Custer's death still a mystery after 135 years
DICKINSON, N.D. -- Saturday marked the 135 anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn near present day Garryowen, Mont., and even after all of this time, the death of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer remains a mystery.
"We do know he had a bullet wound to the head," said Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation Interpretive Director Scott Larkin. "But as far as who shot him, that we don't know for sure. Many people have claimed the 'victory.'"
Custer, who died Saturday 135 years ago, voyaged across southwest North Dakota and eastern Montana to get to what would become his deathbed.
Residents attest that the 7th Cavalry made many stops in the area on its way to Montana in 1876 including New Salem, Glen Ullin, Hebron, Richardton, Dickinson, Belfield, Medora and Beach.
"Custer's route runs right through this area," said Richard Wehner, Stark County Historical Society member, adding the cavalry camped along the Green River by the old rest area near old Highway 10.
Although there is much hype about the battlesite and the 7th Cavalry headquarters (Fort Abraham Lincoln in Mandan), not much is said about the trip between the two.
Emil Wieglenda, another SCHS member, said the 7th Cavalry trail was near the Heart River so they were close to water.
"It would make sense the party camped in the area where the Green met the Heart as it is a tributary to the Heart and the Heart a tributary of the Missouri," he said.
Wieglenda added, he is not sure what the soldiers would have seen along the way because neither Dickinson nor Peaceful Valley (the original name of the town of Dickinson) existed at the time.
"I do know there is a place southeast of Gladstone named Buffalo Jump and teepee rings have been sighted in that area, so there could have been Native Americans," Wieglenda said.
Hebron resident Jack Hauser said the soldiers were near the river and would have seen a lot of wildlife -- deer, elk, antelope, lynx and grouse.
"It would have been quite a sight to see them travel across the prairie because there were so many men, horses, cattle, wagons and grain wagons.
"Imagine a parade about a half-mile wide and who knows how long."
He said travel through the area would have been difficult.
"There were no settlers or towns," Hauser said. "If something broke or you ran out of supplies, well tough. The grass would have been thick and tall, there weren't many trees so firewood was scarce, some places would be really marshy and bugs would have been abundant-especially along the rivers."
He added, having to dig a way in and out of creeks and river crossings must have been an adventure.
"Life back then was tough and it had to be scary at times for the soldiers camping in the unknown especially when they were told Native Americans are hostile," Hauser said.
The cavalry left many markers along its journey, Medora Mayor Doug Ellison said. "There is a place west of Medora called initial rock where two of the soldiers carved their names."
To add to the difficulty, the soldiers were snow bound in the Badlands from May 31 to June 3.
Ellison said the party crossed the Little Missouri River on what is now Bully Pulpit Golf Course.
"That crossing was used a lot, Ellison said. "Many people don't realize the cavalry was following previous military and survey crew trails, they didn't blaze their own."
These areas, including the site of the Battle of the Badlands near Medora, are recognized as the Little Missouri Badlands Military Complex.
Some other remnants of the journey include wagon wheel indentations, stakes, trail markers and a possible grave, according to local historians.
Larkin said many things led to the battle including the demise of the railroad, scouting trips, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and a government push for westward expansion.
Larkin said when the government tried to "civilize" the Native Americans and began forcing them to stay in reservations, some Native Americans fought back.
"One tradition of some tribes is counting coup on the enemy," Larkin said. "And some Native Americans would leave the reservations go to different farmsteads or villages and start fires, kill people or steal as a form of this.
"When the government heard of these things, a law was made that anyone who left the reservation would be considered hostile and would either be sent back or killed."
When that law was created, many who wanted to retain their way of life banded with Chief Sitting Bull and Gull in Montana, Larkin said, adding the cavalry was sent out to force them onto reservations or kill them and when they went to do so they misjudged the amount of people in the camp and the attack failed.
Though not every member of the cavalry died, more than 200 under Custer's command did, Larkin said.
Wehner said despite the defeat, when he went to school in the 1930s he was taught Custer was a hero.
Custer Battlefield Museum Foundation Director Chris Kortlander says people have been trying to find the answer to the exact cause of his death for years.
"No one who spoke English saw what happened and we can't talk to anyone about it now," Kortlander said about the mystery surrounding Custer's death. "There is no way to find out."
Finding the answer may become even harder as the government is temporarily moving artifacts and records from the Montana battlefield to Tucson, Ariz.
Moving the artifacts is absurd, Kortlander said. "We keep hearing excuses such as safety and preservation, but they (the items) have been here this whole time without incident. What does Tucson have to do with anything?"
The artifacts are to be moved temporarily, but no return date is set, according to the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association.
Miller reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns Detroit Lakes Newspapers.