Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s Infamous ‘Last Stand’ at Little Big Horn

On 25 June 1876 a force of around 2,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, fiercely defending their combined village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, stopped a surprise attack from 600 men of the U.S. 7th Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. When the dust finally settled from the furious fighting, Custer and every man of the five companies he was leading lay dead, with the 7th Cavalry’s other seven companies pinned down and unable to come to his aid.

Painting: “The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell

Painting: “The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side. Source: Library of Congress.

U.S. forces lost 268 men that day, including 31 officers and 10 scouts, and another 55 were wounded in the legendary battle. History will never know how many Indians died during the fighting, with estimates ranging from 40 to 140. One thing is certain, however: the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a complete disaster for Custer, and is known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

The battle remains one of the most famous in American history, and one of the most controversial. Was Custer the victim of bad luck, overwhelmed by superior numbers through no fault of his own? Or did he cause the deaths of his men because he was proud and vain, recklessly attacking a much larger force because he wanted the glory and credit of defeating the enemy before approaching reinforcements from General Terry and Colonel Gibbon could arrive?

The following two 1800s newspaper articles give an indication of how a shocked America learned the news of Custer’s annihilation, just days after the nation had jubilantly celebrated its centennial on 4 July 1876. The first old news article is an editorial that, while acknowledging Custer’s bravery and touting his remarkable Civil War record, nonetheless calls him “not well balanced” and speaks of his “rashness.” The second historical news article presents some of the first news the outside world learned of the disaster, conveyed by a scout who arrived on the scene with Colonel Gibbon after the battle and surveyed the carnage on the battlefield.

Gen. Custer's Disaster and Death, Boston Journal newspaper article 6 July 1876

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 July 1876, page 2

This historical newspaper editorial states:

Gen. Custer’s Disaster and Death

The tidings of Gen. Custer’s fatal encounter with the Indian camp on the Little Horn River will be received by the public with mingled sorrow and indignation, and we may add with profound astonishment. The American people have known what it is to contend with the wily savage in his native forests from the days of Bradstreet’s terrible defeat to those of the Modoc war. Perhaps no amount of experience can guard disciplined troops against all danger of bloody surprises on the part of a foe whose cunning is equal to his ferocity. But here there seems to have been nothing of the kind. Gen. Custer directly and without a particle of excuse, so far as we now know, charged into the very jaws of destruction. He came upon an Indian camp, three or four miles long, occupied by from 2500 to 4000 warriors, and he attacked it in the very centre – amid grounds presumably chosen, as Indian camping places always are, for their advantages for defence – he attacked, we say, this overpowering force with 315 men! True, seven companies under General Reno were to make an attack in another quarter, and three companies were placed on a distant hill as a reserve, but these could render no assistance to Custer’s force, who, to a man, were simply butchered in cold blood! It is the most outrageous story that is yet on record in the annals of our regular army. We sincerely trust that some mitigating circumstances will come to light which will enable the American people to throw the mantle of charity over the fallen form of a brave officer who rendered some most excellent service in his time. Were he and his memory alone concerned we might say that he had paid the penalty of his rashness with his life, but the undeserved fate of his three hundred brave comrades who followed him to the slaughter, the bereavement of their families and the loss to their country, will not allow us to dismiss the matter thus lightly.

General George A. Custer, who, with two of his brothers and two other relatives, has thus fallen so suddenly and recklessly, was born in Ohio in 1840, so that he was only thirty-six years old at the time of his death. He graduated at West Point in 1861 and entered at once into active service in the war of the rebellion. He was in the Battle of Bull Run, in McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, in the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, in the Rappahannock campaign of 1863, in the battle of Gettysburg and the minor engagements connected therewith; he went through the whole of the Wilderness campaign and the Shenandoah campaign, and he bore a conspicuous part in the winding up operations at Five Forks and Appomattox Court House. It was a glorious career of service, and it raised its actor from Second Lieutenant of cavalry to brevet Major General. After the war Gen. Custer was put in command of the cavalry division of the Southwest and the Gulf, and in 1865-6 he was chief of cavalry in the Department of Texas. Since then he has been mainly on Western frontier duty.

