When it comes to the post-Civil War Indian Wars, a U.S. military defeat, not a victory is the most famous: The Battle of the Little Bighorn, remembered by the Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass and also often known as the Custer's Last Stand, the Custer Battle, and the Custer Massacre. It was one of the most complete defeats of the U.S. military by Native Americans during the long struggle between numerous Native American nations and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, second only perhaps to St. Clair's defeat in 1791 at the Battle of the Wabash during the Northwest Indian War where nearly the entire army under St. Clair was killed, captured, or wounded. Though there have been numerous bloody battles fought between Native American nations trying to hold onto their land and settlers and the U.S. Army, Custer's Last Stand arguably remains the most legendary moment from the “Indian Wars” and is certainly the most extraordinary event from the Great Sioux War of 1876. This is in part due to the shocking nature of the defeat and the complete loss of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's command, but it is also because Custer himself was a well-known and colorful figure, with newspapers in 1876 calling him on of “the most legendary heroes of the plains, and probably always will be” and telling colorful tales of what happened even though there were no survivors aside from the native warriors to tell the tale. Many accounts told of Custer, surrounded by his final men, fighting off overwhelming numbers, and finally being overrun and killed. News of the slaughter was received as the country was celebrating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, the birth of the United States, and a century of westward expansion. Popular accounts and artistic depictions of Custer and his men fighting to their last and going down in a hail of gunfire, their “six-shooters” blazing away, seared their deaths in Americans' memories for generations, and historians have continued to study and debate details of the battle ever since. Artifacts associated with the battle remain among the most valuable pieces of Americana, especially the 7th Cavalry's Colt Single Action Army revolvers, and given all of the revolvers carried by Custer’s command are believed to have been captured by the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors during the battle, very few have survived. This revolver was part of the historic "Lot Five" (4500-5504) revolvers that contained other revolvers issued to the 7th Cavalry and used in the historic battle. They were issued on July 2, 1874, before the Seventh Cavalry departed for the Black Hills Expedition, and this revolver and its Civil War era private purchase holster are attributed as having been recovered from the battlefield by a Native American warrior, held onto by him for nearly four decades, and then passed down through multiple generations of a family with ties to the Montana Territory and Mountain West in the 19th century. The fact that it remains in original Cavalry configuration is fitting for a revolver secured by a Native American warrior from the battlefield unlike many of the surviving 7th Cavalry revolvers that were issued to the men under Reno and Benteen which were later turned in, altered, and reissued. The legend of Custer and his men being slain in an epic battle has been captivating Americans for generations. The history was initially largely shrouded in myth since none of Custer’s men survived, and the men fighting under Benteen and Reno did not witness Custer’s death nor uncover his fate until June 27, 1876, two days after the battle began, because they had been pinned down to the south. They attempted to piece together what they believed happened based on the locations of the bodies of Custer’s men. Subsequent archaeologists and historians have made greater sense of what happened based on evidence left behind on the battlefield, including cartridge casings, and from the accounts of the various Native American warriors who fought in the battle. The 7th Cavalry was part of the U.S. Army during Great Sioux War of 1876 sent to force the Lakota and their allies onto reservations after they refused to sell the Black Hills following the discovery of gold. Custer and the 7th Cavalry were sent forward to scout and find Sitting Bull and the main encampment, but instead of reporting back and waiting for reinforcements, Custer decided to launch a surprise attack in an attempt to secure victory before the Indians could flee. However, he and his men were not prepared for the immense size of the encampment nor the number of warriors and their determination to fight rather than be subdued. It is estimated the village contained 6,000-7,000 people from mainly the Lakota (Sioux) and Northern Cheyenne, including around 2,000 men of fighting age, but the army had only estimated there would be 800 warriors. Each of Custer's