YOU HEAR many names put forward as the man (or woman) who killed George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn -- from Sioux war chief Rain In The Face to Cheyenne holy man Yellow Nose to Sioux woman warrior Moving Robe.
None of these esteemed warriors actually killed Custer, though, based on the eye-witness record of the battle.
To find who really killed Custer -- or at least identify the most likely suspects -- it is crucial to know the appearance of Custer and the other officers in his command on June 25, 1876.
Boiled down, eye-witness Edward Godfrey's account of what Custer wore establishes that the strongest visual clue for Custer was his ironically named sorrel horse, "Victory." There were as many as seven officers on the field that day in buckskin, but only one on a sorrel horse with four white socks.
Peter Thompson, the last Seventh Cavalry survivor to see Custer alive, noted Custer's "sorrel horse" and added that Custer was wearing "a broad brimmed cream colored hat on his head, the brim of which was turned up on the right side and fastened by a small hook and eye to its crown. This gave him opportunity to sight his rifle while riding. His rifle lay horizontally in front of him."
Unhorsed, Custer was considerably harder to identify. Custer -- the man the Sioux called Long Hair -- had recently cut his hair short, and Thompson, John Martin and the Arikara scout, Soldier, all said Custer had taken off his buckskin coat and was in his shirt sleeves. Unfortunately, any number of Seventh Cavalry officers could fit this general description: an officer in shirt sleeves with short hair.
However, Custer's wounds may help identify his killer as well. Most observers agreed with Godfrey and Seventh Cavalry surgeon Dr. H.R. Porter that Custer was shot twice, once through the ribs below the heart, and once through the left temple. It is also useful to know that unlike most of the Seventh Cavalry dead, Custer was not badly mutilated.
Armed with this information, we at Astonisher.com have canvassed 100 Voices -- the world's largest and most complete collection of eye-witness accounts of the battles of the Little Bighorn and Rosebud -- and assembled Astonisher.com's "Who Killed Custer -- Top Ten List." Here are the results.
Stated simply, Sioux warrior White Cow Bull appears to be the man who killed George Armstrong Custer. The second most likely possibility is that Custer killed himself. Either of these top two scenarios could be true, but White Cow Bull is the prime suspect, based on the eye-witness record of the battle.
The other candidates in the Astonisher.com "Who Killed Custer -- Top Ten List" include Cheyenne warriors Brave Bear, Old Bear, and Little Horse; Sioux warriors Spotted Calf, Charging Hawk and Lazy White Bull; and two Anonymous Youths (possibly members of the "Suicide Boys").
Numbers One, Two and Three on the "Who Killed Custer - Top Ten List" -- now grown to be the "Top 18 List" -- are displayed at right. (The complete Who Killed Custer List -- including numbers Four through 18 -- is available in the PAID edition of Who Killed Custer.)
Part 2 -- And the winner is...
OUR #1 GUY, White Cow Bull, doesn't just win it on points; he really does look like "Custer's conqueror." Here is his story...
White Cow Bull, a 28 year-old Oglala Sioux warrior, said he was hanging out in the Cheyenne camp that Sunday morning with a Cheyenne buddy named Roan Bear.
"He [Roan Bear] was a Fox warrior, belonging to one of that tribe's soldier societies, and was on guard duty that morning," White Cow Bull recalled in a battlefield interview with David Humphreys Miller. "He was stationed by the Shahiyela [Cheyenne] medicine tepee in which the tribe kept their Sacred Buffalo Head."
When word of Reno's attack on the Hunkpapa end of the village swept the Cheyenne camp, White Cow Bull watched Cheyenne war chief Two Moon lead his men out to meet the American attackers "at a gallop," but neither he nor Roan Bear joined the departing warriors because of Roan Bear's duty to guard the Sacred Buffalo Head.
The two of them had just "settled down to telling each other some of our brave deeds in the past" when another alarm ran through the camp, this time announcing that the Americans were charging to attack the village at Medicine Tail Coulee across the river from the Cheyenne camp.
Happily considering themselves free to join the fight against this immediate threat, White Cow Bull and Roan Bear ran to the river, where they found Bobtailed Horse, White Shield, Calf and a couple other warriors, most without guns.