Gen. Custer was preeminently the embodiment of the phrase, “a dashing cavalry officer.” His bravery was perfect, his energy was remarkable though not always sustained, and when under wise direction few officers were more effective and brilliant. But he was not well balanced, and Gen. Grant, whose judgment of army officers at least will never be questioned, deposed him from the chief command of the expedition against the Indians which has now so disastrously commenced operations. The act was largely attributed by a partisan press to personal and political prejudices, and Gen. Custer was ultimately allowed to go as commander of his regiment. It is of little use to bewail what is now past; we can only hope that Gen. Terry, who has the confidence of all, will retrieve the errors and fatalities which have thus far thrown a shadow over the expedition, and will bring it out successful in the end.

Custer's Death, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 6 July 1876

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 6 July 1876, page 1

This article reports:

Custer’s Death

The Fearful Tale of an Army Scout

An Indian Camp of Two Thousand Lodges Attacked by the Troops

General Custer and His Command Perish to the Last Man

Three Hundred Soldiers Killed and Thirty-one Wounded

Seventeen Commissioned Officers Surrender Their Swords to Death

Salt Lake, July 5. – A special correspondent of the Helena (Montana) Herald writes from Stillwater, Montana, on July 2d:

Muggins Taylor, scout for General Gibbon, got there last night direct from Little Horn River. General Custer found the Indian camp, of about 2,000 lodges, on the Little Horn, and immediately attacked the camp. Custer took five companies and charged the thickest portion of the camp. Nothing is known of the operations of the detachment, only as they trace it by the dead. Major Reno commanded the other seven companies, and attacked the lower portion of the camp. The Indians poured in a murderous fire from all directions, besides the greater portion fought on horseback. Custer, his two brothers, nephew, and brother-in-law were all killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. Two hundred and seven men were buried in one place, and the killed are estimated at three hundred, with only thirty-one wounded. The Indians surrounded Reno’s command, and held him one day in the hills, cut off from water, until Gibbon’s command came in sight, when they broke camp in the night and left. The Seventh fought like tigers, and were overcome by mere brute force. The Indian loss can not be estimated, as they bore off and cached most of their killed. The remnant of the 7th Cavalry and Gibbon’s command are returning to the mouth of Little Horn, where a steamboat lies. The Indians got all the arms of the killed soldiers. There were seventeen commissioned officers killed. The whole Custer family died at the head of their columns. The exact loss is not known, as both the Adjutants and the Sergeant-Major were killed. The Indian camp was from three to four miles long, and was twenty miles up the Little Horn from its mouth. The Indians actually pulled men off their horses in some instances. I give this as Taylor told me, as he was over the field after the battle. The above is confirmed by other letters which say that Custer has met with a fearful disaster.

(Another account.)

Bozeman, Montana, July 3 – 7:00 P.M. – Mr. Taylor, bearer of dispatches from Little Horn to Fort Ellis, arrived this evening and reported the following:

The battle was fought on the 25th, thirty or forty miles below the Little Horn. Custer attacked the Indian village, from 2,500 to 4,000 warriors, on one side, and Col. Reno was to attack it on the other. Three companies were placed on a hill as a reserve. Gen. Custer and fifteen officers and every man belonging to the five companies were killed. Reno retreated under the protection of the reserve. The whole number of killed was 315. When General Gibbon joined Reno the Indians left. The battleground looked like a slaughter pen, as it really was, being in a narrow ravine. The dead were much mutilated. The situation now looks serious. Gen. Terry arrived at Gibbon’s camp on a steamboat, and crossed the command over and accompanied it to join Custer, who knew it was coming before the fight occurred. Lieut. Crittenden, son of Gen. Crittenden, was among the killed.

