Just 10 weeks after the battle of the Little Big Horn, D. H. Ridgeley, a thin man with a long beard who described himself as an old trapper, startled the nation by revealing that he was an eyewitness to Custer’s Last Stand. He and two fellow trappers had been captured by Sitting Bull in late March and were still prisoners in the Sioux camp when Custer attacked a small cluster of tepees on June 25, unaware that the village proper, hidden behind a bluff, contained perhaps 2000 warriors.
From a hillside a mile and a half away, Ridgeley watched as the Indians, with “military precision,” ambushed the troopers in a ravine on the river’s edge, unhorsing half of them with their first volley. The surviving soldiers retreated, but fell in droves, Custer among them. It was all over in 50 minutes. If the battle wasn’t much to speak of, its aftermath was: Ridgeley watched with horror as the Sioux tied six captured soldiers to the stake and, as they burned them to death, added to their torment by letting Indian boys fire “red-hot arrows into their quivering flesh.” That night, the warriors held a drunken celebration, leaving Ridgeley and his fellow prisoners under guard by the women. When the women grew drowsy, the three men made their escape, hiding out from war parties and working their way to Fort Abercrombie. Apart from an arm badly broken when his horse stumbled, Ridgeley, otherwise, had survived his remarkable ordeal none the worse for the wear. That was soon to change.
Ridgeley’s story appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press on September 8, 1876. He was too quick-off-the-mark, it turned out. Seventeen days later the same paper published a letter from Ridgeley’s former employer exposing him as an ordinary farm laborer with an overactive imagination who, at the time of the battle, was working in Minnesota.
Such were the perils of seeking notoriety too soon. Subsequent sole survivors of Custer’s Last Stand did not repeat that mistake. They outwaited those who could pinpoint their whereabouts in 1876, then stepped forward to make their claims. Their stories appealed to a sensation-hungry, reading public that may or may not have believed them, but relished them nevertheless. After all, sole survivors were the stuff of dime novels, Wild West shows and Saturday afternoon movies. They cut directly to the heart of the Custer mystery: What actually happened that bloody Sunday on the Little Big Horn? And they made great copy. By 1920, sole survivors were popping up in the papers with astonishing frequency.
Let us imagine the lot of them seated around a room, the air blue with smoke and filled with guffaws and banter. A framed copy of the Anheuser-Bush print of Custer’s Last Fight hangs on the wall. It is 1926, and the first national convention of the Sole Survivors of Custer’s Last Stand has convened to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle. The delegates are old geezers, mostly in their 80s, some in bits of army uniform, some in the buckskin garb of the plainsman, with long hair and goatees-a-la-Buffalo Bill Cody. Every story they are about to tell is true—that is, it actually appeared in print and garnered some notoriety for the claimant.
“My name’s Uncle Billy Boutwell,” a voice with a Southern drawl cut through the din, “and here’s how I came to survive Custer’s Last Stand.”
“During the late unpleasantness between the States, I fought in Confederate grey. When the war was over, footloose and despondent, I drifted west. In 1876, I was with a small party of prospectors looking for gold in the wild Dakotas, when we learned about a Sioux uprising under Sittin’ Bull and sought out Custer’s troops for protection. We had just ridden through a narrow pass when we heard the sound of gunfire and saw General Custer’s troops attacking an Indian village, only to be attacked themselves by a larger body of Indians. We fell on our knees and sent volley after volley into the Sioux ranks. But they just kept a-comin’, and we watched while they started picking off Custer’s men. One by one my party of prospectors fell, until suddenly a powerful Sioux armed with a war club whacked me on the head with such force he knocked me unconscious and dislocated several bones in my neck. To this day, I hold my head peculiar and stiff.”
Uncle Billy’s listeners could see what he meant, and murmured sympathetically. “The Indians left me for dead,” he continued, “but I regained consciousness and saw all of my comrades and all the soldiers slaughtered around me. I gave a last drink of water to a dying man, then crawled away to my old pack ox, Tony, who I had hidden in a deep canyon nearby. For 23 days, lacking food and water, travelling only at night I made my way through Sioux country till I, at last, reached the small settlement of Devil’s Circle Hole, where I bided my time till the Indian excitement was over.”
