FARGO — Fifty years had passed since the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Animosities had faded and former combatants gathered to put their bloody differences behind them in a peaceful ceremony filled with pageantry.
Fifty-thousand spectators gathered for the occasion on June 25-26, 1926, the 50-year anniversary of the battle that saw Lt. Col. George Custer’s entire direct command wiped out by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, exactly 144 years ago today.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, an old Lakota warrior named White Bull stepped forward and handed his tomahawk to retired Gen. Edward Godfrey, who had served as a lieutenant in the battle. Godfrey placed White Bull’s tomahawk on the crypt of an unknown soldier who had been killed in the battle, and others added mementos, including a photograph of Custer.
Then, after volleys of gunfire rang out in salute and a bugler sounded taps, Godfrey gave a solemn speech. The hatchet of war, he said, had been buried.
White Bull was a logical choice to represent the Lakota people. He was a distinguished warrior as a young man and fought in 19 battles, including the defeat of Custer and nine others against the U.S. army. As an older man, he became a chief of the Minneconjou Lakota, whose home is on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota.
But only a few years after taking part in the ceremony and extending a hand of friendship to his former adversaries, White Bull would tell his life story to white men eager for his account of the famous battle — and, decades later, would be identified as the warrior who killed Custer.
Key figures in White Bull’s elevation as the warrior credited with killing Custer — a controversial claim now rejected by most historians — included Usher Burdick, a history buff who would become a North Dakota congressman, and Stanley Vestal, an English professor-turned-historian.
While attending the 50-year anniversary observance, Vestal heard rumors that White Bull was Custer’s slayer. He was working on a biography of Sitting Bull, White Bull’s uncle, when he got the opportunity to interview White Bull in 1930.
In his biography of Sitting Bull, and in a subsequent biography of White Bull, Vestal wrote about White Bull’s struggle with a “tall, well-built soldier with yellow hair” — revealed decades later, after White Bull’s death, to be Custer.
Separately, Burdick, while working as an assistant U.S. attorney in Fargo, offered White Bull $50 for a written account of his life story in 1931. Burdick was avidly collecting stories of frontier figures, some of which he published as booklets.
White Bull accepted the offer and wrote a letter dated Aug. 31, 1931, and addressed to “My Friend,” along with his story, written in Lakota and illustrated with nine pictographs.
“My war record, as I have written it, is accurate and I have written it for you,” White Bull said in the letter. “You said you would give me fifty dollars for it and that is all right, but I would like to earn more, and as you see I have written much more.”
Not much was done with White Bull’s account of his war record, which was acquired in 1959 by the Chester Fritz Library at the University of North Dakota, until decades later. James Howard, a UND scholar received a grant and hired two Lakota speakers from the Pine Ridge Reservation and Ella Deloria, a Yankton Sioux who was fluent in the language and culture, to help translate the document into English.
The result of that effort was published in 1968 as a book provocatively titled, “The Warrior Who Killed Custer: The Personal Narrative of Chief Joseph White Bull.”
The accuracy of that translation, and accounts by Vestal published in the late 1950s, including a revised edition of his biography of Sitting Bull and a magazine excerpt headlined, “The Man Who Killed Custer,” remain the subject of spirited discussion, 144 years later after Custer’s death.
White Bull and his younger brother One Bull became crucial sources for Vestal in writing his biography of Sitting Bull. His notes from those interviews remain valuable records of Sitting Bull’s life and accomplishments.
Vestal first met White Bull at the old warrior’s cabin near Cherry Creek at Cheyenne River. At the age of 81, White Bull was still vigorous. He was an avid talker.
The interviews spanned about 10 days, running nine hours a day, and often had an audience of old men who crowded into White Bull’s cabin, sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor — witnesses to the story he told, which he said could be vouched for by others.
In a ledger book, White Bull had drawn pictographs depicting his exploits as a warrior and hunter. Each drawing was supplemented by written text; missionaries had taught him how to write in Lakota years earlier.
As White Bull told his story, he referred to the pictographs to jog his memory and elaborated in great detail.
The two men from such different worlds — Vestal was a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and a World War I veteran — developed a friendship. As a gift, White Bull presented Vestal with a rifle confiscated from a buffalo hunter. In return, Vestal gave the old warrior a cavalry saber and belt.
The claim that White Bull slayed Custer didn’t emerge until after White Bull died at the age of 98 in 1947.
“Because of the hostility shown towards White Bull by his white neighbors, I was unwilling to publish these facts while the Chief and his immediate connections were still alive,” Vestal wrote in American Heritage magazine in 1957. “Now it can be told.”
