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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Ghosts Along The Little Bighorn
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Visitors of Another Kind
By Bob Reece
Each year nearly 400,000 tourists visit the windswept ravines and ridges of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Standing on the hill, where Custer and the last of his men died, they can imagine the last few moments as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his soldiers met their fate at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne. Many soldiers lay wounded, helpless, and horrified as they heard the screams and groans of death all-round. When the fierce battle was finished, their bodies were torn and mutilated beyond recognition. The Indians lost 50 to 100 warriors whose bodies were carried away from the battlefield by their loved ones. Along side the battlefield resides the Custer National Cemetery where 5,000 veterans and their family members are interred. If there was ever a place where ghosts might roam, then Custer Battlefield is such a place.
According to stories from visitors and employees the dead are restless at Little Bighorn. Whether you believe these mysterious occurrences or not, they add to the total aura of the place. They are a part of the history of Custer Battlefield. As Robert Utley explains, "stories of the supernatural seem to revolve around legendary spots." Our curiosity will not allow us to ignore them.
As with all folklore, it is difficult to find the stories' origin. I interviewed as many of the primary sources as possible who experienced a visitor of another kind. I am not here to prove or disprove these stories, only to report them.
The encounters are numerous and the superstitions go way back. The Crow people apparently were aware of something long before others. They called the superintendent, "ghost herder" because he lowered the flag at dusk, which the Crow believed allowed the spirits to rise from their graves and walk amongst the living. When the flag was raised, in the morning, the dead came back to rest.
It is nearly impossible to pinpoint when employees and tourists began to experience strange observations. Historian Robert Utley, who was a ranger at the battlefield from 1947-1952, stated there "was no ghost business going on then." However, an experience during this time may have involved Charles Kuhlman, author of Legend Into History. It has been reported that Custer's spirit visited him. It has also been reported that Kuhlman would visit Last Stand Hill, alone, in hopes of making some form of contact with the other world. Utley denies these events happened. However, it could explain Kuhlman's fantastic interpretation of the battle.
Stories of the sounds of Indian warriors charging on horseback through the cemetery soon followed. People, who walked through the cemetery at night, spoke of cold spots that seemed to spring up from nowhere.
Visitors of Another Kind
Tourists come in all shapes and sizes and so do their stories. A visitor from New Orleans claimed to have been transported back in time to witness the battle. While driving along Battle Ridge, a cab driver from Minneapolis witnessed soldiers and warriors fighting to the death. He came shaken and distraught into the visitor's center, where the employees calmed him. Former battlefield Park Historian and Superintendent Neil Mangum once received a strange call one day from a lady in Canada. She had a dream about an Indian killing a soldier during the Custer fight. She claimed to know the soldiers' name. Neil checked the 7th Cavalry's roster, but found no soldier listed under the name. However, the woman was persistent, stating the records were incorrect.
One evening in August 1976 a National Park Service law enforcement officer visited Last Stand Hill. He was alone when a sudden drop in temperature went through his body. The cold was accompanied by the soft murmuring of voices. He did not stay long enough to discover whether they were talking to him.
In August 1987, on a moonless night, a psychic visited the battlefield from Colorado. Although she had never been to the battlefield, and knew little about the battle, she provided details of action at Medicine Tail Ford and Nye-Cartwright Ridge. Standing beside the 7th Cavalry Monument and the mass grave of the soldier dead, she felt the presence of restless spirits from the Custer battalion.
While visiting the cemetery, the same psychic saw a spirit warrior charge a seasonal employee, count coup, then turn and ride past the visitor center down Cemetery Ridge. The employee was resting with his eyes closed. As the warrior counted coup the employee opened his eyes and said, "what was that?"
She saw more. Behind the seasonal homes she saw 20 to 30 warriors coming late into the battle. They were dressed in their finest, painted, and feathers pointed down from their heads. Could she have witnessed the small group of young warriors who sacrificed their lives for the benefit of the people? These warriors entered the battle near its completion, dressed to meet the everywhere spirit, and have been referred to as the suicide boys.
Warriors Upon the Bluffs
Employees report many stories. Most of the following were reported by people I have known for years and highly respect. Former Custer Battlefield Park Ranger, Mardell Plainfeather, experienced an encounter in 1980. Mardell is a member of the Crow Tribe and still faithfully practices her people's ceremonies. She and her family regularly visited their sweat lodge that sat quietly in the thick timber along the Little Bighorn River across from the battlefield. Late one evening Mardell and her daughter, Lorena, went to the sweat lodge to ensure the fire was extinguished. "I don't make a habit of going out in the dark by myself, but I was in my car so I wasn't scared or anything. I had never had any supernatural experiences before and I was certainly not prepared for one, but when I saw them, it didn't scare me at all."