On the other side of the Little Bighorn were 200-plus Seventh Cavalry troopers, who charged to the river's edge in hot pursuit of a handful of Indians (alternately identified as Crazy Horse's Cheyenne decoy/scouts by Sioux warrior Foolish Elk, and as "five Sioux" by Sioux warrior White Cow Bull and George Bird Grinnell's Cheyenne informants). The Indians whipped their ponies across the ford at Medicine Tail Coulee moments ahead of the Americans.
"I had never seen white soldiers before," White Cow Bull recalled, "so I remember thinking how pink and hairy they looked."
White Cow Bull and the other defenders threw up a light screen of fire to cover the fleeing Indians' escape. The American soldiers halted on the opposite shore and dismounted, waiting there for a few minutes until a man in a buckskin jacket "shouted something and they all came charging at us across the ford."
White Cow Bull said: "I gave the man in the buckskin jacket my attention."
Cheyenne warrior Bobtailed Horse fired first and White Cow Bull saw an American soldier on a gray horse fall out of the saddle and hit the water.
White Cow Bull said: "The other soldiers were shooting at us now. The man who seemed to be the soldier chief was firing his heavy rifle fast. I aimed my repeater at him and fired. I saw him fall out of his saddle and hit the water."
Then an amazing thing happened. White Cow Bull said as soon as the officer on the "sorrel horse with... four white stockings" hit the water, the American charge came to an immediate and complete halt in the middle of the river. White Cow Bull said Custer's men "all reined up their horses and gathered around where he had fallen."
White Cow Bull said he saw several American soldiers quickly dismount in the middle of the river and apparently pull the fallen officer's body out of the water. (The American soldiers who jumped in the river were probably one or more of the four Custer family members with Custer when he fell, including his brothers Thomas and Boston.)
White Cow Bull said the officer he shot in the middle of the Little Bighorn was wearing buckskin and riding a "sorrel horse with... four white stockings." He said the officer had a mustache and a "big hat" and was "firing his heavy rifle fast" as he led the charge across the Little Bighorn.
Based on the eye-witness accounts of Custer's appearance and gear on June 25, 1876 by Seventh Cavalry survivors Edward Godfrey and Peter Thompson, the man who White Cow Bull shot can only be George A. Custer.
Part 3 -- Does his story check out?
OK, BUT what does the eye-witness record say about White Cow Bull's story? Does White Cow Bull's story check out?
In a word, yes. All the major points of White Cow Bull's story are supported by other survivors' accounts (witnesses are in parenthesis, with links to supporting portions of their eye-witness accounts of the battle)...
- White Cow Bull said Custer's men charged down Medicine Tail Coulee to the banks of the Little Bighorn (witnessed by: White Man Runs Him, Curley, Pretty Shield, Bobtailed Horse, White Shield, Sitting Bull, Horned Horse, He Dog, Foolish Elk, Peter Thompson, John Martin, Anonymous Sixth Infantry Sergeant)...
- White Cow Bull said three Crow scouts rode to the edge of the bluff above the river and fired down at them (witnessed by Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin)...
- White Cow Bull said Custer and his men were hotly pursuing a small band of Indians when they reached the river (witnessed by: Foolish Elk, George Bird Grinnell)...
- White Cow Bull said Custer and his men encountered Indian fire from the other side of the river when they reached the Little Bighorn (witnessed by: Curley, Anonymous Sixth Infantry Sergeant, White Shield)
- White Cow Bull said Custer and his men paused on the far side of the river when they reached the Little Bighorn (witnessed by: Peter Thompson, White Shield)...
- White Cow Bull said after pausing the Americans charged across the Little Bighorn River to attack the Indian village on the other side (witnessed by Curley, Pretty Shield, Horned Horse, Elk Head, Seven Anonymous Hostiles
- White Cow Bull said the ford where Custer tried to cross the Little Bighorn was very thinly defended by the Sioux and Cheyenne (witnessed by: Bobtailed Horse, White Shield, He Dog, Wooden Leg, George Bird Grinnell)...
- White Cow Bull said he was one of the few warriors there when Custer charged into the river and the Indians opened fire (witnessed by: Bobtailed Horse)...
- White Cow Bull said that when the Americans tried to charge across the river at Medicine Tail Coulee, Custer rode at the head of the attack formation with the flag bearer and a "small man on a dark horse," probably half-Sioux interpreter/scout Mitch Bouyer
(witnessed by: Pretty Shield)...
