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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Scott Horse Cemetery Report 2
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On April 18, 1941, Luce (1941b), bypassing the normal National Park Service chain of command, wrote directly to the U.S. Army Quartermaster General to inform him of the discovery of human remains in the horse pit. In this memorandum Luce reiterated the story of finding the horse pit and referred to its contents other than horse bone, stating “The wooden end of the trench gave way and about ten horse skeletons fell out. Among these bones were also human bones. They were leg and arm bones, but no skulls. There was also a pair of cavalry trooper’s boots with a few toe bones inside. Two tin cracker boxes: “C. L. Woodman & Co., Chicago,” with bullet holes through the tin were found. These at one time contained “hardtack” and were used for protection as breastworks during the fight on Custer Hill, at the time when General Custer ordered all the horses shot to form protection for a defensive position.” Luce, in a subtle and round-about manner, suggested to the Quartermaster General that it would be appropriate to exhume the human remains from the pit and have them reburied in the National Cemetery.
The recovered boots and the hardtack box liners are currently in the park museum collections. A left tibia (lower leg) and the hand bones found in the pit were examined by Clyde Snow in 1985 (Snow and Fiztpatrick 1989; Scott, Willey, and Connor 1998:222-223). The bones were reburied in the National Cemetery in 1986 along with all other human remains from the museum and archeological collections. There is one known photograph of the 1941 finding of the horse bone pit. The rather low contrast and slightly blurred image shows an excavated trench with hand tools and a piece of pipe lying in the excavation. To the side is a large pile of bone and a standing figure holding a large bone. Luce’s caption to the photograph (MSS 6-9, photographic archives, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument) identifies the man as holding the shoulder bones of a horse. The bones being held are, in fact, the pelvic girdle or hip bones of a horse. A study of the bones shown in the photograph did not reveal any bone elements that could be human.
Luce’s agenda in writing to both the Yellowstone Superintendent and the Quartermaster General appears to have been an attempt to generate interest and funding to excavate the horse pit for research purposes. He couched his request in terms of recovering and reburying any associated human remains, but the broader purpose seems to have been to have Colonel Elwood Nye, one of the discoverers of Nye-Cartwright Ridge and an army veterinarian stationed at West Point, detailed to the park to excavate the horse pit. Luce made that request to his superiors in a memorandum dated May 6, 1941 (Luce 1941c).
Luce, apparently was in routine correspondence with Nye concerning the issue of excavating the horse pit, for in a letter to Nye dated May 27, 1941, Luce (1941d) reported that the National Park Service lacked the funds to examine the horse cemetery at that time. He further expressed to Nye his desire for the study to proceed at some point in the future. World War II intervened and it was not until 1946 that the horse pit work again surfaced.
Sometime in 1946 Nye (1946), then a retired Colonel and newly appointed professor at Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University), wrote Superintendent Luce “It would be a very valuable study for this instruction, if we could procure enough of the bones to make detailed and exacting comparisons between those of the Army mount of that day & those of the present. …In view of the above, it is requested that the Veterinary Division, Colorado A&M College be furnished with the bones of 1 foreleg, 1 hindleg, 1 neck and 1 head. Incidental expenses would be borne by this institution.” On August 17, 1946 Luce (1946a) replied that permission had been granted by the Regional Director to recover the requested specimens. Luce added in a post script “You will be the only college in America that can legally display horse bones from the original Custer horses.”
Apparently in July 1946 Elwood Nye, along with Luce dug into the horse pit. Photographs in the Park collections indicate they dug a hole at least 4 feet in diameter, recovering a variety of horse bone, including ribs, vertebrae, and limb bones. Study of the available photographs does not show any readily identifiable human bone comingled with the horse bone. The photographs show Luce and Nye examining the horse bones, a large pile of disarticulated bone elements, and an excavation scene taken from atop the 20,000 gallon reservoir tank, where there is clearly a group of horse bones being arranged in anatomical order.
