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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Billings Gazette Article

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By Lorna Thackeray

Webmaster's Note: This article appeared in the September 18, 2004 issue of the "Billings Gazette."

Headlong into a retreat from the Little Bighorn River, a 7th Cavalry horse racing to join the main body of troops on the ridge above threw a shoe.

"If they were coming this way, they were moving awful fast,'' Dave Thorn of Bozeman said Wednesday as he picked up a rusted horseshoe from a shallow hole near Medicine Tail Coulee.

Thorn, one of 18 volunteers and professionals working on an archaeological project at Little Bighorn Battlefield, examined the nails on the Army-issue horseshoe for clues to its story. The nails barely protruded through the metal shoe, indicating they had been working themselves loose during the long march from North Dakota, he said.

The horseman fleeing the river's edge had been ordered to the Medicine Tail Coulee ford by Lt. Col. George Custer.

A village of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho stretched for miles on the other side. Startled villagers, already alarmed by an attack a mile or so away by companies under Maj. Marcus Reno, were swarming across the river in pursuit.

Reno's overwhelmed troops probably hadn't yet retreated back across the river to the bluffs when part of Custer's immediate command approached the ford. Reno's companies and those led by Capt. Frederick Benteen managed to hold off the warriors until the villagers moved out of the valley two days later. Five companies under Custer's direct command, somewhere around 220 troopers, were annihilated within two hours of their approach at Medicine Tail Coulee.

On Wednesday, metal detectors sweeping a close pattern across the rolling hills bleeped insistently at spots where bullets had penetrated the ground during the June 25, 1876, fight. Bullets that appeared to have been fired from Army-issue 1873 Springfield carbines near Medicine Tail Coulee may represent cover fire from Custer's troops above on Nye-Cartwright Ridge. Another, fired from a different caliber weapon, may have come from a gun fired by a warrior.

"I think they were pursued the whole time to Battle Ridge,'' said National Park Service archaeologist Doug Scott, who is in charge of the survey.

Scott, Great Plains supervisor at the Midwest Regional Archaeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., is no stranger to the battle site near Crow Agency. He pioneered the use of metal detectors in battlefield archaeology at his first major project at Little Bighorn in 1984 and has been back several times. His work has helped clarify what may have happened in a battle where there where no non-Indian survivors to tell the tale.

"We've got the best possible person to do this work,'' Little Bighorn Chief Historian John Doerner said. "Doug Scott wrote the book on battlefield archaeology.''

Scott and his team were summoned in advance of a Park Service project to rebuild the tour road between Little Bighorn Battlefield and the associated Reno-Benteen Battlefield 4.6 miles away. Doerner said the work will probably begin in late summer 2007.

When the Department of the Army built the original road in 1938, no one thought to do an archaeological survey, Doerner said. This time around, a thorough search was planned for 60 feet on each side of the roadbed. More archaeological work may be done when the pavement is stripped off the existing road, especially on Battle Ridge, where the 7th Cavalry made its final stand.

Scott handpicked his crew for a survey that began Monday and ended Friday.

"This was an invitational crew,'' he said. "These people have worked with us before. Everyone is very experienced and knows exactly what to do. Because of the short time frame, we didn't have time to train anybody.''

Volunteers with metal detectors walked the area two or three feet apart and marked each hit with a flag. Then, using shovels, scrappers and even a hammer claw, crew members got on their hands and knees and dug. If what they found was battle related, Scott was summoned to take a look. Carl Drexler, a Ph.D. student from the University of Arkansas, fixed the exact location using global positioning satellite technology. Then volunteer Ann Bond bagged and marked the artifact.

Among the crew are experts on firearms and military gear who readily classify bullet caliber and shell casings. What they couldn't identify in the field, Scott can examine more closely at the Midwest Center lab.

Between Monday and Wednesday morning, the crew had tagged 132 battle-related items, most of them bullets and cartridge cases. Near Weir Point, where Capt. Thomas Weir made an unsuccessful charge from the Reno-Benteen battlesite in an effort to find Custer, the detectors located a tight circle of 18 cartridge cases. Scott said they may mark a spot where a soldier staked out a position to cover the retreat to Reno-Benteen. Scott will take the casings back to Lincoln to determine if they were all fired from the same gun.

An iron arrow point found near the Reno-Benteen site was among the most interesting evidence collected. The 4-inch "bison point'' or "trade point" was commonly used at the time, Doerner said.

It was the 10th iron point found at the battlefield during archaeological surveys conducted by Scott, and this one had clearly hit something. The fragile, rusted point had buckled on impact.

Warriors were probably using whatever weapons they had, Scott said. Some of the Sioux, who had been on reservations in the Dakotas during the winter, had received annuities from the government. Along with food, clothing and other supplies, they would have been issued manufactured arrow points for hunting, he said. They could also have acquired them at a trader's store or made them from abundant metal supplies. Metal would have been much easier to work than stone, he said.

"I think there were a lot of them here,'' Scott said. "Through the years they've been picked up. I know there are two in the Smithsonian that were collected from the battlefield in 1887. I'm sure there were hundreds here.''

Along with a frustrating amount of modern-day junk - bottle caps, "church keys" and car parts - there were a few gems. A small, but heavy carbine barrel band with the "U" from "U.S." still intact caused a ripple of excitement. The ring may have been ripped from a trooper's Springfield rifle when he pulled it out to shoot, said Mike Clark, a 7th Cavalry re-enactor from Billings.

At mid-morning Wednesday, Scott was puzzling over a cartridge belt buckle dug from a few inches of dirt. It was a buckle issued to troops in 1876, but it had always been thought that the Army had not distributed that particular buckle until after the Little Bighorn.

"It's just possible that what we assumed all these years could be wrong,'' he said. "Maybe some of them did have them."

There could be other explanations, of course. The buckles were sold as surplus and a civilian hunter could have dropped it sometime after the battle, he said. Or it could have come from soldiers at Fort Custer, which once stood on a plateau above Hardin. They were frequent visitors to the site, and the 1880s bullets found on the battlefield have been attributed to them.

Doerner said it could have been lost by a member of the 1877 Army detail assigned to recover the bodies of 11 officers and two civilians. A year later, Col. Nelson Miles, commander of newly constructed Fort Keogh near Miles City, visited the battlefield and camped on Reno's stronghold. Someone from Miles' command could have dropped the belt buckle, he said.

Scott said that, for the most part, his crew is finding what he expected to find. The new material echoes what archaeologists saw in less intense surveys over the years.

"It confirmed the patterns we saw before,'' Scott smiled. "We were right all along."

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