Mardell saw two Indian warrior spirits sitting on their horses silhouetted upon the bluffs. The warriors were on the battlefield proper within the confines of the fence. They were dressed for war, painted, feathers placed in long flowing hair, while one wore braids. They carried shields and one had a bow. One lifted himself from the saddle and looked down directly at Mardell, but she could not clearly see if the warriors were Crow, Sioux, or Cheyenne. "Even if they were Sioux or Cheyenne spirits, they didn't mean me any harm at all. Perhaps they were just trying to tell me that I was doing a good job of interpreting the battle story to our visitors. Perhaps they were just trying to tell me that they were happy that a Native American, no matter what tribe, was finally telling their side of the story. Maybe their spirits were restless . . ."
Mardell had another experience that took place in her family's battleground house. One night in 1986 while the family were asleep there came three loud knocks at her bedroom door. When the door was opened, no one was there. Her husband Dan walked throughout the house, especially the kid's bedroom in fear there might have been a burglar. The kids were safe and fast asleep. "The next day, my father-in-law said not to worry because it was only my husband's grandmother saying good-bye. She had died that night. "
The Stone House
Employees report bizarre stories inside the Stone House. Built in 1894 as a residence for the superintendent, it is a two story building located beside large evergreens and the entrance gate to the cemetery. It has been converted to the White Swan Memorial Library, the park historian’s office and conference rooms. The lower level was once used to house bodies awaiting burial in the cemetery. Before becoming the White Swan Memorial Library it was used as a summer residence for the staff and was shut tightly and left empty during the winter.
While living on the battleground, Neil Mangum remembers walking home on many winter nights through the cemetery and seeing the lights on in the Stone House upstairs apartment. He always turned off the lights. Once he couldn't get the front door open. Frustrated, Neil went home, returning an hour later. The door opened easily. He walked up the stairs, and in Neil's usual calm demeanor turned off the lights one more time.
Neil and his family had the opportunity to live in the Stone House for a couple of weeks when they first came to the battlefield. Although they saw nothing, their dog was not very happy while spending a lot of time pacing back and forth.
One night in 1980, Mardell noticed the lights. Not wanting to enter the Stone House by herself she went to Apartment A to ask the ranger, Mike, to go with her. He offered to turn the lights off himself. His wife, Ruth, was watching an evening program on their new television bought that day in Hardin. Mardell gave Mike the Stone House keys and she went home. Soon, Mike returned the keys and related a strange incident to Mardell. While Mike was in the Stone House, Ruth noticed the television picture become blank. A voice coming from the television exclaimed, "second story" as Mike began walking up the stairs toward the upper level apartment. Ruth was shaken when Mike returned, but he reassured her that nothing happened.
Inside the Stone House things have happened. A woman's figure has been seen coming down the stairs. Footsteps are heard upstairs when no one is there. During the summer season of 1986, a new battlefield ranger was housed for two nights in the upstairs' apartment. He awoke the first night feeling someone sitting at the foot of his bed. He first thought it was his wife, but he remembered she was visiting family overseas, and he was alone. As he reached for his Colt .45, laying on the nightstand, he saw a shadowy figure move from the foot of his bed. The ranger distinctly saw a torso of a soldier with the head and legs missing as the apparition disappeared into the other room.
A wooden wall complete with a padlocked door was built to make two bedrooms in the lower level of the Stone House. One night early in the 1989 season, two staff members were sound asleep. One was suddenly awakened by loud bangs on the partition wall. The sound was coming from the opposite side of the wall. The door was locked. The padlock was on the employee’s side of the wall. The strong knocks occurred again. The other staff member was awakened, but the sounds had stopped. The only entrance to the other side of the wall is through a window that was securely locked. The person who experienced this event felt it was, "Just the boys welcoming them back to the battlefield."
Al and Florence Jacobson spent many summers in the Stone House upstairs apartment. They grew accustomed to the strange happenings in the Stone House. They were not totally comfortable with the fact, however, of the doorknob turning and no one at the door, or the unexplained footsteps coming from the empty upstairs apartment as Al and Florence were viewing slides downstairs. There is only one entrance by way of the stairs from the front door. They also speak of coming home and finding personal items moved around.
No harm has ever come to Al and Florence. Florence believes the spirit is a friendly one. One day as Florence began to eat lunch she suddenly heard a loud, high-pitched noise coming from the kitchen. She said it sounded like a teakettle boiling, though she wasn't boiling water at the time. She lifted her fork to take a bite of food when the sound came again, this time louder. She looked at her food. It was leftovers that included chicken. She picked up the plate and emptied the contents in the trash. Florence believes that the food was spoiled and the spirit saved her from being poisoned.
During the summer of 1985, Al and Florence came equipped to settle the spirit or spirits of the Stone House. Their ghost repellents included an iron kept on the coffee table, a crucifix in each room, shoes under the bed, and fresh baked bread. Florence happily supplied many staff members with homemade bread that summer.
Footsteps in the Dark
In August 1997, just before the Stone House was closed for its conversion into the White Swan Memorial Library four people spent the last night anyone would spend sleeping in the Stone House. Little did they know that the visitors of another kind would bid farewell in a most remarkable way.
One man slept in the upstairs apartment bedroom while a father and son shared the sleeper sofa in the apartment’s living room. A young woman slept downstairs. She awoke in the middle of the night hearing footsteps upstairs. She figured it was one of the fellows heading to the bathroom. The footsteps exited the bedroom, went through the upstairs hall to the bathroom then back again. No big deal.
