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Curly was born in Montana in 1859. A member of the Crow tribe he took part in several skirmishes with the Sioux before agreeing to became a scout with Colonel John Gibbon in April 1876. Two months he was sent by Gibbon to join General George A. Custer in his search to locate the villages of those Native Americans involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek.
An encampment was discovered on the 25th June. It was estimated that it contained about 10,000 men, women and children. Custer assumed the numbers were much less than that and instead of waiting for the main army under General Alfred Terry to arrive, he decided to attack the encampment straight away.
Custer divided his men into three groups. Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to explore a range of hills five miles from the village. Major Marcus Reno was to attack the encampment from the upper end whereas Custer decided to strike further downstream. Custer then sent Curly and the other three Indian scouts (Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead and White Man Runs Him) away from Little Bighorn before the battle began.
At the battle of the Little Bighorn George A. Custer and all his 264 men were killed. The soldiers under Reno and Benteen were also attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon and their troops.
After the battle false stories circulated that one of Custer's party had survived. On 26th July 1876 the New York Herald Tribune published an interview with an unnamed Indian scout who it claimed had survived the battle. The newspaper quoted the scout as saying that "General Custer was the last man to be killed." He also added that Custer had not been scalped because the Sioux respected their brave enemy.
Curly was the person most often identified as the lone survivor. He denied that he had witnessed the battle but on 29th July, the Chicago Tribune published an article claiming that Curly had told them that "more Indians were killed than Custer had men." John F. Finerty of the Chicago Times also claimed that Curly had witnessed Custer's death. In a book published several years later, Finerty claimed that "Curley said that Custer remained alive throughout the greater part of the engagement, animating his men to determined resistance, but about an hour before the close of the fight lie received a mortal wound."
Curly died of pneumonia on 21st May 1923.
(1) Chicago Tribune (29th July, 1876)
The Crow Indian Curly is believed to be the only survivor of the 250 men who went into action with Custer. He is very clear in his knowledge of the fight, and has made a statement.... The fight began about 2 o'clock, and lasted, Curly says, almost until the sun went down over the hills.... Curly says more Indians were killed than Custer had men. He also says the big chief (Custer) lived until nearly all his men had been killed or wounded, and went about encouraging his soldiers to fight on.... The last officer killed was a man who rode a white horse (believed to be Lieut. Cooke).
(2) Frederick Whittaker, The Life of General George A. Custer (1876)
When he saw that the party with the General was to be overwhelmed, he went to the General and begged him to let him show him a way to escape. General Custer dropped his head on his breast in thought for a moment, in a way he had of doing. There was a lull in the fight after a charge, the encircling Indians gathering for a fresh attack. In that moment, Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them.... Why did he go back to certain death?
Curly the Upsaroka scout tells us, he the only man who escaped alive... Custer had to go farther down the river and farther away from Reno than he wished on account of the steep bank along the north side; but at last he found a ford and dashed for it. The Indians met him and poured in a heavy fire from across the narrow river. Custer dismounted to fight on foot, but could not get his skirmishers over the stream. Meantime hundreds of Indians, on foot and on ponies, poured over the river, which was only about three feet deep, and filled the ravine on each side of Custer's men. Custer then fell back to some high ground behind him and seized the ravines in his immediate vicinity. The Indians completely surrounded Custer and poured in a terrible fire on all sides. They charged Custer on foot in vast numbers, but were again and again driven back. The fight began about 2 o'clock, and lasted. Curly says, almost until the sun went down over the hills. The men fought desperately, and, after the ammunition in their belts was exhausted, went to their saddlebags, got more and continued the fight. He also says the big chief (Custer) lived until nearly all his men had been killed or wounded, and went about encouraging his soldiers to fight on. Curly says when he saw Custer was hopelessly surrounded, he watched his opportunity, got a Sioux blanket, put it on, and worked up a ravine, and when the Sioux charged he got among them, and they did not know him from one of their own men.
(3) John F. Finerty, Warpath and Bivouac (1890)
The official story of the Custer disaster was put into a few words, but no account that I have heard or read, either on or off the Plains, equals in clearness and succinctness the story of the Crow Indian scout, Curley, who alone of the immediate command of General Custer survived the memorable disaster of June 25, 1876. The following is the gist of Curley's statement.
Custer, with his five companies, after separating from Reno and his seven companies, moved to the right around the base of a high hill overlooking the valley of the Little Horn, through a ravine just wide enough to admit his column of fours. There were no signs of the presence of Indians in the hills on that side (the right) of the Little Horn, and the column moved steadily on until it rounded the hill and came in sight of the village lying in the valley below them. Custer appeared very much elated, and ordered the bugles to sound a charge, and moved on at the head of his column, waving his hat to encourage his men. When they neared the river the Indians, concealed in the undergrowth on the opposite side of the stream, opened fire on the troops, which checked the advance. Here a portion of the command were dismounted and thrown forward to the river, and returned the fire of the Indians.
During this time the warriors were seen riding out of the village by hundreds and deploying across Custer's front and to his left, as if with the intention of crossing the stream on his right, while the women and children were seen hastening out of the village in large numbers in the opposite direction.
The fight appeared to have begun, from Curley's description of the situation of the sun, about 2:30 or 3 o'clock P.M., and continued without intermission until nearly sunset. The Indians had completely surrounded the command, leaving their horses in ravines well to the rear, themselves pressing forward to the attack on foot. Confident in the great superiority of their numbers, they made several charges on all points of Custer's line, but the troops held their position firmly and delivered a heavy fire which every time drove them back. Curley said the firing was more rapid than anything he had ever conceived of, being a continuous roll, or, as he expressed it, "like the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket." The troops expended all the ammunition in their belts and then sought their horses for the reserve ammunition carried in their saddle pockets.
As long as their ammunition held out, the troops, though losing considerably in the fight, maintained their position in spite of all the efforts of the Sioux. From the weakening of their fire toward the close of the afternoon the Indians appeared to believe that their ammunition was about exhausted, and they made a grand final charge, in the course of which the last of the command was destroyed, the men being shot where they lay in their positions in the line, at such close quarters that many were killed with arrows. Curley said that Custer remained alive throughout the greater part of the engagement, animating his men to determined resistance, but about an hour before the close of the fight lie received a mortal wound.
(4) Milo Milton Quaife, introduction to John F. Finerty's Warpath and Bivourac, 1955 edition.
Strictly speaking the destruction of General Custer's command was not a massacre, since it involved only soldiers fighting in open battle. Yet after the lapse of almost eighty years it continues to intrigue the popular mind and to challenge the resources of historians, so that almost no year passes which does not witness the publication of one or several articles and books devoted to the subject. The author's (John F. Finerty) discussion presents one viewpoint which was more or less prevalent sixty years ago. A convenient more recent and more authoritative account is Colonel W. A. Graham's The Story of the Little Big Horn, first published in 1926 and several times reprinted since then, most recently in 1952. The story told by Curley, the Crow scout, is no longer seriously credited.