Since it’s a rather slow day in the world of wacky history, I thought it might be fun to follow up on Scott Wolter’s adventure looking for George Armstrong Custer’s lost treasure even though nineteenth century history is a little outside my usual wheelhouse. On his blog, Wolter admitted that the show misrepresented the treasure and his views about it, and he admitted to doing no real research into the story—unintentionally revealing something interesting about his methodology.
First, let’s dispense with the important facts. On the show, Wolter claimed that gold coins found in California could have come from the payroll distributed to the Seventh Cavalry shortly before the Battle of Little Bighorn. But I also noted Wolter’s narration contradicted his theatrics by consistently suggesting Wolter didn’t actually believe in the treasure. It turns out I was right:
One thing became abundantly clear to me during my conversations with the cavalry guys that was not made clear in the show, and that was there was no Custer "treasure" in the form of gold and/or silver. The pay wagon was with Reno who pulled back and wasn't part of the Little Bighorn battle. Therefore, the only thing that could have been salvaged from the dead soldiers by the natives was personal items and paper currency.
Note that Wolter admits that the show was intentionally unclear to perpetuate the so-called mystery. This, of course, raises the obvious question of why America Unearthed would air an episode about a treasure that didn’t exist, and why Wolter would agree to pretend it did on camera. (The answer to that is his contract!) A commenter on his blog asked this very question (and whether the whole episode was produced as a cash-grab), and Wolter replied:
I didn't know about the pay wagon until two days into filming. I was told by the men in the cavalry that there was a pay wagon with the men, but that it was left behind. […] I asked the same questions about payroll and was told the men were paid after they left the fort so they couldn't spend it on booze and women. Makes sense to me.
Wolter did not address the question of why the show produced an episode about a treasure that Wolter himself believes didn’t exist. However, in his reply there are two key issues that stand out. First, Wolter admits that he wasn’t really doing any research into the subject, and apparently neither were his producers or the episode writer. If any of them did, he wouldn’t have need to be “told” that the men weren’t paid in Bismarck to keep them from spending it on “booze and women.” He would know (as I found out in only 30 minutes of research) that Little Bighorn survivor Charles Windolph was the source for this claim, and he made it in 1947, as I reported in my episode review.
The more interesting issue is that Wolter repeatedly testifies that he accepts evidence based on whether he trusts the person telling him secondhand information. To wit, the reenactment players are good people; therefore, their claims are true. Scott Wolter is a good person; therefore, we should believe his claims are true. Academics are bad people; therefore, their evidence is corrupt. In other words, he seems to see evidence as an extension of his faith in the individual rather than an independent variable.
But the irony of the week award goes to Wolter’s belated realization that baroque stories about fabulous history might well be the result of gradual accretions in the retelling: “It's interesting how these legends take off and become ‘truth’ after being retold over a long enough time.” Do you think he’ll ever take his own advice and apply that to his own byzantine Jesus-Templar-Oreo Cookie conspiracy? (The claim that the Templars reached America are the result of just such a game of telephone, as I have documented.) The chances of that are about as good as him finding the Ark of the Covenant.
Let’s remember that Wolter essentially agreed to pretend a myth he doesn’t believe in was true to make better TV the next time he asks us to accept on faith than anything on his TV show is “true.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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