They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn

They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Dead men tell no tales, and the soldiers who rode and died with George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn have been silent statistics for more than a hundred years. By blending historical sources, archaeological evidence, and painstaking analysis of the skeletal remains, Douglas D. Scott, P. Willey, and Melissa A. Connor reconstruct biographies of many of the individual soldiers, identifying age, height, possible race, state of health, and the specific way each died. They also link reactions to the battle over the years to shifts in American views regarding the appropriate treatment of the dead.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806150154
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 07/10/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 902,593
File size: 42 MB
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About the Author

Douglas D. Scott is retired as supervisory archaeologist, Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service. Widely known as an expert on military archaeology, he is the author or co-author of numerous publications, including They Died with Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn, and Custer, Cody, and Grand Duke Alexis: Historical Archaeology of the Royal Buffalo Hunt.

P. Willey is Professor of Anthropology at Chico State, and co-author with Douglas D. Scott of They Died with Custer: Soldiers’ Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Melissa A. Connor, also an Archeologist with the Midwest Archeological Center, specializes in the reconstruction of diet through the use of isotopes and trace elements in bone. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Read an Excerpt

They Died with Custer

Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Douglas D. Scott, P. Willey, Melissa A. Connor


Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5015-4



In 1983, a careless smoker threw a cigarette from a car while passing by Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, igniting a range fire that swept over the battlefield. At first, the fire seemed to spell disaster. Through quick action, however, fire fighters managed to save the visitor center and other buildings at the park. The white marble markers dotting the battlefield, marking where Custer's men had fallen in battle, were blackened by the smoke but otherwise undamaged.

What fared the worst, not surprisingly, was the vegetation. Because the area had been set aside as a memorial almost since the battle, the land had neither burned nor been grazed for decades. Before the fire, the sagebrush, prickly pear, and grasses were incredibly thick. Now all that was gone, and the soil lay bare.

But thick vegetation was not what brought visitors to the Little Bighorn battlefield and people still came to view the area where so many died. Families still trod the paths, less worried about rattlesnakes now that they were more easily seen. Walking down the Deep Ravine Trail, one sharp-eyed visitor spotted something white glinting in the sun. When he bent to investigate, he found an adult human tooth, which he promptly turned in to the park staff.

The dead from the battle were never well buried and, for years, the thick vegetation hid the remains of the fight. Now without the sagebrush and prickly pear, cartridges, bullets, and bones were found strewn over the hills. Archeologist Richard A. Fox, Jr., spent ten days during the summer of 1983 wandering the battlefield and documenting the artifacts exposed by the fire.

Fox's report on his work was sent into the stream of bureaucratic paperwork that flows through the National Park Service. In the normal stream flow, a copy ended up on the desk of the Chief Division of Rocky Mountain Research at the Midwest Archeological Center. At the time, it was an empty desk.

The Midwest Archeological Center is an entity of the National Park Service responsible for assisting park units by planning, execution, and/or overseeing of the archeology done in the national parks in the Midwest and assists parks and other agencies elsewhere. These are professional archeologists who provide information to the parks for their displays and lectures. They also conduct archeological investigations necessary for the parks to comply with state and federal legislation regarding the preservation and protection of our nation's cultural heritage.

The center has a manager who oversees several divisions. In 1983, the then Rocky Mountain Research Division got a new chief. Dr. Douglas D. Scott reported to work there on December 5. Sitting at his desk, looking through the pile of material that had accumulated, he thought it an ironic coincidence that Fox's report was one of the first things he saw: as December 5 is the birthday of George Armstrong Custer.

During the winter of 1983, a spring dig was organized. First, building upon the ideas presented in Fox's report, a research design was developed and presented to Park Service management. Although the service could not fund the project, the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association had a limited amount of money to fund archeological work. They could pay Fox a stipend and put some money toward the expenses of workers. The Midwest Center's manager, then Dr. F. A. Calabrese, assigned Scott to head the work. The workers would have to be volunteers, and there was no money to pay them.

The dig was planned in two parts. First, the archeologists and volunteers would cover the surface of the battlefield and record and collect all the artifacts they could find. This would be done by arranging five to ten people in a straight line and having them walk forward and put a pinflag into the ground whenever they spotted an artifact. People with metal detectors would be spaced throughout the line to see if the detectors could find material that could not be spotted otherwise. The position of each artifact located would then be recorded with a transit.

Second, the archeologists and volunteers would excavate around the markers placed on the battlefield. Supposedly, the markers were placed where men fell in battle, but there are more markers on the field than men who died. Some markers are obviously spurious. The excavations were based on the assumption that had a person ever been buried there, small bones and fragments, buttons, bullets, or other small items should remain.

The Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association placed in its newsletter a call for volunteers: no pay, lots of work, crowded living conditions. Such discouragements notwithstanding, 250 people wrote and asked if they could help with the archeological work—nearly the number of soldiers who died there. Only a few could be accommodated, and the difficult task of selecting the volunteers fell to Scott. He chose people with different interests and skills to meet the needs of the project. Some were lawyers, neurosurgeons, electricians, engineers, pathologists, and even professional archeologists, but all were interested in archeology and the story of the Little Bighorn.

The weekend before the dig was to start in early May, Scott moved into the old stone house that overlooks the National Cemetery at the battlefield and that once served as the superintendent's residence. This was to be his living quarters and dig headquarters for the next two summer expeditions. Scott, Fox, and the volunteers gathered in the living room of the stone house the first morning. Scott and Fox explained the procedures they expected to use. When they left, all participants knew what they were to do. Scott and Fox took the volunteers to the southern portion of the main battlefield. Everyone lined up, almost in skirmish order. When they started walking forward, almost immediately, someone found a sardine can. Before the excitement from the find had ebbed, someone else found another artifact. Then the metal detectors began to sing. Pinflags began to appear all over the hill. By the end of the first day, more than one hundred artifacts had been located, recorded, and collected, including the backstrap to a soldier's Colt revolver.

Scott and Fox were astounded, and exhausted. The sheer quantity of artifacts was many times what they had expected. The enthusiasm of the volunteers was remarkable. Despite the cold, and later the heat, they were ready to start before eight in the morning, ate only a quick lunch, and did not want to stop at quitting time.

By the end of the first week, Scott realized that the dig required a third archeologist to help with the artifacts and with supervising the volunteers. Eventually, Melissa Connor, one of the Midwest Archeological Center's staff archeologists, was sent to help. When human remains were found an osteologist, Dr. Clyde Snow, was added to the team.

That was the cast for the first field season. Three archeologists, an osteologist, and sixty-six volunteers. The volunteers stayed variously for the full five weeks or in a few cases only a day. The dig was an unmitigated success and plans were made to continue the work the next year. Over the winter, Scott and Fox put together a report on the findings of the first year (Scott and Fox 1987), and Scott, Fox, Connor, and firearms specialist Dick Harmon planned what would happen during the dig of 1985. The Reno-Benteen defense site would be metal detected just as the Custer field had been, and a sample of the Custer battlefield markers were selected for excavation to aid in determining why there were at least forty-two extra markers on the field.

Over the winter, another expert was added to the team. Dr. C. Vance Haynes, a well-known geoarcheologist and an authority on Indian Wars army firearms, contributed his expertise. He was to determine what geomorphological changes could, have occurred in Deep Ravine to hide some twenty men believed to be buried there.

Scott asked Dr. Clyde Snow if he would continue the work of examining the bones. Snow had been employed for years as a forensic anthropologist for the Federal Aviation Administration, identifying the dead from airplane crashes. Then, when he retired, he really went to work. He acts as a consultant to the State of Oklahoma, to Cook County in Illinois, and to international human rights groups. He has worked for organizations in Argentina, identifying those who disappeared under a former regime and training Argentinians in this work, as well as in many more recent human rights abuse cases in the international arena.

The field season of 1985 started as poorly as the 1984 season had started well. Due to incomplete paperwork, federal and state agencies delayed the excavations for several days. Connor, who had taken over the excavations, was forced to fill in two units before the digging was complete. When Snow came to visit the battlefield in the second week of the dig, he had almost no bones to examine.

By the end of the second week, the dig was behind schedule but back on track. Excavation units were reopened and hard work by the volunteers and archeologists enabled them to complete the work planned for the field season in the shorter time available.

The spring of 1989 brought another opportunity to conduct archeological investigations at the battlefield, this time at the site of the Reno-Benteen equipment disposal dump. The dump was threatened by vandals and the park management team determined that excavations were the most appropriate means to preserve the information. A fortuitous find of a partial human skeleton on adjacent private land, uncovered by four of the volunteers, brought Dr. P. Willey onto the team. Dr. Willey is a professor of physical anthropology at California State University, Chico, and a diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

The months after the fieldwork were consumed by laboratory work and writing reports. The artifacts and bones were catalogued, cleaned, and analyzed. Some were sent to specialists for examination. Then, when all the information possible had been gleaned from the pieces and their associated context, the reports of investigation were written. As with any scientific endeavor, one line of evidence leads to a new set of questions. Not every question could be completely explored in the initial reports. On these pages we explore and discuss those questions rating to the men with Custer that we could not address in the government compliance reports, given the available time and budgets.

