|September 30, 1999
Volume 30 Number 4
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Battle Bones Tell Dead Men's Tales
Because of a range fire ignited by a careless smoker's discarded cigarette in 1983, the thick growth of sagebrush, prickly pear, and grasses covering the Little Bighorn battlefield was destroyed, and a visitor to the battlefield discovered a human tooth on the bare soil. The discovery sparked interest at the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service that led to archeological investigations and new research about the famous battle and the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry who died in June 1876. It also provided CSU, Chico physical anthropology professor P. Willey with an opportunity to assist the archeological team and to coauthor They Died with Custer (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1998).
Although much history has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, They Died with Custer is unique in that, as Douglas C. McChristian, author of The U.S. Army in the West, 1870–1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment, states, "It portrays the human qualities of those largely anonymous cavalrymen who, until now, have been seen as mere statistics." This account of the battle blends historical information with the expertise of National Park Service archeologists Melissa A. Conner and Douglas D. Scott, a specialist in military archeology, and the expertise of Willey, a specialist in forensic anthropology and human skeletal biology, who joined the research team in 1989. Although this book is of special interest to historians and anthropologists, it is fascinating reading for anyone who is curious about the American westward movement and recent advances in research techniques.
As background for the battle and the soldiers who fought with Custer, the authors review the history of the Seventh Cavalry and build a demographic profile of the men. Following the Civil War, the Seventh Cavalry was part of a reorganization of the U.S. Army to provide protection for settlers in the Great Plains. The authors trace the movements and conditions of the regiment with Custer from October 1866 to June 1876. From enlistment records and reports from the field, the authors provide details and statistics about the men—age, stature, nativity, and race. Willey explained that many soldiers were new immigrants, young men who were unable to find work and were drawn to the military by its financial opportunities.
Delving beyond the historical account, however, the archeological team physically examined the remains of the soldiers retrieved from the battlefield. Because all historical and oral history accounts confirm that the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were removed from the field and buried in villages or other locations, the only bones found and studied are those of Seventh Cavalry soldiers. Examination of the skeletal remains was performed at various locations; however, in 1992, Willey said, he received a small grant funded by the University Foundation to perform identification studies at CSU, Chico on bones exhumed from five graves. After making plaster cases of the bones, he returned each soldier's remains to the Custer National Cemetery for burial with Unknown U.S. Soldier markers.
Assisting Willey with the identification process were professors John Young (Physics) and Randy Miller (Chemistry). Willey explained that most of the skulls they had examined exhibited poor dental health; however, when Young and Miller examined the teeth of one of Willey's skulls they discovered fillings made of gold foil and tin foil layered into the cavity. Moreover, a naturally occurring pit in a tooth had been filled -- unprecedented preventative dentistry, Willey said. Military records indicated Corporal George Lell enlisted in Cincinnati, the location of the second dental school in the world, where such state-of-the-art dental care would have been available. After obtaining a photograph of Lell, Willey enlisted the expertise of Rick Vertolli in the Computer Graphic Laboratory of the Instructional Media Center. Superimposing the photograph on the skull indicated a match. Their results are not conclusive, Willey said, because of a height discrepancy between his findings and enlistment records. However, he said, the Central Identification Laboratory of the Department of Defense has contacted maternal descendents of Lell and hopes to obtain DNA samples for testing. He added that two British television producers are also interested in following the results.
Although Willey could not produce positive identification of Lell, he successfully identified Swiss immigrant Vincent Charlie, the cavalry's farrier. Willey demonstrated how a hole in the hipbone he examined is consistent with a bullet wound Charlie suffered. Willey's evidence satisfied the National Park Service, so Farrier Vincent Charlie is listed in the park pamphlet and has an identifying head stone. The identification research at Chico State was featured in "The Wild West" television series by Scientific American Frontiers narrated by Alan Alda.
In addition to documenting the results of their research on individuals, the authors address the treatment of the dead. Because the priority was to get the wounded to medical facilities, burial was primarily a respectful gesture of a little dirt over the body, perhaps covered with some sagebrush. In 1881, remains were buried in a mass grave under a monument on Last Stand Hill, and, later, as more bodied were recovered, those were buried under individual markers in the cemetery. However, in 1877, Willey explained, the U.S. Army recovered the officers' bodies and buried them at West Point. Because of questionable identification, Willey said, there is strong evidence, documented in a paper he coauthored with Scott, that remains at West Point may not be Custer's and that some of the bones examined at Chico State and reburied in the Custer National Cemetery may be the general's. But that, he said, is another story.
Further developing their research, the authors explain how, by combining and comparing their data from the Little Bighorn with data compiled by physical anthropologists from remains of late 1800 contemporary soldiers and frontier dwellers, they document a population that reflects the nation at the time of the westward expansion. The authors conclude that all sources indicate the West was primarily populated by young, white males; however, the physical evidence indicates more women and a wider diversity of ancestry in the West than historical accounts indicate.
By enriching the historical account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn with archeological details about the individuals who served with Custer, the authors bring human interest to this momentous and culturally symbolic event in American history. Their study follows shifts in cultural values, exemplified by the renaming of Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and a planned monument to the American Indians who fought in the battle. The research of Willey and coauthors also dispels the romance of the westward expansion as portrayed in novels and films: rather than noble individuals at the peak of mental and physical health persevering in the face of adversity, they were common folk at the mercy of a harsh climate and rugged lifestyle. -- LM
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