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.”
12/8/2014 07:18:42 am
"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, there claims are true. Scott Wolter is a good person; therefore, we should believe his claims are true."
12/8/2014 07:51:05 am
This is particularly ironic in light of Wolter's repeated insistence that academics ought to adhere to the evidentiary standard of the courts (just like he does)!
12/8/2014 09:22:31 am
I wonder if Wolter still thinks Frank Josephs is good people?
12/8/2014 09:51:51 am
This will probably remain one of the most depressing things I ever read:
12/8/2014 09:55:46 am
Did you read the whole thing. I tired months ago and lost interest. The level of obsession from all involved really was sad.
12/8/2014 10:01:07 am
Yes, that is definitely one of the factors making it so depressing. It reads like something Robert Musil would write after taking a near-lethal dose of prescription downers.
12/8/2014 07:20:05 am
the next time he asks us to accept on faith than anything on his TV show is “true.”
12/8/2014 07:21:03 am
Except he considers it his own and his own truth as THE truth so nothing else really matters. At least not to him.
12/8/2014 10:46:33 am
The lead-in (provided in a voice over by Wolter) at the beginning of every episode states what we've been told about the history of America isn't true.
12/8/2014 03:05:21 pm
Ah yes, it wasn't true. No treasure existed and he knew it, but he did get to dress up and live the dream of many small boys in America, real cowboys and Indians....and we got to watch.
12/8/2014 03:29:23 pm
Is anyone actually surprised?
12/8/2014 05:28:55 pm
i wish Jerky was around,
12/9/2014 11:55:16 am
Okay? not really sure what you mean there.
12/9/2014 09:04:59 pm
Reno never disobeyed Lt.C Custer. He got flak becuz
12/10/2014 12:36:51 am
Again, not sure why or what that has to do with me. I don't care about Reno at.
12/8/2014 07:57:43 pm
Jason.Off topic but check this one out.A rare interview of Jacques Bergier,that captures his intellectual depravity.
12/8/2014 08:47:08 pm
The whole idea that they took their pay with them into combat sounds silly to me. While I understand that you wouldn't want to pay soldiers a couple of days before going into combat because of drinking, women etc., I would think that dragging around a lot of heavy, precious cargo would be impractical. Besides being a hindrance that would slow your group down, because you can only travel as fast as your slowest convoy member, so much could go wrong, weather, accidents, mechanical failure of your gold wagon, even regular old bandits after the money they know you're dragging around. Wouldn't they have a safe in the paymaster's office? In the fort where there were probably always some troops to guard things? Where they were keeping the money before distribution anyway? I would, if it were up to me, leave the money at the fort and pay them when they got back from combat or whatever else they might be doing. They'd have the money in town for drinking etc. whether you payed them in the desert or when they got back. Just seems like hokum.
12/8/2014 11:11:05 pm
12/9/2014 12:14:30 am
While we are discussing Scott Wolter again, I want to republish an exchange I had with him on his blog about "Montezuma's gold" (note that the brackets indicate something I intended to include, but evidently left out of my post when I wrote it):
12/9/2014 04:19:59 am
Harry - Under Jason's review of that episode, Judith Bennett posted about Shaffer's alleged degree in archaeology. I wouldn't put much faith in the 500 year figure.
12/9/2014 01:28:28 pm
Granted that we have no particular reason to believe that Shaffer is right and I might have used the term "expert" to describe him too loosely (but, then, I was addressing Wolter).
WAGON TRAIN --- The Alexander Portlass Story (1960)
12/9/2014 09:17:41 pm
45 years ago PETER LORRE searched for the Aztec Gold all
12/9/2014 01:19:12 am
Perhaps its time to start suggesting topics for AE. Scot seems to like the Templar shows better..
12/9/2014 07:12:21 am
Just so you know, it looks like Scott Wolter has removed the incriminating post from his blog.
12/9/2014 07:25:23 am
LOL and he didn't even delete the post, just blanked every field.
12/9/2014 07:31:37 am
But it got chached, of course...
12/9/2014 08:59:06 am
Wolter's post is back online, complete with a convoluted update which misrepresents and ignores the heart of the criticism. Aarrgggh!
12/9/2014 09:01:32 am
I saved the original version just in case. Let me know if you need it, Jason.
12/9/2014 09:16:25 am
"Today I received a note from one of our guests on the show, David Meyer, that he had received a rash of emails from people chastising him for being involved in a "fake" episode."
12/9/2014 09:30:44 am
David Meyer reviewed his own novel on gooddreads.com. Gave it five stars. :D
12/9/2014 09:34:34 am
12/9/2014 10:58:57 am
So he is the obvious "go to" guy for information about Montana. :P
12/9/2014 09:45:47 am
David Meyer's entire Internet footprint is hilariously narcissistic. Like, he formats his own blog posts as press releases:
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