The name George Armstrong Custer is destined to always be linked with the brutal circumstances of his death. In June 1876, the cavalry commander and his men engaged in a fierce skirmish with a coalition of Native American tribes, in the Battle of Little Bighorn – a confrontation triggered by ugly territorial disputes between white settlers and the Native Americans. Custer and hundreds of his fellow soldiers were killed, in a bloody fiasco which was soon given a romantic makeover in the annals of American folklore as “Custer's Last Stand”.
But it’s not just the battle itself which has become mythologised. The story of Custer’s Last Stand soon birthed the mystery of Custer’s Lost Treasure, and the prospect of a huge heap of riches buried somewhere in the great American wilderness. The question is, does the treasure really exist, or is it just the stuff of frontier-land fantasy?
The good news for treasure hunters is there’s some pretty compelling evidence from eyewitness testimonies at the time of Little Bighorn. The gist of the legend is that Custer and his men rode into battle while carrying several months’ worth of back pay estimated to be in the region of $25,000, which was a princely sum in those days. After they were slain, their money was taken by the Native American warriors and buried somewhere known only to a select few. And it’s apparently lain there ever since.
How do we know the cavalry had been given that much money before their deaths? Accounts by surviving soldiers explicitly say so. Take Sergeant John M. Ryan, who published his testimony in the 1920s. According to Ryan, just over a month before the slaughter of Little Bighorn, “the paymaster joined us under an escort of infantry, and enlivened the boys’ hearts with about four months’ pay”. This is corroborated by the account of Charles Windolph, another survivor. His book, I Fought With Custer, confirms that the “paymaster” had indeed turned up on that date, and that “about half of that payroll found its way into the hands of the squaws and Sioux children when the dead troopers were stripped and mutilated a little more than a month later on Little Bighorn.”
Yet another survivor, Daniel Kanipe, added to the grisly picture. “In all this pile of men, not a one had a stitch of clothes on,” he said, describing the corpse-strewn battlefield. “The Indians had taken it all. They must have gotten about $25,000 in money off of them, too, for we had just been paid… before we left on the campaign and there had been nothing to spend a cent for.”
"The troopers were paid in gold, silver, and U.S. treasury or bank notes.”
The other key question for treasure-seekers is just what the treasure itself is made up of. A journalist named Kathryn Wright, one of the first to investigate the legend of the lost treasure, asserted in a 1957 article that “not all of it was currency”. In other words, there was more than just paper money stuffed in the dead soldiers’ pockets. Researching army regulations of 1876, and consulting an archivist in Washington DC, Kathryn Wright established that “the troopers were paid in gold, silver, and U.S. treasury or bank notes.”
Kathryn Wright was the first serious Custer treasure hunter, and her trail led her to an old timer called WP Moncure, who’d worked as a trader in the Native American territories and had forged such a close bond with the Cheyenne that he, Moncure, had become “an accepted and highly regarded member of the tribe”, according to a contemporary news report on Kathryn’s quest.
Crucially, Moncure had struck up a close friendship with Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief who’d fought at Custer’s Last Stand. After Two Moons’ death, the Cheyenne erected a monument in his honour. The monument contained a hidden vault which Kathryn Bright discovered – a vault containing “a portrait of Two Moons, stone tools, arrowheads, sacred Indian relics, and a rifle belonging to one of the troopers of the Seventh Cavalry. There was also a large manila envelope.”
On this envelope were these thrilling words, written by Moncure: “Hiding place and location of money and trinkets taken from dead soldiers on Custer Battlefield.” The message on the envelope stipulated that it could not be opened until 1986 – decades after it was seen by Kathryn Wright.
The details of what happened after are hazy, but it seems Kathryn sought permission to open the envelope, but the media attention on the story inspired someone else to break into the monument and make off with the envelope. So was this some rogue treasure hunter who eventually found the treasure? Or was the envelope itself a red herring, and is the treasure of the dead soldiers still out there, waiting to be claimed by anyone with enough pluck and determination? The riddle of Custer’s mysterious legacy continues…