crager.
A Novel by Lorin Lee Cary
Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2009
Available as an e-book ($7.95), paperback ($13.95) or hardcover ($22.95)
I do not normally enjoy historic fiction, but I did enjoy this book. Rather than try to portray Custer in some “pretend” scenario, full of over-contrived descriptions of him, this book takes a quick glimpse of Custer through the journal of an unidentified member of his inner circle and runs with a modern story of whodunit and charm.
The story begins in Hardin with an Indian who has the journal. He sends it to his college student niece, Sally Wolf, in hopes she can discover its apparent value. The protagonist, Walter Reeves, is the niece’s history professor who has inner conflicts concerning his marriage and his career. Walter gets the necessary remedy for the boredom in his life as he finds himself entwined in a journey involving burglary, kidnapping, and murder. Along the way are a militia group, determined to protect Custer’s reputation, and radical Indians, all trying to get their hands on the journal.
The author, Lorin Lee Cary, is a retired history professor who has taken his knowledge and humor on a fun ride. Die-hard Custer fans will find some minor faults, but the book is a good read. It may be a good peripheral introduction to the Custer story for their less-enthused family and friends this Christmas.