Region 2 Regional Director Howard Baker (1946) sent a memorandum to the Washington office, on August 27, 1946 in which he stated he was enclosing an August 14 report from Superintendent Luce of the recent meeting of the “Custer Students” at the battlefield and a July 17 report by Colonel Nye of “the opening of the horse bone pit.” A copy of the letter is in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument files, but not the attached report. The original correspondence and report are not among the correspondence files in the Federal Records Center in Kansas City, Missouri relating to NPS Region 2’s files, nor among the records of the NPS Harpers Ferry Center. It is unfortunate the Nye report is missing as it may well elucidate the extent of disturbance made to the horse pit in 1946 as well as list and identify some of the bones recovered.
The last correspondence found in the archival search dealing with the horse pit is a letter dated August 28, 1946 from Luce (1946b) to Nye providing him with some general news of the battlefield, and stating “We are sorry that you could not come up and make the thorough excavation of the ‘horse cemetery’ this fall, but I presume you are very busy with the starting of the new semester. However, we have packed the leg bones which we excavated last July and are sending them off to you express collect as you advised.”
The statement regarding shipping of the excavated leg bones is intriguing. A series of telephone calls were made to Colorado State University in February 2002 to determine if the bones remain at the university or if there is any record of them or their disposition. The Colorado State University archives have no records relating to the horse remains nor Nye’s correspondence with Luce. Dr. Robert E. Lee, head of anatomy for the School of Veterinarian Science, has no recollection or records of horse bones in their collections related to the Little Bighorn. He did put the author in communication with two former professors who were well acquainted with Nye and his tenure with the school. Rowlen Frandson and Gus Scholes both fondly remembered Nye. They recalled he had taken students on field trips to the Little Bighorn battlefield nearly every year. Professor Scholes recalled that Nye pointed out the horse pit location to the students on the trip he took with Nye. He also recalled that Nye regularly spoke of the battlefield and the horses in his lectures and on many other occasions. Neither Professors Frandson or Scholes recalled seeing or hearing about any horse bone in Nye’s possession from the battlefield. Thus the recollections and Luce to Nye correspondence regarding the leg bones cannot be reconciled today.
The lack of written documentation of the July 1946 pit opening is especially frustrating since the surviving photographic documentation suggests the work was rather intensive and potentially extensive. The poorly documented 1946 digging in the horse pit is the last known disturbance of the feature that can be documented in the available historic records.
Archeological Investigations of the Horse Bone Pit
During the siting of the proposed sidewalk it became apparent to Superintendent Neil Mangum and Historian John Doerner that the sidewalk would be very near the presumed location of the horse pit. As the precise location was not well documented, nor could it be precisely verified with the available photographic evidence, it was determined to use archeological methods to locate the horse pit. Discussion with the author resulted in the use of geophysical remote sensing in an attempt to locate the pit and define its boundary. Based on Luce’s description of the pit as nearly 50 feet long and 20 feet wide, as well as possibly being lined with wood, and given the soil type prevalent in the park, it was believed that a multi-instrument survey using ground penetrating radar and a Fluxgate magnetometer would be the most likely to identify an anomaly that might be consistent with the horse pit feature.
De Vore (2002) using the magnetometer and electrical conductivity meter and Nickel (2002) using the ground penetrating radar both identified anomalies within the suspected area. Most were interpreted to be associated with natural features and water runoff from the nearby Last Stand Hill parking lot. One anomaly located in the grid north end of the eastern part of Grid 2 was rectangular in shape and thought to be consistent with the horse pit location as seen in the 1941 and 1946 photographs. The size was somewhat smaller than Luce’s 1941 description. It was about 5 meters (16 feet) long and 2 meters (6 feet) wide. The anomaly was located only 2 meters (6 feet) from the abandoned overflow drain outlet feature.
