- Episode 5: Fear and Loathing on the Little Bighorn (Primary)
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- Type: Sound Created on: 2018 Creator: Neil Silberman and Angela Labrador
- Coherit Associates Publication date: 2018
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- indigenous peoples
- military personnel
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In the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation in southeast Montana stands
a solid stone house that has seen its share of ghostly happenings.
Mysterious lights, creaking footsteps, doorknobs mysteriously turning,
sudden shrieks, and doors slamming—even the terrifying apparition of a
headless cavalryman who silently passes through the building’s walls.
Little wonder that many have claimed that the building is haunted.
Standing at the edge of a national military cemetery, the “Old Stone
House” was used to temporarily store the bodies of military veterans
awaiting burial. Yet restless spirits roam far beyond the stone house
and the cemetery grounds. Supernatural visions of violence, pain, dread,
and panic repeatedly materialize across the nearby hills, gullies, and
broad river valley beyond.
Members of the Crow nation were the first to notice the apparitions. Soon after the cemetery was established and the stone house was built for its superintendent in 1894, the Crow dubbed the caretaker “the Ghost Herder.” They believed that his daily routine of lowering the American flag at sunset and raising it again in the morning was a silent signal to the spirits of the dead that they were free to wander in the darkness—and that they should return to their graves when the sun rose again.
Many years later, when visitors began to arrive every summer, the disturbing spirit visions grew much more frequent. Night time specters of Indian warriors charging on horseback; mysterious chills felt in certain locations; and the garbled murmuring of confused and panicked voices heard across the battlefield. Psychics and ghost hunters descended on the site and reported visions of men fleeing in confusion, desperately screaming for help. The supernatural vibrations were reportedly chaotic, filled with emotions of fear and dread.
Yet this could hardly be a coincidence for a piece of land that witnessed a scene of unspeakable violence. Officially transferred from the Department of War to the National Park Service in 1940, today it is known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield, although it still lives on in schoolbooks and myths as the site of Custer’s Last Stand.
Welcome to Places of Legend, a podcast that digs into places with stories. Stories that are shared in schoolyards, on sidewalks, in urban legends, age-old superstitions, and internet memes. Let’s call it Cultural Heritage with a weird and unexpected twist. The legends can be scary. They can be hilarious or grotesque, and the truth behind them is almost always hidden. Places of Legend will offer up stories that pull back the curtain at famous historic sites around the country—historic places with very different stories to tell.
I’m Angela Labrador and with my colleague and author Neil Silberman, we hope to turn your ideas about America’s places of legend upside down. In this episode, our Place of Legend is the Little Bighorn Battlefield in southeastern Montana, a unit of the US National Park Service, which hosts 400,00 visitors every year. It’s an iconic place of American history, best known as the site of the greatest Native American victory over the military forces of US westward expansion. On June 25,1876, Lieutenant General George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 of his men of the 7th Cavalry were killed by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on and around a spot now marked by a granite obelisk—at the summit of a low rise that has come to be known as Last Stand Hill.
The bloody encounter called “Custer’s Last Stand” has long claimed a place in American popular culture and in its national myth. The image of blue-garbed cavalrymen surrounded and besieged by Indian warriors on horseback has been reenacted again and again in Wild West shows, dime novels, stage plays, comic books, and Hollywood films. Originally these depictions stressed the martyrdom of a brave military hero and his troops to the righteous cause of manifest destiny. However, its meaning eventually reversed in the Vietnam era, transforming Custer into an imperialist villain—a symbolic object of scorn especially for the growing American Indian Movement, as in author and activist Vine Deloria Jr.’s influential 1969 manifesto, Custer Died for Your Sins.
Mythology and shifting meanings aside, the historical background of this fateful encounter between cavalrymen and Plains Indians is clearer. In the spring of 1876 the nation was preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary in a self-congratulatory exposition in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army was far away in the Dakota Territory preparing for what has been called its Centennial Campaign – a military expedition to put an end to the trouble in Indian Country.
