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Warrior Marker History
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History of the Warrior Markers
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
By Bob Reece
January 24, 2008
Note: The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the history of the warrior markers to date. I sincerely thank battlefield Chief Historian John Doerner, Neil Mangum, and Jerome Greene for answering many questions during the writing of this article. This article also appeared in the newsletter of the Custer Association of Great Britian.
As soldiers marched north beside the Little Bighorn River and from the valley of death, they looked up into the tall cottonwood trees. Resting high up were remains of Lakota warriors who fell fighting George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry three and four days before.
The stench of death followed these soldiers which they could not get away from fast enough. From near the area of present-day Crow Agency, Montana, a soldier could look over his right shoulder and see light reflecting from debris still left on the ground where Custer’s soldiers fell. Left behind were many of these soldiers’ friends, unidentified and in the hands of predators. Some may have felt reassured that identified officers’ graves were marked with wooden stakes. The dead private in Custer’s battalion was not so fortunate; his resting place was not marked with such stakes. For a more detailed study of the history of the burials and reburials of the Custer dead please refer to the article, “Dust to Dust: Interment of the Custer Dead” published on this website.
The Indians managed their dead after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in a completely different way. Most, if not all, of the dead were identifiable. All wounded and dead warriors were taken from the battlefield by loved ones, family, or friends. They remembered where their loved one fell by marking the spot with a rock cairn. There are no names etched on these cairns, but the family never forgot.
Because the Custer Battlefield is mostly sandy soil with pebbles at best, any rock cairn or evidence of one is still visible after all these years, if you can find it through the tall grass. I have been fortunate to view nearly a dozen cairns over the years at Custer’s and Reno-Benteen’s Battlefields. As you walk the battlefield, you will notice how uncannily the cairns suddenly appear through the tall grass, as if a ship is sailing silently toward you in the fog. It is difficult to find words to describe what I felt while gazing upon a very powerful memorial. It is far easier to share what I was thinking: was the warrior that fell near here Lakota or Cheyenne? Was he young or old? What was his name?
Lame White Man rock cairn
photo courtesy Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
First Warrior Marker
The first known request for a warrior marker was in 1925 from the daughter of Lame White Man. Jerome Greene in his book Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Since 1876 states on page 170: “Mrs. Thomas Beaverheart, a Northern Cheyenne, wrote Superintendent Wessinger asking that a marker be placed on the battlefield to indicate the spot where her father, Lame White Man, had fallen in battle, her request drew no response.” The U.S. War Department managed the battlefield in 1925. Any chances for a warrior marker remained dormant for another 30 years.
Prospects for warrior markers finally blossomed in the 1950s thanks to the unselfish work of past chief historian, Don Rickey Jr., at then Custer Battlefield National Monument, and Cheyenne oral historian John Stands In Timber. Together, Rickey and Stands In Timber walked over the battlefield. Stands in Timber showed Rickey the cairns and matched as many as he could with a warrior’s name. Stands In Timber spent time with warriors who fought in the Custer fight and heard their battle accounts, as well as those who died there first-hand.
John Stands In Timber beside first Lame White Man marker, ca 1958 --
photo courtesy Little Bighorn Battlefield and Dr. Margot Liberty
The result of this diligent work was Rickey placing the first wooden warrior marker on the field in 1958. It memorialized Lame White Man. What I am about to share with you was told to me by a park ranger in the 1980s. There is no written documentation to support it, but it is an interesting story nevertheless: Rickey placed Lame White Man’s marker on the field very near where he fell. It read: “Lame White Man, a Cheyenne leader fell here.” Soon, visitors began to complain that they could not see the marker from the road. Rickey decided to create a new marker for Lame White Man and placed it on the shoulder of the road where it remained until Lame White Man’s granite marker was placed on the field 41 years later. The new marker along the road stated: “Lame White Man, a Cheyenne leader fell near here.” Now, visitors could drive by, and without getting out of their cars, see the first marker for an Indian about whom they knew nothing.
Lame White Man's second wooden marker -- photo © Bob Reece, October 1983
I took this photo of Pohanka (right) with his friend, John, at Lame White Man rock cairn in June 1985
More Rock Cairns, No Markers: A New Generation Saves the Day
Things began to change for the better in the mid 1980s. Tim Bernardis worked as an interpreter during the summers, and he was passionate about finding out who the warriors were that died in the battle; most significantly he wanted to associate a warriors’ name with many of the cairns.
During the summer of 1985 while I worked as an interpreter, Mr. Bernardis took me on a field trip to Reno-Benteen Battlefield. I will never forget that day. I followed Mr. Bernardis through the tall grass; we walked slowly and then the cairns started to become visible. Standing about one foot tall were round rock cairns throughout the battlefield, and I could finally see them. Today, there are approximately 20 rock cairns with the vast majority on the Reno-Benteen Battlefield.
It was Mr. Bernardis’ desire that marble markers with warriors’ names be placed on the field. Neil Mangum was chief historian and chief of interpretation during this period. Mr. Mangum appreciated the idea of marble markers for warriors, and he regarded the work Mr. Bernardis was conducting on his own time worthwhile, but Mr. Mangum was adamant and tough when it came to substantiating which warrior belonged with what cairn. He did not, in his own words, “want to place markers just to put them up” on the field. There had to be physical evidence, such as rock cairns and documentary written evidence such as Rickey and Stands In Timber’s work. Plus, making changes to the battlefield - especially by adding new warrior markers - could be challenged from outside sources such as SHPO (Montana State Historic Preservation Office). Mr. Mangum would ensure the NPS followed strict, due diligence before the first marker ever was unveiled.
Tim Bernardis, 2003
It was during this same period that the lead scientists provided conclusions from the various studies of archeological digs of 1984 and 1985 to the National Park Service. Portions of the research involved some of the soldier markers along the Deep Ravine Trail. These spurious markers sparked a far-fetched idea in Mr. Mangum’s quick thinking mind. The archeologists suggested some of the soldier markers should not be on the field. When soldiers placed the white marble markers in 1890, two were placed beside each other because it was believed that two bodies had been buried there. In some cases, the grave only held one body. Mr. Mangum hoped to remove the extra markers from the Deep Ravine Trail. He had the support of his superintendent, but the idea was disregarded by SHPO because it considers the markers from 1890 to be part of the historical and cultural landscape of the battlefield and therefore should not be tampered with. The NPS listens to and respects any state historical preservation office and, although it does not need to follow every suggestion given by such offices, it did in this case.
All chances for warrior markers were feared lost when Mr. Mangum left the battlefield for a new position with the NPS in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Maybe it was not the right time to start adding warrior markers to the field.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022