- Historic Sites
The Man Who Killed Custer
To Stanley Vestal, the old Sioux warrior White Bull describes the day when he counted his greatest coup
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
When the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand was held on the battlefield, White Bull and many other Indian veterans of the fight were invited to take part. Some, fearing reprisals, refused to go. But White Bull said, “I am not afraid,” and attended. There General Godfrey led the 7th Cavalry over Custer’s trail to the monument which was erected where he fell. Hundreds of mounted Indians in full war dress, preceded by eighty Sioux and Cheyenne survivors of the fight, followed Chief White Bull to meet the troops. They met near the monument. White Bull raised his palm, the sign for peace, and the General sheathed his sword. They shook hands, and the Chief gave the General a fine blanket; Godfrey gave the Chief a large American flag. After the ceremony, the Indians and soldiers paired off and rode back to camp. Nobody who knows Plains Indians can doubt that the man who killed Custer, if living, would be named to lead that Indian column.
Major Alson B. Ostrander, formerly of the 18th Infantry, had heard how Bad Soup had pointed out the body of Custer to Chief White Bull on the day of the battle. The Major asked White Bull to point out the spot where he saw Custer lying naked on his back that day. White Bull immediately complied. The Major nodded and said, “That is the spot.”
The Major asked White Bull, “Are you the man who killed Custer?” White Bull answered, “Maybe.” He tried to find out where Custer was wounded, but none of the white officers seemed to know.
He asked me about this. “Where do the white men say Custer was wounded?”
I replied, “In the left temple and in the left side near the heart.” Much gratified, he nodded, “That is right,” he said.
Naturally enough, Chief White Bull was curious about Custer and why the troops came to attack the Sioux in violation of the existing treaty. He listened attentively all one afternoon while I told him all I knew of such matters, particularly all about Custer’s own fame, achievements, character, and motives. But when he learned that on the night before the battle, Custer, trying to encourage his fearful Indian government scouts, had told them that if he whipped the Sioux, he would become the Grandfather—President of the United States—and would look after their people, White Bull’s old eyes gleamed. The thought that he had killed Custer had warmed his heart for years. But now to think that the man he killed might have been President was a greater glory than any Sioux had ever dreamed of. Seeing him gloat, I had no doubt that he knew well enough who had killed Custer.
The Cheyenne also say that White Bull killed Long Hair, though some of them confuse the Sioux chief with a leader of their own with the same name.
Shortly after Chief White Bull’s surrender to government forces in 1876, a missionary taught him to write in the Sioux language. He then obtained a ledger and in it recorded his military history, illustrating it with pictures in the old Indian style, like those originally painted on hides. At my request, he drew a set of these on separate sheets for me, signing them with his name in Sioux and English, describing the exploit briefly in Sioux, adding his age at the time of the exploit, and the date on which the picture was made.
Number 18, shown on page 4, shows him counting a coup by striking “the tall soldier with yellow hair” with his quirt across the face. This coup, of course, was only one incident in their struggle, but to the Indian it was the stroke of honor.
This picture is typical of the Sioux manner of recording such an exploit. It is not intended as an accurate representation of a given moment in the fight. Thus the soldier here is shown holding a rifle, with a pistol in his cartridge belt, though at the time Chief White Bull struck him with the quirt, he had thrown his rifle away. He is represented with both weapons because he was so armed when their fight began, and because to attack a man so armed was brave. Here, as always in such drawings, the Sioux faces our left, and the enemy faces our right. The figures are outlined in black, then filled in with color. As usual, the warrior is shown bigger than his defeated enemy.
There is no attempt at portraiture in these drawings. For example, White Bull is here shown wearing his leggings, though he had stripped these off before he entered the fight. He is identified only by his war charm or wo-tá-we—a small wooden hoop to which tiny pouches of “medicine” were tied on the four sides, trailing an eagle feather and a buffalo tail—slung over his right shoulder. Likewise, Custer is not distinguished in any way from the soldiers in White Bull’s other drawings. All of the troops are represented in uniform and cap exactly alike, though Custer is known to have worn a broad-brimmed, low-crowned, gray campaign hat and buckskins that day.