(The scene of this reported fight is near the Crow Indian Reservation. The correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, accompanying Gen. Crook’s expedition, writes on June 9 as follows.)

It is getting very monotonous in camp, and we use up a good portion of the time discussing the general plan of the campaign, and the whereabouts of the Sioux. The most generally-accepted opinion appears to be that all the Indians have left this part of the country, and are now on the Yellowstone, watching Gibbon, and skirmishing after Terry. Supporters of this theory base their opinion mainly on the fact that we have not been molested; that none of our camps have been fired into; and that our column, starting from Fetterman so long after Gibbon and Terry had taken the field, concentrated the vigilance of the savages on them alone, and consequently they are not yet aware of our invasion of their country, which, by the way, is not their country, but “Absaroka,” or the country of the Crows, from which tribe the Sioux have taken it.

(If this reported engagement [i.e., Custer’s fight] should prove true, it would seem to prove the correctness of the correspondent’s opinion, as the Indian camp is represented as being immense in size, and was pitched on the land of the Crow Reservation.)

Related Articles:

Did Grandma & Grandpa Write Letters to Santa Claus as Kids?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find some of the cute, funny, and heartwarming letters our ancestors wrote to Santa Claus.

In our genealogical quests, we often overlook valuable sources of family history—such as time-honored childhood traditions like writing to Santa Claus (once known as Saint Nicholas).

I recommend you include “Letters to Santa,” published in hometown newspapers, as part of your genealogy research. Can you imagine finding a letter to Santa Claus written by Grandma or Grandpa when they were tots? It would certainly bring a jolly twinkle to your eyes this holiday season!

Yes—it’s very possible that you might find a letter to Santa your ancestor wrote in the historical newspaper archives—and you might even find one with a home address!

Fact: Many Letters to Santa Were Shipped to the North Pole

The U.S. Post Office, not knowing what to do with the abundance of letters to Santa they received throughout the Christmas season, often shared them with newspaper publishers. After air travel became feasible, many letters were (and still are) sent to the North Pole in Greenland, often causing overtime for postal workers. This article from 1950 reports that as of mid-November that year, over 70,000 letters had been received in Copenhagen, Denmark; by Christmas they were expecting about 200,000.

Mail for Santa Claus Keeps Postoffice in Denmark Busy, Boston Herald newspaper article 17 December 1950

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 17 December 1950, page 47

Letter to “Dear Old Man” (Santa Claus) from Tom (1888)

Here is an early letter to Santa published after the 1887 Christmas holiday. Although it doesn’t reveal “Tom’s” surname, it has an interesting description about the custom of using a chimney post office for the children’s letters.

The little boy made it clear he didn’t care for peppermint sticks, and had some interesting requests—including this instruction to Santa: “Don’t put my things in Jim’s stockings. My stockings are red, with holes in the knees.” Tom also advised Santa Claus: “Ma and Pa are always foolin’ about Christmas Eve, but come along and don’t mind them.”

The Letters Santa Claus Receives, Haverhill Bulletin newspaper article 2 January 1888

Haverhill Bulletin (Haverhill, Massachusetts), 2 January 1888, page 2

Santa’s Letter Box (1899)

The previous letter to Santa seems more of a novelty, as it was published in the newspaper after Christmas. Around the turn of the century, delightful children’s correspondence to Santa became a regular feature in many newspapers in the United States, and their letters were printed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In the following 1899 newspaper article, you can read these letters to Santa:

Albany, Tex., Dec. 15.—Dear Santa Claus: Will you please send me a doll, if you have one to spare? I want one eighteen inches long, kid body and bisque head, light hair or dark will do. Yours truly, BESSIE TILGHMAN.

Oak Cliff, Tex., Dec. 15.—Dear Santa Claus: Please send me a toy cannon, train, magic lantern and a small boat, some candy, nuts of all kinds, apples, oranges and some fireworks. I am a little boy 6 years old. Your little friend, JULE BERAND.

