Did Custer Die in This Coat?

custers-fringed-death-jacket“One must draw their own conclusion regarding the history of this jacket based on the documentation!” Rock Island Auction told collectors in its description of the lot that the Dietzen family claimed was the coat George A. Custer had died in at the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The documentation consists of Joseph Dietzen’s discharge papers confirming he was in the service at the time of Custer’s death and a 1958 letter from Dietzen’s son, John, explaining how his father got the coat: “he had won the coat in a shooting match from a friendly Indian…. He told my father that the coat had been taken by Sitting Bull from General Custer who was wearing it at the time he was killed.”

When we look to the historical record, numerous soldiers at the battle confirmed that Custer had tied his jacket to his saddle pack and was wearing his shirt during the battle. A family story by itself is pretty thin provenance, but when the statements are not supported by the facts, it becomes even weaker.

Even if it was a given that this jacket was taken from the battlefield (and it’s not), at least seven other officers who died that day also had buckskin jackets with them, so who could say this was Custer’s?

The coat, accompanied by a shirt allegedly tied to battle participant Rain in the Face, did not sell at the September 2013 auction. But that was only because it did not meet the reserve price; folks did bid on the lot, up to $90,000.

As John Lennon famously sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Some collectors are willing to take the chance to pay for a questionable piece of history, most likely hoping the story will prove to be true sometime in the future. The auction houses that put up these collectibles are all reputable, and each one was forthright about the provenance, or lack thereof, associated with the lot in question.

The Custer coat was just one of the artifacts attributed to Wild West legends that folks took a shot at owning this winter.

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