troopers in his battalion was armed with a Colt Single Action Army as their sidearm and Springfield Model 1873 carbine. Their single shot carbines were most suitable for fighting at reasonably long range. Meanwhile, the around 2,000 or possibly more warriors they faced had more diverse range of weapons from traditional bows and arrows along with muzzleloading firearms to state of the art repeating firearms, including Winchester Model 1866, Henry, and Spencer lever actions that were better for close fighting. Custer took 210 men from five companies to attack from the north and Major Marcus Reno with three companies attacked the village from the south in a classic pincer movement while a third contingent of three companies was under the command of Captain Frederick Benteen. The final company escorted the pack train. It was meant to be a surprise attack, but they were spotted by native women and scouts before the attack began, and Lakota war leader Gall and others quickly identified Custer's intent. Initially, Reno’s men crossed the river and dismounted and formed a line. They fired into the village and on the initial warriors meeting the attack in the south. Things quickly fell apart and became a rout as the number of warriors engaged grew and Reno and the outnumbered cavalrymen panicked. The native warriors moved to outflank and encircle the cavalry, and Reno and his men fell back across the river in a disordered rout during which he lost three officers and 29 troopers killed plus more than a dozen missing. On the heights to the east of the river, he was reinforced by Benteen. As his men regrouped, the warriors collected weapons and ammunition from among the fallen and put them to use and turned the bulk of their forces north. In the north, a detachment of Custer’s men approached the village but then fell back towards the high ground. They appear to have been essentially cutoff and surrounded before they even began fighting and were essentially put into a desperate defensive position with warriors pouring in around them. They formed a defensive line stretching from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. According to Lakota leader Gall, the warriors targeted the men holding the horses and scared many of the horses away, preventing the cavalry from escaping on horseback and also depriving them of their reserve ammunition. The cavalrymen were too exposed as the warriors gained higher ground and crept up the ravines using cover. As the situation became dire, Crazy Horse and his warriors joined the fray, fired upon the cavalrymen, and then engaged them in hand to hand combat. As the cavalrymen tried to flee, Red Hawk noted the warriors “were taking the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers and putting these to use.” Rather than Custer being killed surrounded by his men in one big last stand on a single hill surrounded by numerous slain native warriors, there were multiple smaller stands by separate groups of cavalrymen desperately struggling in vain for their lives, and native accounts suggest the warriors suffered few casualties after the cavalry’s extended defensive line collapsed. Rather than fight to the death, some of Custer’s men dropped their guns and attempted to run and others through up their hands hoping to be spared, though Plains Indians generally only took women and children captive. Many were no doubt in complete shock by the scene unfolding around them, and some of the men would have been out of ammunition. Men at Reno’s location reported hearing three distinct episodes of firing from the north around 4:25, 4:55, and 5:10 and ending by 5:15. This is consistent with native accounts of lulls in the battle as both sides regrouped. After Custer was killed, around 28-30 of his surviving men tried to escape down a ravine towards the river to no avail and were cut down. Captain Thomas Weir and Company D went out in search of Custer around 5:00 from the south witnessed the warriors firing into men on the ground around 5:25, presumably killing the wounded or shooting men already slain from Custer’s command. They did not yet know that Custer and his men had been completely annihilated. This detachment was reinforced by more men from Reno Hill but were forced back to the main defensive lines as the warriors reformed and turned on them. After the warriors rounded up the weapons of the fallen and regrouped, they turned their attention to Reno Hill where the fighting continued into the next evening. In the whole of the battle, the warriors may have suffered less than 40 killed while the 7th Cavalry lost 268 killed, another 6 mortally wounded, and an additional 49 wounded who survived. Two letters from September 2020 from Patricia B. Melancon are included outlining the provenance. She states the revolver has been in her family since 1915 when it was given in trade to her great-grandfather John Tooker Henderson at his mercantile shop along the Platte River in the Denver