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.