Thanks to all of you who watched me on last week’s America Unearthed episode, “Custer’s Blood Treasure.” Recently, I’ve seen a few questions bouncing around about the exact nature of the lost Custer treasure, including several from my friend Scott Wolter himself. Some people have even doubted its existence all together. So, I thought I’d add in some details from four primary sources as well as some reporting by Kathryn Wright, who originally broke the Custer treasure story back in 1957. Perhaps this will shed a little light on the exact nature of the Custer treasure as well as how the story originated.
Where did the Custer Treasure Come From?
The lost Custer treasure consists of about four months back pay given to the Seventh Cavalry more than a month prior to Custer’s last stand. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t stored in a pay wagon and taken to the battlefield but rather, was carried into battle by the individual soldiers themselves. After the fighting was over, the Indians stripped the dead soldiers of their belongings, including their various monies. This hoard of harvested pay and other trinkets, in total, makes up the lost Custer treasure.
So, the first question we must answer is whether or not there is evidence that Custer’s men were paid prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And fortunately, there is. On June 22, 1923, Sergeant John M. Ryan, who was with Major Reno during the battle, published a first-person narrative entitled, “The Narrative of John M. Ryan” in the Hardin, Montana-based Tribune. In it, he states that the Seventh Cavalry marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17, 1876. Upon arriving at the Big Heart River, they camped for two days. Around that point, probably on the evening of May 17 itself, “the paymaster joined us under an escort of infantry, and enlivened the boys’ hearts with about four months pay.” Ryan goes on to state that, “if (the paymaster) had paid at the fort some of the troopers would undoubtedly have deserted.”
Was the Lost Custer Treasure really worth $25,000?
So, we know the men went into battle carrying a substantial amount of back pay. But how much money were they really carrying?
Ryan adds no further details about the evening. But according to Private Peter Thompson, “the blood sucking sutler (arrived) with his vile whiskey, rotten tobacco, and high priced notions. It was plain to be seen that he would reap a rich harvest on this expedition.” So, we know the sutler (who went by the name of John Smith) took at least some of the pay given to Custer’s men, including the payment of old debts, when he left the next morning.
So, how much was left? As far as I’m aware, the sole account on this score belongs to Sergeant Daniel Kanipe, who was also with Major Reno during the battle. On April 27, 1924, Kanipe wrote a first-person narrative entitled, “The Story of Sergeant Kanipe, One of Custer’s Messengers” for the Greensboro, NC-based Daily Record. In it, he states what he saw after the battle had concluded: “In all this pile of men, not a one had a stitch of clothes on. 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 at Powder river camp before we left on the campaign and there had been nothing to spend a cent for.”
So, that’s the origin of the “$25,000″ figure that is bandied about amongst treasure hunters. Admittedly, it’s highly undependable since it’s based on one soldiers’ estimate of how much money his fellow troops collectively carried into battle fifty years after the fact. How does that $25,000 hold up under a little bit of scrutiny?
We know 268 U.S. troops (including scouts) were killed at the battle. In order to match Ryan’s $25,000 figure, each deceased soldier would’ve had to be carrying about $92 apiece, which breaks down to an average monthly pay of about $23 (this assumes none of the deceased had spent money with the sutler). It also excludes the value of any personal objects or additional monies carried by the troops into battle.
According to Private Charles Windolph’s book, I Fought with Custer, he was paid $13 per month in those days. Of course, that reference is from 1947, a full 71 years after the fact. But it matches up with what privates were paid at the beginning of the Civil War so it’s probably pretty accurate. Officers, of course, made much more money than privates. For example, a Lieutenant Colonel (General Custer’s official title) would’ve pulled in $181/month at the beginning of the Civil War. So, at first glance, an average monthly pay of $23 per deceased soldier seems reasonable to me. And if that’s the case, the treasure could very well have been worth $25,000 in total.
Was the Lost Custer Treasure just Currency? Or did it include Gold & Silver Coins?
So, we’ve established the lost Custer treasure existed. And we’ve also established that it’s value in 1876 dollars could’ve been around $25,000. But what form of currency did it take? Was it paper currency? Or were there gold and/or silver coins as well?
Ms. Kathryn Wright is the reporter who first investigated the story of the lost Custer treasure. She sought out an answer to the currency question in her original article, Indian Trader’s Cache, which was published in the Winter 1957 issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Here’s what she had to say on the subject: “Not all of it was in currency. Army regulations covering 1876, which were checked for me by Raymond P. Flynn, archivist at Washington, D.C. at the request of Chief of Air Staff General Nathan F. Twining, show that the troopers were paid in gold, silver, and U.S. treasury or bank notes.”
David Meyer’s Analysis
Well, that’s all for now. I hope this clears up some of the many questions regarding this interesting treasure-based side note to one of history’s most infamous battles. Unfortunately, as is often the case when dealing with treasure stories, the details are murky and open to many questions. This is especially true since various primary sources crafted their reports decades after the Battle of the Little Bighorn had ended. Regardless, it seems likely the Seventh Cavalry carried a fairly substantial amount of pay into battle on June 25, 1876. Although the exact amount is in question, it very well may have matched Ryan’s estimate of $25,000. And that pay was probably in numerous forms, including gold, silver, and currency.
The bigger question is what happened to the hoard after the battle. And that brings us to the mysterious envelope which W.P. Moncure had once stored inside the Two Moon vault (pictured above). In her article, Wright reported seeing a couple of sentences typed on the envelope about its contents, including this one: “Hiding place and location of money and trinkets taken from dead soldiers on Custer battlefield.” Assuming the envelope still exists, it may be the only known reference to the final whereabouts of the lost Custer treasure.
David Meyer’s Wild West Coverage
- 11/24/11: How Wild was the Wild West?
- 12/16/11: Did Jesse James Fake his Own Death? (by Sean McLachlan)
- 1/9/12: The Largest Mass Execution in American History?
- 3/30/12: Who Killed off all the Buffalo?
- 5/26/12: The Lost Treasure of General Custer?
- 7/12/12: What is the Dead Man’s Hand?
- 12/3/14: Custer’s Blood Treasure (America Unearthed)
- 12/9/14: Does the Lost Custer Treasure Really Exist?