This week we continue this season’s treasure hunting theme, this time looking for the apocryphal treasure of George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Frankly, I find treasure hunts to be rather boring, but never more so than when the treasure in question never existed in the form the hunter seems to think it did. On the other hand, it’s nice to see America Unearthed continue its slow descent into irrelevance as the producers work hard to repair Scott Wolter’s (and the show’s) damaged reputation by course-correcting back toward a more (though never entirely) mainstream show more closely aligned to the slate of new competing knockoff shows premiering this month on American Heroes Channel and Discovery Family like Secrets of the Arsenal and History & Mysteries.
The Black Hills of South Dakota were so lacking in resources that white settlers left it to the Sioux under the Treaty of 1868 and were content to ignore the semiarid wasteland. However, this state of affairs wouldn’t last long once gold was discovered in the Sioux lands. The federal government at first tried to honor its treaty commitments, but a campaign by local politicians and the media convinced federal officials to launch aggressive action to take control of the gold-rich territory. In 1874, the Army sent the Seventh Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer into the Black Hills to confirm that gold was present. When Custer found gold, prospectors flooded the Sioux territory, and the federal government eventually stopped enforcing the treaty. In 1876, the land was no longer the Sioux’s de facto, but the tensions over this takeover are the most important contributing factor for the Great Sioux War of 1876, the battle between Native Americans and the Cavalry that led directly to the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, often known as Custer’s Last Stand. The U.S. victory over the combine Native American forces in 1877 led to a formal settlement that made the gold-laden territory de jure American land.
Some people claim that in 1876, after the Battle of Little Bighorn, a shipment of gold was lost when a steamship called the Far West was trying to rescue George Armstrong Custer and his men. The captain, Grant Marsh, dumped it at an undisclosed location to lighten the load and make room for Custer’s wounded soldiers. There is, however, no evidence that the ship ever carried gold on its journey up the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers.
A competing claim, popular in treasure hunting circles but rarely encountered elsewhere, argues that the Seventh Cavalry’s payroll was never recovered after the Battle of Little Bighorn and is therefore one of America’s lost treasures. This treasure supposedly takes the form of wagon containing $25,000 in gold, silver, and banknotes that had been paid out to the Seventh Cavalry at Heart River on the way to Montana. Some believe that the Native Americans recovered and hid the money after the battle.
So far as I can tell, it ultimately derives from Charles Windolph, a survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn who was shot in the ass and received the Medal of Honor for it—well, technically for securing the water supply. He was the source for a first-person account called I Fought with Custer in 1947. In the book, edited (and some say possibly ghostwritten) by Frazier and Robert Hunt, Windolph recalls at age 95 and at seven decades’ remove the last payroll payment:
After we got bedded down [on Heart River, on May 17, 1876] the paymaster turned over to each commander the payroll. We were paid off by companies and there was a lot of grumbling by the men. The paymaster had come up the river three days before, but Gen. Custer wouldn’t let him do his job until we were well away from Bismarck and the gambling and red-light district. […] About half of that payroll found its way into the hands of the squaws and Sioux children when the dead troopers were stripped and mutilated a little more than a month later on Little Bighorn.
Windolph, unlike later treasure hunters, claimed that the payroll was in the form of paper currency, and he said that he found a five dollar bill near the site the next spring that he was sure had been from that payroll. Each man, he said, received monthly pay of just $13. Army records confirm soldiers were paid in banknotes.
It is perhaps worth noting that I can’t find a scholarly discussion of the claim that this treasure is somehow recoverable. The best I can do is trace it to a November 1972 Lost Treasure magazine article, which follows on Emile Schurmacher’s 1968 book Lost Treasures and How to Find Them, which in turn argued for the Far West steamship version of the story. In 1972, author Al Masters suggested that the payroll treasure claim was based on “recent” evidence, and involved several men who had each shared part of the secret of where the material had been buried. The claim resurfaces in Custer’s Ghosts and Custer’s Gold (2007) by Donald W. Moore. Windolph, though, seemed fairly certain that little of the paper money had survived because the Native Americans had no use for it; he said the five dollar bill he found had been used to make a “blanket” for child’s horse toy.
If that weren’t enough, NatGeo’s Diggers did an episode on this legend earlier this year, so Scott Wolter is a bit late to the treasure hunting party. That show claimed that the lost payroll was from 1874, not 1876! They found no trace of it, of course. Somehow that $25,000 in “lost” payroll left no trace in the financial records of the Seventh Cavalry.
In short, the supposed treasure seems to be a conflation of Windolph’s musings on payroll with a distorted memory of Custer’s actual involvement in setting off the Great Sioux War by confirming the discovery of gold in the Bad Lands. The story’s many variants testify to its origins as modern folklore (fake-lore?).
