- Historic Sites
Echoes Of The Little Bighorn
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
White Cow Bull did not claim to have killed Long Hair, but to have shot a man, whom he later heard called Long Hair, out of his saddle at the ford. While never mentioned in kill-talks after the battle as Custer’s slayer, he may well have been the warrior who inflicted Custer’s mortal wound. His story satisfies several enigmas, accounting for the troopers’ halt in midcharge and their abrupt shift from offensive attack to defensive and apparently demoralized retreat. Two hundred fifteen hell-for-leather cavalrymen would scarcely have turned back unless they had suddenly found themselves with a dead or mortally wounded leader. The loss of any other officer would hardly have had such a deleterious effect.
The fact that Ouster’s body, according to both Indian and white accounts, was later found on the west slope of the ridge to which his troops retreated fails to prove that he was killed or mortally wounded on the spot. Accepting the validity of White Cow Bull’s statement that Long Hair fell at the ford actually provides an explanation for the body’s location. Only Ouster’s body would have been carried by the troops as they fell back.
In early kill-talks after the battle several other warriors claimed to have slain Long Hair: Red Horse, a Miniconjou; Flat Hip, a Hunkpapa; and Walks-Under-theGround, a Santee—probably because he wound up in possession of Ouster’s horse. Little Knife, a Hunkpapa, said Brown Back killed Ouster to avenge his brother Deeds, who had been killed by soldiers early the day of the fight. Two sons of Inkpaduta (Scarlet Tip), chief of the Santee, made a joint claim. Fast Eagle, an Oglala, said he held Ouster’s arms while Walking Blanket Woman, the girl warrior, stabbed Long Hair in the back. Charging Hawk, a Miniconjou, did not deny the deed when others (including Dewey Beard) declared they saw him kill the soldier chief. Three Northern Cheyennes—Two Moon, Harshay Wolf, and Medicine Bear—claimed they counted coup on Ouster but admitted they did not see him die.
Whites were properly confused by this plethora of claims. Such an enterprising showman as Buffalo Bill Cody attempted to credit Sitting Bull—who turned out to be so affable a showman himself that few believed in his villainy.
Eventually as perplexed as white entrepreneurs, poets, and historians, Indian leaders of eleven tribes settled the matter in characteristic fashion—and to their satisfaction—in September, 1909, when the wealthy Philadelphian Rodman Wanamaker gathered them in conclave for a last Great Council on the Little Bighorn. He offered a considerable largesse to be prorated among them if one of those present could prove himself to be Ouster’s killer. After days of deliberation in secret council, mulling over conflicting claims, the chiefs found the record of a sixty-four-year-old Southern Cheyenne war chief made to order: not only had Chief Brave Bear fought at Little Bighorn; he had earlier fought Custer at the Battle of the Washita in 1868, a defeat for his people that provided him with a fitting motive for evening the score. After lengthy palaver the council unanimously elected Brave Bear the honorary slayer of Long Hair Custer!
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, has had its impact on history for ninety-five years. Its endless ramifications may well continue to fascinate historians and laymen alike for more generations to come. Undoubtedly, the Custer fight will long remain the apotheosis of the adventurous American spirit.
Chief Henry Oscar One Bull was the first Indian veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn to pose for me and tell me his version of the Custer fight. I located him at an Indian pageant south of Rapid City, South Dakota, in the mid-1930’s. As a nephew, adopted son, and bodyguard of the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull, he had held an elevated position in the hierarchy of Indian command.
Well past eighty at our first meeting,∗One Bull was withered and bent with age, his legs widely bowed from long years on horseback. He was still remarkably agile in the saddle, but he walked only with the aid of a polished cottonwood cane. On ceremonial occasions the cane also served as a scepter of his authority as the last hereditary chief of the Hunkpapa tribe—the northernmost and traditionally the most warlike of the entire Sioux nation. As a badge of his distinction as a warrior he tied to the cane a buffalo-hide shield, painted white and decorated with blue lightning streaks. Eagle feathers fluttered from the shield’s rim.
He died at ninety-four, in 1947.
In the summer of 1938 I made my annual visit to the Crow Indian Fair at Crow Agency, Montana—an event that in prewar years attracted thousands of Indians from all over the country. To my delight I found that One Bull and his family were among them. Since the Custer Battlefield was a short drive from our camp, I was determined to take advantage of the Chiefs presence and invited him to show me over the fighting ground, step by step. He gladly complied, pointing out where each of the great camp circles had been, where the soldiers had come charging in initial phases of the battle, and where he had won individual honors as a warrior. We even looked in vain for a cache of captured bullets One Hull said he had buried under some rocks along the river. Back in camp he told me his story, conversing, as usual, in Sioux: