The love between George and Libbie Custer is the stuff of legend on the Plains, but so is the romance between George and a captivating Cheyenne woman named Monahsetah.
Sigmund Freud was still a teenager when George Armstrong Custer penned 1874. But you don’t need to read too deeply between the lines to My Life on the Plains in see what was really on Custer’s mind—or what he wanted readers to think was on his mind—when he wrote about a Cheyenne woman captured in November 1868 at the Battle of the Washita: “Little Rock’s daughter was an exceedingly comely squaw, possessing a bright, cheery face, a countenance beaming with intelligence, and a disposition more inclined to be merry than one usually finds among the Indians. She was probably rather under than over 20 years of age. Added to bright, laughing eyes, a set of pearly teeth, and a rich complexion, her well-shaped head was crowned with a luxuriant growth of the most beautiful silken tresses, rivaling in color the blackness of the raven and extending, when allowed to fall loosely over her shoulders, to below her waist….Mo-nah-se-tah being the daughter of a chief high in rank, was justly considered as belonging to the cream of the aristocracy, if not to royalty itself.”
Custer’s account of Monahsetah suggests, but doesn’t confirm, erotic episodes between the lieutenant colonel and the Cheyenne woman whose name means “Young Grass That Shoots in Spring.” Libbie Custer, whose loving union with George is part of Western legend, pretty plainly knew about the extramarital affair, according to her own writings. And the affair was no secret to several contemporaries. It was explicitly denounced by Captain Frederick Benteen, Custer’s nemesis, and described by Monahsetah’s cousin Kate Bighead.
Subsequent writers, mostly hagiographers, widely dismissed the Custer-Monahsetah connection. Mountain men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson might marry Indian women, but to people of the Gilded Age—a time when social Darwinism was used to justify white supremacy and the Southern state governments made miscegenation (racial mixing) illegal—Custer was too pure and noble for such carryings on. Then, in the mid-20th century, the trend reversed, and a backlash began. The malicious version suggests that Custer raped an innocent Indian girl after the attack on the Cheyenne camp at the Washita on November 27, 1868, fathered a yellow-haired child with her and then abandoned them both when his wife rejoined him. David Humphreys Miller, whose book Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story was published in 1957, had extensively interviewed Lakota survivors of the Little Bighorn and saw Custer as a villain. Miller accepted the date-rape version as factual, but in so doing, he ignored many of the Indians’ contradictory recollections.
Stephen Ambrose, a highly readable, prolific author who never met a hero he didn’t like, dismissed the entire tryst as preposterous. “More nonsense has been said, written and believed about [Custer] than any other Army officer,” Ambrose wrote in his 1975 book Crazy Horse and Custer. “The Mo-nah-se-tah story is a prime example. The Indians spread the rumor that Custer had fathered her baby; whites picked it up, added embellishments, until it came to be believed that Custer had made her his mistress. Eventually, the story began to appear in serious historical studies and is now firmly established as one of the elements in the Custer myth.”
Primary sources indicate, however, that the myth—at least in regard to a sexual relationship, not the fathering of a yellow-haired baby—has a tangential basis in fact. Libbie Custer knew about the affair but did not see her husband as a “monster” for becoming involved with Monahsetah. In fact, she apparently never even scolded George. Her acceptance of his erotic adventures with a younger rival of another race would seem incredible—except for one little-known fact that may explain it all for the first time. It bothered George enormously that he and Libbie had produced no children, and he needed to resolve some questions about that unfortunate state of affairs.
Through 12 years as a wife and 56 years as a widow, Elizabeth Custer cherished “the General,” as she sometimes called her man, and defended his reputation against all comers. Libbie never hesitated to assert that he was betrayed in June 1876 at the Little Bighorn, and she blamed the catastrophe that killed 268 men (including five members of the Custer family) on cowardly subordinates. She loved her “Autie,” as George was known to family and friends, and she kept the memory of their love alive with three bestselling books that have never been out of print and lecture tours from England to Japan until she herself died in 1933, just shy of 91 years old.
Married on February 9, 1864, the Custers, most of their biographers agree, had a passionate love, emotionally and sexually. But after the Civil War, George spent much of his time campaigning or otherwise out in the Western field, and long separations were unavoidable. It was four years into this reputedly most idyllic of marriages that George had a protracted love affair with the daughter of Cheyenne Chief Little Rock, who died in the Battle of the Washita. The primary authority for a Custer-Monahsetah tryst is Kate Bighead, a Cheyenne woman who escaped, running barefoot through the snow, from Custer’s attack on the Washita. “My cousin…went often with him to help in finding the trails of Indians,” she recalled. “All of the Cheyennes liked her, and all were glad she had so important a place in life. After Long Hair [Custer] went away, different ones of the Cheyenne young men wanted to marry her. But she would not have any of them. She said that Long Hair was her husband, that he had promised to come back to her, and that she would wait for him. She waited seven years. Then he was killed.”