Some years earlier in 1868, the Great Sioux Reservation had been established as part of the Fort Laramie peace treaty negotiations. The treaty set aside the western half of South Dakota for the Lakota Sioux. It also recognized the Lakota’s land and hunting rights in unceded territories further west and promised the payment of annuities to Lakota who settled on the reservation. The treaty also forbade white men to cross into the reservation, unless they were federal officials.
Enter Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, an impatient and flamboyant character who sported long blond locks, a full blond mustache, and a brilliant red scarf above his fringed buckskin jacket. In 1874, he led the Black Hills Expedition into the sacred lands of the Lakota – and deep into the territory of the Great Sioux Reservation. His mission was twofold: first, to establish a fort in the uncharted Black Hills and second, to investigate whether there was any gold in them there hills. After establishing camp at a site modestly named Custer Park, the fateful discovery of gold was made on the nearby banks of French Creek.
And just like that – a gold rush was on. As civilian prospectors illegally poured across the border seeking riches, the Army struggled to maintain the reservation’s border. However, the eviction of white Americans by the US Army was politically unsavory. When a Lakota delegation reached Washington DC to appeal to President Grant to honor the treaty, the administration countered with a degrading offer to relocate the Lakota to Oklahoma, conveniently putting the sacred Black Hills in federal hands. The insulted delegates refused.
Predictably, resentment toward the government grew among the Plains Indians as it became clear that the US simply did not honor any Indian treaty. It’s important to note that not every Lakota lived on The Great Sioux Reservation. In fact, the Fort Laramie Treaty drove a wedge between those who chose to live on the reservation and the thousands of Lakota who continued to live outside its boundaries. Among the so-called “free” Lakota were Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, whose calls to preserve traditional Lakota culture, even if it meant through violent resistance, were attracting a following.
In 1875, the federal government issued the free Lakota an ultimatum: settle on the reservation or be declared enemies of the state. The Lakota perceived the threat as nonsense. The US government, on the other hand, saw it as the perfect excuse to get their hands on the Black Hills and all its gold.
Thus a military plan was hatched to locate the renegade Lakota in the dead of winter when they would be unable to escape their camp. However, they weren’t found until summer near the Little Bighorn River, where they had joined forces with Northern Cheyenne warriors. The 7th Cavalry under Custer’s command was given orders to spy on the Indians in preparation for a coordinated assault with two other large cavalry columns who were on their way.
But Custer, seeing another opportunity to garner fame as a great Indian fighter, impulsively attacked the village of 7-10,000 individuals without waiting for his reinforcements. The rest, as they say, was history.
The battle that erupted on the ridge overlooking the valley lasted barely an hour, but it was not until two days later that the full extent of the carnage was known. When the reinforcements that were intended to join with Custer in the attack finally arrived, they were instead given the gruesome task of burying the stripped, scalped, and mutilated bodies of Custer’s detachment that lay scattered down the slopes of what they call, Last Stand Hill.
The Lakota and Cheyenne had beaten back the American forces. How could this have happened? What actually had unfolded on Last Stand Hill?
Custer had divided the 7th cavalry into 4 parts. Since none of the men under Custer’s immediate command survived, there were no U.S. Army witnesses to Custer’s final movements. The only evidence appeared to be the position of the corpses on the slopes of Last Stand Hill. Of course there were many Native American witnesses and survivors, but their testimonies were discounted as biased.
At the time, most Americans had faith in the Manifest Destiny of their nation to conquer the continent and supposedly civilize the Indigenous peoples who had lived there for millennia. And thus, in the American public imagination at least, the death of Custer and his troops was imagined to be a martyrdom to that cause—a courageous fight to the death of modern day Crusaders against infidels, righteously sacrificing their lives for the great cause of Western Expansion, despite overwhelming odds.
Custer’s martyrdom encouraged Americans to maintain faith in a nation that would some day extend from sea to shining sea. Saloons and barrooms across the country patriotically hung Otto Becker’s melodramatic lithograph of “Custer’s Last Fight”-- distributed by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association . It vividly depicted a cluster of brave U.S. soldiers shooting back heroically at the savages who threatened to overwhelm them, with Custer himself in the center, his right arm raised high in defiance wielding a cavalry sword.
