Last night I watched the History Channel special Custer's Last Man: I survived Little Bighorn (2011).
I first figured, here's something relaxing to drift to sleep to, but nope, before long I was taking notes, and what a convoluted tale it is.
Frank Finkel (1854-1930) was apparently born to German immigrants, and had amassed vast tracts of successful farmland in Dayton (Washington State). He
was considered a major pioneer of the town when he died in 1930.
Strangeness around the otherwise fairly unremarkable figure arose around 1920, when he was relaxing with other neighborhood men on a Sunday afternoon,
and an argument broke about the The Battle of Little Bighorn (I assume there were some drinks involved).
Neighbors were arguing about the battle fought about 40 years earlier in 1876.
Then Finkel finally dropped the bombshell and told them he was there.
In 1921 Finkel's account was published in the Walla Walla Bulletin.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn (Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's Last Stand, or as the Native Americans called it, the Battle of the Greasy Grass)
was the highlight of the Great Sioux War, when five of the the Seventh Cavalry's twelve companies were annihilated while attacking a Native American
village composed of various plains' tribes.
The dead of the cavalry (including Native American scouts) were counted at 265. en.wikipedia.org...
Officially there were no white survivors at all.
The US public were rattled by the complete annihilation of Custer and his men, as well as by the mutilation of their bodies - which was said to be so
bad, that many weren't recognizable at all.
Custer himself was rumored to have had an arrow stuck up his (I won't saw ... see in the clip).
Tit-for-tat mutilation seems to have been common on the American frontier wars with Native tribes at the times.
[One thinks of how the arms and legs of Cheyennes massacred at Sand Creek were exhibited at the Denver Theater, and a warrior named Yellow Antelope
had his testicles sold as a tobacco pouch. Scalping was the least of it. But I digress.]
It also meant that the bloated pieces of the remaining corpses were so unrecognizable, that it was at times impossible to account for each man
Here the History Channel documentary:
Although there were many claims of survival by so-called "veterans" over the following years, most of these are dismissed by historians, but Finkel's
has left a significant historical controversy:
Historians who support Finkel's claim argue that several details in Finkel's account could only be known by someone who was at Little Bighorn,
including details of events in the battle that were not widely known until after Finkel's death, and the location and quantity of streams of potable
water in the area. Those who disagree with Finkel's claim argue that records at the time do not indicate the existence of Frank Finkel, and that the
United States Army knows the fate of all the people who have been suggested as possible false names for Finkel.
It is possible he survived, If I was sent to do what they did and almost everyone got slaughtered, I would just go off and recover and play dead so
the army didn't have another chance to kill me with some unethical thing like that.
There's so much to say, and not to confuse people, but a bit more on life in cavalry at the time.
Firstly even joining the US army back then had the call of adventure, but it also had a stigma of being for bums, rogues and immigrants.
Many young soldiers did not enlist under their real names, to spare their family any unwanted social attention.
The rate of desertion (despite the possible death penalty) was very high in frontier areas - as much as 30 percent.
Soldiers enlisted for five years, and got a regular salary of 13 Dollars and free board and lodging.
However, many wanted to get to the rumored gold-fields of the Frontier, and once there, they deserted, got a bit of a make-over, and began delving for
There were no identity documents, social security or even dog-tags in those days.
You had to have two witnesses in those sparse lands to recognize a deserter, and men weren't given to being tattle-tales.
As one can imagine, many did not make their fortune, and once impoverished (yeah, get this) they re-enlisted in the army another another name!
Free board and lodge between the delving!
And this is where Finkel's story becomes highly complex.
Frank Finkel claimed he enlisted in Chicago around 1872, under the name Hans Finkel (supposedly to spare his parents any embarrassment, and to hide
the fact that he was technically a year underage to enlist in the army). But we know army recruiters are a bit labile when it comes to a year or two
for prospective cannon (or arrow) fodder.
Now the paper trail says there never was a "Hans Finkel" in the seventh, but there was an "August Finkel" (his name is listed on the Bighorn mass
The supporters of his story claim that August Finkel was indeed Frank Finkel, who said he enlisted under the alias Hans Finkel, because technically he
was a deserter, but also because when he claims to have enlisted in 1872, he had already enlisted and deserted before.
edit on 28-11-2018 by
halfoldman because: (no reason given)
But what was Finkel's story of how he escaped the battle?
Shortly, he alleged it was all a freak and rather fortuitous accident.
He was wounded in the side, and then another Indian bullet hit his carbine, causing a splinter to fly into his forehead and blinding him with his own
Then his horse was grazed by a bullet and bolted.
Blindly bolting away, he found himself out of the battle.
Then he rode for days until collapsing at a trapper's hut.
Here he recovered, and after a year or so rode back to civilization, where he read in the paper for the first time what happened to Custer and his
He then wanted to have himself decommissioned from the army, but the officer said he needed two witnesses as to his identity.
So he never bothered again and started a new life, although technically he died a soldier 50 years later.
Finkel died aged 76, and married his second wife Hermie four years before his death.
Strangely, despite the town largely accepting his story, and the 1921 article, Hermie knew nothing of his claims until a cutting of the article fell
out of one of his books while she was cleaning (a woman's work is never done, I tell ya).
Then Hermie became obsessed with the Battle of Little Bighorn, and also the Indian accounts being collected for the first time (which nobody seemed to
care much about at first, but they were collected until about 1960).
Apparently she asked him whether he was the soldier on the white horse a warrior called Wooden Leg had seen riding from the battle, but he denied it,
saying his horse was gray.
She saw this as a further sign of his honesty.
But Hermie continued to struggle ceaselessly to have her husband recognized as a survivor, although the military maintain to this day there were none.
Perhaps this was to hide the fact that Custer was not a romantic hero, but was aiming to attack an Indian village, and shocked at the size of it it,
he was surrounded while planning to kidnap many women and children fleeing the initial attack.
Whatever the case, but without Hermie it seems, and her ceaseless efforts to keep her husband's narrative alive, it probably would have disappeared
into obscurity, among many other claims of being Custer's "last man".
It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine he could indeed have escaped the battle and for the government to deny the possibility, it’s a better
narrative to have everyone wiped out than have to explain How one man out of five companies of cavalrymen. Could bring up suspicions of dishonorable
actions and change the narrative into a less politically acceptable one. I’d never heard of this but very intriguing as I have a pretty strong
interest in the battle of Little Bighorn as a family friend is a direct descendant of ole’ Custer.
Strangely, it seems there were Indian accounts of soldiers who they say rode out of the battle.
Perhaps the most bizarre and unfortunate was an officer who rode across the Indian lines.
Perhaps myopic, blinded, or also on a spooked horse, the warriors said let him go - let him tell the other white men what power we still have.
He never realized this however, and to everyone's surprise, he pulled out a firearm and shot himself in the head.
It's assumed he never knew where the Indian lines ended, and expecting capture and torture, he saved the last bullet for himself.
Because the Indians were very superstitious about suicide (or perhaps because they were sure he was dead - or saw some regret or other "medicine" in
him), his was allegedly the only corpse not found stripped and mutilated.
edit on 28-11-2018 by halfoldman because: (no reason given)
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