Kate Bighead’s story, told to former agency physician Thomas Marquis when she was 80 years old, splits the difference between Custer the hero and Custer the monster. There’s no rape here, and no yellow-haired baby. The same Bighead-Marquis account has most members of the five companies trapped with the Custer brothers in 1876 committing suicide. But while instances of suicide happened, they probably did not happen in the numbers suggested by Kate Bighead through Marquis. Most other Indian accounts relate that some soldiers died fighting and others died cringing, while only a few shot themselves. Comprehensive mass suicide was largely a Marquis staple.
Certainly, the post-Washita Custer-Monahsetah romance holds more water than mass suicides at the Little Bighorn. The official version is that Monahsetah served as a scout, interpreter and goodwill ambassador between Custer and those Indians who remained wary or hostile. But Custer credits her with effective tracking— an odd skill for an Indian woman—and glosses over the fact that she didn’t speak English, and he didn’t speak either Cheyenne or Lakota, the language most often used by Plains tribes among themselves. Custer knew some sign language in 1868 and later became proficient. Besides her beauty and elevated position in Cheyenne society, Monahsetah had another thing going for her: pluck. According to Custer, she didn’t like her chosen first husband and shot him in the kneecap in a fit of pique. Clearly, only a real he-man like George Armstrong Custer could tame this virago vixen of the Plains—a point the author clearly wanted at least his male readers and select women of imagination to understand.
Libbie Custer met Monahsetah in the spring of 1869, after things between the Cheyenne woman and George had been perking along for a few months. “Mo-nah-se-tah had in many other ways made herself of service to the command,” Libbie noted—perhaps archly—in her 1890 memoir Following the Guidon, after noting the girl’s tracking and negotiating skills. “When the soft eyes smiled on me, I instantly remembered how they must have flashed in anger when she suddenly, and to her husband’s surprise, drew the pistol from under her blanket and did him the greatest injury, next to death, that can happen to an active warrior. How could I help feeling that with a swift movement she would produce a hidden weapon, and by stabbing the wife, hurt the white chief who had captured her, in what she believed would be the most cruel way.” Libbie was understandably less impressed with the girl’s attractions than George was: “Her face was not pretty in repose, except with the beauty of youth, whose dimples and curves and rounded outlines are always charming.”
What won Libbie over, she admits, was Monahsetah’s baby. The girl had been captured in late November 1868, and in late January 1869 she gave birth to a son—obviously not Custer’s, and obviously a full-blooded Indian—and Libbie was charmed: “Though [Monahsetah] was so proud and fond of the little creature, she offered it to us to keep until she should return to her people. I presume I should have accepted this somewhat embarrassing gift (from sheer fear of the consequences I dreaded if I declined) had not the other head of the house had the tact to assure the mother that we could not think of robbing her, however sincere her generosity might be.”
Libbie was a pretty good amateur anthropologist, but through naiveté or denial, she missed a key point in plural marriages, as practiced among the Sioux and Cheyennes: All wives of the same husband are considered “sisters,” and each a mother to all children of that husband. By offering the child to Libbie, Monahsetah respectfully acknowledged her as Custer’s senior wife. Since Libbie was first—and older—she enjoyed a position of primacy. Libbie describes Monahsetah’s attitude to her as shy and modest, hanging her head. This reflects the proper behavior. When Fanny Kelly fell captive to the Sioux a few years before and experienced plural marriage, at least as a spectator, the senior wife treated her with arrogance, while the six other wives bonded with her instantly and treated her minor injuries with herbal remedies, ointments and gestures of kindness. They also ran interference between Kelly and her captor husband, once they learned she was already married to a white man; their society extolled one-man women, though not one-woman men, who were seen as timid and stingy. The captive’s accounts of Indian brutality exempted her six temporary sisters. According to Kelly, Sioux women realized Indian life was about played out and spent hours asking questions about life among the whites and trying to learn how to read.