- White Cow Bull said a couple Seventh Cavalry troopers were shot out of the saddle and fell in the Little Bighorn before Custer's men could get across the river (witnessed by: Curley, Horned Horse, Pretty Shield, Soldier Wolf, Elk Head, Thomas LaForge, plus Sage, Hollow Horn Eagle and Brave Bird reported wounded American soldiers at the river after the battle, including Mitch Bouyer, the half-Sioux interpreter/scout whom Pretty Shield said rode at Custer's side)...
- White Cow Bull said Custer -- the officer on the "sorrel horse with... four white stockings" -- was one of those shot while crossing the Little Bighorn River (witnessed by: Pretty Shield)...
- White Cow Bull said Custer "fell in the water" of the Little Bighorn River (witnessed by: Pretty Shield)...
- White Cow Bull said Custer's charge at Medicine Tail Coulee was suddenly stopped and repulsed mid-river by the Cheyenne and Sioux defenders (witnessed by: Curley, George Glenn, Jacob Adams)...
Taken together, there is far more eye-witness corroboration and support for White Cow Bull's story than any of the other possible Custer kill stories in the eye-witness record of the battle. So White Cow Bull's story is not only the first and best of the possible Custer kill stories, it is also the best supported.
In fact, the only point of difficulty with White Cow Bull's story involves a couple small details; e.g., both Peter Thompson and Soldier said Custer had taken off his buckskin jacket and was riding in his shirt sleeves, while White Cow Bull said the officer he shot was wearing a buckskin jacket.
But who knows? Thompson and Soldier's observations were made earlier, and maybe Custer put his jacket back on for the attack. Either way, Custer was the only Seventh Cavalry officer on a sorrel horse with four white socks.
Part 4 -- The Runners-up...
BUT WHITE COW BULL was not the only warrior who described the death of a Seventh Cavalry trooper on a sorrel horse that day.
Many Sioux and Cheyenne warriors spoke of the curious suicide of an American soldier on a fast, sorrel horse which was "stocking-legged" -- in other words, a sorrel horse with four white socks, which can only be Custer's famously fast sorrel horse with four white socks, Victory.
As He Dog told it:
One soldier with a stocking-legged horse got away, around the big body of Indians, toward the north. He had a very fast horse and was pursued until they were about to give up the chase, when he shot himself with his revolver and the horse was caught.
White Cow Bull added the graphic detail:
I saw him yank out his revolver and thought he was going to shoot back at these warriors. Instead he put the revolver to his head, pulled the trigger, and fell dead.
This suicide story has two important elements for identifying Custer -- the crucial sorrel horse with four white socks, and the fatal bullet wound to the head.
Apart from White Cow Bull's story, the Custer suicide story is the only kill story that could actually be Custer, and apart from White Cow Bull's story, the Custer suicide story is also the best supported of the possible Custer kill stories in the eye-witness record of the battle.
But there are two more Cheyenne kill stories involving an American officer on a sorrel horse at the end of the battle. Renowned Cheyenne warriors Brave Bear and White Shield also said they saw a Seventh Cavalry officer on a sorrel horse killed near the end of the battle, and White Shield identified the killer as the Northern Cheyenne warrior, Old Bear, with assistance from Kills In The Night.
Both these kill stories are credible and check out as far as it's possible to check. Could one of these warriors be Custer's conqueror? Probably not. Here's why -- Old Bear shot his victim in the back between the shoulder blades, and there is no evidence Brave Bear was carrying a gun. Furthermore, neither of these accounts mentions the slain American officer's sorrel horse having four white socks, the crucial identifying mark of Custer's horse, Victory.
Another problem with the American suicide and Brave Bear and Old Bear's kill(s) is that they all came at the chaotic end of the battle, after the Americans' final defensive perimeter had collapsed and anyone could have been riding a sorrel horse. Many Sioux, Cheyenne and American stories of the battle -- including the accounts of Gall, Lights, Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull, Yellow Nose, Horned Horse, John Martin and George Bird Grinnell -- described how the Indians stampeded the Seventh Cavalry's horses as the Americans retreated, producing equine mayhem on the battlefield.
The same sort of problems plague all the candidates on Astonisher.com's "Who Killed Custer -- Top Ten List" -- except White Cow Bull. For instance, Rain In The Face's Anonymous Boy made his kill with a lance, not a gun; Lazy White Bull killed an officer in buckskin with short hair, but he had no mustache; Spotted Calf killed an officer with a tomahawk, not a gun, etc.