area. She writes, "In 1915, an old Indian came to his store and traded him this revolver for a pair of pants and a blanket. He told my great-grandfather he picked it up off the Custer battlefield." She indicates her great-grandfather later gave this revolver to her grandfather Lazarus Ritchey Henderson (1878-1950). He in turn left the revolver to her father, Harry R. Breese (1901-1982), and her father gave the revolver to her after she was married, and it was in her possession starting in the mid-1950s. There appears to be some confusion regarding either the date the revolver was acquired or the family member that first received it as her great-grandfather John Tooker Henderson (1836-1899) was long at rest by 1915 based on the information in the letters and confirmed in period records. All the family members she discusses were involved in painting businesses in the West and were active Masons. John T. Henderson advertised his sign and house painting business in the Virginia City in local newspapers in the 1860s and per his obituaries in western papers in 1899 was “at one time captain of the famous vigilantes at Virginia City, Mont., and at several periods in his life helped make the stirring history of the Rocky mountains region by subduing lawless elements.” He had a shop on Wallace Street near the Post Office in Virginia City, both alone and with various partners. He appears to have left Montana by 1870 and have worked in Fort Scott in Kansas before moving to Denver by 1878 where his son L. Ritchey Henderson was born. Harry R. Breese is noted as one of his stepsons. Noted Colt Single Action Army expert John A. Kopec in his included 2021 dated letter about this revolver states, "It is...very significant that this old holster still accompanies this important 'Custer-era' revolver...We have truly enjoyed reviewing this very significant 'Custer-Era' revolver, and believe that it may be the finest representation of a 'Lot-Five' revolver we have ever had the privilege to examine." In addition to being attributed to Custer's ill-fated 7th Cavalry and the legendary contest between them and the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho that raged on the plains on that fateful day, this revolver is notable for its high condition which itself is rare for any early Colt Single Action Army revolver, let alone one associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Of the 12,500 Colt Single Action Army revolvers inspected by Ainsworth, only around 1,285 are known in collections today. Many of those revolver were converted to the "Artillery" configuration or were otherwise altered or damaged during the late 19th century and early 20th century making any original "Cavalry Model" Colt Single Action Army inspected by Ainsworth particularly desirable and valuable. Kopec indicates that this revolver was new to their survey in the letter and was manufactured c. June 1874 and has not been found recorded in the National Archives. However, he indicates the revolver was part of the historically significant "Lot Five" which he notes "was one of the 'prime' lots from which those revolvers which had been issued to the Seventh Cavalry were drawn." He notes that in "Colt Cavalry & Artillery Revolvers…a Continuing Study" that he and co-author H. Sterling Fenn list revolvers by serial number that were probably associated with the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, including sn. 4507: General Terry's personal revolver as recorded in Terry's personal diary, sn. 4553 (this revolver's consecutive) relics found at the battlefield near the Indian village, and 4597: 7th Cavalry Lieutenant Luther Hare's revolver. 4570 and 4596 were marked for Company K of the 4th Cavalry, and 4729 is associated with the Pine Ridge reservation and Indian use. Kopec notes: "There are two considerations worth our emphasis at this juncture. First, is the fact that its serial number is consecutive with backstrap & cylinder #4553 found at the Custer Battlefield c. 1992, and secondly that its fine overall condition is consistent with the narrative stating that this revolver was found at the Battlefield when the revolver was probably only two years old. In other words, the story of this [revolver] being picked-up at the Custer Battlefield, would not be consistent if this revolver were today found in a well-worn condition." Of the holster, Kopec writes that it is classified as a "Non-Regulation, private purchase, Civil War Holster" manufactured in 1860-1865. The serial numbers of the revolvers issued to the 7th Cavalry are within the 4500-6559 range in Colt production lots five, six, and seven. On page 281 of "Colt Cavalry & Artillery Revolvers,” 600 of the 7th Cavalry Revolvers are estimated to have come from the fifth lot, 300 came from the sixth lot, and just 39 came from the seventh. The authors noted, “Serial numbers 4507, 4553, 4597, 4949, 4955, 5100, 5128, 5133, 5153, 5147, 5180, and 5416 all have either documented