Plural marriage, in fact, had developed in Plains culture largely because there weren’t enough men to realize replacement rates monogamously. Warfare and buffalo hunting led to a high rate of male attrition, and women couldn’t support themselves by farming and fishing, as they did in woodland cultures. Warriors often married all the sisters in one family to promote harmony and keep the bloodlines straight (incest in any form was and remains abhorrent in Indian society). Girls were sometimes allowed a voice in choosing prospective husbands, with parental consent, but marriage by capture was common and perhaps even viewed as romantic. Monahsetah would have seen both Libbie and herself as lawful wedded wives.
But what about Libbie, the prettiest girl in Monroe, Mich., valedictorian of her class in finishing school, daughter of a judge and married to a blacksmith’s son who had become a general in the Civil War? She must have been miffed enough at joining a family in which every roughneck healthy male spent his life using her husband’s fame as a fulcrum to hustle government jobs. Why should she accept George’s Indian girl, princess or not, as a possibly dangerous rival when she herself was still young and beautiful?
After pushing first Libbie Bacon, then her father, to agree to his proposal, Custer had married her the year before the Civil War ended. He brought the Bacon family a general’s fame. He also brought a secret. In 1859, while on furlough as a cadet at West Point, Custer had contracted gonorrhea, possibly from a prostitute in New York City. Treatment of gonorrhea was rudimentary and not very effective in the days before antibiotics, and the disease was notorious for its ability to induce sterility and eventual blindness if it didn’t remit spontaneously. No remedy of the time would have guaranteed a cure.
Custer was rapturously fond of his extended family, while Libbie had lost her siblings and birth mother early and was essentially an only child. Both wanted children. Their first weeks, months and years of marriage were an idyll of love— but not fertility. Unable to impregnate Libbie, Custer underwent a drastic change in personality. Before and immediately following his wedding, he had been one of the best-loved officers in the Army. His men wore red neckties to emulate him and took pride in serving in his Michigan Brigade despite hard fighting and heavy casualties, because Custer took care of them. He once barged into a private’s tent and ordered him to write his mother a letter. Two years into a marriage to a woman he loved, but couldn’t impregnate, Custer went from one of the most beloved officers in the Army to one of the most hated.
Some of this may have related to the fact that in the postwar period his enlisted men were veteran volunteers rather than Regulars and grew disgruntled after being posted to Texas instead of sent home. Some of Custer’s free-floating rage was undoubtedly tied to his rote demotion from major general to lieutenant colonel due to the Army’s postwar downsizing. Regardless, a drastic personality change clearly took place. Major Albert Barnitz, who had admired and respected Custer during the Civil War, found the postwar Custer “injudicious…generally obnoxious.” Added Barnitz: “I am thoroughly disgusted with him! He is the most complete example of a petty tyrant that I have ever seen.”
Faced with unruly soldiers, Custer piled on punishments that were not only harsh, but also in some cases illegal. The Army had abolished flogging in 1861, but Custer ordered soldiers flogged anyway in 1866. He once had the heads of a half-dozen enlisted men shaved because they had left the camp for an hour to buy canned fruit, even though they all returned voluntarily. He ordered one popular sergeant shot for mutiny simply for expressing an opinion, though he pardoned him at the last minute—perhaps in a moment of prescience, since the firing squad had reportedly agreed to shoot Custer instead of the culprit if he went through with the execution.
Even as he abused his soldiers and alienated his subordinates, Colonel Custer doted on Libbie almost to excess. The crunch came that summer when, after ordering some 7th U.S. Cavalry deserters shot down like buffalo, he himself “deserted” to be at Libbie’s side during a rumor of cholera—and was arrested. Custer, his career in near shambles due to chaotic floundering between brutality to his soldiers and overindulgence to his wife, was court-martialed and removed from active command for a year without pay. He made a flamboyant comeback in the surprise attack on the Washita, an endlessly controversial battle where innocent and guilty Indians perished together—and where Custer captured Monahsetah.
A month before the Washita attack, on October 31, 1868, Custer had written Libbie a revealing letter, strongly suggesting they adopt Harry Armstrong Reed, his 10-yearold nephew. Libbie seems to have declined the offer. Custer clearly wanted children, and by October 1868 he doubted his own ability to father them.
With Monahsetah, Custer had his hands on the perfect means to resolve his doubts: a girl who was attractive, available through no fault of her own, unprotected by the social code of the Victorian Age, and eminently capable of becoming pregnant and bearing children. The yarn that she shot her first husband in the knee was pretty thin—Indian women weren’t supposed to handle weapons, other than the butcher knives they carried for housework and to guard their own chastity, and the Cheyennes in general had such a strong prejudice against intratribal homicide that a husband-shooting would have become notorious. Kate Bighead never mentioned the incident, nor did anyone other than the Custers. Monahsetah had no right of refusal, but she also displayed a loyalty to George, or perhaps sensed his capacity for showing mercy to other defenseless Cheyenne prisoners.
