Monday, December 20, 2010

Custer's Lost Payroll in South Dakota (Updated Version)

(George Armstrong Custer photographed during the U.S. Civil War when he held the temporary rank of Major General.)

(Update note: I've published a reader's comments at the end of this post that suggest very strongly [to put it mildly] that this tale is probably bogus, no pun intended. As you can see by the tone of his/her comments, I guess this post hit a sore spot with the commenter! Being no door mat or anyone's patsy, I tended to reply in kind. Remember, this blog is about treasure MYTHS, legends, and leads. Evidently Custer's payroll treasure falls under the myth category. J.R.)

A Name That Figures Prominently

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer is a name that figures prominently in the American West and that typically elicits strong responses from those who either consider him unfairly treated by history or those who view him as an arrogant and self-serving egomaniac. What’s not in doubt however are his questionable military tactics against a superior force of Sioux and Cheyenne (and their allies) that led to his own death and the butchery of his immediate command at the so-called Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.

(Note: Some of you may not know that Custer was only temporarily brevetted a Major General during the U.S. Civil War. After the war he was automatically returned to the lower rank of Lieutenant Colonel, something that “stuck in his craw” until his death. J.R.)

Metal Detectors

Custer’s command was, of course, the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Both Custer and the 7th figure prominently in South Dakota history, including the 1874 military expedition that proved that the Black Hills held gold, a fact that triggered a “rush” to the region and led to the further expulsion of the Lakota people from lands given them by the “Great Father” as part of an 1868 treaty.

The Key Element

But the key element of this post is not about George Custer, the 7th Cavalry, or the Sioux and Cheyenne…it’s about treasure. A payroll treasure supposedly buried and left behind by Custer’s column as they headed out on either the 1874 expedition or their final ride to destiny in 1876.

(Note: Exactly which expedition is open for debate, by the way. J.R.)

Here’s how this particular legend goes:

Custer and the 7th were camped along Bogus Jim Creek near the small town of Nemo a bit northwest of present-day Rapid City, South Dakota when word came in from scouts that “hostiles” were in the area. The 7th was already slowed down by their baggage and supply train, including the paymaster’s wagon and his over-sized payroll chest and Custer was, as always, impatient to move in pursuit quickly. He gave orders that the heaviest items in the train be cast aside or in the case of the payroll chest, be buried nearby for recovery later.

All accounts of this treasure trove state that Custer and the 7th never returned for the buried payroll chest. Is this because the majority was wiped out at the Little Big Horn on that sultry June day in 1876 or is it because the column was seized by Black Hills gold fever in 1874?

Real Substance or a Fanciful Dream?

For me the most logical answer is the 1876 campaign against the Lakota peoples since most of Custer’s command was left dead and dismembered in the hot sun. Yet, accounts of Custer’s (and the 7th Cavalry’s) movements on that final ride are well documented, as are the movements of his 1874 expedition into the Black Hills.

Is this trove a fanciful dream conjured up by someone long ago, or is there real substance to it. Those that say the treasure trove exists claim that none of Custer’s subordinate officers were ever held accountable for the loss of the payroll. But some basic research on your part should uncover a few facts or clues fairly quickly.

$2,200,000 for Custer’s Guide-On

How much money are we talking about if the trove does exist? I suspect that if the payroll chest contained gold and silver U.S. type coins (most likely scenario, by the way) that it could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today if there are strong numismatic coins included in the mix.

As a historical set piece however, a trove like this that was validated as part of Custer’s column could bring much more money to the table. Not long ago the 7th’s swallow-tail guide-on flag that accompanied Custer to the Little Bighorn was sold at auction for $2,200,000!

There you have it. Good hunting to one and all.

If you liked this post, you may want to read: “More Tips for Treasure Hunters”

© J.R. 2010

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