“You think you bided your time!,” a scrawny old-timer exclaimed. “My name is Charles Hayward and I was there at Custer’s Last Stand, but I don’t remember much about it. I was wounded in the fighting and half lost my mind after receiving a blow on the head while trying to escape on the horse, Comanche, with the headquarters flag of the Seventh Cavalry, stained by poor Captain Tom Custer’s blood, draped around my neck. The Indians are superstitious and regard crazy people as holy. Instead of killing me, they took me prisoner and nursed me back to health. I ended up doing odd jobs around their camp until one day in 1900 when I was sent to fetch a bucket of water. While I was bent over a bubbling brook my mind miraculously cleared and I escaped with the flag I had kept all those years. When I got back to civilization, I filed a claim for an army pension for my services, and finally persuaded a Congressman to introduce it in the House of Representatives. You do not have to wonder if my story is true. Obviously it’s true, since the New York Times published it in 1923, and as everyone knows, the Times prints nothing but the truth.”
“Bubbling brooks? More like a babbling brook, Private Hayward!,” a booming voice thundered. It belonged to a thick-set man, six-feet tall, robust of frame, with a push-broom mustache, gleaming teeth and a smile to rival Theodore Roosevelt’s. “My name’s Willard J. Carlyle. I’m owner of the Carlyle Chemical Company in Boston, but 50 years ago I was there when General Custer attacked at the Little Big Horn, and I am the only living white man who saw that fight. I was a scout with the Montana Rangers back then, wounded in the mouth and captured by the Sioux who, after a test of courage, spared my life. When the warriors made their rush down the valley that morning, I climbed a nearby hill and saw the whole terrible fight. The Indians killed the horses first, then picked off the soldiers one by one until, at last, only the brave General Custer was left with his comrades dead around him. One sweep of his saber and an Indian head was split in two, one flash of his revolver, his last shot, and a Sioux took the bullet between his eyes. Then Rain-in-the-Face fired his rifle and Custer fell, the last of that brave band. I saw him within 15 minutes after he was shot. In one hand he gripped his sword, in the other his pistol, and there was still a smile on his face. Perhaps he was thinking of his home, his beloved wife or mother. Who can say? About six months later, I managed to escape from the Indians and make my way to Bismarck—or was it Deadwood?—then back east to God’s country. I sent the story of my terrible experiences to Mrs. Custer just this year to assure her that her husband died fighting gallantly to the end.”
“You’re pretty close on in describing how Custer died, Mr. Carlyle, but you wasn’t there. I know, because I am the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. My name is Beck—Colonel Beck—and I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears what actually transpired on the Little Big Horn. Since I was a prisoner of the Indians at the time, I was dressed in Indian attire but had no hand in the massacre. I agree that Rain-in-the-Face killed Custer, who was one of the last soldiers to fall. But first Rain-in-the-Face spoke to him, begging him to surrender. Custer refused, though Rain-in-the-Face pointed to his dead comrades and said, ‘See your men lying there all killed; you must surrender or die; give me your arms.’ Custer wouldn’t do it. He drew his sword with a sudden flash and hissed between his teeth, ‘I will never surrender to such a as you!’ As he raised his sword to strike, Rain-in-the-Face shot him through the forehead and Custer fell dead.”
