Wednesday, December 10, 2014

America Unearthed: Son of the Custer Treasure

I couldn’t help myself and I got sucked into another episode of America Unearthed. This one about the lost treasure of George Custer, yeah, that guy who managed to get about half of the Seventh Cavalry killed in June, 1876. Contrary to what the program said, he wasn’t that smart of a guy and his problem at the Little Big Horn was that he didn’t have another Union unit out there to come to his rescue. This had happened during the Civil War, where he rode too far forward to an attack and another unit had to bail him out.

Anyway, there was talk that Custer left the Dakotas on the campaign into Montana taking the payroll for the Seventh with him. Legend had it that it was made up of gold and silver and after the battle no one could find the money. Maybe the Lakota took it and hid it. Or maybe it was the Cheyenne who got it. Rumor was that a fellow named Two Moon was instrumental in hiding the treasure and even had a map to the point where it was buried. He entrusted this map to a Caucasian for some inexplicable reason, and when Two Moon died, he was buried in a skinny pyramid that contained some artifacts and an envelope with the map inside. Of course, long before Scott Wolter got there the map was stolen… if it had ever been in the envelope… a fact that no one bothered to check.

One thing that annoyed me about this episode was the claim that the Seventh had been decimated at the battle. Well, no. If you are referring to the five companies that followed Custer to the end, they weren’t decimated. They were wiped out completely. If they have been decimated, there would have been at least nine survivors. A trivial complaint based on semantics? Of course, but if you’re going to rewrite history, you should get the facts right and the language right and this isn’t only point that they failed on.

So, anyway Wolter heads off to talk to a journalist friend who lives in a neat looking house, but doesn’t seem to know much about the battle or the missing treasure. He suggests that Wolter talk to a coin dealer who wants a hundred and forty bucks before he’ll talk. He holds up a Buffalo Nickel that has a price of $140.00 on it. Wolter insists on calling it an Indian Head Nickel and then starts talking about Indian Head pennies, telling us that the Indian on the penny is really Lady Liberty so that coin is misnamed… Well, she’s wearing what looks like a Lakota war bonnet but this is just more trivia and completely irrelevant.

They finally get to talking about the Custer treasure, which the coin dealer seems to be sure exists and that the value of it was something like $25,000.00 in 1876, but with today’s prices for gold and silver it would be much more, not to mention the premium value on each coin minted prior to 1876. Each one could fetch $50,000.00 or more from a collector. Suddenly the value of the treasure has skyrocketed into the millions and no one has found any evidence that it even exists.

So off to Montana goes Wolter. He talks to a guy who knows the tale of Two Moon and shows Wolter a magazine article written more than half a century ago that mentions the envelope containing the treasure map, but that envelope disappeared a long time ago… and there is no evidence that there was a map inside because no one alive today ever saw it, but since we’re looking for Custer’s treasure, well, there just has to be a map.

Now, rather than take a look at some of the research on Custer that has been done since the battle including Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, Wolter is off to the battlefield… or a facsimile there of. He meets up with a group of re-enactors (a hobby that I have never really understood) who suggest that Custer was loved by his men (yeah, sure, especially after he had ordered several of them gunned down for desertion but that’s another story).

The re-enactor who is Wolter’s escort into this says that the Lakota had been waiting for Custer because they had spotted the cavalry earlier that day. But that just doesn’t square with history and in fact, had Major Marcus Reno pressed his attack rather than stopping and then retreating, the outcome might have been different. The Lakota had been caught by surprise according to what they said in the years that followed the battle.

Wolter and his boys mention two of the chiefs in the battle, Sitting Bull, who didn’t participate and wasn’t a chief but a medicine man and Crazy Horse. They show pictures of both and while the picture of Sitting Bull has been authenticated; there are no known pictures of Crazy Horse… They sort of imply the picture is Crazy Horse but never mind.

So, now Wolter is signed up as a private in this fake Seventh Cavalry re-enactor group and there seems to be hints that it is some sort of official government organization but it’s not. We are treated to Wolter riding around in his fake Army uniform, charging down into the Lakota camp or whatever, and then he tells us about the thrill of such an adventure. Okay, maybe it was thrilling for him, but then no one was shooting real bullets at him and this has nothing to do with the hunt for Custer’s treasure. What this is, is filler because they just don’t have anything else to use to fill the hour… no documents, no records, no witness testimony, nothing but this rumor that Custer carried gold and silver coins to pay his soldiers… yeah, that’s what I want to do… ride into combat with a pocketful of loose change.

Now, Wolter, using his IPad or whatever, learns that a stash of gold coins had been found in California and he wonders if this somehow isn’t related to the Custer treasure. Estimated value of the gold coins found there is ten million… So back in Minnesota, he asks the coin dealer if there is any possibility that this is the lost Custer stash… but some of the coins are dated long after the fight at the Little Big Horn, so no… except, well, maybe it started with the Custer treasure and these newer coins were added to it afterwards. Never let the facts get in the way of a treasure hunt.

