Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon Custer-Brady-Handy.

Did Custer Have a Cheyenne Mistress and Son? Native Oral History Says Yes

Adrian Jawort
10/6/14

When Rocky Mountain College history professor Tim Lehman decided to include the potentially controversial statement that George Armstrong Custer had a son with a Cheyenne woman whom Custer called Monahseetah (Meotzi) in his book, Bloodshed At Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, it wasn’t put in to create controversy. It was merely one part of his research garnered from all the best sources he could gather. He couldn’t exclude the research once it was done.

“I just go by the best evidence I can,” he said. “There are a number of oral traditions passed on through the Cheyenne people with different families and branches that all talk about that. It’s consistent with all the evidence.”

But since the time of Custer’s death, propaganda to portray Custer as a Christ-like hero of Manifest Destiny has always been an agenda. Custer’s grieving widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, garnered so much sympathy from the U.S. public and military—it was rare for anyone to speak ill of Custer. She’d write three books on her husband that according to Lehman “silenced his critics and elevated his claim to greatness.”

Any personal knowledge of a Cheyenne mistress—especially that he fathered a Cheyenne child—would eventually be thrown into the ash heap of history as Libbie would live to be 90, outliving most whites with potential knowledge of the affair.

Recorded Native oral history, however, has several sources that say Custer had a son named Yellow Swallow with Meotzi. She considered him her “husband” and she was devoted to him. Lehman says although many people are dismissive of oral accounts because they can have variances, there was more than enough overlapping stories about Meotzi and Custer’s son to conclude that it couldn’t be dismissed.

“I guess the fans of Custer want to ‘see no evil,’” Lehman said of those most often dismissive of the evidence. Their agenda to whitewash history and view Custer as a saint-like martyr loyal to Libbie would be skewed; and likewise it would spell odd for Natives since he’s often viewed as the ultimate manifestation of a white villain.

According to Lehman, after the 1868 Washita River Massacre, Custer kept captured women and children as prisoners of war for four months. Meotzi birthed a baby two months into captivity, but would get impregnated by Custer afterwards. She was employed by him as an interpreter even though she couldn’t speak English.

In 1927, a cousin of Meotzi’s, Kate Bighead, recounted to Thomas Marquis in detail how after the Washita Massacre she first saw Custer in the spring of 1869 when he smoked a peace pipe with Cheyenne Chiefs, promising he’d never attack them again. “I was then a young woman, 22 years old, and I admired him,” she said. “All of the Indian women talked of him as being a fine-looking man.”

Bighead detailed how Meotzi was sought after by Cheyenne men because of her beauty, which was also described at length in a letter written by Custer. “She said that Long Hair (Custer) was her husband; that he promised to come back to her, and that she would wait for him,” Bighead recounted. “She waited 7 years, and then he was killed.”

It was during that seventh year in 1876 that Oglala Lakota and Battle of the Little Bighorn veteran, Joseph White Cow Bull, met Meotzi. In 1938, White Cow Bull spoke with Western artist and author David Humphreys Miller about that account. He recalled how he tried to court Meotzi, and while doing so he saw her son Yellow Swallow, a boy with light streaks in his hair.

“They said the boy’s father had been a white soldier chief named Long Hair; he had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle [at the Washita River Massacre] eight winters before, they said, and captured her. He had told her he wanted to make her his second wife, and so he had her,” White Cow Bull told Miller.

“She was in her middle 20s but had never married any man of her tribe,” he continued. “Some of my Shahiyela (Cheyenne) friends said she was from the southern branch of their tribe, just visiting up north, and they said no Shahiyela could marry her because she had a 7-year-old son born out of wedlock.”

Unlike many other troopers who fell during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s dead body was spared from drastic mutilation because some Cheyenne women recognized him as father to one of their own, according to Bighead. “In a kinship society like the Cheyenne, that means a lot,” Lehman said.

Bighead said Meotzi mourned hard upon the news of Custer’s death, cutting her hair and gnashing her arms. She was heartbroken that the man she’d considered her husband was forced to be killed by her own tribe and allies after he broke his peace pipe promise to never attack them again.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Interesting. Whites think this is a big black splotch on Custer's reputation, but Natives can now see him as simply a (flawed) human being. It's my opinion that it makes him all the more despicable - just imagining wanting to kill all my wife's relatives makes me angry and sad.

patiblanca's picture
patiblanca
Submitted by patiblanca on
It always comes out in the wash eventually: People are freakin' complicated, both Custer and Meotzi in this case. Things are especially complicated in the midst of war, when people are suffering loss and trauma and undergoing all sorts of privation. And maybe falling in love, too? But we particularly don't want things to be complicated when we're standing outside of war, making decisions and judgments about those involved, as those in the East were doing. We just don't get it. Such is life. Thanks for the story, AJ.