“I don’t know about this Rain-in-the-Face business, but I can tell you how Custer died. My name is George Benjamin and in 1876 I tried to warn the General of the Indians massing in front of him. I reached his troops just as they encountered the Sioux. At first a few Indians met us, then gave way until, as we advanced, we were completely surrounded. We soon knew that we were doomed and we fought as only brave men fight under such circumstances. A perfect storm of arrows and bullets was pouring in on us, but 10 Indians bit the dust for every soldier who died. Custer was everywhere, and for a time seemed bullet- and arrow-proof. But at last he fell with a saber in his right hand, a revolver in his left and a dozen dead Indians piled around him. The Sioux captured me after I was shot in the head and subjected me to three days of terrible tortures that have crippled me for life. Every hour of my ordeal seemed an eternity. Had I not been an unusually strong and healthy young man—I was a miner, like Uncle Billy—I would not have survived. Before Custer’s Last Stand I didn’t know what sickness was, but ever since I have suffered from the tortures inflicted on me. In my head, I still carry the bullet I received in the battle. Buffalo Bill and his cowboys rescued me from the Indians at the end of three days, and took me where my wounds could be dressed. Over the years since, I’ve been knocking on doors in Washington trying to get a pension for my services under General Custer, and I’m sure you’ll agree I’m more deserving than Private Hayward.”
“My name is Arizona Bill Gardner and, frankly, I’m not too sad that General Custer got it that day on the Little Big Horn.” These sacrilegious sentiments were uttered by a man whose eyes, even squinting, managed a twinkle and whose heavy beard barely concealed a sly smile. He looked like an old-time scout—an impression he quickly confirmed. “I was an advance scout for Custer,” Arizona Bill explained, “and, disguised as a Canadian Indian, with my red hair colored black and a warbonnet of furs and turkey feathers, I entered the Sioux camp and held a long powwow with Sitting Bull and learned all about the size of his force. With the help of a Pueblo maiden held captive by the Sioux I managed to sneak out of the camp and ride at breakneck speed to warn Custer of what awaited him. Custer, however, turned a deaf ear. ‘I ordered you to go out in front and reconnoiter, not to live with the enemy,’ he snarled. ‘I will have you court-martialed!’ So much for service above and beyond the call of duty! Fortunately, I wasn’t by his side when he got himself killed—and I never was court-martialed, either.”
An old man stood up with long flowing grey hair, a broad-brimmed hat set at a rakish angle, and the aplomb of a carnival barker delivering his spiel. “My name’s Alfred Chapman,” he said, “and so far, everything you’ve heard from these old fakers is a bunch of lies. I know because I was there at Custer’s Last Stand and I am the only man who survived that battle. Here’s how I did it: I was General Custer’s chief scout and interpreter on all his expeditions against the Indians. Custer personally presented me with a gold medal for bravery in 1873, and I was there at the very end. Custer had me out scouting ahead one day in May. Seeing no Injuns, I shot a mountain sheep and was on my way back to the camp with fresh meat when I was captured by the red fiends. They kept me prisoner for 18 days. On June 17, I escaped by crawling under a tepee cover and racing back to Fort Lincoln. Too late!—the expedition had already departed. So I chased after them to warn Custer of the concentration of Indians ahead. I arrived about an hour and a quarter before the battle began, but there must have been 6,000 or 7,000 Injuns blockin’ my path. I hid my horse, crawled to the top of a hill, and through my spy glass watched what followed. The battle took about an hour and 20 minutes all told, and Custer was the last to fall. When it was over and the Injuns had left, I rode down to the field to see if I could help any of the soldiers. But they were all dead, and I was still there wandering among the corpses when reinforcements arrived a few days later. This is all true—and you know it is because they made a movie about my exploits 12 years ago called Custer’s Last Scout. I starred in it, playing myself, of course. As for the whippersnappers out there who doubt my story because they can’t find any record of me in official files, no wonder. I was Custer’s citizen guide.”
“What does Chapman know? He’s just a ham actor, all right. He’s been telling the same lies in public since he showed up in Monroe, Michigan in 1910 when Mrs. Custer and the President of the United States were on hand to unveil a statue of General Custer. When he tried to pass himself off as an eye witness to Custer’s Last Stand, a few of the veterans who’d actually served with Custer in the Civil War were mad as hornets and threatened to strip off his buckskin suit and unveil him right then and there! My name is J. B. Gunter, though my good friends Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody and General Custer all called me Billy the Kid. I’m 90 years old now and I’ll tell you the gospel truth as to how I became the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. It was easy, really. I was wounded 14 times in the battle and, you can imagine, was covered with blood. The Sioux only scalp black-haired men, so I smeared blood on my head and they took me for a red-haired man, thus sparing me the scalping knife and allowing me to play possum till I made good my escape.”