But the biggest problem with the American suicide, Brave Bear and Old Bear's claims -- and all the rest on Astonisher.com's "Who Killed Custer -- Top Ten List" -- is that there is no eye-witness evidence that Custer was still alive after his initial attack at Medicine Tail Coulee.
In fact, the eye-witness record indicates Custer was either killed or badly wounded before any of the other warriors on Astonisher.com's "Who Killed Custer -- Top Ten List" even got into the fight against Custer's troops...
Who Killed Custer List
1. White Cow Bull
Oglala Sioux warrior
White Cow Bull killed or badly wounded an officer in buckskin with a "big hat" and a "heavy rifle" who was riding a "sorrel horse with... four white stockings" as he tried to charge across the Little Bighorn River at the beginning of the Custer fight.
This is the first, the best, and the best-supported of the possible Custer kill stories in the eye-witness record. It also makes sense and simultaneously resolves most of the persistent problems with the Accepted Consensus View of the Battle of the Little Bighorn...
Kill story told by:
White Cow Bull
Battlefield interview with David Humphreys Miller
Witnessed in parts by
(see discussion below):
7 Anonymous Hostiles
Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull
Hollow Horn Eagle
White Man Runs Him
George Bird Grinnell
White Cow Bull's story of the Siege of the Greasy Grass, particularly shooting the heel off Frederick Benteen's boot and shooting Trooper Jones as he took his coat off, are supported by the eye-witness accounts of John Martin and Medal of Honor winner Charles Windolf.
Additionally, Dives Backward supports White Cow Bull's story of cutting a trophy finger off the "soldier chief" he shot at the river at the begining of the Custer fight, and Brave Bear supports White Cow Bull's story that the Cheyenne Sacred Buffalo Head was being kept next to Two Moon's lodge that morning.
Although not a renowned warrior, 28 year-old White Cow Bull was known among the Sioux and Cheyenne as an excellent marksman. According to David Humphreys Miller, his name commemorates the feat of killing a stray longhorn bull with one arrow at age 14...
2. George Custer
An American soldier on a fast, "stocking-legged" "sorrel horse" made a lone dash for safety at the very end of the Custer fight. He seemed to be escaping his Sioux and Cheyenne pursuers when he inexplicably shot himself in the head with his own pistol.
This American suicide has two of the crucial elments for identifying Custer in the eye-witness record of the Little Bighorn: (1) Custer's fast sorrel horse with four white socks, and (2) the fatal wound to the head.
Apart from #1 above, this Seventh Cavalry suicide is the only kill story in the eye-witness record of the battle that could actually be Custer, and the horse in question really does sound like Custer's horse, Victory. However, the eye-witness record says Custer was already long gone by the end of the battle, when the American on the fast, stocking-legged sorrel blew his own brains out with his own revolver.
Here is a dispatch written by a "Prominent Officer Killed in Custer's Last Charge," possibly Custer himself, that was written three days before the battle.
Kill story told by:
White Cow Bull
Various, see individual accounts for specific sources
1908-1937, see individual accounts for specific dates
He Dog and Foolish Elk said the Indians captured the dead American soldier's fast sorrel horse with four white socks, which could explain Noisy Walking (or alternately, Little Buffalo) ending up with Custer's horse, Victory. Most likely, though, this widely witnessed American suicide was actually another American trooper on Custer's horse in the desperate mayhem at the end...
3. Brave Bear
Southern Cheyenne warrior
Brave Bear saw an officer on a sorrel horse shot, but it happened near the end of the Custer fight, and the eye-witness record says Custer was already dead by then...
Kill story told by:
Letter from George Bent to George Hyde
After lengthy deliberation, Brave Bear was awarded the honorary title of "Custer's killer" at the last Great Council on the Little Big Horn in 1909, even though he didn't claim that he personally shot the officer on the sorrel horse he saw die near the end of the battle.
It is possible that the kill described by Brave Bear -- and popularly attributed to him -- was actually Old Bear's kill (see Astonisher.com List entry #4 below).
Here is Brave Bear's commentary on Monaseetah.
NOTE: For numbers 4 through 18 on Astonisher.com's "Who Killed Custer List," see the PAID EDITIONS of Who Killed Custer...