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How Helena Scooped Bozeman
WHY HELENA INSTEAD OF BOZEMAN SCOOPED THE NEWS IN 1876
By Colonel W.A. Graham
COLONEL LOUNSBERRY of Bismarck, publisher of the Bismarck Tribune, claimed for many years that he (which is to say, his paper), first gave to the world the news of the Little Bighorn disaster. Lounsberry's Tribune, did, as a matter of fact, in an Extra dated 6 July 1876, publish the first account that included a list of the dead and wounded; but two Montana papers, the Bozeman Times and the Helena Herald both preceded the Tribune story with stories of their own.
The Bozeman Times was first, having put out an "Extra" at 7 P.M., 3 July 1876, and was followed by the Helena Herald, which got the news the next day, during Helena's Fourth of July celebration, and by working far into the night, printed a late Extra dated 4 July 1876. Andrew Fisk, editor of the Herald, after getting his paper on the street, flashed the news to the Associated Press at Salt Lake City, from which point it was relayed to the east, and made late editions of eastern papers 5 July 1876, one day ahead of the Bismarck Tribune, thus scooping the most sensational news of the year.
These are the bare facts; but the reason that Bozeman did not make the scoop at least twenty four hours ahead of Helena has never been told. But that Bozeman had the news on 3 July cannot be gainsaid, for the Times Extra was as follows
THE BOZEMAN TIMES EXTRA
Mr. Taylor, bearer of despatches from the Little Horn to Ft. Ellis, arrived this evening and reports the following.
"The battle was fought on the 25th, 30 or 40 miles below the Little Horn. Custer attacked the Indian village of from 2500 to 4000 warriors on one side and Col. Reno was to attack it on the other. Three companies were placed on a hill as a reserve. General Custer and fifteen officers and EVERY MAN BELONGING TO THE FIVE COMPANIES WAS KILLED. Reno retreated under the protection of the reserve. The whole number killed was 315. General Gibbon joined Reno.
"The Indians left the battleground looking like a slaughter pen, as it really was, being in a narrow ravine. The dead were much mutilated.
"The situation now looks serious. Gen. Terry arrived at Gibbon's camp on a steamboat and crossed the command over and accompanied it to join Custer, who knew it was coming before the fight occurred. Lieut. Crittenden, son of Gen. Crittenden, was among the killed."
The facts appear to be that when on 27 June General Terry wrote his first report of the Battle, he placed it in the hands of the scout known as "Muggins" Taylor, to be delivered to the Commanding Officer at Ft. Ellis, for immediate transmittal by wire from Bozeman, the nearest telegraph office.
Taylor, as will be apparent later, got through to Stillwater the night of 1 July, and the next day, before proceeding to Ft. Ellis, told the story of the battle to one W. H. Norton, a representative of the Helena Herald. Taylor then rode on, reaching Ft. Ellis the afternoon of 3 July, and delivered General Terry's report to the Commanding Officer, Captain D. W. Benham of the 7th Infantry, who at once took it in person to the telegraph office in Bozeman for immediate transmittal.
On 5 July, upon being informed at Bozeman that the report had not been transmitted by wire, but had been sent by mail that morning, he made the following report:
Fort Ellis, M. T., July 5th 1876
I have the honor to inform you that on the afternoon of July 3d, '76 a scout, Taylor, arrived at this post from Genl. Terry's command with important dispatches for your headquarters.
I immediately in person took the dispatches to the telegraph office in Bozeman and was there informed that the line was in working order to Pleasant Valley.
On the 4th day of July I went to town to see if the telegrams above referred to had been sent and found the telegraph office closed.
This afternoon on visiting Bozeman, I inquired if the telegrams left at the office on the 3d had been sent and was informed that they had been forwarded by mail this morning.
I deem this neglect of duty and criminal negligence on the part of the telegraph operator and report it accordingly.
If telegraph rates are charged on the dispatches above referred to between Bozeman and Helena, the bill should be repudiated and proceedings instituted against the company for neglect of duty because the dispatches were sent by mail from Bozeman to Helena, and if the agent had informed me that the telegrams could not have been sent I could have forwarded them by courier and thereby have gained twenty four hours time.
Copies of telegrams above referred to are sent you by this mail.
I am, Genl
In the meantime, however, Mr. Norton, the "Special Correspondent" of the Helena Herald was letting no grass grow under his feet, and succeeded in sending his story of the fight by courier, presumably the Mr. Countryman who figures in the Fisk story of the scoop, who arrived in Helena 4 July and immediately sought out Mr. Fisk, the editor of the Herald. Fisk's "Extra" dated 4 July 1876, reads as follows:
HELENA DAILY HERALD EXTRA July 4, 1876
A TERRIBLE FIGHT
Gen. Custer and his Nephew KILLED
The Seventh Cavalry cut to pieces The Whole Number Killed 315 From our Special Correspondent Mr. W. H. Norton
Stillwater, M. T., July 2nd, 1876.
