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Scott Horse Cemetery Report 3

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The archeological investigations were successful in locating the horse bone burial pit or cemetery. It is near, but not in the direct impact zone for the construction of the handicap accessible walkway to the Indian Memorial. The geophysical anomaly noted during the remote sensing investigation proved to be a natural deposit of rock and not a cultural feature. The horse bone pit was found within a few feet of the anomaly, north of grid 1 and west of grid 3, or just outside the geophysical grid area that was investigated.

Since the horse pit is outside the direct impact zone, the feature was only documented and preserved in situ; thus only a limited number of the research questions could be addressed with the collected data. Research questions 5, 6, 7, and 8 could not be answered with the data collected or observed.

Those questions that could be addressed are:

1. How was the feature, the pit, constructed? The horse bone pit denoted as Feature 1 during the 2002 field investigations is approximately 8 feet long and about 4 Ĺ to 5 feet wide. Its depth was undetermined since it was not fully excavated. The feature is clearly in the same location as the horse pit that was discovered in 1941 and subsequently dug into in 1946. This is clear in comparing the 1941 and 1946 photographs to the modern landscape. The horse pit or cemetery was described by Superintendent Luce (1941a) as 50 feet long and 20 feet wide. According to Luceís memorandum only one end of the pit was actually found while laying the overflow drain pipe. Luce assumed the size of the pit apparently based on what he believed was a depression of that size at that location. One suspects Luce was exaggerating the size of the pit in order to garner support for its investigation, thus over reporting its extent. Even if his initial assessment was in error, the photographs of the 1946 digging suggest the area containing the bone was only about 4 feet in diameter. The 1946 hole and Feature 1 as defined during the field work are consistent in size. The depth appears, in the 1946 photographs, to be approximately 3 feet below the ground surface. The horse pit is irregular in shape and its long axis runs northeast to southwest and does not follow the contour of the hill as suggested by Luce.

2. Was it lined with wood, perhaps reused elements of the 1879 cordwood monument itself as suggested by Superintendent Luce? Very small bits of decayed wood were found intermixed in the feature fill. Wood specie could not be determined due to the decomposed nature of the wood fragments, nor was there any evidence that the edges of the pit had been lined with wood at any point in the past. The 1941 and 1946 digging episodes may have destroyed the wood lining, but it seems unlikely that all of the lining would have been removed, leaving only small fragments of wood scattered in the fill. It is possible that the wood may be the remains of some type of wooden cover that was placed over the pit after its construction as suggested by Luce.

3. Is there a pattern to the deposition of the horse bone and other artifacts placed in the pit or was it totally random deposition? There was no obvious pattern to the bone deposition when the upper portion of Feature 1 was exposed. Without full excavation this question cannot be answered.

4. Does the feature construction and the bone depositional pattern suggest either care or respect by those who filled the feature, thus indicating a potential memorialization of the horse remains, or is it more likely to represent an expedient disposal and battlefield cleaning process? Feature 1 is an irregularly shaped pit that is more consistent with the digging of an expedient sized hole to bury the bones than a carefully constructed pit meant for memorialization of the horse remains. However, only with full excavation could the question be more completely answered.

9. Does the feature or its contents clearly reflect the 1940s era disturbances, and what was the extent and effect of those disturbances? The presence of 20th century trash in the pit as well as the probable excavation damage to one rib does indicate one or more episodes of disturbance. The artifactual material indicates the pit was exposed sometime in the last 75 years.  The 1941 and 1946 photographs do not show significant damage to the bones, in fact many appear to be nearly complete elements. The majority of bones exposed in Feature 1, on the other hand, are broken, fragmented, and several exhibit significant mechanical damage. While rough handling and poor excavation techniques during the 1941 and 1946 digging episodes cannot be ruled out as the cause of the damage, it seems more likely that an undocumented subsequent disturbance, possibly during the removal of the 20,000 gallon reservoir in 1952 or 1953 or the paving of Last Stand Hill parking lot in the 1962s, are the more likely culprits. If this supposition is correct, it seems likely that this mid-20th century disturbance seriously effected the feature and its contents, clearly breaking and abrading many of the exposed elements.

Questions specifically related to osteological analysis:

Questions 1 through 9 and 12 through 14 could not be addressed with the data recovered during the field investigations.

10. How many individual horses are represented by the recovered bone elements? The exposed horse bone observed in Feature 1 indicates a minimum of two horses present based on repeated elements. No doubt there are many more than that present, but only full excavation and analysis can answer the question. Many of the bones exhibit some degree of weathering, from minimal to extreme, that is consistent with the bones lying exposed to the elements for some time prior to burial. The historic documents note that the bones were initially gathered and placed in the cordwood monument in 1879 and then, presumably, buried in the discovered feature in 1881 during the erection of the Seventh Cavalry memorial shaft on the site of the cordwood marker.

11. What are the ages of the horses represented by the skeletal elements? The observed bone indicates that most animals were fully adult. Two incompletely developed vertebrae were observed indicating that at least one juvenile horse was among the remains buried in 1881. The juvenile would be under the age of six years. No obvious pathologies or anomalies were observed among the exposed bone, but this is a generalization, and only detailed osteological analysis can answer the question fully.