Then, moments later, more footsteps but this time they were louder. They became so forceful that she noticed shavings of paint falling from the edge of the downstairs windows. Her first thought was that person would wake up the whole house. She became very concerned as each new trip to the bathroom became louder and more forceful, almost vibrating the entire downstairs.
Suddenly, the downstairs kitchen door slammed shut with a loud bang that vibrated the whole downstairs. She startled and jumped up. She knew it wasn’t a gust of wind because all the windows had been well covered with heavy plastic and taped very secure during the renovation. It wasn’t wind that slammed shut the door -- it was something else.
The young woman immediately left the Stone House and tried to sleep in her car. The next morning she shared this experience with the other men who slept upstairs. All were perplexed because none of them heard footsteps banging around the apartment. However, the father sleeping on the sleeper sofa remembered being awakened by a loud bang from downstairs around 2:30 A.M. It may have been the kitchen door slamming shut that awakened him.
In attempts to recreate the effects of the footsteps, one of the men walked around upstairs while she and the other two listened from below. She kept yelling upstairs for the man to walk more forceful. He eventually reached the point where it sounded the way she remembered. Everyone looked at each other – they realized that the footsteps were so loud that no one upstairs could have slept through that, but they did. Are the visitors of another kind selective as to whom they attempt to communicate with?
A Shadow in the Visitor Center
The visitor center sits at the bottom of Last Stand Hill. Tourists step into this place to escape the heat of the Montana sun. Here, they can browse the bookstore or visit the museum. After the tourists have left and the doors are locked the visitor center has experienced the problem of lights coming on after hours, and faint voices calling out.
On a summer's day in 1985, an association employee had an odd experience in the museum basement. He had just presented a program to the public and was returning some items to the audio/visual room. Before he reached the inventory storage room, he noticed a figure of a person standing in the dark corner. Although it appeared to him to be a soldier, he thought it was a fellow employee dressed as such to play a trick on him. He pretended not to see the soldier and walked past him. The employee turned left to enter the audio room. The employee noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the shadowy figure of the soldier moving into the hall. The apparition proceeded to walk through the locked door of the inventory room.
It was not a joke after all.
Lt. Benjamin H. Hodgson's Late Night Visit
Christine Hope's story about Apartment C was printed in Earl Murray's book Ghosts of the Old West. Tim Bernardis first told it to me in the summer of 1984. Hope had been employed under the SCA program during the summer and fall of 1983. She had been living in Apartment C, which was arranged as an efficiency. She slept on the living room couch. One early fall night she awoke about 2 am. Looking in the direction of the kitchen Christine noticed a figure of a man sitting at the table. He had a long handlebar moustache. Hope glanced away but he was still there when she looked back. Not only was he looking at her, but his face and eyes had the most ghostly, tortured, and painful expression. Though he was not speaking, Hope felt this visitor was attempting to convey the message that something very serious and tragic occurred here and one should never make fun of it, or make light of it. The figure finally disappeared and it took Hope some time before she was brave enough to turn on the lights.
The next day Tim and Christine visited the Reno retreat crossing. They climbed down the steep bluffs where Reno and his three companies retreated from the valley of the Little Bighorn. After reaching the site of the crossing, Tim began to give Christine a detailed report of the action seen there on the day of the battle.
They stood before the marker of Lt. Benjamin H. Hodgson of Co. B, which rests alone on the east side of the river. While crossing the river, Hodgson had his leg shattered by a bullet that killed his horse. Falling in the river, Hodgson grabbed a stirrup of a passing horse that carried him to the opposite bank. Hodgson moved up the draw, but was cut down by an Indian bullet.
Christine had been impressed with the story of Hodgson. Her curiosity led the two to search for more information on the officer. After returning to the museum Christine read further about Hodgson. Tim located a photo of Hodgson, which he showed to Christine. She was taken aback, since it was the man she had seen the night before in her apartment. It was then that Christine told Tim of the events in Apartment C.
Hope slept with the lights on in Apartment C for the rest of her tour of duty.
Hodgson's late night visit with Hope was apparently not his first. The late John M. Carroll in the November 1988 issue of the Little Big Horn Associates newsletter reported Hodgson’s communication with his friend Lt. Clinton H. Tebbetts in 1877. This communication came through a medium and simply stated that the 7th fought gallantly.
Recent stories have come to light. While giving a live program to visitors a ranger was suddenly interrupted with the feeling that something was pulling at his leg trying to force him to the ground. He looked down to find nothing there. One woman working in the bookstore, alone, felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She turned around to find she was alone.
The visitors of another kind do not appear to be settling down. Keep that in mind if you ever have the opportunity to visit Custer Battlefield late at night, when the headstones reflect the light of the moon, when all is still and quiet, and the flag has been lowered.
Copyright 1991 by Bob Reece, all rights reserved.
"Visitors of Another Kind" is featured in Ms. Munn's book, Montana Ghost Stories which is back in print after many years.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022