Muggins Taylor, scout for Gen. Gibbons, got here last night, direct from Little Horn River with telegraphic despatches. General Custer found the Indian camp of about two thousand lodges on the Little Horn, and immediately attacked the camp. Custer took five companies and charged the thickest portion of the camp.
Nothing is Known of the Operationof this detachment, only as they trace it by the dead. Major Reno commanded the other seven companies and attacked the lower portion of the camp. The Indians poured in a murderous fire from all directions. Besides the greater portion fought on horseback. Custer, his two brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law were
and not one of his detachment escaped. 207 men were buried in one place and the killed are estimated at 300 with only 31 wounded. The Indians surrounded Reno's command and held them one day in the hills
Cut Off from Water
until Gibbon's command came in sight, when they broke camp in the night and left.
The Seventh Fought Like Tigers
and were overcome by mere brute force. The Indian loss cannot be estimated, as they bore off and cached most of their killed. The remnant of the Seventh Cavalry and Gibbon's command are returning to the mouth of the I Little Horn, where the steamboat lies. The Indians got all the arms of the killed soldiers. There were seventeen commissioned officers killed.
The Whole Custer Family
died at the head of their column. The exact loss is not known as both Adjutants and the Sergeant Major were killed. The Indian camp was from three to four miles long and was twenty miles up the Little Horn from its mouth. The Indians actually pulled men off their horses in some instances. I give this as Taylor told me, as he was over the field after the battle.
The above is confirmed by other letters which say Custer met a fearful disaster.
The next day, the Herald followed its July fourth Extra with a short editorial which read:
HELENA DAILY HERALD
Wednesday, July 5, 1876
The news received last evening of the defeat of Custer and the massacre of his entire command, fell upon the festivities of the day with a gloom that could not be shaken off. There is only toe much reason to believe that the facts given in the extras of last evening are literally true. The parties from whom the facts were received are too well known to leave a reasonable doubt.
BOZEMAN and HELENA, however, were not alone in beating the Bismarck Tribune, for on 5 July 1876, the Commanding Officer, Ft. Rice, near Bismarck, had news of the battle, and at once wired it to the Adjutant at St. Paul. The following extract from letter of Colonel Hugh F. Reed, Ret'd., dated 14 April 1926, tells the story:
"We officers at Fort Rice and the Post Trader made up a purse, and had a pony race on the Fourth of July. * * * The day after the pony race three Sioux Indians arrived at the post. One of them had a bow and half a dozen arrows. I bought them. * * * The Indian from whom I bought the bow and arrows said that he had pulled the arrows from the dead bodies of soldiers that the Indians had killed with Custer. This was our first news of a fight. The Indians said that a big force of Indians had killed Custer and all his soldiers. I then took the three Indians to Lieut. Humbert the post commander, and they repeated their story of the fight. * * * As Adjutant I wrote a message which Humbert signed and sent it by a courier thirty miles to Bismarck, the nearest telegraph office, to the Adjutant General, Dept. of Dakota, St. Paul. This was the first news sent of the fight. There was an old stockade south of the post buildings, and Humbert put his company in one bastion and I put my company in the other bastion, where we stayed all night on watch for an attack. The next day Capt. Grant Marsh with his steamer The Far West arrived at Bismarck. He had on board some wounded soldiers from Reno's battalion.
But why the telegraph operator at Bozeman failed to transmit Terry's report the afternoon of 3 July has never been explained: nor has it ever been explained why the editor of the Bozeman Times did not round up the operator and scoop the news himself. Certainly the opportunity was wide open.
It has been stated that the wires were down and that no message could be sent from Bozeman on that day; but Captain Benham's official report gives the lie to that assertion.
Perhaps the Bozeman telegraph operator had already commenced to celebrate the Glorious Fourth when Benham rode in with Terry's report. In the "good old days" many celebrants of Independence Day absorbed their patriotism from a bottle. Perhaps-but it is idle to speculate. Quien sabe!
The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custerania, written and compiled by Colonel W.A. Graham, The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA 1953, p 349 - 351
Here is the first news account of the Battle of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which appeared in the Helena Herald on July 4, 1876, along with Crow scout Curley's crucial first account of the battle, which appeared in the Helena Herald on July 15, 1876. Here's W.A. Graham's account of how Helena beat Bozeman with the news; here's the New York Times' coverage of the battle; and here's T.R. Porter's account of how the Sioux also scooped the Americans.