When Custer sent Monahsetah on a diplomatic mission to her people, she returned to him even when Mahwissa, an older Indian woman he also sent, chose to escape. Libbie probably learned of the errand; she might even have accepted an Indian child sired by Custer, if any such child had been possible. The half-Sioux son of Richard Garnett, a Confederate general killed in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, was welcomed into his genteel Southern family. And practically every family south of the Mason-Dixon line fancied blood ties to Pocahontas. Daughters of chiefs, in particular, made respectable marriages. According to both George and Libbie, Monahsetah was a Cheyenne “princess,” a Victorian version of Pocahontas, and not a random Indian picked up outside a fort.
Custer, however, played John Smith better than John Rolfe. Jeffry Wert, a noted Custer biographer, accepts the sexual nature of the relationship between Custer and Monahsetah, but believes gonorrhea had almost certainly left Custer sterile. This seems convincing. Custer appears to have had other flings after Monahsetah, but no paternity ever transpired—and with Fred Benteen at the keyhole, none would have been overlooked. The yellow-haired child was pure fiction, unless Monahsetah herself was a half blood, and based on Libbie’s description she was a full-blooded Cheyenne. Blond genes are recessive, and halfblood children generally have black hair, the white blood showing up in the skin, facial features and amount of body hair, not the hair on one’s head.
Six months into the relationship, it became clear Custer couldn’t impregnate Monahsetah any more than he could Libbie, and when her people left the Army’s custody, Monahsetah left with them. “[Monahsetah] walked out of the gate, her papoose on her back, smiling and shy, and showing some regret at departure, for she had thriven in the idle life,” Libbie wrote. “[She] came over to where we waited to say a special good-bye to us…and raised her liquid eyes coyly to smile and bid adieu.”
Custer’s failure to sire a child with Monahsetah must have confirmed what he’d no doubt suspected. Shortly thereafter, the Custer marriage appears to have weathered a crisis, still somewhat mysterious, before resuming the character of mutual devotion and respect that became the brightest part of the Custer legend. Libbie may have been the living example of “Custer’s Luck.”
Seven years after Monahsetah trudged out of his life carrying a lone papoose that clearly wasn’t his, Custer stood on the Crow’s Nest, a rock outcrop overlooking the Little Bighorn River. His scouts had found the Sioux-Cheyenne village he was looking for and tried to point out the enormous pony herd— “they look like worms in the grass”—to convince Custer the village was too big for the 7th U.S. Cavalry to handle alone. But while the scouts observed the herd with their naked eyes, Custer couldn’t see the ponies, even with binoculars. Had the gonorrhea that left him sterile begun to destroy his eyesight as well, two decades after the initial infection? The timing is about right. When he reached the village outskirts, Custer didn’t realize the tepees were full of warriors with repeating rifles and teenage boys sleeping off a courtship dance the night before—but that pause atop the Crow’s Nest had been his last chance to avoid contact and await reinforcement by the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and Gatling gun battery under Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry. Custer had missed the chance. He paid for it with his life.
Custer’s death left Libbie a $5,000 insurance policy with a 10 percent deductible were he killed in battle. His creditors chewed through the $4,500 in weeks. The 7th Cavalry passed the hat for his widow, but that money too was soon gone. Left to her own devices, Libbie became a bestselling author and international lecturer—the 19th-century equivalent of the millionaire next door after Custer had dragged her through a life of genteel but glorious poverty and at least one posthumous lawsuit based on shady investments.
On learning of Custer’s death in battle, Monahsetah is said to have cut off her hair and slashed her arms and legs in mourning. As she understood their relationship, he had been her “husband,” though his sterility had kept her (as it had Libbie) from conceiving his child. A year later, Monahsetah accepted a proposal from another white man, and their respectable marriage led to several children. She died in 1921. For generations afterward, Cheyenne women teased girls they thought were apt to get into trouble by telling them, “You are Custer’s Indian wife!” But one thing is for sure—not one of them was Custer’s daughter or granddaughter or great-granddaughter.
Suzie Koster, Minjae Kim and Inhye Lee provided valuable research help for this story. Jeffry Wert first disclosed Custer’s medical history in Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. Also see: Touched by Fire, by Louise Barnett; Cavalier in Buckskin, by Robert Utley; She Watched Custer’s Last Battle, by Thomas B. Marquis; and books by the Custers.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.