“All I can say is bull, Mr. Gunter! My name is Curley Hicks and I was Custer’s last messenger. I was serving as a scout when we got into that mess on the Little Big Horn, and was in the thick of the fighting when Custer motioned me over and gave me a message, pleading for reinforcements, to take to General Terry. I wasn’t 50 paces away before I saw Custer fall. I quickly scooped up 2 Indian corpses and pressed them against my body as a shield. Then I simply dashed through the Indian lines. I’m tired of being called a liar. There are lots of fakes around, but why would I say I had these experiences if I didn’t?”
A chorus of voices damned Hicks for a liar anyway. They knew for certain he wasn’t Custer’s last messenger because they were—S. B. Clark, wounded in the back as he raced to bring word to General Crook . . . Fred Veeto, who was sent by Custer with a dispatch to Colonel Gibbon . . . Charles M. “Broncho Jack” Davis, who, though tomahawked and shot in both legs, charged through the Indians to deliver the last message to Reno . . . Sergeant Robert Moore, who delivered Custer’s urgent appeal for reinforcements directly into Reno’s hand . . . William McGee, who, though his horse was killed and he was shot in the thigh, made it through to Reno but “was too damn late” to save Custer . . . S. B. Jones, who, as thousands of Indians closed in on Custer, rode right through their ranks to urge Reno to advance . . . John C. Lockwood, a civilian packer, who ended up with Reno though he was dispatched to contact General “Early” . . . and so it went.
As hoots and catcalls filled the air and old men shook their canes at one another and traded insults, pandemonium reigned at the first national convention of the Sole Survivors of Custer’s Last Stand.
Suddenly, a figure who had been listening intently throughout the proceedings and had not uttered a word rose from his chair and stepped into the center of the room. He had yellowish hair tinged heavily with grey. Though well in his 80s, his bearing was erect, his intelligence obvious, and his presence commanding. He raised a hand for quiet. Even Silent Smith stopped talking. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I have heard about all of the nonsense I can stand. You are shameless liars, each and every one of you, and I say so without fear of contradiction, because my name is . . . George Armstrong Custer!” I wasn’t going to tell my story out of respect for Mrs. Custer’s feelings. She’s still alive, you know, more gracious and beautiful with each passing year. But I’m going to be 87 this December, and I don’t know how much longer I can wait to get this burden off my chest. Listen, then—and mark my words. Here’s how I came to survive everyone’s Last Stand but my own:
“Colonel Beck was almost right—a lucky guess, no doubt. Rain-in-the-Face did ask me to surrender and when I looked around and saw all my men dead you can bet your boots I surrendered! The Sioux took me away for tortures unimaginable, leaving my clothes on a dead soldier to fool the burial party. I, of course, was fearless and showed such lofty disdain for their efforts that the Sioux adopted me into the tribe. I could never return to civilization—the ethics of army life would forbid it. My choices were suicide or a new identity. So I changed my last name to Lindsay, married an Indian woman and never returned home. Instead, I took up a squatter’s claim on the Yellowstone and built myself a cabin 60 miles from the battlefield. But the fact that my “widow,” Elizabeth, lives on devoted to my memory and has never remarried weighs heavily on my conscience. It’s been 50 years, and my deepest desire is to lay my eyes on her just one more time. But she must not see me, and have her heart broken again. I can never make square what I have done to her by failing to reveal that I survived and have another family. Consequently, what I am telling you in this room must remain a secret that will follow me—and all of you—to the grave.
“Gentlemen, you now know the true story of Custer’s Last Stand. This meeting is adjourned!”
Brian W. Dippie is a professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and the author of numerous books on Western history, including Custer’s Last Stand (1976), Bards of the Little Big Horn (1982), and Catlin and His Contemporaries (1990).