We open with a moody reenactment of a dying Native American who receives a white visitor in his cabin. The visitor holds up a piece of paper, and the Native hands him a coin before passing. The music swells and the visitor writes about a note about the “location of money” at the “Custer Battlefield.” Nineteen years later (so says the legend), some men haul a chest to the grave marker of Chief Two Moons and hide some random objects within, along with the note. Later still, someone else breaks in and steals the note. You know he’s evil because he smokes. I’ll be damned if I have any idea what this reenactment is supposed to be. We cut to the opening credits and then to host Scott Wolter telling us that journalist Don Shelby (who last season rhapsodized about the efforts of Knights of the Golden Circle to create a continental slave empire) has a tip for him. Wolter gives a potted history of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
In Minneapolis, Wolter meets with Shelby, who informs him that Custer’s payroll was never recovered, and he gives Wolter the figure provided in treasure hunting literature: $25,000. He also alleges that this money was paid in gold and silver coins, which was not Army policy (the weight alone!) but rather a treasure hunting myth. Wolter salivates over the idea that the individual coins could be worth $50,000 or more at auction. Shelby and Wolter discuss Custer’s role in fomenting the Great Sioux War, and Wolter does not for a moment doubt the existence of the horde of money, and neither man seems willing to accept Windolph’s claim that the money had been distributed and was thus lost with the men.
Shelby sends Wolter off to meet a man who claims to have evidence about Custer’s treasure. He arrives at Excelsior Coin Gallery in Excelsior, Minn., to talk to Jim Stiller, who immediately demands a cash payment. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t work with America Unearthed without a bribe, either.
After a recap, at the coin shop, Jim Stiller tells Wolter that he will sell Wolter a 1914 buffalo nickel minted in San Francisco for $140. Wolter does not buy the coin. (I’ve got a stack of them I inherited, so I know the coin very well.) Wolter says he’s never seen a buffalo nickel, and instead he decides to lecture about the Indian head penny, which he does know. He says that the face on the coin (a depiction of the goddess Liberty) is a secret symbol of Venus! The coin dealer tells Wolter that the map to Custer’s treasure was sealed in the grave of the Chief Two Moons (1847-1917), who fought at Little Bighorn and was one of the models used for the head on the buffalo nickel.
Wolter goes to Montana and meets with a novelist who points Wolter to Two Moons’s pyramidal monument, built twenty years after his death. The novelist tells Wolter that in the 1950s a journalist visited the monument… and then we cut to commercial.
After another on-screen recap, Wolter recaps again verbally. David Meyer shows Wolter an article by Kathryn Wright, who saw a manila envelope in the grave marker—but no treasure map. The monument was vandalized in 1960, and whatever it contained was stolen. The two men leap to wild conclusions and fail to establish that there ever was a map, let alone that the Cheyenne kept it hidden from the death of Two Moons in 1917 to 1936, when the grave marker was built. According to most accounts, the envelope contained recollections of Two Moons about the Battle of Little Bighorn, not a treasure map.
Wolter believes that W. P. Moncure, the builder of the pyramidal grave marker, is somehow the responsible party in the conspiracy. We then get a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn, played out while Wolter gazes on in rapt attention. John Slatton teaches civilians to pretend to be Little Bighorn fighters at the recreational U.S. Cavalry School (named differently on the show as the U.S. Cavalry Training School, and taking its name from the U.S. Army Cavalry School that operated under various names from 1838 to 1955), and Wolter agrees to take part in the reenactment games. We then go to commercial.
After an on-screen recap, Wolter gets into an 1876-style cavalry uniform, and Wolter seems annoyed that the producers have turned him into a reality TV show contestant. I’m all for humiliating Wolter more frequently with reality show games. They are quite fitting for a show that bends the concept of “reality” as much as this one. Slatton tells Wolter about Custer’s last days and the Battle of Little Bighorn, much of which is irrelevant to the hunt for the alleged treasure. Wolter asks Slatton about the lost treasure, and Slatton says that the treasure possibly existed but rather than talk about it forces Wolter to participate in a battle reenactment. Maybe next week, when Wolter goes looking for Captain Kidd’s treasure, the producers will make him dress up as a pirate! In fact, I think he should do future episodes dressed as characters from it: Marco Polo, a Knight Templar, a Cistercian monk, etc.
With no recap (!), we watch Wolter reenact Custer’s Last Stand. We see some ridiculous “hero shots” of Wolter on horseback, and he and Slatton talk about their feelings afterward. Wolter says he has stopped looking for the treasure and is instead interested in learning more about the Little Bighorn, whose history he feels is misrepresented in textbooks. After the reenactment, he now feels that “what we’ve been told” about what it was like to be killed by Native Americans isn’t accurate. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. We then go to commercial. I am thinking that when Wolter repeatedly uses the word supposed to describe the treasure, it is his indication that this is another topic the producers foisted upon him. He seems completely uninterested in even pretending to look for the loot.
After an on-screen recap and a verbal recap, Wolter says he “can’t stop investigating” Custer’s treasure (because the producers require it?), but Wolter didn’t even go through the motions of looking for the loot. Wolter brings up the Saddle Ridge Hoard from a couple of years ago, when a California couple found 1400 gold coins in cans on their land. Wolter ridiculously suggests to Don Shelby that it is Custer’s lost treasure, even though many of the Saddle Ridge coins date from the 1880s and 1890s. The coin dealer from earlier in the episode tells Wolter that the coins are too late to be those of Custer’s payroll. Nevertheless, Wolter says “it’s possible” that a few of Custer’s coins were taken to California to form the nucleus of the Saddle Ridge Hoard and simply added to during the 1880s and 1890s. Oh, please. By that logic, my coin collection “could have been” part of the lost treasure, too. Shelby tells Wolter he’s “thinking like an investigative reporter,” which is an insult to journalists the world over. The three men all agree that the treasure is still out there, but then Wolter’s voice over says that it might not have even existed. The contradictory claims seem to reinforce the idea that Wolter’s heart just wasn’t in this one.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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