Dakota Datebook

Colonel Lounsberry Scoops Bighorn

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

It was on this date in 1876 that the world learned what happened eleven days earlier at the Little Bighorn. Colonel Clement Lounsberry was credited with scooping what has been called “one of the greatest stories in American journalism” when he released his famous Bismarck Tribune “extra.” Actually, two other newspaper reports had been written within the previous two days – at Bozeman and Helena – but neither story was transmitted to the east coast.

It was on June 25th that Custer and the men under his immediate command were wiped out in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, often referred to by Native Americans as the Battle of Greasy Grass. In all, 268 whites were killed in the battle, and of the men under the command of Major Reno and Captain Benteen, 44 were wounded. Virtually all Native American fighters survived.

One of Custer’s Crow scouts, Curly, made his way to the mouth of the Little Bighorn River, where Captain Grant Marsh’s Missouri River steamer, the Far West, was anchored. Nobody aboard could understand Crow, and Curly couldn’t speak English, so he had to draw and act out what had happened. The men on board didn’t want to believe what they thought Curly was trying to say, so they waited for confirmation, which came the following morning.

By dawn on June 30th, the Far West was loaded with 52 wounded and the only 7th Cavalry survivor from the Custer battlefield – a badly wounded horse named Comanche who had belonged to one of Custer’s captains, Myles Keogh. Marsh was to deliver them as quickly as possible to Fort Lincoln more than 700 miles down-river. Late on the evening of July 5th, the Far West docked at Bismarck, and the news of the defeat quickly spread.

As editor of the Tribune, Lounsberry is said to have wanted to accompany Custer on the trip, but at the last moment, he became ill. Instead, he sent writer Mark Kellogg. Kellogg worked in a Bismarck law office and wrote occasional stories for the Tribune were under the pen name of Frontier. The Associated Press claims that Kellogg had the dubious distinction of being the first AP correspondent to die in battle, but it is historically disputed that Kellogg ever worked for them.

The body of the “man who makes the paper talk” was found missing his scalp and an ear, but his written notes were found undisturbed in his pouch. In his last known correspondence, he wrote to Lounsberry, “…by the time this reaches you, we will have met and fought … with what results remains to be seen. I go with Custer…”

Using Kellogg’s notes, General Terry’s official list of the dead and wounded, and details furnished by officers aboard the Far West, Lounsberry pieced together a 50,000-word story for his typesetters. He also transmitted it to eastern newspapers as he wrote.

There was only a single telegraph line between Bismarck and St. Paul at that time, and the only way to keep the line open was to keep transmitting. So, whenever Lounsberry fell behind, he had the telegraph operator transmit lines of scripture from his pocket Bible. It reportedly took Lounsberry and the operators 24 hours to finish, and the total bill for the transmission came to more than $3,000.

The following day, the New York Herald ran a 14-column story about Custer’s demise.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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