Superintendent Mangum discussed the possibility of realigning the sidewalk with the project design firm. Other design alternatives were likely to cause greater natural resource and visual effects than the original sidewalk design; thus it became necessary to develop an archeological mitigation plan to deal with the horse pit feature. The archeological mitigation plan included a series of research questions that could be addressed if adequate information could be recovered during the excavation of the feature.
The horse cemetery feature and its contents were considered to represent a secondary deposition and disposal of battle-related horse bone. Excavation and analyses were believed to likely be able to address the following questions that are relevant to a greater understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and its context in the Indian Wars of the last half of the nineteenth century.
1. How was the feature, the pit, constructed?
2. Was it lined with wood, perhaps reused elements of the 1879 cordwood monument itself as suggested by Superintendent 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?
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-up process?
5. Do the bone elements reflect any selectivity in collecting horse bones for burial, such as for larger elements like limbs, ribs, skulls, pelvic girdles, or vertebral elements?
6. If certain horse elements are consistently absent what part of the predepositional taphonomic processes could their absence represent, animal scavenging, human souvenir collecting, natural decomposition, or other processes?
7. Are non-horse bone remains present in the feature and if so what animals do they represent - and do they reflect a lack of anatomical/osteological knowledge on the part of those who originally collected the bone?
8. If articles of horse tack and saddles are present do they represent army equipment and which models, or Native American riding gear?
9. Does the feature or its contents clearly reflect the 1940s era disturbances, and what was the extent and effect of those disturbances?
Questions specifically related to osteological analysis:
10. How many individual horses are represented by the recovered bone elements?
11. What are the ages of the horses represented by the skeletal elements?
12. How large or what is the stature of the horses?
13. What is the ratio of sexes present in the identifiable horse bone?
14. What type of pathologies and anomalies are present on the horse bones that might reflect general health and condition of the animals?
15. What type and extent of perimortem trauma is present on the bones?
16. Is there any indication of intentional destruction of the animals, such that might be consistent with their being killed to use as barricades or destroying severely wounded horses?
17. Are any elements present that are consistent with being Indian ponies?
18. If teeth or other appropriate analytical elements are present what type of diet is reflected?
19. What horse breeds are represented in the recovered bone (subject to appropriate analytical techniques being available and affordable for analysis)?
Data Recovery Methods
Data recovery for the horse cemetery employed standard archeological excavation techniques. The geophysical grid, which was established on one meter units was still in place at the time the archeological excavations took place in late April and early May. This grid was used to facilitate placing the excavation units for the project. The sidewalk construction/ground disturbance area of direct impact was used to define the limits of the required excavation area.
Top soil was removed by a backhoe until the pit feature or horse bone was initially encountered. Hand excavation was then used to expose the surface of the feature and its contents. Hand excavation employed tools, such as shovels, trowels, bamboo digging tools, brushes, etc. to expose the feature edges, horse bone, and associated artifactual material.
As the feature is a secondary horse bone burial site, few articulated elements were expected to be found. The feature, however, was treated as a bone bed and exposed bones were mapped and photographed using black and white 35mm photography and digital color photography. The exposed layer of bone was documented on standard MWAC feature and excavation forms and continuation sheets, and with notes and sketches.
After field documentation the exposed bone elements and artifacts were identified and entered in a field catalog. Once the impact area encompassing the feature was documented the bone elements and feature were covered with a sheet of plastic and then several inches of soil were hand shoveled onto the plastic sheet to provide a cushion for mechanical backfilling. The units were then backfilled with a backhoe.
Four trenches were excavated using the park backhoe. Prior to arriving on site the alignment of the sidewalk had been staked and flagged. Trench 1 was placed on the west side of the flagged alignment and excavated from north to south. The backhoe operator stripped the soil in approximately 10 to 15 cm levels. The operation was observed by at least one of the archeological crew while another member watched the backdirt pile for artifacts.
