Examining the bones of the Little Bighorn dead reveals the hard lives – and sudden, violent deaths – endured by these U.S. Frontier Army soldiers.
The June 25-26, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn fought in southern Montana was Native Americans’ greatest victory over U.S. Frontier Army regulars and the most famous battle of the 19th-century Indian Wars. All soldiers in the five 7th Cavalry Regiment companies personally led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer were killed, and the seven surviving companies suffered numerous dead and wounded during the fighting and in a successful defensive action led by Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen a few miles away from “Custer’s Last Stand.”
One important legacy of the battle is the bones of the fallen soldiers that have come to light from time to time over the years.
The bodies of about 260 7th Cavalry Regiment officers and men killed on June 25 and 26, 1876, were given a hasty but not uncaring burial on June 28. Most of the men, found lying on the battlefield in the locations where they had died, were simply covered with soil scooped up from either side of their already swollen and decomposing remains. One officer recalled that the battlefield was a “scene of ghastly and sickening horror.” The victorious Native Americans had removed all of their dead before departing the valley of the Little Bighorn River at the approach of an army column under Brigadier General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon on June 27.
Most of the officers’ remains were identified during the hasty burials, and these were exhumed in 1877 and returned to the east or to their homes for reburial. The most famous among these men was George Custer, whose remains were reinterred at West Point. Several other officers’ remains – including those of Custer’s brother Captain Thomas Custer, who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor in the Civil War – were reinterred at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. For the most part, the enlisted soldiers’ bodies were not identified. Their bones were exhumed in 1881 and reburied in a mass grave on the top of Last Stand Hill, where they remain today under a large granite monument listing the men’s names and memorializing their sacrifice.
However, the individuals who exhumed the remains were not trained skeletal anatomists, and the soldier work details overlooked some bodies and only collected large skeletal elements of others, leaving behind many bones. Human remains, largely individual bones, representing 44 of those who died at the Little Bighorn have been found, collected or formally recovered from the battlefield since 1877. Many partial and a few nearly complete remains were recovered as a result of professional archaeological work on the battlefield that began in the 1980s. Since then there has been a concerted effort to find and analyze human remains associated with the Little Bighorn battle. This was done in part to learn more about the lifestyle and manner of death of those who died, but also with the intent to identify the individuals represented by the bones. The latter effort has been only partly successful.
EVIDENCE OF THE BONES
The osteological (scientific study of bones) examinations have revealed a good deal about the men who rode with – and ultimately died with – Custer. The soldiers suffered from a variety of ailments and injuries beyond the traumas inflicted upon them at the time of death. Their bones told the story of congenital diseases and developmental defects that some of the men had when they enlisted in U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment. They also reflected the debilitating effects of the harsh conditions and strenuous lifestyle Frontier Army cavalrymen endured. The observed changes in bone structure and development resulting from trauma-induced injuries included compressed vertebrae,shoulder separations, and healed fractures in the skull, collarbone, lower arm, ribs, hand and foot. Degenerative changes were seen as well, including in the jaw, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand,hip, knee and foot, and evidence of osteoarthritis was present in the back and joints. The teeth of most soldiers studied showed extensive use of tobacco and coffee (which caused staining),and oral health care appears to have been largely ignored, as evidenced by numerous decayed and abscessed teeth.
Two case examples epitomize the skeletal story of the men who died at the Little Bighorn.One set of nearly complete remains indicated the soldier was between 30 and 35 years of age at the time of his death. At 65.3 inches tall, he was among the shorter casualties. His size may have been caused, in part, by fairly numerous growth interruptions. There was an old, small,well-healed cranial fracture above his right eye.Numerous degenerative changes were present as well. The upper neck demonstrated arthritic changes, but the most marked joint changes were in the mid to lower spine. The soldier also had temporomandibular joint problems, suggesting that he ground his teeth during sleep.
The dental health of this soldier was surprisingly good compared to most of the other remains studied. The most likely explanation for his healthy teeth was dental care. He had at least six fillings.These restorations provided a unique opportunity to examine dentistry techniques and materials used during a formative period in the development of American dentistry. He had both gold and tin-base restorations, materials that were commonly used at the time.This individual’s excellent oral health occurred despite one nearly ubiquitous oral devastator of the cavalrymen – tobacco consumption. His teeth displayed moderate staining and the associated dental wear indicated tobacco chewing.
The bones revealed a good deal about the man, but not his cause of death. He died on the defense line at the Reno-Benteen portion of the battle, but it is not clear how he died. Likely, the cause of death did not impact his bones, and thus it left no trace. The soldier has not been identified, as his age and height fit a number of possible candidates.
