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Archeological Investigations of the “Horse Cemetery” Site, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
By Chief Archeologist, NPS Midwest Archeological Center, Doug Scott
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Siting of the Americans with Disabilities Act compliant sidewalk from
Last Stand Hill parking lot to the Indian Memorial led to identifying
an unanticipated impact to the archeological feature known as the
horse cemetery or pit. The horse pit is the location where
battle-related horse skeletal remains were deposited in 1881 during
the installation of the Seventh Cavalry memorial on Last Stand Hill.
The proposed sidewalk construction specifications and terrain
constraints require the removal of two or more feet of dirt, and/or
subsurface disturbance up to a depth of four feet for the installation
of retaining walls that were believed to likely directly impact the
horse cemetery site. Given the constraints of the landscape and the
construction specifications there were no feasible avoidance
alternatives and a mitigation plan was developed to excavate the horse
pit site. Field work was conducted from April 29 to May 1. The field
investigations determined that the horse pit was near, but outside the
direct construction impact zone. The horse pit was documented and
preserved in situ.
The “horse cemetery” project was enabled by Neil Mangum and John Doerner, whose tireless efforts are gratefully acknowledged. Center Manager, Mark Lynott, and Park Archeology Program Manager, Thomas Thiessen, supported and facilitated the investigation. Tom along with Harold Roeker and volunteer Wilfred Husted volunteered to be the investigation crew. Without their support the fieldwork would not have proceeded as well and as quickly as it did.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument staff, especially the maintenance staff, provided essential support to the work. Les Frickle’s able handling of the backhoe truly facilitated and speeded our work immeasurably. The entire staff, as always, cheerfully responded to our requests for assistance, and we are truly grateful for their support and assistance.
Siting of the Americans with Disabilities Act compliant sidewalk from Last Stand Hill parking lot to the Indian Memorial site led to identifying an unanticipated impact to the archeological feature known as the horse cemetery or pit. The horse pit is the location where battle-related horse skeletal remains were deposited in 1881 during the installation of the Seventh Cavalry memorial on Last Stand Hill. The proposed sidewalk construction specifications and terrain constraints require the removal of two or more feet of dirt, and/or subsurface disturbance up to a depth of four feet for the installation of retaining walls that were believed to likely directly impact the horse cemetery site.
The horse pit location was identified in February 2002 by comparing the current landscape with photographs dating to the 1941 discovery of the site during earlier construction and by a multi-instrument geophysical survey of the site using ground penetrating radar (Nickel 2002) and electromagnetics and magnetometery (De Vore 2002). Given the constraints of the landscape and the construction specifications there were no feasible avoidance alternatives and a mitigation plan was developed to excavate the horse pit site. Field work was conducted from April 29 to May 1, 2002 by the author, Thomas Thiessen, Harold Roeker, and volunteer Wilfred Husted. The field investigations determined that the horse pit was near, but outside the direct construction impact zone. The horse pit was documented and preserved in situ. The archeological documentation of that investigation is presented in the following pages.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn resulted in the deaths of a number of soldiers and Indian combatants. In addition perhaps as many as 90 horses were killed during the battle or wounded and later destroyed by the troops burying the dead. Perhaps the most famous battle survivor was the horse, Commanche (Lawrence 1989). Badly wounded, Commanche was tenderly restored to health and pampered by the Seventh Cavalry until his death in 1890. Commanche became an enduring symbol of the Seventh's defeat at the Little Bighorn, and its resurrection as a fighting force. Commanche's remains were stuffed and to this day evoke an emotional response from all who view him at the Dyke Museum at the University of Kansas. Commanche is a powerful symbol of all the horses killed at the Little Bighorn and today is the only known surviving physical set of remains of a post-Civil War cavalry horse.
Since the battle of the Little Bighorn there have been three major episodes of reburial of the soldiers' remains. In 1877, 1879, and again in 1881 burial details went to the field specifically to reinter remains exposed by the elements and scavengers. Fred Dustin (1953) has described the reburial details as well as John Gray (1975), and Richard Hardorff (1989) has presented the story of the reburials in detail. One aspect of the burial and reburial episodes included the gathering and burial of the horse bones that had been left bleaching on the battlefield since 1876.
Due to natural erosion and some human vandalism, skeletal remains continued to become exposed in the years following the first hasty burials in June 1876. In April 1879, Captain George Sanderson was ordered with his company of Eleventh Infantry from Fort Custer to rebury the exposed remains. Sanderson reported he found very few exposed remains. He gathered together those remains consisting of parts of four or five bodies, by his estimate, and buried them on Last Stand Hill. He then proceeded to build a cordwood memorial on that site. Sanderson noted he believed the reports of unburied dead resulted from misidentification of horse bones for human remains. To forestall further problems he had the horse bone gathered together and placed in a mound giving the field "a perfectly clean appearance, each grave being re-mounded and all animal bones removed" (Sanderson cited in Gray 1975:37). Stanley Morrow's famous photographs of the Keogh area graves, Crittenden's grave, and of the mound of horse bone were taken at this time, and some were even attached to Sanderson's original report to his superiors.
The following extract is from the detailed report by Capt. Sanderson:
Fort Custer, M.T.
Sir: I have the honor to report that in obedience to instructions I went to Custer Battlefield to carry out orders in regard to the graves at that point. I found it impossible to obtain rock within a distance of five miles. I accordingly built a mound out of cord wood filled in the center with all the horse bones I could find on the field. In the center of the mound I dug a grave and interred all the human bones that could be found, in all parts of four or five different bodies. This grave was then built up with wood for four feet above the ground, well covered, and the mound built over and around it. The mound is ten feet square and about eleven feet high; is built on the highest point immediately in rear of where Gen'l Custer's body was found.
