The Italian-born musician once rode with Custer.
Things didn’t look so good for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer on the Yellowstone in August 1873. Exulting over having picked off three Lakota warriors in succession, Private John H. Tuttle, Custer’s orderly, took a bullet through the head and fell by Custer’s side, stone dead. A long-range rifle bullet smashed Lieutenant Charles Braden’s thigh bone, but he kept on fighting. Another long-range Lakota shot unhorsed Lieutenant Hiram Ketchum— notorious for having taken an ax to the expedition’s liquor supply a few weeks before, which won him few friends.
Custer’s response was totally in character: He called for a charge. As his 450 troopers rushed the Lakota firing line, the 7th Cavalry band struck up “Garryowen,” the regimental air, and the Lakotas fled—swimming their horses across a river the 7th Cavalry couldn’t ford. It was an inconclusive victory for Custer.
The Indians weren’t trying to escape the music. Custer’s bandmaster, Felix Vinatieri, was a fine classically trained musician. Once peace broke out, the Lakotas developed an appreciation for classical music—James McLaughlin, agent at Standing Rock, reportedly once took some of them to see Johann Strauss’ operetta Die Fledermaus in New York City, and the chiefs and their principal wives loved every minute of it. (The fact that the operatic wife outwitted her cheating husband may also have been a factor, at least with the Lakota ladies.) Nobody in Dakota Territory, white or Indian, had a bad word to say about Felix Vinatieri. He was undoubtedly the best classically trained musician west of the Mississippi and east of California, at least until Antonín Dvořák, composer of the American favorite “New World Symphony,” performed in greater Minneapolis, Minn., in 1893. Vinatieri was the best Europe had to offer while the West remained wild.
Vinatieri had a colorful past. Born Felice Villiet in Turin in 1834, he was the son of a French father and an Italian mother who happened to be a talented harpist. Felix’s father died while he was a small child, and two years later, his mother married piano builder Enrico Vinatieri. Felix respected his stepfather enough to take his surname, and Enrico enrolled the boy in Naples’ Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella, where he studied violin and became a minor prodigy by age 10. He graduated in 1853, spent a year teaching music at the school, then at age 20 signed on as director of the Queen’s Guard of Spagnis, an Italian military band. The violin virtuoso transferred his talents to the cornet—a valved trumpet invented shortly before his birth.
As with many northern Italians—especially those with genetic ties to France —Felix and sister Emmelia, an opera singer, supported il Risorgimento, the resurgence and unification of Italy. In 1859, after rebel forces took a downturn, they immigrated to Boston, where Felix worked as a music teacher. At the outset of the Civil War he enlisted as a bandmaster with Union forces, serving first with the 16th U.S. Infantry out of Massachusetts and then with the 22nd U.S. Infantry at Fort Columbus in New York. After the war the Army sent Felix to Fort Sully in Dakota Territory. He settled in Yankton, where in 1871 he met and married 16-year-old Anna Frances Fejfar, daughter of a music-loving Bohemian (Czech) family. Joseph Ward, the founder of Yankton College and a Protestant pastor, married the happy couple. Vinatieri had a house built with a studio in which to compose music and teach students. He also headed the Yankton band.
In April 1873 George Custer and wife Libbie attended a ball at which Vinatieri was bandmaster and cornet virtuoso. Vinatieri led the band with gusto. Custer thought the music sophisticated for a frontier town and asked to meet the bandleader. Taking to Vinatieri, Custer offered him the job of chief musician, a warrant officer’s position. On May 7 the band rode out of Yankton bound for Fort Abraham Lincoln. On the lead horse was a proud Felix Vinatieri. Following his arrival at the fort, Vinatieri traveled to St. Paul to formally enlist as bandleader of the 7th Cavalry.
Custer admired Vinatieri’s musicianship and brought him along on the Yellowstone and Black Hills expeditions of 1873 and 1874. In 1876 the band led the 7th Cavalry out for the expedition to return the hostiles to the agencies, but it didn’t play at the Little Bighorn. The musicians last saw Custer when they played a farewell concert on the banks of the Yellowstone River as Custer’s command split off from that of Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry. Arikara scouts disrupted the concert with their death songs. Custer then confiscated the band’s horses to give to troopers under arms and instructed the musicians to follow upriver on the steamboat Far West. He did the band a big favor. A few days later Vinatieri and his bandsmen on Far West helped nurse the 52 survivors from Reno Hill.
Vinatieri’s three-year enlistment expired about six months after the Little Bighorn, and with Custer gone, he didn’t seek reinstatement as 7th Cavalry bandmaster. Custer’s death left Vinatieri devoid of a cultural mentor. He rejoined the private sector and spent the rest of his life giving music lessons and conducting. By all reports Vinatieri enjoyed great respect and became something of a local dignitary—not just through his relationship with the late Custer, but because of his music. He filled two trunks with his band compositions and served as director of the Yankton Band from 1886 to 1891, as he had from 1868 to 1873 in his pre-Custer phase.
Some of the waltz music Vinatieri produced suffers from a lack of strings— ironic, as his first love was the violin— but his brass band compositions, like the distinctly Western-themed “Sitting Bull’s March” and “The Mosquitoes of Dakota,” are genuine art. He wrote what was probably the first light opera composed by an American citizen, “The American Volunteer,” but his death by pneumonia on December 5, 1891, spiked plans to have it performed at the famed 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the work would have shared stage center with Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face, recalling how he’d killed Tom Custer on the Little Bighorn. For those who love marching bands and/or football, please note: Indianapolis Colts placekicker and six-time Super Bowl participant (four with the New England Patriots and two with the Colts) Adam Vinatieri, who was born inYankton, S.D., on December 28, 1972, is the great-great-grandson of Custer’s bandmaster.
Felix Vinatieri’s career offers a sidelong glance at the history of the American West, a region so fond of classical music that a trained musician could make a living even in Yankton, Dakota Territory. Westerners just above subsistence level would scrape up the money to pay for their children’s music lessons and keep Vinatieri employed. Anyone without a tin ear could tell he was the goods. And if not for Dvořák, who ventured west two years after Vinatieri died, Custer’s bandmaster might have been the greatest composer the Wild West had ever seen or heard.
Minjae Kim, N.J. State Jazz Choir soprano and regional violinist, helped research this story. To hear excerpts from Vinatieri’s works, pick up Custer’s Last Band, a CD organized by Steve Charpie.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.