That popular image of civilization desperately fighting the forces of savagery helped transform Custer’s Last Stand into a metaphor of America’s civilizing mission and the sacrifices that it required. But there was another version of the events that received little notice. Lakota and Cheyenne eyewitnesses told stories of that fateful day that became oral tradition, passed down from one generation to the next. They produced dozens of drawings on paper, even on the pages of empty ledger books obtained from traders and reservation stores.
These stories and drawings told a different story – one that was decidedly unheroic. They recalled an inexplicable mental breakdown of the last surviving cavalry forces. The drawings showed Custer’s soldiers as confused, disorganized, and shot down as they fled in panic. But few military historians took them as accurate historical records. They were dismissed as crude and undependable Indian propaganda. It seemed that no one possessed indisputable evidence of exactly what had happened on Last Stand Hill.
Sometimes unexpected natural forces can expose long-hidden secrets. That was certainly the case with the wildfire that swept across the Little Bighorn Battlefield in the summer of 1983. Decades of thick prairie grass was suddenly burnt off, exposing relics and human bone fragments that had been hidden in the undergrowth for more than a hundred years. A local archaeologist, Richard Fox, was called in by the park superintendent to assess what should be done. Fox found so many remains from the Custer Battle that he recommended a full scale archaeological investigation; the valuable clues to the mysteries of the Custer battle had to be carefully identified and mapped.
By the following summer, Fox was joined by Douglas Scott of the National Park Service Midwestern Archaeological Center, who was a pioneer of battlefield archaeology. But this was no ordinary archaeological dig, excavating deep into the ground. The artifacts were all on or close to the surface—and thus an ingenious, if highly unconventional technique was used.
For decades relic hunters had roamed over the battlefield, haphazardly picking up bullets and shell casings they found in the prairie grass as personal souvenirs. But with the extent of the ground that now lay exposed, the search had to be much more systematic. The archaeologists recruited a team of metal detectorists who were more used to combing beaches than battlefields, and instructed them in a totally new teamwork approach. Moving in formation across carefully mapped sectors of the battlefield, a line of metal detectorists spaced five yards apart waved their detectors over the surface, placing small day-glo flags where they heard tell-tale beeps.
Those spots, most of which revealed bullets or shell casings, were then carefully excavated by other team members, who precisely recorded the location and orientation in the ground of the bullets and shells. At the same time, a team of forensic anthropologists recovered human bone fragments, mapping their location in relation to the small marble memorial markers that were placed soon after the battle to mark the spots where Custer and his men reportedly fell.
Hundreds of artifacts and bone fragments were uncovered, but the recovery was just the start of solving the mystery of Custer’s Last Stand. Ballistics experts were called in to identify the various weapons used to reveal a clear difference between the cavalrymen and the Indians. While the native forces had used a variety of weapons, the besieged cavalry used standard issue Springfield carbines and Colt .45 pistols. This recognition would be enough to distinguish between the opposing forces—but—and this is a huge “but”-- in a battle that lasted only one hour, it would not be enough to more precisely reconstruct the movements of individuals, which would be key to unraveling the mystery of the events of the Last Stand.
With the assistance of the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab, the finds from the Little Bighorn battlefield were examined for their unique ballistic signature, making it possible to identify and trace the movement of individual guns. And like the meticulous forensic reconstruction of a crime scene, the archaeologists were able to create a computer simulation of the movement of both Indian and cavalry bullets and shell cases across the battlefield. And that computer simulation produced a surprising reconstruction of the bloody course of the Custer battle that dramatically contradicted the myth of the heroic Last Stand.
Over the years, many excuses have been made for Custer’s humiliation and the death of his troops at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Aside from Custer’s sheer recklessness in charging his 215 cavalrymen towards a large encampment that he had inadequately scouted, some historians have claimed the cavalrymen’s carbines were defective and had jammed when the fighting began. This would safely place the blame not on the soldiers but on unscrupulous government arms suppliers who cared more about profits than reliability. But the archaeological findings showed no such defect. Less that 4% of the bullet casings fired by Custer’s men showed any signs of damage from jamming, thus eliminating that as a factor in the defeat.