The 2002 archeological investigations did locate a pit, Feature 1, containing disarticulated horse bone elements. The feature is substantially smaller than the pit originally reported by Superintendent Luce in 1941. It is suspected that Luce only guessed at the size of the horse bone pit found during the trenching for the overflow drain line. It is also suspected that Luce may have exaggerated the pitís size and its contents to engender support for its investigation, that never really developed.  The discovered feature yielded evidence of one or more disturbances during the 20th century as revealed by artifacts found mixed in the pit fill and the evidence of mechanical abrading and bone breakage. It is suspected that the most significant disturbance was not the 1941 finding of the pit, nor the 1946 digging, but an undocumented disturbance probably related to 1950ís or 1960ís era construction projects carried out on Last Stand Hill that were intended as development work in support of increasing visitation. 

The proposed sidewalk construction that leads to the Indian Memorial from Last Stand Hill will not affect the horse bone pit location. It is only a few feet west of the sidewalk construction zone, and care should be taken not to further disturb the location during the construction work.  The horse bone pit perimeter was marked by wooden stakes that should be clearly visible to the construction personnel.

In addition to the horse bone pit investigation the archeological team also metal detected the tour road right of way between Deep Coulee and Medicine Tail Coulee, the only area of the road alignment not previously investigated. No historic artifacts or features were discovered and milling and in-place road repaving will have no effect on any archeological sites, features, or artifacts along the road alignment.  The proposed location of a concrete pad associated with the wayside exhibit panels at Last Stand Hill was tested and found to have no historic materials or features present. The ground disturbance associated with the pouring of the pad will not affect any historic features, as the area has been previously disturbed.

References Cited:

Baker, Howard W. 1946 Memorandum to Director, National Park Service, Washington, D. C. Accession 381, Administrative correspondence on file in the archives of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

De Vore, Steven L. 2002 Search for the Horse Bone Pit: Conductivity and Magnetic Gradient Investigations at Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana. Midwest Archeolgical Center, National Park Service, Lincoln, NE.

Doerner, John A. 2002 The Enduring Monument Ė The Enigma of Custer Hill. Paper delivered February 23 at the 6th Annual Denver Custer/Indian Wars Symposium, Denver, CO.

Dustin, Fred 1953 Some Aftermath of the Little Bighorn Fight in 1876: The Burial of the Dead.  In W.A. Graham, The Custer Myth, pp. 362-72. Bonanza Books, NY

Gray, John 1975 Nightmares into Day Dreams. By Valor and Arms 1(4):30-9.

Hardorff, R. Dutch 1984 Burials, Exhumations and Reinterments: A View from Custer Hill. In Custer and His Times, Book 2. Little Bighorn Associates, NY.

Hardorff, Richard G. 1989 The Custer Battle Casualties. Upton and Sons, El Segundo, CA.

Hommon, H. B. 1940 Report of Inspections At Custerís Battlefield National Monument, Montana. File 660-033, Santitation, RG 79, Box 167, Records of National Park Service Region II Central Classified Files 1936-1952, National Archives and Records Administration, Federal Records Center, Kansas City, MO.

Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood 1989 His Very Silence Speaks: Commanche-The Horse Who Survived Custer's Last Stand. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI.

Luce, Edward S. 1941a  Memoradum to Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park dated April 9, 1941. Accession 381, Administrative correspondence, on file in the archives of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

1941b Discovery of human bones on Custer Battlefield Area. Memorandum to Quartermaster General dated April 18, 1941. Accession 381, Administrative correspondence on file in the archives of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

1941c Memoradum to Superintendent Yellowstone National Park dated May 6, 1941. Accession 381, Administrative correspondence on file in the archives of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

1941d Letter to Colonel Elwood Nye dated May 27, 1941.  Elwood Nye scrapbook, 1941-1961, Accession 253 on file in the archives of Little Bigorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

1946a Letter to Colonel Elwood Nye dated August 17, 1946.  Elwood Nye scrapbook, 1941-1961, Accession 253 on file in the archives of Little Bigorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

1946b Letter to Colonel Elwood Nye dated August 28, 1946.  Elwood Nye scrapbook, 1941-1961, Accession 253 on file in the archives of Little Bigorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

Nickel, Robert K. 2002 A Ground-Penetrating Radar Search for a Horse Burial Pit Associated with the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Prepared for Midwest Archeolgical Center, National Park Service, Lincoln, NE.

Nye, Elwood 1946 Letter to Superintendent Edward Luce dated 1946. Accession 381, Administrative correspondence on file in the archives of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, MT.

Rock, Jim 1987 A Brief Commentary on Cans. Cultural Resource Management, Coyote Press, Salinas, CA.

Scott, Douglas D., P. Willey, and Melissa Connor 1998 They Died With Custer: Soldierís Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Snow, Clyde Collins and John Fitzpatrick 1989 Human Osteological Remains from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In  Archaeological Perspectives On the Battle of the Little  Bighorn, by Douglas D. Scott, Richard A. Fox, Jr., Melissa A. Connor, and Dick Harmon, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Thom, W. T., Jr., G. M. Hall, C. H. Wegemann, and G. F. Moulton 1935 Geology of Big Horn County and the Crow Indian Reservation, Montana. Geological Survey Bulletin 856, U.S. Geological Survey, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Willey, P. 1997 Osteological Analysis of Human Skeletons Excavated from the Custer National Cemetery. Technical Report No. 50, Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service, Lincoln, Nebraska.

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