During the course of the 1984 and 1985 archeological investigations, partial remains from thirty-four individuals were studied, remains either excavated or found in the park's museum collection. All were soldiers from Custer's battalion. After our study all the remains were reburied, with appropriate ceremonies, in graves in the Custer National Cemetery. Before the reburial, the bones were measured, examined, photographed, chemically analyzed, and x-rayed. With the help of Gregory Brown at the Nebraska State Museum, molds and casts were made of bones with unique characteristics. Since then bones from seven more of Custers men have turned up in museum collections. In another case, a partial skeleton was found eroding from the bank of the Little Bighorn River, and, finally, the unidentified remains of ten more Little Bighorn soldiers were exhumed from the Custer National Cemetery and studied.

This synopsis of the Little Bighorn battlefield archeology projects shows clearly the multidisciplinary studies necessary in today's archeology. The field archeologists, the forensic specialists, the facial reconstructionist, and the geomorphologist were just a few of the specialists necessary for this archeological study to be successful. At historical sites, the ability to research and use historical documents is also essential. The context of the archeological material includes not only where it came from in the ground but all of the relevant historical documentation. From these sources of information, in archeological and historic context, we are able to create detailed pictures of the men of the Seventh Cavalry and their last moments. In five cases, we were able to identify individuals from the physical remains.

In some earlier works the joining of history and archeology has frequently been more in the nature of a poor splice than a good marriage. Historians claim that archeologists are not adequately trained in the techniques of historical research. Also, they argue that archeology is unnecessary as the historic record gives them all the information they need to know. Prehistoric archeologists claim that historic archeologists are not doing true "anthropology" (the discipline of which archeology is a subdiscipline). Historic archeologists are frequently made to feel like unwanted stepchildren, useful to neither discipline. Much the same thing can be said about forensic anthropologists. They are chastised by some anthropologists as not being true scientific anthropologists and are ignored by medical examiners, who believe a one-week course in the study of human bones and forensic anthropology teaches all they need to know.

History and antropology have very different goals, different theoretical orientations, a fact often forgotten in the polemic of the dialogue regarding which discipline has the most to offer. The goal of history is to trace major events of the past, to focus on understanding the important players in decisions, and to understand the how and why of today's world. Anthropology, in contrast, studies people's day-to-day lives. It focuses on ordinary people and how they live, rather than leaders or major events.

These parallel, but equally valid, goals are reached using different data sets. Historians use written records as their data. This limits their investigations to cultures that have written records and biases their data to what people write about, but it allows detail in their investigations that archeologists can rarely match. Archeologists in the United States are actually trained as anthropologists. Anthropologists study culture. Cultural anthropologists (like the well-known Margaret Mead) study the culture of living peoples. Physical anthropologists (like Snow and Willey) study people through their biology. Linguistic anthropologists study people through their language. Archeologists study people through their material culture. Each specialty adds a different facet to the gem of our knowledge.

In this volume we summarize the historic data, the archeological data, and the physical anthropological data relating to the men who comprised the Seventh Cavalry. We compare the different data sets and find that none is complete or totally accurate. Beyond the differences, we are able to blend the disparate sources of data to produce greater insight into the men who rode with Custer than any of the disciplines can provide individually. Further, we have delved into the scientific literature analyzing the slowly growing mass of human skeletal remains from the period of westward expansion. We, in turn, compared these data, derived from the bones, to the historical record to go beyond mere bones and to reach an understanding of these people as a part of the population of the advancing frontier. From these osteobiological accounts we gain a picture of the life, health, and death of non-Indian settlers of the West. With this information we compare and contrast the data gained from the Seventh Cavalry Little Bighorn battlefield series. We develop for the ubiquitous westerner and the soldier of the Seventh a verbal portrait that sheds new light on details of their lives rarely recorded in historical documents.

We also go beyond the individual in history and look at the treatment of the dead and their monuments at the Little Bighorn battlefield. We seek to define how our cultural views have changed regarding what is the appropriate treatment for our war dead. Custer Battlefield National Monument, now Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, has always reflected the spirit of the times in the marble markers and monuments, in the story presented first by the army caretakers and then by the National Park Service, and most recently by the name change itself and the erection of a memorial to the American Indians who fought against the Seventh Cavalry.

The work that follows in this volume combines history, archeology, and physical anthropology. Each discipline provided information relevant to its unique data set. We hope to show that the goals of history and anthropology are not only compatible but, when combined, present a stronger interpretation of the past than any discipline alone—that in fact historical archeology and forensic anthropology, rather than being unwanted stepchildren, can represent the best of the disciplines.


Excerpted from They Died with Custer by Douglas D. Scott, P. Willey, Melissa A. Connor. Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Graphs and Tables,
Preface and Acknowledgements,
1. Prelude,
2. The Seventh Cavalry,
3. Burials and Reburials,
4. The Human Remains,
5. Reflections of a Nation,
6. The Not-So-Romantic Frontier,
7. Death, Mutilation, and Personal Identification,
8. Remembering the Dead,
Appendix. Parts of the Skeleton: A Visual Guide,

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