Another explanation for Custer’s downfall was insufficient ammunition, suggesting that his troops exhausted their cartridges at the height of the battle and were defenseless against their attacking enemies. But once again the archaeologists disproved this theory, by calculating that the number of cartridges expended was far less than the documented amounts of ammunition provided to the troops.
Yet there was something in the long-disregarded testimony of one of the Native eyewitnesses that suggested quite a different reason for Custer’s defeat. According to Red Horse, a Lakota warrior present at the battle, Custer’s soldiers panicked. As Red Horse recalled, the soldiers became foolish and frightened, throwing way their guns and other arms—and desperately tried to run away. And as the archaeological finds from the battlefield were analyzed and interpreted, a dark and disturbing picture of Custer’s Last Stand gradually emerged.
Who were the men who went to their deaths at the Little Bighorn battlefield? We often see them as generic blue uniformed cavalrymen, galloping on their horses with their carbines at the ready. It’s become a cliché at baseball parks and in the movies, with the trumpet call of the arriving soldiers suddenly rushing in to save the day. The men who died on the Little Bighorn battlefield were not generic rescue forces; they were men who by the force of accident and few other options put their lives in other men’s hands.
The 1870s were a time of deep economic recession, and a high proportion of the recruits of the 7th Cavalry were recent immigrants, unemployed men looking for a steady living, and even some misfits from eastern cities who sought new lives in the West. Their training was minimal and their horsemanship poor. Their commanders, like Custer, had gained glory in the organized army-to-army battles of the Civil War and all were unprepared for the guerilla tactics of the Indian Wars. In many ways the conditions were similar to the asymmetrical warfare that American soldiers would later face in Vietnam and Iraq. And the psychological response was just as jarring: the very real—and very personal—experience of sheer panic on the battlefield.
Richard Fox rather unemotionally called this experience “the stability/disintegration model” of battlefield combat, based on his own service in the Vietnam War, “Above all,” Fox wrote, “commanders fear disintegration in combat. When tactical stability disintegrates, commanders lose the power to … maintain control. Fearful and panicky, soldiers fend for themselves, and usually not by resisting. Defeat is almost certain; success is impossible.”
From the archaeological clues of the 7th Cavalry’s bullets and shell casings, Fox traced the last moments of the battle in a way that historians never could. Following the ammunition trail he and Scott traced Custer’s division of his forces into two separate detachments, one which was sent down to the river to attack the Indian village head on, and the other which remained on the bluff overlooking the Valley awaiting further commands. When the attacking force met unexpectedly stiff resistance, it fled back up the ridge in a disorderly retreat with many of the cavalrymen killed in the process.
That was the first sign of the breakdown of discipline and much worse was yet to come. With the two detachments now mixing in panic, the momentum of the battle decisively shifted to the Indian side. The trail of cartridge casings now matched the Native accounts of the battle. The cavalrymen nervously and repeatedly shifting their positions. As noted by Lakota eyewitness, Hollow Horn Bear, it was as if the men were “drunk.” As the Indian attacks intensified, the discipline of Custer’s forces broke down. Some shot their own horses to shield them from the incessant shooting; others set off on foot to attempt a desperate escape. Arriving warriors pursued the fleeing soldiers and cut them down mercilessly. The few who made it alive to Last Stand Hill joined the officers—including Custer—who had clustered together amidst a macabre circle of dead horses that served as their last line of defense. There was no longer anywhere to run, no possibility of escape. Within just a few minutes it was over. The bodies of dead soldiers and horses were mixed together and piled on one another in a silent, bloody heap.
The climactic moments of Custer’s Last Stand were electric with terror, panic, and confusion—as intense as any group of human beings can feel.