Dallas, Tex., Dec. 17.—Dearest Santa: Though I look older, I am only 4 years old. I don’t want a doll, but I want a watering pot and a carpet sweeper, and some ginger-snaps and jaw-breakers. Yours lovingly, BROOKSIE T. SMITH.

Santa's Letter Box, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 December 1899

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 December 1899, page 5

Notice the letter authors are clearly identified by first and last name. Are any of these letters to Santa written by your ancestors?

Georgie Freeman and Charlotte Ostan from Evansville, Indiana (1905)

These children had been very good all year, one performing night work and carrying in meat, and the other who didn’t want her five-year-old brother Tony Ostan forgotten.

Letters to Santa Claus, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 15 December 1905

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 15 December 1905, page 6

Almira and Kenton Christopher from Belleville, Illinois (1919)

As we all know, many families have a tough time at Christmas. Not wanting to disappoint their children, Mom and Dad often make up cover stories to explain the lack of presents, as shown in the following letters to Santa Claus.

In 1919, the Christopher children wrote that they were sorry Santa’s reindeer were sick, and that he wouldn’t be coming this year. However—just in case—Almira did wish for a coat, hair ribbon, dress, cap, shoes, fruit and nuts, and some other items, including a little piano.

Among the presents Kenton hoped for were a popgun, new suit and cap, an auto, bicycle, football suit, and a tree. He also added, “Do not forget to leave something for my sisters, brother and parents.”

letters to Santa Claus, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 15 December 1919

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 15 December 1919, page 7

Ruby Grace Coker from Marietta, Georgia (1923)

Some letters to Santa are purely fun, such as this one from a little girl who lived in Marietta, Georgia:

Dear Santa Claus—Christmas, I want you to bring me a doll that walk, talk and sleep. I want a pair of skates, and I want a box of water colors. Please bring some fruits, nuts and candy of all kinds. There is one more thing I want and that is a raincape. I won’t ask for anything else, because there is lots more little boys and girls that you have to see, but remember mother, daddy, brother and my little baby sister.—Your friend, Ruby Grace Coker.

letter to Santa Claus, Cobb County Times newspaper article 20 December 1923

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 20 December 1923, page 6

Letters to Santa Claus Contest (1937)

With so many children’s letters to Santa sent to newspaper editors, the competition to be published was fierce. Not wanting to disappoint, some newspapers created contests—such as this one from the Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper, which offered a first place prize of $5 and a second place prize of $3, with six runners-up to receive $1 each. (I wasn’t able to locate the winning entries, but perhaps some of our readers would find them and report it on the blog.)

Letters to Santa Claus Entered in New Contest, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 12 December 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 12 December 1937, page 2

Letters from the Echo of Richardson, Texas (1941)
In this collection of letters from 1941, many children told Santa Claus that they love him. (Don’t we all!)

Dear Santa Claus: I have been good. Please come to see me. Fill my stocking with fruit and candy and toys. Don’t bring me very much, but don’t forget other boys and girls. I love you, Ray Johnson.

Dear Santa Claus: I have been good. Please come to see me. Fill my stocking with fruit and candy and toys…I love you, Sylvia Jean Terry.

Letters to Santa Claus, Richardson Echo newspaper article 19 December 1941

Richardson Echo (Richardson, Texas), 19 December 1941, page 5

There are so many letters to Santa Claus in the newspapers, I hope you’ll take time to research them—and please let us know when you find any of these priceless family treasures!

Search Tips

Try entering your ancestor’s first and last name in combination with “letters to Santa” or “letter to Santa” in the “Include Keywords” field on GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives search page to get started.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page, looking for letters to Santa Claus

You might also try searching for your ancestors’ letters to Santa from the Newspaper Letters search page.