The second case is a moderately well preserved skeleton consisting of all of the larger bones and most of the smaller ones. The individual was a large, robust adult male about 25-35 years old and 70.66 inches tall. Indications of behavioral alterations included articular facets on the femur neck, suggesting hyper-flexibility of the hip, and the large toes turned toward the smaller ones. Several pathological lesions were present. He had a healed fracture of the lower arm and a possible healed fracture of the foot. He had spinal problems, both degenerative disks and articular facet osteoarthritis. A gunshot wound was in the right hip. The bullet entered from the back right side and presumably resulted in an abdominal injury. Given that 80 percent of abdominal wounds resulted in death, this probably caused his demise. The man’s oral health was particularly poor and many of his upper jaw teeth were missing before he died. He lost two mandibular molars a year or two prior to death;perhaps they were diseased or impacted teeth that had been extracted.
There are several possible identities for this skeleton among those who were killed with the Reno-Benteen group, but the best fit is Farrier (horseshoer) Vincent Charley. Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, Charley immigrated to the United States and began his first enlistment in Chicago in 1871. He was in his second enlistment at the time of the battle. The bones’ robusticity and healed injuries are consistent with the active life of a farrier, and the gunshot wound, as well as other skeletal determinations such as age and stature, are in keeping with what is known about Charley – he was shot in the hips on June 25 but his body could not be recovered at the time.
SUDDEN DEATH AND MUTILATION
The osteological data clearly demonstrate that some of the men were mutilated about the time of death, but to what extent cannot be precisely determined because of the lack of tissue and because many of the remains are missing some skeletal elements. However, a relative impression of the type and extent of the injuries can be suggested based on the osteological analysis.
Many contemporary accounts of the June 27-28, 1876, burials note that mutilation was prevalent among the dead. Blunt instrument trauma to the skull appears as the most common perimortem (occurring at the time of death) feature in these accounts, and the archeological evidence supports this. There are 14 cases in the Custer battlefield archeological record in which skull fragments were present, and all exhibit blunt instrument trauma. This group accounts for 41 percent of the Custer battlefield individuals represented archeologically and all of those cases in which skull fragments were found. This direct physical evidence suggests that blunt force trauma to the head was common.
Archeological evidence of incised (cut) wounds was present in about 21 percent of the remains from the Custer battlefield and in only one case from the Reno-Benteen defense site. Knife- or arrow-related wounds were seen in 11 percent of the Custer samples and hatchet-related injuries were noted in 10 percent. One must remember that not all injuries affected the bone, and that the samples only reflect those that did. Nevertheless, it appears that a significant percentage of the soldiers killed were shot with arrows, cut with knives or struck with hatchets about the time of death.
The archeological evidence clearly demonstrates that mutilation of the dead soldiers was common, and this is in agreement with the historical record. Yet the cause of the mutilation must be placed in the cultural context of the Sioux and Cheyenne. A prevalent theme in Indian explanations of the mutilation is one that pervades human nature – a sense of rage and revenge. While revenge may have been the most obvious motivation for disfiguring the bodies, there are also deeper cultural meanings ascribed to the practice.
Mutilation, in the view of the Sioux and Cheyenne battle participants, was a part of their culture. It should be seen as a normal cultural expression of victory over a vanquished foe. That expression has two levels. The first level is the overt and obvious one of rage and revenge. The second level is symbolic or religious, one in which mutilation is a means to ensure that an enemy cannot enjoy the afterlife in the same fullness that the victor might anticipate. Thus, the mutilated dead at the Little Bighorn became symbols of victory to the culture that defeated them.
STORIES OF LIFE AND DEATH
The men with Custer died in 1876, but today their bones tell a detailed story of their lives and deaths. The physical anthropologists have not only determined the men’s ages, stature and probable causes of death, but also discovered information about their lives that cannot be garnered from the historic record alone. The bones clearly show evidence of hard, sustained horseback riding and ubiquitous tobacco use, but perhaps most revealing is the extent to which the bones were restructured and remodeled by the cavalrymen’s harsh and rugged lifestyle. Indeed, our romantic notion of young, vibrant cavalrymen riding off to fight Indians ought to be revised. While our prevailing view of the past is that the Army enlisted boys and made men of them, the bones suggest it took young men and turned them into physical wrecks before their time.
Today the cavalrymen’s bones enlighten us about the realities of life and death in the Frontier Army, and they remind us of the ultimate sacrifice these soldiers made. We who studied them were honored and privileged to have been given a glimpse into some of the lives of the men who died with Custer.
Douglas D. Scott is an archaeologist who retired from the National Park Service after more than 30 years. He is currently an adjunct professor at Colorado Mesa University. He is particularly noted for his expertise in battlefield archeology and firearms identification, having worked on more than 40 battlefield sites, including Palo Alto, Sand Creek, Big Hole, Bear Paw, Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, Centralia, and Santiago de Cuba. His recent book on the archaeology of the Little Bighorn battle, “Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn,” has received several literary awards.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Armchair General.