Anyway, had they done any real research into this and not become fascinated by re-enactors, or had Wolter read Son of the Morning Star (he referred to Custer as the Warrior of the Morning Star because he always attacked at dawn… really? Where did you pick up that tidbit?) Wolter would have known that the soldiers were paid with paper money. In fact, some of that money was found later, being used as “saddle blankets” on toy horses made for the Lakota and Cheyenne children. So much for the historical evidence that Custer had all that gold and silver with him.

Here was a whole hour devoted to a treasure that never existed and that anyone who had spent twenty minutes on the Internet, or who had called me, could have learned was merely rumor. About the only facts presented were that Custer did attack the Lakota and Cheyenne on the Greasy Grass (Lakota name for the Little Big Horn, which they did actually mention) and that about half of the Seventh was killed in the battle. They offered no evidence that the gold and silver treasure ever existed and I had to wonder what was this sudden fascination with treasure… we’d already learned about the Aztec treasure in Utah that they didn’t find and had no facts to establish it… and the Lost Dutchman Mine (with Wolter telling us repeatedly that the Dutchman had been German) but he didn’t find it… personally, I don’t think the mine exists. If it had, at one time, an earthquake in the mid-eighteenth century probably destroyed it… and now we have a search for a nonexistent Custer treasure.

Well, all this tells me all I need to know. He’s no longer offering alternative history; he’s just out chasing ratings… I mean, he’s at the Alamo and now the Little Big Horn… next he’ll probably be out at Area 51 telling us about the secret projects there and then off to Roswell with a metal detector to find saucer wreckage (yeah, I’ve seen the rest of the schedule for the season and those things aren’t there but just wait)… anything to boost ratings. But as for his claim that we didn’t learn the “real” history in school, well, that seems to be just more hype because he hasn’t offered much in the way of evidence that his alternative history is accurate.


David From AU said...

"Decimate" indeed originally meant to "remove one tenth of" but has now evolved in modern usage to infer "remove a large proportion of". See (amongst others)

KRandle said...

David -

Really? That's your take away on this? Language has evolved to the point where it becomes less clear...
We now no longer know the difference between disinterest and uninterest. we talk about something being surrounded on three sides and of things completely destroyed when destroyed means complete...

You aren't offend by a program searching for a treasure that didn't exist? Even if Custer had carried the gold into Montana, it would have been with Company B which did not ride to desctruction with Custer. He took five companies into that last stand... C,E,F,L, and I. B remained behind and joined Reno and Benteen on the hills after Reno's failed charge into one end of the Lakota encampment...

Yet you worry about decimate? You should be more concerned with programs that pretend to offer history that can't be bothered with basic research.

And besides, "remove a large proportion of" doesn't cover what happened. Those five companies were destroyed... it wasn't a large proportion of, it was all of it.

albert said...


I did watch a few of the earlier episodes of the series, but not the Alamo or Custer ones you mentioned. (I'm not interested in those subjects). IIRC, they had some credentialed experts who seemed to have offered reasonable opinions. I wonder if budgetary constraints caused the producers to stop seeking academics and real experts, or, what seems more likely, they didn't like what they heard from real historians. It would be interesting to see the real backstory on how a particular episode was developed. Fascinating, but probably disappointing.

I can accept infotainment for what it is, but these shows are short on the info, heavy on the tainment.

Yes, I feel 'suckered in' after I watch one, but it's better than reading CounterPunch all the time.

I gotta go...

Robert said...

I saw that episode myself. Wolter and the program obviously had a different perspective on history. Kind of like one group of people looking at the Roswell slides and saying dead ET corpse while somebody else had looked at them and said dead ET corpse is a stretch.
What you get out of the program is IF there was any kind of treasure and IF a map existed it was probably looted after the unknown people vandalized the monument and opened it up in the early 60s.
As to Lost Dutchman and the many other similar stories I would make one observation. If you think Roswell stories and witness tales and stories (the bogus ones) were a twisted maze, just start looking into treasure stories. Especially since the principle's are long since dead.

albert said...


I think you meant 'principals'.
'Principles', or the lack thereof, could easily refer to certain members of the Ufological* Community.
A Freudian slip perhaps?
I gotta go...
* how does 'logical' turn up here, of all places?

edithkeeler said...

It only gets worse. This last episode had Wolter on another treasure hunt, this time for the lost treasure of Captain Kidd. He was pursuing a rumor that John Jacob Astor had found the treasure, insinuating that the original capital for his fortune came from it. Wolter tracked down a a descendent of Astor who said the fortune is gone, the family is broke and still living on the original estate while trying to maintain it. Of course, she had no information about any treasure.

The funniest part of the show was when they showed a clip of John D Rockafeller, from the History mini-series The Men Who Built America, to portray John Jacob Astor! To be fair, Wolter may not have that much control over that kind of thing. History channel probably figured they could save a couple bucks by reusing a clip from another show and no one would notice, since all those old empire builders look alike.

nosurfinsouthdakota said...

As an historian who is a little embarrassed to admit watching this episode, I do have to point out that there is a strong oral history among the Northern Cheyennes that there was indeed a buried cache from the Greasy Grass Fight. It is not money, it is the weapons and equipment taken from the bodies of Custer's men. At least some of the Cheyennes and Lakotas hid these items for fear of their being used as evidence against them.