On the morning of June 25, 1876, White Bull was preparing to water his horses when he heard shouts of alarm. He jumped on his fastest horse, drove his ponies back to camp and spotted a column of dust rising in the distance — cavalry soldiers.
After seeing to his family’s safety, White Bull rode hard three miles to Sitting Bull’s camp. By then, the Battle of the Little Bighorn had already begun, with almost a thousand warriors assembled to protect the village.
Before White Bull could join the fight, a detachment of soldiers Custer had dispatched when dividing his force was already in retreat. Warriors charged after them, swinging war clubs and shooting arrows.
“It was like a buffalo hunt,” with the soldiers offering no resistance, White Bull said, according to Vestal’s retelling.
As the battle progressed, resistance became heavy as surrounded soldiers fought for their lives. After a series of fights, as the warriors closed in on the dwindling number of surviving soldiers, White Bull charged into the fray.
“A tall, well-built soldier with yellow hair and a mustache saw me coming and tried to bluff me, aiming his rifle at me,” White Bull said. The soldier missed as White Bull rushed, then threw his rifle at the warrior, again missing.
The two then were locked in hand-to-hand combat. “It was like fighting in a fog,” White Bull said. The soldier grabbed White Bull’s braids, pulling his face close and tried to bite off the warrior’s nose. As the two adversaries whirled around, White Bull called for two fellow warriors, but in the confusion most of their blows landed on White Bull.
The soldier drew his pistol, which White Bull grabbed and used to pummel the soldier on the head, knocking him down. White Bull then fired the revolver, shooting him in the head and chest.
After the battle was over and White Bull was surveying the carnage, he met a relative named Bad Soup on a hilltop. The tall soldier was lying on his back, naked. Bad Soup pointed to the soldier and said, according to Vestal, “Long Hair thought he was the greatest man in the world,” referring to Custer by the name American Indians used. “Now he lies there.”
White Bull replied, “Well, if that is Long Hair, I am the man who killed him.”
Years later, at the 50-year anniversary celebration in 1926, after White Bull pointed out where Custer had fallen, a major asked White Bull if he had killed him, according to Vestal.
“Maybe,” White Bull answered.
Bill Rini, a New York historian who is working on a book compiling Native American accounts of the battle, is one of many contemporary historians who believe that the interpretation of White Bull’s account by Vestal is simply wrong.
Vestal failed to carefully study a map White Bull drew of the battlefield, he said, and to note that the struggle with the “tall, well-built soldier” was far from where Custer was found on Last Stand Hill. Vestal mistakenly merged two fights depicted in White Bull’s drawings, he said.
Also, Rini said, Vestal’s earlier notes never described an officer with a mustache, a crucial detail in Vestal’s retelling.
In fact, he said, Vestal’s notes from his White Bull interviews contain this reference: “Did not know who white general was. Did not see him.”
Raymond DeMallie, an anthropologist who specializes in Plains Indians and wrote the foreword for a reprint edition of “Warpath,” Vestal’s biography of White Bull, said the interpretations by Vestal and Howard, which were very similar, were both mistaken.
The section of Vestal's interview notes, in which Bad Soup identified the body, indicated that White Bull had said, "This man had no mustache" and make no mention of White Bull identifying the body as the soldier he had killed, DeMallie wrote.
“Examination of the transcripts of Vestal’s interview with White Bull fails to provide any evidence to support the claim that White Bull considered himself Custer’s killer,” he wrote. “It would appear from Vestal’s perspective identifying the dead chief as the man who had vanquished Custer was more a way of honoring him than of setting the record straight.”
Vestal got carried away and exaggerated White Bull’s role in the famous battle, Rini said.
“There’s a great temptation to discover a unique facet of the battle,” he said. “It enhances both the teller of the tale and the writer of the tale.”
Fortunately, DeMallie wrote, neither the reputation of White Bull nor Vestal rests on that retelling. Both have a secure place in history.
Interestingly, according to Howard’s introduction to “The Warrior Who Killed Custer,” the check Burdick wrote to White Bull was never canceled, meaning it was never cashed. Fifty dollars in 1931 is the equivalent of almost $850 today.
Years after the battle, a man named John Henley, who was a fluent Lakota speaker, met Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and asked him who killed Custer. Sitting Bull answered that nobody knew who killed Custer — nor even knew that he was present until later.
Many warriors claimed over the years to have killed Long Hair. The mystery of who slayed him will probably never be solved, and possibly was never known, obscured by the dust and smoke and chaos of the battlefield.