What makes a place haunted? Is it imagination, subconscious suggestion, or is it really the restless spirits of the dead who are tragically trapped between their earthly existence and the peace of an afterlife. Or could it be something more? The history of the Custer Battlefield in the years since the massacre has its own story to tell. Two days after the battle, the arriving cavalry reinforcements buried the bodies in shallow graves marked by wooden stakes; the task was so horrific that it was done quickly. Some bodies and body parts were merely covered with brush.
In the following years, the U.S. Army faced public criticism about the hasty treatment of the bodily remains of Custer’s martyrs. And so they dispatched burial details to the battlefield to gather all the remains that could be located and to place them in a properly dug mass grave, marked by a massive granite obelisk at the summit of Last Stand Hill. The bodies of the officers, though, were separated from the troopers for burial elsewhere; Custer himself was transported to West Point from which he had graduated last in his class in 1861, and buried with full military honors.
Some years later, in 1890, the Army placed small white stone markers where the bodies were originally found and hastily buried—some bearing the name of a particular soldier when the body had been identified and others reading “U.S. Soldier, 7th Cavalry, Fell Here June 25, 1876” when the body had been so severely disfigured that no identification could be made.
And so, a solemn memorial was created at the Little Bighorn that lasts to this day. Every year nearly 400,000 visitors come to the battlefield to tour the visitors’ center, learn about the battle, and, of course, pay their respects at Last Stand Hill. Efforts have been made to incorporate more of the Native American perspective. In 1991 Congress passed legislation officially renaming the Custer Battlefield National Monument to “the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument” and authorizing memorials to the Native American warriors who had also fallen at the site. Two Native American Park Superintendents helped the NPS to forge better relations with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow Indian nations. Visiting the site today, you can see the red granite Indian warrior markers that pay tribute to the warriors’ sacrifices.
Yet despite all these commemorative honors, restless spirits still roam over the battlefield. Can fear be materialized? Can the sudden grip of horror and panic remain at the site of a massacre almost 150 years after it occurred? Paranormal investigator Jill Stefko has called the persistent visions of soldiers, the sudden piercing screams, and feelings of dread reported by visitors to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument as “residual hauntings.” They are, she and other ghost hunters maintain, energy from traumatic experiences and violent deaths that are imprinted like an emotional tape loop on time and space.
Monuments, museums, and archaeological research can only do so much to tame disturbing memories that disrupt the normal rhythms of life. They allow us to forget as much as to remember. Perhaps the persistence of ghostly visions is the only way that we can be shocked into remembering the horrifying acts, unacknowledged guilt, and painful emotions from the past that remain unresolved even today.
As a final coda, in 1980 the US Supreme Court delivered a startling verdict: it found that the Lakota had never been justly compensated for the federal taking of the Black Hills territory in 1877. Agreeing with the lower courts that the Grant Administration had acted in bad faith, the Court determined that the Sioux were due $17.1 million dollars plus interest, totaling $102 million dollars. But in a move that harkens back to the original Lakota delegation of 1875, the Sioux refused the payment. Today, the money sits quietly in a bank account, compounding its interest, and serving to sow discord among those wanting to cash out, and those who refuse the final act of ceding their sacred lands. As one Lakota leader noted, “We won the battle against Custer, but the war continues.”
We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Places of Legend, a podcast in which we explore historic sites where the forgotten and unexpected meeting of past and present offers a new kind of heritage experience. Our aim is share our curiosity about out-of-the-way places and forgotten events. And we invite you to visit our website at placesoflegend.com where you can find maps, photographs, and links to further information about the Little Bighorn Battlefield and the rest of our episodes.
In our next episode, we will travel to San Jose, California, to explore the mysterious “Winchester House,” a bizarre mansion that some say is haunted by the spirits of the innocent victims of the famous arms manufacturer—and by the eccentric, spiritualist heiress who inherited both a fortune and a curse. Helen Mirren stars in the recent spooky Hollywood version of the story, but we’ll search beneath the bizarre mansion’s floorboards and peek inside some of its many hidden compartments to reveal quite a different tale.
Until then, thanks for listening. And we look forward to joining you in discovering more places of legend, available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and on our website at placesoflegend.com.