Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 1226: Native American Decorated Frank Wesson Tip-Up Rifle

Auction Date: September 11, 2021

Extremely Rare Well-Documented Montana Found Historic Custer Battle Era Kittredge & Co. Marked Frank Wesson Tip-Up Single Shot Rifle with Native American Tack Decorated Stock from the U.S. Cartridge Co. Gun Collection and "Custer Battle Guns" by duMont

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $75,000 - $120,000

Extremely Rare Well-Documented Montana Found Historic Custer Battle Era Kittredge & Co. Marked Frank Wesson Tip-Up Single Shot Rifle with Native American Tack Decorated Stock from the U.S. Cartridge Co. Gun Collection and "Custer Battle Guns" by duMont

Manufacturer: Frank Wesson
Model: Single shot
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 44 RF
Barrel: 24 inch octagon
Finish: blue
Stock: hardwood
Item Views: 3532
Item Interest: Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 174
Class: Antique

Very few Native American used and decorated guns survive, and those that have any documented stories are even rarer. Like many 19th century firearms, Native American guns all too often leave us wondering: "Where have you been? How have you survived?" Not this one. We know where it was found thirteen years after the 7th Cavalry's mutilated corpses littered the battlefield at the Little Bighorn: this rifle was resting in a teepee to the west on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River beside the body of its owner, a victim of the brutal Montana winter. It is documented in the included copies of "Custer Battle Guns" by duMont on pages 61 and 54 (latter the "Revised and Expanded Edition, 1988") and listed with other "Single Shot Carbines showing Indian Ownership." The rifle is also shown and discussed on pages 48 and 49 of the third volume of "Frank Wesson Gunmaker" by Woods, Littlefield, Rowe, Pellett, and Hamilton (full set included) where it is identified as a 1st Type from the U.S. Cartridge Company's collection and "extensively modified, probably by an Indian. We don't know how the rifle is opened. Baldwin Collection." Also included is a copy of "Firearms in the Custer Battle" by Parsons and duMont which features this rifle on the rear cover and notes on pages 42-43 that "Many of the weapons taken from the Cheyennes and Sioux in 187 are believed to have gone into the United States Cartridge Company collection, which was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution for a long period. It has been dispersed quite recently, and firearms traced to it or to some other Government collection have a positive claim to usage in the Battle." Arguably the most important book documenting this rifle is the famous catalog of the U.S. Cartridge Company collection where this rifle is listed as gun 255 and the following history is recorded: "By some means this carbine fell into the hands of the Indians. History as given by Buckskin Joe: 'I, with Tanning Iron and Tanning Hoe, while hunting on the Middle Fork of the Flat Head River, I found a large Indian tepee, snowed up. I dug the snow off, and there were two Indian bucks and one squaw. They were frozen stiff. I think they got there, and got snowed in, and starved to death. I took the rifle from the teepee, Nov. 23, 1889. Signed, Buckskin Joe, hunter, trapper, and guide.' The stock is ornamented with brass tacks." No details on the identity of "Buckskin Joe" are given, but the most well-known man with that monicker was Edward Jonathan Hoyt (1840-1918) who was a legend of the West in his own time. He was born in northwestern Canada. His father was involved in the fur trade both as a trader with Native Americans and as a trapper. Hoyt grew up among Canada's First Nations and moved to the U.S. and served as a scout during the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. He spent twelve years living among Native Americans on the Great Plains. He was also a U.S. deputy marshal in the Indian Territory, a showman and member of Pawnee Bill's Wild West shows, and was involved in mining ventures in the American West and abroad. The rifle is also listed as item 169 and shown in case no. 4 in "A.E. Brooks's Collection of Antique Guns, Pistols, Etc." Time was clearly taken with the decoration of this rifle, and it shows signs of real frontier use, but, as is often the case, the rest of this rifle's history is not documented. However, where it was found and some of its markings provide clues. The location in Big Sky Country where the rifle was found is south of present day Glacier National Park in western Montana in the ancestral lands of multiple Native American nations, including the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreilles now based on the Flathead Indian Reservation to the southwest and their enemies the Blackfeet now based to the north on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. While these nations were not heavily represented at the Battle of Little Bighorn, two of the 7th Cavalry's scouts were half-Blackfoot brothers: William and Patrick Jackson. The rifle has Benjamin Kittredge's company's marking on it, and they sent Wesson rifles to Kansas during the Civil War. They are known to have been used in Kansas following the bloody Lawrence Massacre, and Wesson rifles were among the arms in the arsenal at Leavensworth in 1867 when the government was selling off surplus arms. Thus, this rifle may have came to the West for use by a loyal Kansas trooper during the Civil War and have been turned in by him after the defeat of the Confederacy. While the end of that war brought relative peace east of the Mississippi, in the West, multiple Native American nations continued to fight to hold onto their land against white settlers and the U.S. Army and its Native American allies. Native American scouts allied with the government are known to have been armed with surplus rifles and carbines. Significantly, at least one of these Frank Wesson rifles was used at the Battle of Little Bighorn based on analysis of cartridges recovered after the battle. Few of the weapons of the up to 2,500 warriors that fought Custer and his men that day have been identified, but .44 rimfire single shot and repeating rifles are known to have been among them. Given at least one of these rifles was used and this rifle remained in the region, it certainly could have been used that day in the Battle of Greasy Grass (as the Native Americans called it) by an allied scout or one of the victorious warriors of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, or Arapaho who wiped out Custer's men on and around Last Stand Hill and also caused losses at Reno's Hill. Ultimately, 268 men of the roughly 700 man 7th Cavalry were killed, and another 6 later died from their wounds. It was one of the most significant Native American victories in the history of the West and by far the most famous. Any Native American firearm that may have been related to this battle is historically significant and a highly valuable collector's item. This gun was likely originally configured as a military carbine like the others sent by Kittredge to Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio during the Civil War. It was manufactured c. 1862-1864 and has a tall blade front sight, a tall U-notch rear sight, hole from the original rear sight just ahead of the latter, the Wesson 1859 and 1862 patent marking partially covered by the rear sight, "B. KITTREDGE & CO.CINCINNATI. O." following the patent marking, link on the right side of the barrel, no visible markings on the frame, empty tap where the sling swivel would have been fitted, "2247" twice on the right side of the wrist (lower with the "4" stamped over a "3"), a small marking in white that reads "33" followed by what appears to be "PC," complex tack design on the right side of the stock, an outline of tacks on the left side, and an extra hole in the crescent buttplate.

Rating Definition:

Good and well above average condition as Native American frontier decorated/modified with gray and brown patina, crack in the sideplate, file marks, and wear overall consistent with real use in the Old West. The period fabricated stock has aged patina on the tacks, one tack head absent, some slivers absent, and some scrapes and dings. The front trigger/opening mechanism is absent; otherwise, it is mechanically fine. This is both an extraordinary historical artifact/example of an Old West rifle with clearly indisputable documented Native American history that has been passed down through several very well-known Custer Battle collections.

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