Trench 1 was excavated for a total length of 8 meters and 1 meter wide to a depth of between 90 cm and 1 meter. The profile showed the soil deposition to be a relatively homogeneous deposit of a light brown to gray clay from immediately below the sod layer continuing to a depth of about 20 to 25 cm. Below this was a gray clay that graded to yellow in some areas and continued to the base of the excavation. A lens of decomposed sandstone, a part of the Parkman formation (Thom et al 1935:58-59), was noted at 1.8 meters south of the trenches north end at a depth varying from 20 cm below present ground surface to 40 cm below present ground surface. The lens was about 1.3 meters long and varied in thickness from 20 cm to 40 cm. A lens of gravel was found 3.9 meters south of the north end at a depth of 30 cm below present ground surface. This lens was about 2.1 meters long and about 10 to 20 cm thick. The rock and gravel lens are likely the cause of the anomalies seen in the geophysical investigations.
The only cultural feature noted in the trench was a clay tile drainage pipe found at a depth of 30 cm below present ground surface and about 6.1 meters south of the trench’s north end. This pipe is the 1941 overflow drain.
Trench 2 was placed 20 cm east of Trench 1 and paralleling it. The trench was excavated in the same manner as Trench 1 and essentially the same profile was encountered. A section of the 1941 drainpipe was also discovered.
Trench 3 was aligned north and south on the east side of geophysical Grid 3. It was excavated in the same manner as Trenches 1 and 2 for a total length of 11 meters. At a point 5.2 meters south of the trench’s north end large mammal bone in the form of vertebrae and rib fragments were discovered. This concentration of bone continued to the south 1.5 to 2 meters where sterile soil was again encountered.
Trench 4 was excavated with the backhoe. This trench was 6 meters long and was placed immediately west of Trench 1 and overlapping its north end by three meters. Only sterile material was encountered. The topsoil between Trenches 3 and 4 was then removed in order to define the concentration of bone. This area was designated Feature 1 as it was defined during hand excavation.
Feature 1 proved to be a roughly oval pit with a length of approximately 2.5 meters (8 feet) oriented northeast to southwest (magnetic) and was about 1.5 meters (4 ½ feet) wide. The feature contained horse bone. Only the upper level of horse bone was exposed and documented.
Some bone and other artifacts were displaced by the backhoe excavation. These were collected and identified. The non-bone artifacts included cigarette package foil, an 8d wire nail, a fragment of brick coated with a layer of cement, three fragments of cement with a formed rolled edge, one fragment of clear bottle glass, eight fragments of brown bottle glass including a fragment of the base and a complete neck and crown finish, an iron crown cap with some lithography present that appeared to indicate it was a bottle cap for ginger ale, nine fragments of a hole-in-top tin can, and a 4 inch diameter iron can that is consistent in style with a quart oil can. Nine fragments of wood were also collected, but numerous other small fragments were noted in the feature fill. The grain was too disintegrated to ascertain wood species. One piece may have been dimension lumber and may have been a 1 x 6.
The horse bone includes eight vertebrae, one juvenile lumbar vertebra body and posterior epiphysis, one juvenile thoracic vertebra, one cervical vertebra, two left scapulas, a left humerus, a right humerus, the proximal end of a right humerus, forty-nine rib fragments, one distal rib fragment, one proximal left rib fragment, one proximal right rib fragment, left innominate, a right femur, a left tibia, a right tibia, a right? metatarsal, a left? first phalanx, six pieces of cancellous tissue, and three unidentified bone fragments. No human bone was observed among the horse bone.
Most of the horse bone was in good to excellent condition. A number of pieces exhibited damage to edges and spines that were clearly the result of mechanical damage that occurred long after the flesh had decayed. This damage, especially evident on the spine of the scapula, is probably indicative of the 1941 or 1946 digging episodes, or possibly a later disturbance. Several of the rib fragments exhibit varying degrees of weathering that is consistent with long-term exposure to the environment. One rib fragment is extremely weathered with most of the cortical bone completely weathered away. Others exhibit lesser degrees of weathering. This weathering damage is consistent with the bones being left on the ground surface for at least three years before the initial burial took place in 1879 and final burial in 1881. In addition one rib fragment exhibits a cut mark that is consistent with it being made after the bone was dry, probably during one of the recovery or excavation episodes.
