'Holy Grail of Custer things': journalist's 1876 journals carry mystery, interest

Posted 11/30/22 (Wed)


The notes of a journalist traveling with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in 1876 outline his observations of the 7th Cavalry’s trek west toward Montana, but they hold few written clues about one of the most famous battles fought on U.S. soil.

“Greyhounds after Jack Rabbit,” Mark Kellogg wrote on May 19. “Nogo. Rabbit won the race.”

Today, just a few years shy of the battle's 150th anniversary, the interest in Kellogg’s notes lies more in how close in proximity they were to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and to Custer, and the questions they leave unanswered.

The diary -- narrow, loose-leaf pages that might once have been bound -- is a popular item at the state museum in Bismarck, a city celebrating its own 150th anniversary this year. The diary is not on display, but museum staff show it by request from time to time to Custer buffs, history classes, and groups visiting the city for conventions or meetings.

Some say Kellogg was asked by Custer to go on the expedition. Others say he got the assignment by default when the Bismarck Tribune’s publisher couldn’t go due to illness in his family.

Kellogg made entries in the diary starting May 17, 1876, when Custer’s 7th left Fort Lincoln. He noted the daily progress, sometimes down to the fraction of a mile, and chronicled any happenings of interest. A June 5 entry, for example, mentions “chief products sagebrush, cactus & rattlesnakes,” and later “2 mules died last night.”

The entries stop a couple of weeks before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and that’s where much of the intrigue starts.

Kellogg before the skirmish left some of his belongings -- a suitcase, eyeglasses, some clothing -- at a base camp at the mouth of the Powder River. The items returned on the steamer Far West along with wounded soldiers and were given to his friend J.P. Dunn, a Bismarck pharmacist.

Dunn died in 1918. His wife gave the suitcase and its contents to the State Historical Society, but kept the diary. The Dunns’ daughter transferred the notes to The Bismarck Tribune about 1940 after the death of her mother, saying she “felt that they really belonged to the Tribune because Kellogg was their correspondent,” according to the Historical Society. Tribune Publisher Alton G. “Glen” Sorlie donated the journals to the Historical Society in 1983.

What’s still unclear is whether the journal stayed with those other belongings, or if it was on or near Kellogg's body after the battle. Entries in the diary end on June 9, which points to him leaving it behind. Custer anticipated -- even boasted about -- a quick victory against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne, and Kellogg, anticipating a rapid return, perhaps opted to travel without the bag.

In 1950, however, Historical Society Superintendent Russell Reid noted, “Entries in the diary after June 9 are missing from the notebook found by Kellogg’s body on the battlefield.”


The eyeglasses worn by Bismarck Tribune reporter Mark Kellogg are stored in the archives of the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck, along with his spectacle holder and pencil.


'Holy Grail'

Either way, history buffs ask to see the diary of the days leading up to the battle that's sometimes called Custer’s Last Stand, along with other items Kellogg carried as he accompanied the 7th Cavalry to Montana. It’s an interest that state museum and state archives staff understand, and one they anticipate will only increase with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the battle in 2026.

Staff at the North Dakota Heritage Center and Museum get a request for a viewing of the journals “every so often,” State Archivist Shane Molander said. Several years ago a group from Great Britain stopped in Bismarck as they investigated Custer’s life and followed the trail that led to Montana. They gathered in the reading room and an archivist brought the journals to them.

“They were just in awe,” Molander said. “It was like the Holy Grail of Custer things.”

It was initially thought that the journal was found with Kellogg's body, in a ravine with a few soldiers a short distance from Custer and his men. Stains on the pages for many years were thought to be blood, adding to the theory that the journal was with the journalist when he was killed. An analysis by the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation in 1995 showed with 95% certainty that the stains were coffee, whiskey or wine.

Changing history

The continued interest in the journals lies in the continued interest in Custer himself, Molander said. The way history was taught in the past shed a flattering light on Custer, but that’s changed in the last few decades, he said.

“When I was a kid in the 1970s, I thought Custer must be a great person,” he said. “As I get older, maybe he was an egotistical bad guy.”

That’s the thing about history, Molander said.

“You don’t just learn it and you’re done. You revisit it because it changes. More information comes out, more rethinking of what was done and who did what,” he said.

The “jaw-dropping” effect the items have on people is that they were at or near a historic event, Molander said. The journal is also proof that “pencil is a pretty darn good preservation type of way to write things,” he said.

That pencil, for example, wouldn’t be of interest if nobody knew who had owned it. The small items hold interest and value because they carry stories, Assistant Curator Lori Nohner said. The mystery of Kellogg’s trip and the sudden cutoff of his writings sparks a curiosity in people, especially those who have particular interest in the battle and the combatants.

“They want to dig into every little detail, because I think there’s a lot of mystery surrounding it,” she said. “The published articles after the battle were just so dramatic that it became this huge American myth.”

Increased interest in the journals as the 150th anniversary of the battle approaches is “guaranteed,” Nohner said.

“It’s one thing to talk about Mark Kellogg and say he’s an interesting fellow,” she said. “It’s another to say oh, these things form a connection.”Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com