June 1: Custer's Snow Camp

Posted 6/01/23 (Thu)

Prairie Public Newsroom: By Jack Dura

Snow is a common occurrence in North Dakota, but not in June! That’s what the Seventh Cavalry endured for two cold, wet days, stuck in camp in the Badlands, while marching west from Fort Abraham Lincoln. The expedition was headed into Montana Territory, where Plains Indians would later defeat Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men at the Battle of Greasy Grass, or Little Bighorn.

Pouring rain gave way to snow on this date in 1876. Bismarck Tribune reporter Mark Kellogg wrote of two to three inches of snow on the ground at 4 o’clock in the morning, “and snowing hard.” By 7 o’clock at night, the snow was coming down “harder than ever” with a cold northwest wind. Kellogg wrote in a dispatch to the Tribune: “All day long the whited flakes came pelting down; all the night following there was but little cessation.”

The storm was particularly miserable for the expedition’s enlisted men. Three men each shared a pup tent on the hard ground, and each man had two blankets. During the day, they waited out the storm while standing or sitting around fires. Some men even burned spare, wooden wagon parts to keep warm. A few men had the benefit of rubber ponchos to cover themselves. Meanwhile, the officers had walled tents with stoves and warm beds. The expedition’s horses and mules also suffered in the storm, and the cattle herd needed constant watching.

Acting assistant surgeon James DeWolf called the situation “hell and more,” with muddy conditions a s the snow melted. General Alfred Terry wrote in a letter: “At least six inches of snow have fallen, tho’ the most of it had now disappeared. Just think of it! Six inches of snow on the 1st of June.”

Snow continued to fall on June 2nd, and General Terry grew impatient at the delay. Despite “snow squalls every few minutes,” mud and slush, the forage and supply wagons were made ready for the cavalry to depart the next morning. Camp broke at 5 am. The expedition marched 25 miles to reach Beaver Creek.

The site of Custer’s snow camp can be reached by a gravel road between Fryburg and Sentinel Butte, along the Custer Trail Auto Tour.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura