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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
Few episodes in American history have held more fascination for writers—or the public—than George Armstrong Custer’s Last Stand. More has been written on this relatively unimportant incident in American history than on the Battle of Gettysburg—and probably no two accounts agree in all details.
Much of the new material on Custer’s Last Stand comes to the attention of the editors of AMERICAN HERITAGE and from what we have seen none holds quite the fascination of this entertaining article by Stanley Vestal, author of many books on the Old West. The story he tells is adapted for AMERICAN HERITAGE from his forthcoming book, Sitting Bull, Champion of the Sioux, to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
The almost legendary action took place in the early summer of 1870, when the Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne, had very real and altogether legitimate grievances against the United States government. In the treaty signed at Fort Laramie in 1868, the government promised that the Black Hills, the traditionally sacred preserve of the Indians, would be forever free from white settlers. But when gold was discovered there in 1874, sooners began swarming over the whole area.
From this time on, it was the old story of great wrongs compounded by greater ones: once the Treaty of 1868 had been violated, the Army and the Indian Bureau decided to consolidate white occupation of the Black Hills by breaking Sioux power once and for all. They began by restricting the Indians’ movements to the boundaries of the reservations during the terrible winter of 1875-70 when game was so scarce on the reservations that the Indians faced starvation. Then the government announced that all Sioux and Northern Cheyenne found off their reservations after January 31, 1876, were to be regarded as hostile. Famine was already widespread, and the Indians had no choice but to defend themselves when Custer moved against them in punitive expedition.
From the Army standpoint, Custer’s campaign went wrong from the beginning. Scheduled to start in early spring, the two-mile column of cavalry, infantry, scouts, and wagons did not leave Fort Abraham Lincoln until May 17. By then the Indians had gathered in large numbers and were prepared to fight. Moreover, the complicated plan of attack worked out by General Alfred H. Terry, Custer’s commander, called for three columns converging on the Yellowstone region from different directions—all very well on paper, but in fact a fearsome trip across deep streams, badlands, and mountains.
General George Crook’s troops, marching north from Wyoming, were the first to meet the Indians, and were repulsed at Rosebud Creek on June 17. To the north, the other two columns were converging on the Yellowstone and knew nothing of Crook’s defeat—only that a sizeable force of Indians was near the headwaters of Rosebud Greek and the Little Big Horn.
By June 24 the trail was hot, and Custer, thinking the Indians were just over the Wolf Mountains, planned to cross the mountains at night and surprise them with a dawn attack.
Down in the foothills, Custer divided his force into four parts: Captain Fred Benteen to the southwest to scout for Indians, two detachments commanded by Major Marcus Reno and Custer to the northwest in the direction of the Indian camp, and the pack train bringing up the rear. A little after two, the advance saw the first Indians, some Sioux warriors who rode up close and then dashed away, yelling derisively. Reno’s troopers headed off in pursuit, and across the river came face to face with a superior number of Sioux. Alter a fierce engagement, they were driven back with heavy losses.
Meantime, Custer continued northwest, riding along the brown, ravine-gutted bluffs. He had sent a messenger to Benteen, asking for reinforcements—not realixing Reno’s situation. (Benteen’s foray, it might be added, was a wild-goose chase, and he returned just in time to save the beleaguered Reno from annihilation.) So Custer waited with some 225 men—only about one third of his total force—having lost what time advantage he had; and once the Indians repulsed Reno, they hurried to attack him. With a sudden fury they must have come at him from all sides, jumping him from the many ravines and gullies that crisscross those bare hills. From that moment on, the only possible way to hear the true story was from an Indian. In 1932 Stanley Vestal visited the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, where he recorded Chief White Bull’s unique account of George Custer’s final hour.
Soon after the allied tribes defeated General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, June 17, 1876, they pitched their camps on the prairies just west ot the winding Little Big Horn River. As White Bull related it to me, each tribe had its own camp circle, each band in its own segment, each tepee in its proper place. The Cheyenne camp circle lay farthest north, with the four Sioux cirdes-Sans Arc, Ogalalla, Minniconjou, Hunkpapa-upstream. Chief White Bull’s tepee stood in the Sans Arc circle, since his wife of that time was a Sans Arc woman. That morning he was out with his grazing ponies about a thousand yards from the river, trying to keep them together. As usual, he carried his seventeen-shot Winchester and wore two filled cartridge belts. It was very dry and dusty with little wind, and his horses were restless, for the flies were a plague on the Little Big Horn that summer.
It was not yet time for the midday watering when White Bull heard a man yelling the alarm. Immediately he jumped on his best running horse, a fast bay, and ran his ponies back to camp. By that time he could see the column of dust to the south. First of all White Bull saw his own family mounted and sent on to safety. Then he rode as hard as he could the three miles to the camp of his uncle, Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa circle, which Reno’s troopers were approaching. By the time he reached it, the women and children had fled and nearly a thousand warriors had gathered to resist the troops. Already some Sioux had been shot down, and Major Reno’s Indian scouts were running off the Sioux ponies.
Before White Bull could take any effective part in the fight, the soldiers fell back to the timber along the river, and soon after climbed into their saddles and raced away up the river looking lor places to cross.
Said White Bull, “Then the Indians charged them. They used war clubs and gun barrels, shooting arrows into them, riding them down. It was like a buffalo hunt. The soldiers offered no resistance. I saw one soldier on a gray horse, aimed at him and fired, but missed. Just then I heard someone behind me yelling that soldiers were coming from the east [Custer’s force] to attack the north end of the camp where I had left my ponies. We all raced downstream together. Some rode through the camps and crossed the river north of them, but I and many others crossed and rode up a gully to strike the soldiers on the flank. Alter a while I could see five bunches of soldiers trotting along the bluffs. I knew it would be a big fight. I stopped, unsaddled my horse, and stripped off my leggings, so that I could fight better. By the time I was near enough to shoot at the soldiers, they seemed to form four groups, heading northwest along the ridge.
“All the Indians were shooting. I saw two soldiers fall from their horses. The soldiers fired back at us from the saddle. They shot so well that some of us retreated to the south, driven out of the ravine. Soon after, the soldiers halted and some got off their horses. By that time the Indians were all around the soldiers, but most of them were between the soldiers and the river, trying to defend the camp and the ford. Several little bunches of Indians took cover where they could, and kept firing at the white men.
“When they ran me out of the ravine I rode south and worked my way over to the east ot the mounted bunch of soldiers. Crazy Horse was there with a party of warriors and I joined them. The Indians kept gathering, more and more, around this last bunch of soldiers. These mounted soldiers kept falling back along the ridge, trying to reach the rest of the soldiers who were fighting on foot.
“When I saw the soldiers retreating, I whipped up my pony, and hugging his neck, dashed across between the two troops. The soldiers shot at me but missed me. I circled back to my friends. I thought I would do it again. I yelled, ‘This time I will not turn back,’ and charged at a run the soldiers of the last company. Many of the Sioux joined my charge and this seemed to break the courage of those soldiers. They all ran, every man for himself, some afoot and some on horseback, to reach their comrades on the other side. All the Indians were shooting.”
Such fighting, though necessary in defending the camp and killing enemies, was to the Indians “just shooting.” For, to the Sioux warrior, the striking of a blow or “coup” upon an enemy’s person with the hand or something held in the hand was the most glorious deed a warrior could perform, and his rating depended upon the number of such coups he could gather. Among the Sioux, four men might count a coup upon the same enemy in the same fight, and on that occasion ranked in the order of their striking him. To strike first was the greatest honor possible and the man who had done that could wear the Indian’s medal of honor—an eagle’s tail feather—upright in his back hair. To shoot or scalp an enemy, to capture his gun or his horse, were creditable, but none of these compared as war honors with the coup.
White Bull said, “I saw a mounted soldier waver in his saddle. I quirted my pony and raced up to strike him and count the first coup on this enemy. Before I could reach him, he fell dying from his saddle. I reined up my pony, jumped down and struck the body with my quirt. I yelled, ‘ Onhey! I have overcome this one.’ I took the man’s revolver and cartridge belt.
“Did-Not-Go-Home struck this enemy right after me; he counted the second coup. I jumped on my horse and hurried on to join the charge through the dust and smoke drilling down the hill.
“I saw a soldier on horseback left behind; his horse had played out. I charged him, Crazy Horse following. “The soldier heard me coming and tried to turn in his saddle and aim his carbine at me. But before he could shoot, I was alongside. I grabbed him by the shoulders of his blue coat and jerked hard to throw him off his horse. He fired in the air, screamed, and fell from his horse. This was another first coup for me. Crazy Horse struck this man second.
“Other soldiers were left afoot. I saw one with Indians all around him, turning from side to side, threatening them with his carbine to keep them at a distance. I rode straight at him. When I got close, he fired, but I dodged and he missed me. Then I rode him down. Bear Lice counted the second coup. The survivors of these two bunches of soldiers moved up and joined those to the north and west, about where the monument stands now. Another bunch of soldiers was down the hill nearer the river. The air was full of dust and smoke.
“Here and there through the fog you could see a wounded man left behind afoot. I saw one bleeding from a wound in his left thigh. He had a revolver in one hand and a carbine in the other. He stood all alone shooting at the Indians. They could not get at him. I rode at his back. He did not see me coming. I rode him down, counting the first coup. Brave Crow counted the second coup on this enemy. By this time, all the soldiers up the hill had let their horses go. They lay down and kept shooting.
“The horses turned loose by the soldiers—bays, sorrels and grays—were running in all directions. Lots of Indians stopped shooting to capture these horses. I tried to head some off, but other Indians were ahead of me. I caught just one sorrel.
“Now that the soldiers were all dismounted their firing was very fierce. All at once, my horse went down, and I was left afoot. For a while the Indians all took cover and kept shooting at the soldiers.”
This fight, known to white men as the Battle of the Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand, is known to the Sioux as Pe-hin (Head-hair) Hanska (Long) Ktepi (Killed), for on the frontier (Custer usually wore his hair long and was called “Long Hair’ by the Indians. The battle, therefore, was “the fight in which Long Hair was killed.”
On the day of his death Custer was considered the most dashing and successful cavalry officer in the Army. During the Civil War he had distinguished himself repeatedly, and his division had led the van in the pursuit of General Lee’s forces. It was to him that the Confederates brought their white flag just before Lee’s surrender. General Sheridan reported, “I know of no one whose efforts have contributed more to this happy result than those of Custer.” To Custer was given the table on which Grant wrote the terms of surrender. He was celebrated as “the boy general” who had never lost a gun or color, and “Custer’s luck” was a proverb in the Army.
He had been the second strongest man in his class at West Point and remained to the end a man of extraordinary vigor. Lithe, slender, with broad shoulders, he was a fine horseman and good shot, standing six feet in his boots and weighing about 165 pounds. He could ride all day, carry on his duties until midnight, then scribble long letters to his wife—one of them running to eighty pages—and still be raring to go in the morning.
At this time Custer was in disfavor with President Grant. He had been nursing a grudge against Grant’s secretary of war, W. W. Belknap, and early in 1876, when Belknap was hauled before a congressional committee on charges of sharing illegally in the profits of post traders, Custer went to Washington to testify against him. His evidence was largely hearsay, and he defamed Belknap’s character and that of Grant’s younger brother—thus maligning the President himself. When Custer came to his senses, he tried to explain his position to Grant. But the President refused to see him, and to punish the hothead further, removed him from command of the crack 7th Cavalry.
Yet there was no one who could match Custer as an Indian fighter. General Terry knew this as well as anyone, and in May, Terry persuaded Grant to reinstate Custer on grounds that his services were indispensable in the campaign against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. But for this chance, the Battle of the Little Big Horn might never have happened.
White Bull, although only 26 years old, had already taken part in nineteen engagements. Ten of these were with white men, one with government Indian scouts, and the rest with Indian enemies. He had counted seven coups, six of them “firsts,” had taken two scalps, killed three enemies, wounded one, shot three enemy horses, rescued six wounded comrades, and recovered one dead body under fire. He had captured and spared an enemy Assiniboin woman and her husband, had stolen 45 enemy horses, had been hit twice in battle by bullets, and had had a horse shot from under him. Three different warrior societies had invited him to become a member, and on two occasions he had undergone the voluntary tortures of the Sun Dance. He had thrice been given a new name because of brave deeds.
Custer was stronger than White Bull, but the Indian had far more experience in hand-to-hand lighting than the officer. Such it would be now as the Indians closed in on the few remaining troopers. Here is how White Bull described it:
“I charged in. A tall, well-built soldier with yellow hair and mustache saw me coming and tried to bluff me, aiming his rifle at me. But when I rushed him, he threw his rifle at me without shooting. I dodged it. We grabbed each other and wrestled there in the dust and smoke. It was like fighting in a fog. This soldier was very strong and brave. He tried to wrench my rifle from me. I lashed him across the face with my quirt, striking the coup. He let go, then grabbed my gun with both hands until I struck him again.