Christmas card from Mary Harrell-Sesniak to her blog readers

Hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

Merry Christmas!

Frakturs & Family Bibles Can Provide Proof of Marriage

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about using family Bible records and an interesting folk art called “frakturs” to document early family history.

I was recently asked to be part of a “Brick Wall” genealogical panel, whereby researchers submit a series of questions regarding their seemingly unsolvable ancestral proofs.

Many family researchers get stuck at dead-ends due to the loss of church and civil records, and don’t know where to turn next in pursuing their family history.

So if you can’t find an official genealogical proof document, what should you do? One good solution is to look for a family record, such as notes recorded in family Bibles. Another good genealogical resource is a fraktur, a type of folk art, mostly created to commemorate births, baptisms, and marriages.

Frakturs (or Fraktur Schrift) was originally an early type of black letter printing (or calligraphy) found in Germany. Later it expanded into a delightful type of decorative pictorial or manuscript art, popularized by Pennsylvania Mennonites at Ephrata, as described in this 1955 article from GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.

The Art of 'Fractur' Made Pennsylvania Walls Bright, Boston Herald newspaper article 9 October 1955

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 October 1955, page 38

Fraktur examples are often found in museums, and are advertised for high amounts on popular auction sites such as eBay. Numerous artifacts are in private collections, such as this framed fraktur which was given by one of my ancestors to her spouse in commemoration of their marriage.

photo of a marriage fraktur

Framed marriage fraktur

Beyond delving into family collections, how might one locate family Bibles and frakturs?

An easy method is to search military pension records. If a spouse survived her veteran husband and wished to collect a pension, proof of marriage was required.

Typically, a widow would submit a church record or a letter from a town clerk certifying a civil registration. In this example from 1840, James P. Terry of Somers, Tolland, Connecticut, certified the marriage of Stephen Chapel and Lucy Russel on 25 October 1795.

marriage certification for Stephen Chapel and Lucy Russel 25 October 1795

Revolutionary War Pension File W.1888, page 10

However, if a civil or court record was unavailable (perhaps lost to fire or other disaster), the surviving family member might resort to submitting original pages from the family Bible or a fraktur.

A few of these proof-of-marriage document submissions were returned to the families—but many were not, and numerous examples still exist within the National Archives. Most are digitized (generally in black and white) within pension files, such as this one for Revolutionary War soldier John Tomlin and his wife Jane Chamblin.

marriage fraktur for John Tomlin and Jane Chamblin

Fraktur commemorating the births and marriage of John Tomlin and Jane Chamblin. Revolutionary War Pension File W.6302, page 18.

As descendants find their ancestors’ frakturs, they are often posted on websites. You can find these posted frakturs using my “visual” method.

How to Find Your Family’s Fraktur

1)      Open your favorite search engine (mine is Google).

2)      Search for “fraktur” or “Bible” followed by a keyword such as a surname, or a phrase such as “Revolutionary War.”

3)      Click on the “Images” tab at the top of the resulting search results page—and voilà: pages and pages of images of frakturs appear. Some will be links to books and references, but most will direct you to digitized images. (Note: if using Google Chrome, you can explore additional searching options under the “More” or “Search Tools” options.)

4)      Bookmark the images you are interested in for later reference, or add them to a board. Pinterest is a “content sharing service that allows members to ‘pin’ images, videos and other objects to their pinboard.”

Google Images search results for “fraktur” and the surname “Tomlin”:

screenshot of Google Images search results for “fraktur” and the surname “Tomlin”

screenshot of Google Images search results for “fraktur” and the surname “Tomlin”

Search results for family “Bible records”:

screenshot of Google Images search results for “Bible records"

screenshot of Google Images search results for “Bible records”

You can search Pinterest for genealogy links, such as GenealogyBank’s Pinterest boards at, or my recently established Frakturs and Family Bible Records Pinterest board at

For more information on frakturs, visit the Ephrata Cloister website.