(MBB/VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Keywords: Battlefield archaeology, history, forensics, burials
In June 1876 George Armstrong Custer and the 7th cavalry fought a heroic last stand at the battle of the little Bighorn against overwhelming forces of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Best visualized in the movie “They died with their boots on” in which Errol Flynn played the heroic Custer last to fall with his saber in his hand, the general is presented as the quintessential whitonian hero as described in the poem “Leaves of Grass.
Since then many volumes of research have been written about the battle and about Custer (about 900 volumes), but they all limit themselves to a repetition (with small variations) of the first description in 1876 by F. Whittaker. The only variable is weather Custer is the villain and the Native Americans the victims or whether Custer is the victim of ruthless politicians. Custer and the battle survive as an iconographical picture of the American west.
The main reason for this is the American law which prohibited excavations at the burial site. Only 108 years after the battle the first excavation was carried out at the site of the battle. By then the traditional idea of Custer’s Last stand has been ingrained in the American psyche. And although two more excavations indicated a different picture of the battle “the picture of the last stand endures until this day.
This presentation draws on all the material to present what really happened. Using history, forensic archaeology and the excavation reports it will show that the battle was not a battle but hardly a skirmish which lasted only 5 to 7 minutes.