Instead of disturbing any remains, I carefully remounded all graves that could be found. At each grave a stake was driven, where those that had previously placed had fallen. Newspaper reports to the effect that bodies still lay exposed are sensational. From a careful searching of the entire ground the remains now buried beneath the mound were all that could be found. I believe the large number of horse bones lying over the field have given rise to some of such statements, and to prevent any such statements being made in the future, I had all the horse bones gathered together and placed in the mound where they can not be readily disturbed by curiosity seekers.
The ground to the north and east of the field was well searched for six miles in each direction, but no trace of any remains were found, nor anything to indicate that any persons were killed in that direction. The whole field now presents a perfectly clean appearance, each grave being remounded and all animal bones removed.
In 1881, a detail of soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Charles Roe, Second Cavalry, was sent to disinter the remaining soldiers' remains and rebury them in a mass grave. He was also to erect a granite memorial shaft to commemorate those who had fallen in the battle. Roe moved the pieces of the monument to the site on sledges. He erected the granite shaft on the top of Last Stand Hill at the site of the Sanderson cordwood marker and then had his detail disinter the remains from around the field. A mass grave, ten feet wide was dug surrounding the memorial shaft (Charles Roe letter October 6, 1908 to W. M. Camp, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument files). Roe made no mention of the horse bones that were in the center of the cordwood monument his men disassembled, but it is presumed that he had his men dig a pit and bury the horse bones not far from the site of the monument.
That was certainly Superintendent Edward Luce’s assumption when the laying of a water discharge line from a large water tank on Last Stand Hill revealed a pit containing a large number of horse bones (Luce 1941a). Luce also thought he identified human bone co‑mingled with horse bone when he inadvertently cut into the horse cemetery.
The water tank, of 20,000 gallon capacity, on Last Stand Hill was the primary water reservoir for the National Cemetery irrigation system and for potable water to the residences. The tank was installed on the northeast side of Last Stand Hill immediately east of the Seventh Cavalry monument placed by Charles Roe. The tank’s date of construction is not precisely known, but it may have been around 1911 (Doerner 2002). Water was pumped to the tank from the Little Bighorn River. In turn water was delivered by gravity fed lines to the cemetery irrigation system, and to a hypochlorinater that filtered the water for the drinking fountain and residences (Hommon 1940).
Apparently the reservoir tank overflowed from time to time and in April 1941 Superintendent Luce installed an overflow drain on the tank and a drainage line that discharged to the east. During the digging of the trench for the drain line a large quantity of horse bone was encountered. This prompted Luce to report the finds to his superior, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park (Luce 1941a), and to the Quartermaster General of the Army (Luce 1941b).
The discovery of the horse pit during the overflow line trenching was excitedly reported by Luce (1941a) on April 9, 1941. In part the memorandum to his superior at Yellowstone National Park stated:
1. This afternoon while excavating for a trench to run the overflow pipe of the 20,000 gallon reservoir situated on Custer Hill in the rear of the Custer Monument the long lost ‘horse cemetery’ was discovered. This cemetery is directly in rear of the reservoir on the slanting hillside and is a trench built on an arc of about 120 degrees. It is about fifty feet long and about twenty feet wide. It follows the contour arc of the hill. Before discovering the cemetery it has been believed that this apparent sunken spot was due to the water overflow from the tank or usual rain erosion, but after one end of the burial trench was opened it could be seen that this sinking was caused by earth slipping in between the skeletons of the horses. At present the earth covering is only about two feet thick from the surface and it will only be a matter of two or three years before rains will wash the earth away and expose the bones. With this erosion in view, authority is requested that permission be given to cover this plot of ground and from this plot to the regular lines of the hill. It is also recommended that a fence be erected around this ‘horse cemetery’ to perpetuate its location and its history of the battle.
2. At this time the pipe trench was being dug we encountered some old rotten wood that ran parallel to the side of the trench and as it broke away we discovered a large number of horse bones and one or two human bones. The proposed pipe line was changed so as not to disturb the ‘horse cemetery’. It is very evident that in 1877 when these horses were buried a trench was dug and boarded up as the wooden enclosure can easily be followed, and when the skeletons were placed in this enclosure a wooden cover was placed over the top. Due to wood deterioration this cover has rotted away and that is the cause of the sinking of the earth surface. With your permission the same method that is used on human sunken graves will be followed, i.e. fill in the depression, tamp and dress the top even with the normal surface.
3. When the sideboard gave way and exposed the cemetery, one or two human bones fell out as did an old army boot and a tin cracker box can with several bullet holes through the tin…..
6. In a cavalry regiment there is a great attachment between the rider and his horse and there is not doubt that due reverence and respect were shown these horses when they were buried in 1877. For this reason it is requested that permission be given to properly outline this ‘horse cemetery’ with an fenced-in enclosure and have a historic sign made that will explain to the tourists and visitors to this cemetery of the prominent part played by these horses in the battle and the sacrifice they made for the protection of their riders.
7. The matter of changing this overflow pipe line was taken up several months ago with Mr. Emmert, as the line led from the reservoir into the Custer Group plot and ended with a huge concrete apron despoiling the natural contour of the ground and causing water ruts the length of the Group. With the change of the pipe the water now flows north instead of south and away from the view of the visitor.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022