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.