Crow scout left before the fighting.
The image has been fossilized on film since 1909, when William Selig produced On the Little Big Horn at a reenactment on location. Curley, a man in his 50s playing himself as a boy just out of his teens, skulks up to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer amid the handful of last men standing on Custer Hill, pantomiming with a buffalo robe that Custer should wrap himself up and cleverly escape disguised as an Indian. Custer disdainfully refuses and defies death laughing while Curley skulks away remorsefully. The first film ever made about Custer’s Last Stand encapsulated the Curley legend—the tale of the young Crow Indian scout who possessed the last friendly face Custer saw before his death.
William Selig wasn’t exactly Ken Burns. The same year he made On the Little Big Horn, he bought a rickety old lion from a circus, bribed some black workmen to dress up in loincloths and took movies while a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator shot the hapless lion with a real bullet. Selig never said this was Roosevelt in Africa—but he never said it wasn’t. The man had a knack for simulated legends.
The real Curley (sometimes seen as Curly) was not an utterly preposterous figure. It’s a matter of record that, alone and in hostile country, he brought word of Custer’s catastrophe to the outside world when he reached the Bighorn River. He came out of a willow thicket near the steamer Far West, riding a horse and clutching a Winchester as he held up both hands, palms out, to avoid being shot by mistake, shouting “Absaroka! Absaroka!”—the name the Crows called themselves. Curley’s first media breakthrough was literally a song-and-dance routine. The 20-year-old Crow couldn’t speak 10 words of English or Lakota, but he used two of them: “Heap Sioux!” Then he broke into a scalp dance, mimed hair lifting and threw out his arms in an embrace, gesturing as if sleeping— meaning death. The officers and traders who saw this took it to mean that Custer’s whole immediate command had been wiped out. The story was only too true.
Curley the Lone Survivor hit the newspapers via the Helena Herald of July 15, 1876: “He alone escaped…the only story of the fight ever to be looked for from one who was an actual participant on Custer’s side—Curley being, in all probability, the only survivor of his command….Curley says the firing was more rapid than anything he ever conceived of, being a continuous roll like (as he expressed it) the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket….Curley accomplished his escape by drawing his blanket around himself in the manner of a Sioux.”
Walter Mason Camp, that indefatigable collector of Little Bighorn stories, spoke to Curley three times, through interpreters, straddling the William Selig cinematic version. In the 1908 version, Mitch Bouyer, the boss of Custer’s six borrowed Crow scouts, tells Curley to leave the surrounded regiment. Curley sees a Sioux warrior shot off his horse, grabs the Sioux’s Winchester, catches his horse with a drag rope and uses it to escape.
In the 1909 version, Curley escapes by making a cape out of cut-up blankets, rides through the Sioux, who think he is one of them, and picks up the Winchester and a spare horse from a Sioux he finds dead on the field. But by 1909, the Selig movie had hit the theaters. Curley must have taken some ribbing. He disowned Selig’s version. “The story about my going to Custer on the battlefield and trying to persuade him to escape after the men were nearly all killed is untrue,” Curley told Camp in 1909. “I never told it. The fact that I could not speak English and Custer not a word of Crow shows how ridiculous it is.” Curley added that Camp was the first white man who ever tried to find out what had actually happened.
In 1910 Curley told Camp that he had fled using a cape, but that his Winchester was his own. He also reported going back to Colonel John Gibbon, his original commander, and reading him the riot act about the transfer to Custer. “You enlisted us to fight the Sioux and then went and sold us six Crows to Custer for $600. I told this to Bouyer. I don’t like this and I want to go home.”
“Well, you have nearly lost your life and you may go,” Gibbon told Curley. And he went. When he got back to Crow Agency, he found that the three Crow scouts who had bailed out on Custer before he had—White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead and Hairy Moccasin—had told the tribe that Curley was dead with Custer. This started a reservation feud that lasted for decades.
The last unfriendly faces to see Custer alive were not impressed with Curley’s blanket-head escape technique. At the 10-year anniversary in 1886, where white and Indian veterans of both sides walked around bumping into one another on unsteady feet and shaking hands, Gall, the Hunkpapa war chief, confronted Curley.
“Where are your wings?” Gall demanded.
“Wings?” Curley asked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that nothing but a bird could have escaped after we surrounded the whites.” Gall said. Gall nurtured a reputation. Curley kept quiet.
“Ugh! I know Curley. He is a liar,” Rain-in-the-Face, another Little Bighorn stalwart, told two white friends on New York’s Coney Island in 1894. “He never was in the fight. His pony stumbled and broke something. He stayed behind to fix it. When he heard the firing, he ran off like a whipped dog.”
Curley himself closed the books on the many purported versions with a talk with Russell White Bear shortly before his death from pneumonia in May 1923. White Bear said that Curley left the column, under instruction from Mitch Bouyer, at the same time “Custer wrote a message and handed it to a young man on a sorrel-roan horse—who galloped away.” Sergeant Daniel Kanipe of C Company was Custer’s next-to-last messenger; the last messenger, trumpeter Giovanni Martini, rode a white horse, so Curley was actually one of the last three friendly faces to see Custer alive—not counting four C Company troopers who showed up on Reno Hill after “horse trouble,” real or imaginary, stopped them short of the river.
That’s the way it was. Suzie Yellowtail, the first Crow woman to become a registered nurse, was my wife’s adoptive clan mother, and a few years before her death 30 years ago I asked Suzie pointblank just how far Curley had gone into the valley.
“He never went into the valley at all,” she said with conviction. “He wasn’t that stupid. He was young and he didn’t want to die. He felt bad about it afterward, though. I remember when my husband Tom and I were teenagers, we used to go to dances at Crow Agency and see all Custer’s old scouts—White Man Runs Him and the other old boys. Curley would never dance, even though he was the youngest—he was too embarrassed. He’d just stand there shaking his head and saying, “I told him not to go into that valley. I told him not to go into that valley….”
Suzie Koster assisted with this story through her late foster mother,Suzie Yellowtail.Important books are Custer in ’76, by Kenneth Hammer,based on the notes of Walter Mason Camp; The Custer Myth, by W.A. Graham;and Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.