Sunday, January 31, 2016


George A. Custer, 1873.
From Urbaniak, 2015.

On December 27, 2009, I posted a column on ROCK ART OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN in which I presented a couple of rock art panels which have relations to the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the so-called Custer Massacre.

In his 2014 thesis for the University of Montana titled HISTORIC INSCRIPTIONS OF THE NORTHERN PLAINS IDENTITY AND INFLUENCE IN THE RESIDUAL COMMUNICATION, Timothy Urbaniak has included an inscription of George A. Custer, although apparently we cannot relate it to the Little Bighorn battle. This inscription can, however, be associated with the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition/Northern Plains Railroad Survey.

"The Yellowstone Expedition of 1873 was an expedition of the United States Army in the summer of 1873 in Dakota Territory and Montana Territory, to survey a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad along the Yellowstone River. The expedition was under the overall command of Colonel David S. Stanley, with Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer second in command." (Wikipedia)

1873 Yellowstone Expedition
map. Public domain.

"During the summer of 1873, troops under the command of Colonel David S. Stanley, Lieutenant Colonel G. A. Custer, 7th Cavalry Detachment, Lieutenant Colonel Luther P. Bradley, 8th and 9th Infantry Battalion, Major Robert E. A. Crofton, 6th and 17th Infantry Battalion, and Charles J. Dickey, 22nd Infantry Battalion, accompanied surveyors of the Northern Pacific Railroad under the leadership of Thomas L. Rosser, Engineer in Chief in an expedition to examine the Northern Plains landscape along the Yellowstone and Musselshell Rivers in the Montana Territory for the purpose of potential railway routing (Eckroth 2013:13). Toward the close of that Expedition, Lieutenant Colonel Custer remained with the surveyors as they left the Musselshell River and navigated east to rendezvous with Colonel Stanley, who had taken another route." (Urbaniak 2015:120-1)

Portrait of George Armstrong
Custer, 1873, St. Louis Missouri,

"During this process it became apparent that an inscription reading "George A. Custer 1873" (Figure 5.35) was adjacent to the plotted route. Although the GPS location of the inscription is several miles to the north of the route mapped by the railroad surveyors, it is well within the viewshed of the thousands of people and associated traveling wagons, horses, and livestock that accompanied the expedition. The inscription certainly is not in an area that would lend itself to "being carved to promote tourism," and if the intent was to attract attention, it may have been more neatly inscribed. It is interesting that the inscription does not include a group association with a military unit, a common communication behavior shown to occur elsewhere. Other faint lines on the sandstone surface may indicate that it was superimposed over a petroglyph figure. In addition to the proximity to the mapped trail of the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition, anecdotal support from the sparsely populated locals maintain that the inscription has been known to have been there since first viewed by early immigrants (Jim Meyers 2012, elec. comm.)." (Urbaniak 2015:121)

I am personally somewhat surprised that this inscription has survived un-vandalized, given the approbation that the name George A. Custer arouses among most Native Americans. Not that I would condone vandalism in any way. My personal opinion is that having a historic inscription of the name George A. Custer, serves as a reminder of how badly we once behaved toward the original inhabitants of the area, and may, perhaps, prompt us to do better by all people in the future.

NOTE: Once again I wish to thank Timothy Urbaniak for permission to use material from his thesis. Good work Tim, and thank you.


Urbianik, Timothy Rostov,
2014    HISTORIC INSCRIPTIONS OF THE NORTHERN PLAINS IDENTITY AND INFLUENCE IN THE RESIDUAL COMMUNICATION, Dissertation Presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology The University of Montana, Missoula, MT,  July 2014.


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