Frederic Francis Gerard was a man of many roles—including one at the Little Bighorn. Fluent in French, English, Lakota, Arikara and Ojibwe, Gerard was a natural as an interpreter for the 1876 expedition, helping Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer communicate with his company of Arikara soldier-scouts (see related story,P. 26). He was also an experienced fur-trader, an unlicensed frontier physician,a sometime journalist, a dabbler in gold before the intrusive Black Hills Expedition of 1874 and the head of three families, with four white children, three half-Arikara daughters, and one half-Blackfeet son.
Frederic was born on November 14, 1829,to François Gerard, a French-Canadian,and Catherine Trotier, an American of French ancestry, and grew up speaking both French and English. His hometown was St. Louis—once part of the French colonial empire in North America that had extended from north of Quebec to south of New Orleans and west into the domain of the Plains Indians. Fascinated with medicine, he spent four years at St. Xavier’s Academy, and at 19 he ventured north to Fort Clark, Dakota Territory, signing on as a clerk for the American Fur Co., which supplied the wannabe doctor with medical books and bottles of pills. Arikara medicine men initially viewed Gerard as a potential rival but later sought him out for second opinions. He earned the name Swift Buffalo by quickly learning the Arikara language and for his horsemanship in buffalo hunts.The Lakotas named him Strikes the Bear after he fought off a grizzly with a knife in 1855. He soon learned their language, too. Many Plains tribes spoke rudimentary Lakota, just as many Europeans outside France spoke rudimentary French.
Given his courage and, perhaps more important, his linguistic skills, Gerard was put in charge of the American Fur trading post at Fort Berthold in 1857. There he took up with an Arikara woman named Helena Catherine and sired three daughters—Josephine in 1860, Carrie in 1862 and Virginia in 1864. He sent his daughters down the Missouri for a Catholic education, and Josie and Virginia ultimately became Benedictine nuns in a St. Joseph convent.
In 1863 Fort Berthold trader Gerard welcomed a party of prospectors headed downriver from the Montana Territory goldfields. They proudly showed him their mackinaw boat fitted with a false bottom, beneath which they’d concealed an estimated $100,000 in gold dust. Gerard warned the men not to follow the river through Lakota country, but they did and were wiped out. Hearing of the massacre,Gerard sent an Arikara relative to recover the gold dust from the boat—and received a coffee pot and several belts full of ore. Rumor soon had it the treasure came from the Black Hills.
In 1869 American Fur sold Fort Berthold, and Gerard became an independent trader in Montana Territory, soon fathering a son, Frederic Francis Jr., with a Blackfeet woman named Catherine. Within a few years, however, a band of hostile Blackfeet ambushed his train and made off with the goods. Starting over, he staked a claim near Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and supplied meat and vegetables to the Army post—until the Northern Pacific Railroad discovered his claim lay on their land grant. Fortunately,he had earlier saved from Indian ambush a railroad survey party headed by Custer’s old West Point friend Tom Rosser. In gratitude the Northern Pacific gave Gerard 40 acres of land south of Mandan that he later sold for a tidy $5,000.
The man of many languages hired on in July 1872 as post interpreter at Fort Lincoln, and as the Army planned its 1876campaign, Gerard secured a slot as interpreter for Custer’s Arikara scouts. He signed up on May 12, just five days before the Arikaras, singing their death songs,joined the 7th U.S. Cavalry on the fateful expedition into Montana Territory. Gerard was with Custer at the Crow’s Nest, overlooking the Little Bighorn, when sharpeyed scouts described the huge Lakota-Cheyenne village Custer couldn’t see.He and the company of 40 Arikaras were assigned to bolster Major Marcus Reno’s three companies of troopers when Custer tried to surround the village. When the village exploded with angry warriors, Gerard and the Arikaras fell back into the timber with Reno’s men, and when Reno ordered the retreat over the Little Bighorn, Gerard was stuck in the cottonwoods with a dozen other soldiers and scouts. No fan of Reno, Gerard later told Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey that only two or three of the boldest Lakotas had infiltrated the woods,and Reno probably would have lost fewer men had he stayed put. He later recalled that no one at the Reno Court of Inquiry in Chicago seemed interested in his opinion.
During the retreat Gerard and Billy Jackson, a mixed-blood Blackfeet scout, had kept their horses and found cover with Lieutenant Charles De Rudio and Private Thomas O’Neill, both unhorsed. When night fell the four fugitives tried to escape by fording the river. No one knew how deep the Little Bighorn was, and Gerard supposedly took out his expensive gold watch and offered an incantation and sacrifice: “Oh, Powerful One, Day Maker!And you, people of the depths, this I sacrifice to you. Help us, I pray you, to cross safely!” With that, he threw the watch into the river, and his horse waded out and never got wet above the knees. Considering Gerard’s Jesuit education, and that two of his daughters were nuns, it’s quite possible Billy Jackson made up this story.Regardless, when a party of Lakota warriors challenged them on the opposite bank, Gerard and Jackson rode off, leading them away from De Rudio and O’Neill.
All four ultimately made it to Reno Hill,where Gerard found 13 of the Arikara soldiers in the troopers’ ranks. The others,minus two dead, had just kept riding,though most rejoined the command on June 28. During the hours-long standoff Gerard, with his layman’s knowledge of medicine, assisted Dr. Henry Porter. The remnants of the 7th Cavalry soon returned to Fort Lincoln, where Gerard remained post interpreter until July 1883.
On November 15, 1877, at age 48, Gerard married Ella Scarborourgh Waddell,a young and respectable woman from Kansas City. He fathered four more children—Frederic Curtis in 1878, Birdiein 1880, Charles in 1888 and Florence in1893. Carrie, his middle daughter with his first Arikara wife, lived with the family until adulthood. Fred Jr., son of the Blackfeet wife, remained a stranger.
Once married to a white woman, Gerard opened a store, became active in local politics and operated a ferry across the Heart River. In 1890 he moved his third and final family to Minnesota, where he worked in advertising for the Pillsbury Baking Co. Gerard once dryly remarked he was probably helping to sell flour given to the reservation Indians who almost killed him at the Little Bighorn. He lived out the last months of his life in the care of Benedictine nuns at St. Cloud, including the two daughters from his first marriage. Fred Gerard died on January 30, 1913.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.