The hole-in-top can had a well finished double side seam with little soldering evident. This can type is consistent with those developed in 1888 thus indicating it was deposited some time after that date (Rock 1987:6). The crown cap was introduced in 1890 and is still in use today. The cap and bottle are probably associated with the 1941 discovery of the pit or its reopening in 1946. The cigarette packet foil and wire nail could date to the same period. The oil can was first introduced in 1936 (Rock 1987:57) with a fiberboard body replacing the all metal body around 1960. The oil can indicates the deposition could not have occurred prior to 1936 and the presence of the brick and cement may be associated with the removal of the 20,000 gallon reservoir in 1952 or 1953 during the construction of the 100,000 gallon underground reservoir south of the Seventh Cavalry monument (Doerner 2002).
Other Investigation Activities
Four other archeological investigation activities were carried out in the park at the time the horse pit investigation was taking place. The first focused on the tour road from Custer battlefield to the Reno-Benteen defense site. The road is scheduled to be milled and relaid in place in the late summer of 2002. Archeologists Thiessen, Roeker, and the author metal detected, a corridor two meters wide on either side of the tour road between Deep Coulee and Medicine Tail Coulee. This was the only section of the road alignment that had not been investigated during previous archeological work in and around the park. Numerous can pull tabs, bolts, nuts, and other late 20th century debris were discovered along the alignment. No historic or battle-related artifacts were discovered. The repaving project will not affect any archeological features, sites, or artifacts.
The second investigation involved walking the Reno-Benteen defense site eastern boundary fence line. Historian John Doerner discovered an oral account from a Custer aficionado suggesting that two rock cairns were located near the boundary fence. The archeological team walked the east boundary fence line from a point opposite the north end of the Company H positions to the southeast fence corner. The team was spaced approximately 5 meters apart. No evidence of any rock cairns was noted. Ground cover was low and visibility was good.
The third investigation entailed relocating a bone on the Custer battlefield north boundary fence. Historian Doerner observed a large mammal bone on the side of a ravine on the north boundary fence nearly opposite the National Cemetery. Thiessen and the author, accompanied by park volunteer David Thorn relocated the bone and determined it to be a metapodial from a recently deceased deer.
The fourth investigation entailed excavation of two 1 x 1 meter units at a wayside exhibit on Last Stand Hill. The ground in front of the wayside exhibit panels was being compacted by excessive visitor traffic and became very muddy during inclement weather. In order to alleviate the ground compaction and muddy condition a concrete pad is to be laid adjacent to the panels.
The two one meter square units (TU 1 and 2) were placed east of the panels in the area of compact ground. The fill from each unit was screened through a ¼ inch mesh shaker screen. TU 1 was placed immediately south of the concrete walk that surrounds the Seventh Cavalry memorial. It was excavated to a depth of 8 cm. The northern half of the unit contained pea gravels that appeared to associated with the existing walkway. The remainder of the excavation encountered culturally sterile soil.
TU 2 was placed 1 meter south of TU 1 and in front of the southern-most exhibit panel. It was excavated to a depth of 8 cm. A layer of old asphalt was found extending diagonally across the northern half of the unit. Culturally sterile soil was found in the remainder of the unit. The asphalt is the remains of a pre-1960 parking lot. Artifacts observed in the excavation included cigarette butts, cigarette packet foil, a plastic movie token dating to the 1990s, a wire nail, and an electrical plug fragment. None of the artifacts were collected; they were placed in the units as they were backfilled. The proposed project will have no effect on any archeological artifacts, features, or sites.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022