Dakota Datebook

Little Big Horn Survivor?

Friday, June 25, 2004

Custer’s Last Stand was on this date in 1876; Native Americans call it the Battle of Greasy Grass.

The Chester Fritz Library at UND has a 9-page paper entitled, “Did a Man in Private Life Known as Frank Finkel Escape from the Custer Battle?” The manuscript covers one of many stories of self-proclaimed escapee-survivors, but most Native Americans have consistently maintained that all soldiers who tried to get away from the battle were chased down and killed.

To be fair, the number of men who died and were buried after the battle doesn’t exactly match the number of men in Custer’s battalion, and this manuscript raises enough doubts to prevent a blanket statement that absolutely none of Custer’s man escaped alive. But there have been many men who claimed bogus bragging rights about having survived the battle, and all were disproved.

Mrs. Hermie Billmeyer, Finkel’s second wife, gave the account of Frank Finkel’s escape and survival to Dr. Charles Kuhlman of Billings, Montana. It covered Finkel’s in-depth explanations of the battle as it happened on the field, as well as other events of his life in the army. These were then compared to historical documents and facts.

Finkel said that he enlisted in the army under the name of Frank Hall during late 1874 and was sent to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he was assigned to Troop “C” of the 7th Cavalry. There, close friends new him as Frank Finkel – the fact that he enlisted under an assumed name was not uncommon, because he was underage when he joined up.

During the battle, Finkel said a bullet struck his horse in the flank, causing it to rear and plunge through the Native American lines. He himself was shot him in the side and the bottom of his foot, and was near death. After his escape, he traveled until meeting a tight-lipped man he knew only as “Bill,” who allowed him to stay at his cabin long enough to regain his strength. Finkel said that he then went to Fort Benton, where he tried to get discharged but was turned down.

Upon hearing the story, Dr. Kuhlman concluded Finkel’s story, unlike previous self-proclaimed survival stories, had none of the usual indications of fraud – nothing that couldn’t be verified or explained. Mrs. Billmeyer maintained that Finkel’s descriptions were always the same and that he never bragged or exaggerated about what he considered was his “true” story.

At one point, for example, they learned that Chief Joseph White Bull said that one of Custer’s troopers escaped on a gray horse, and someone else said it was a white horse.

Rain-in-the-Face, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse also said that one trooper, severely wounded, got through the lines, but that he was believed to have committed suicide when the battle was lost.

Mrs. Billmeyer wrote, “When I asked Mr. Finkel if his horse was white, he said, ‘No, it was a roan.’ Now in the heat of a fight, one… might call a roan white, or gray, for a roan is light colored in the spring,” she said. “However, Mr. Finkel’s answer showed that he was telling nothing but the truth, and would not take advantage of the ‘white horse’ story to give weight to his own.”

Of course it is impossible to prove or disprove Finkel’s story at this point. As historian Gerald Newborg puts it, “Perhaps the real story is the continuing fascination we have with Custer and the Little Big Horn battle. It has become one of our morality plays – Custer as hero, Custer as evil incarnate, Custer the ambitious politician, Custer the honest soldier. And somehow, someway, a trooper had to survive to tell the story.”

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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