Seventh Cavalry history, or some lesser degree of Seventh Cavalry history or battle association. All of these revolvers are from Lot Five.” In the table on page 260, Custer’s command (companies C, E, F, I, and L plus ten staff and three scouts) are listed as having revolvers in the Lot Five and Lot Six range. Lot Five revolvers, among which this revolver falls, are noted as issued to companies C, E, F, and L along with the staff and scouts. The 212 revolvers from Custer’s men are presumed to have all been looted by Native American warriors. After the battle, 302 of the 632 revolvers carried into the battle by the 7th Cavalry were reported lost, and “At the minimum 252 and probably closer to 280 Colt Army revolvers were recovered by the warriors during the two day battle at the Little Bighorn” as noted on page 261. Many of the revolvers captured during the battle would have been employed by the warriors later in the battle as the warriors finished their rout of Custer’s men and then reformed and engaged Reno and Benteen’s men in the south as discussed above. As noted, this revolver is consecutive to the relic backstrap of another Single Action Army (serial number 4553) found at the battlefield noted in Kopec’s letter and discussed on page 278 “Colt Cavalry and Artillery Revolvers.” The caption for the backstrap states, “The backstrap was recovered in the areas where an Army detail party apparently collected and disassembled Army and Indian firearms recovered after the battle. This backstrap represents one of only three Custer revolvers archaeologically recovered from the battlefield.” The site was near the massive Indian village the 7th Cavalry had foolishly attacked. As discussed in the book, some of the recovered weapons from the battlefield were burned and/or partially disassembled to render them unusable by Native Americans because the cavalry could not take them all with them. The book also notes that while cartridges and cartridge cases recovered from the battlefield definitely show that at least eleven different Colt Single Action Army revolvers were fired during the battle, “recovered cartridge cases have not been matched with any extant Colt Army revolvers” unlike a small number of long guns that have been identified through forensic testing. The revolver has a rounded blade front sight, "+COLT'S PT. F. A. MFG. Co. HARTFORD, CT. U.S.A.+" in italicized and serifed letters along the top of the barrel, "P" and "A" on the bottom of the barrel, the standard early "black powder frame" with a screw securing the cylinder pin, "PAT. SEPT. 19. 1871/PAT. JULY 2. 1872" and "U.S." stamped on the left side of the frame, "A" on the side of the cylinder, "1" on the rear of the cylinder, assembly number "639" on the loading gate, "C" above the firing pin hole in the hammer well, "A" behind the hammer on the back strap, "A" by the serial number on the trigger guard, "A" on the butt of the grip to the left of the back strap, and Orville W. Ainsworth's distinctive "OWA" cartouche on the left side of the grip. The visible serial numbers are all matching. The holster is dark leather with a top flap, loop for a now absent strap on the top flap, belt loop on the rear towards the front, and closed toe.
Extremely fine overall and the finest known Custer-era "Lot Five" Colt Single Action Army Revolver in original Cavalry Model configuration. 20% original blue finish remains mainly concentrated in the protected areas of the barrel, ejector housing, and trigger guard, and the frame and hammer retain 20% original case colors. Kopec noted: "minor abrasive scratches" on the front left of the frame from cleaning, scratches on the underside of the barrel and ejector tube likely from using pliers to remove the base-pin, moderate pitting on the right lower side of the frame, minor pitting on the right forward part of the frame, traces of original case colors turned to a "candy-striping" pattern on the left side of the frame, "traces of original case-coloring" on both the left and right side of the front of the frame, faint original case colors on the hammer, dark original case colors in the sight groove, and traces of original blue finish on the barrel, ejector tube, trigger guard, and upper section of the backstrap. The grip is also very fine and properly remains slightly proud of the metal at the junction with the back of the frame as noted by Kopec and has a legible Ainsworth cartouche on the left, moderate lower edge wear, and light scratches. The revolver remains mechanically excellent. The holster is fair and has heavy flaking, an absent top strap, absent belt loop threading at the top, and general heavy wear from age. This is an incredible Colt Single Action Army in so many respects: early production, high condition, Ainsworth inspected, matching parts, and historic attribution to one of the most famous battles ever fought in North America... Custer's Last Stand.
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