“But the tall soldier fought hard. He was desperate. He hit me with his fists on the jaw and shoulders, then grabbed my long braids with both hands, pulled my face close and tried to bite my nose off. I yelled for help: ‘Hey, hey, come over and help me!” I thought that soldier would kill me.
“Bear Lice and Crow Boy heard me call and came running. These friends tried to hit the soldier. But we were whirling around, back and forth, so that most of their blows hit me. They knocked me dizzy. I yelled as loud as I could to scare my enemy, but he would not let go. Finally I broke free.
“He drew his pistol. I wrenched it out of his hand and struck him with it three or four times on the head, knocked him over, shot him in the head, and fired at his heart. I took his pistol and cartridge belt. Hawk-Stays-Up struck second on his body.
“Ho hechetu! That was a fight, a hard fight. But it was a glorious battle, I enjoyed it. I was picking up head-feathers right and left that day.
“Now I was between the river and the soldiers on the hill. I started up the hill. Suddenly I stumbled and fell. My leg was numb, I saw that my ankle was swollen. The skin was not broken, only bruised. I must have been hit by a spent bullet. I crawled into a ditch and lay there till all the soldiers were killed. At the time I stopped fighting, only ten soldiers were on their feet. They were the last ones alive.”
White Bull scoffed at the yarns about the soldiers committing mass suicide. Said he: “The soldiers looked tired, but they fought to the end. There were few cartridges left in the belts I took off the soldiers.
“I waited where I was until my friend With Horns came along and found me. He put me on his horse and led it back across the river. The people were some distance west on the flat; they had not had time to move their tepees.”
After resting, eating, and having the wound dressed, White Bull mounted his horse and forded the river to get his leggings and saddle. He then rode over the battleground to see the dead. Most of the bodies were naked. He did not see anyone mutilating the dead.
“On the hill top, I met my relative Bad Soup. He had been around Fort Abraham Lincoln and knew Long Hair by sight. When we came to the tall soldier lying on his back naked, Bad Soup pointed him out and said, ‘Long Hair thought he was the greatest man in the world. Now he lies there.’
” ‘Well,' I said, ‘if that is Long Hair, I am the man who killed him.’ Nobody scalped Long Hair, because his hair was cut short.”
Of course, Bad Soup was not the only Indian who had seen Custer, and others may have recognized his body. At any rate, I have never met an old-time Sioux who took part in that fight who had any doubt that White Bull killed Custer. But White Bull declared to me: “They say that I killed Long Hair, but I never saw him to know him before the battle. I do not think my cousin, Bad Soup, would have lied to me.”
White Bull did not know what became of Custer’s pistol, as after he was hit he could not go back to gather up his trophies. By the time he rode out to inspect the battlefield other Indians had carried them off. (According to the authority General Edward S. Godfrey, “Custer carried a Remington Sporting rifle, octagonal barrel; two Bulldog self-cocking, English white-handled pistols, with a ring in the butt for a lanyard; a hunting knife, in a beaded fringed scabbard; and a canvas cartridge belt.")
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.
The short straight lines behind each of the two men in the drawing represent the tracks—and so the persons—of their comrades, and indicate that the fighting was then on foot. Had the soldiers and Indians been then on horseback, the tracks would have been horseshoe-shape, as in some of the other drawings made by White Bull of this same battle. The date on the drawing, April 8, 1932, indicates the date at which my copy of the drawing was made. The words “age 26 years” give White Bull’s age when he struck the soldier. To his signature—Pte-San-Hunka, Buffalo White Leader- in English, Chief White Bull—is added the further identification, “Nephew Sitting Bull.”
His description of the fight is in Sioux: Kici-ecamu-Welo (I had a fight with him), Ie Wokte (I killed him). To further identify the soldier killed and to cite a witness to attest his exploit, White Bull added Cetan-wan-Kol-un oki-he-kte (Hawk-Stays-Up killed him [i.e. struck him] second). This is followed by a repetition of the first Sioux phrase. Hawk-Stays-Up, of course, testified to White Bull’s coup on this soldier at what one may call the Court of Honor held after the battle, at which such honors were awarded.
Because of the hostility shown towards White Bull by his white neighbors, I was unwilling to publish these facts while the Chief and his immediate connections were still alive. If those who knew him felt so strongly, I feared that if this story were published in my biography of the Chief (Warpath, The True Story of the Fighting Sioux, 1934 ) some hothead might harm the old man. Now it can be told.