Shotgun John's picture
Shotgun John
Submitted by Shotgun John on
Did Custer have a Cheyenne Mistress? Probably... it certainly would be in keeping his his character/Personality type. Custer was a substainially flawed individual (not because of his Mistress). His ego led him to ignore the advise of other who were better informed, and that led to his death. But, also given his personality, I doubt Custer was in love or had any true feeling for any of his Mistresses. It simply wasn't in him to care about them. Much the same way President Thomas Jefferson had a long term affair with a slave he owned named Sally Hemmings (and probably with others as well). This was no "Love Affair" as historial revisionist would like to claim. This was a slave owner, raping a black woman he owned. No love was involved. Slave owners raping the Black women they owned was all too common place. Ask yourself, if he loved her, why did he wait till after his death to set her free? Simple answer. He didn't love, and didn't want to lose his rape toy as long as he was alive. The African Americans today who claim to be the desendents of the children of Jefferson and Hemmings should realize, they weren't the children of love. They were the children of rape. I fear the same situation would have been involved with Custer. While the woman was not a slave, she was undoubted being coerced by Custer, a powerful man who was able to offer her things she needed, or was able to force her thru threats. Either way, it come down to rape, not love.

Shotgun John's picture
Shotgun John
Submitted by Shotgun John on
Did Custer have a Cheyenne Mistress? Probably... it certainly would be in keeping his his character/Personality type. Custer was a substainially flawed individual (not because of his Mistress). His ego led him to ignore the advise of other who were better informed, and that led to his death. But, also given his personality, I doubt Custer was in love or had any true feeling for any of his Mistresses. It simply wasn't in him to care about them. Much the same way President Thomas Jefferson had a long term affair with a slave he owned named Sally Hemmings (and probably with others as well). This was no "Love Affair" as historial revisionist would like to claim. This was a slave owner, raping a black woman he owned. No love was involved. Slave owners raping the Black women they owned was all too common place. Ask yourself, if he loved her, why did he wait till after his death to set her free? Simple answer. He didn't love, and didn't want to lose his rape toy as long as he was alive. The African Americans today who claim to be the desendents of the children of Jefferson and Hemmings should realize, they weren't the children of love. They were the children of rape. I fear the same situation would have been involved with Custer. While the woman was not a slave, she was undoubted being coerced by Custer, a powerful man who was able to offer her things she needed, or was able to force her thru threats. Either way, it come down to rape, not love.

rockymissouri's picture
rockymissouri
Submitted by rockymissouri on
I always wondered that perhaps he might have been a suicide, and THAT was the reason he was untouched...but THIS makes sense. What a horrible awful time to live... I remember coming across something about twin brothers (natives) who were at a Sun Dance...(in the 70s) rumored to be his grandsons..great, or, great great...!?$&@

Raymond G's picture
Raymond G
Submitted by Raymond G on
Do they know what happened to Custer's son, Yellow Swallow? His lineage would mean a lot to know as I am sure his mother filled him in on all the history of his birth and afterwards.

suzimac's picture
suzimac
Submitted by suzimac on
There is another book that references this called "Cheyenne Autumn" by Mari Sandoz.

Rick Diehl
Submitted by Rick Diehl on
No disrespect, but what the heck are you people taking about? Custer has been exposed fully as the monster that he was since at least the 1960's. White people don't look at him as a hero, not even slightly.His having a possible native wife isn't the biog black splotch, it was his massacres of Native Americans that's the issue. Seriously folks, there's plenty to bitch about with us white folks, but loving Custer is not one of them.

Angela Kim Tochek
Angela Kim Tochek
Submitted by Angela Kim Tochek on
Yes, he did. As an ancestor of Kate BigHead, it is a story that was passed down in our family oral history. I remember hearing this story a lot growing up from my grandmother. Whose mother was Laura Charlotte BigHead. And its a story we know all to well. Had the opportunity to talk to a curator from the smithsonian about some of the details of that fateful battle. Only known by people who were there and witnessed it and those accounts that are held in the smithsonian about Custer's death.

Mike Muth
Mike Muth
Submitted by Mike Muth on
I have a couple of problems here. 1. Custer was sterile. He contracted gonorrhea while a cadet and could have no children. 2. Accounts from battle participants indicated that they did not know that Custer was there. They thought Crook was attacking. He had cut his long hair for the campaign, so could not be recognized from it. Humphrey (the author mentioned above) wrote, "All this time the Indians had no idea who commanded the soldiers they had been fighting. Even by name, Long hair Custer was known only to a scattered handful...most of the warriors thought it was the troops of the Gray Fox come to fight them again." Other authors have made this same point. Wooden Leg related that warriors on the battlefield thought Tom Custer's body was that of the commanding officer, but said "But none of the Indians knew then who had been the big chief. They were only guessing at it." 3. Custer's body was mutilated. The only body not mutilated was Keogh's. Accounts speak of Custer's legs having been cut open. This was done to many of the bodies to insure that they were, indeed, dead. He had also been scalped. In addition to the fatal wound in his chest, he had been shot in the head. Other warriors had done this to a large number of soldiers. The tale which White Bull Cow told Humphey indicated that Custer's finger had been cut off. Reports after the battle do not mention that mutilation at all. There are a lot of tales told of the battle. One should probably discount those in which Custer is recognized or in which he is described as having long hair. His hair was cut short and all the Cheyenne accounts I've read indicate that it was only later (1 or more days) that people began to suspect it had been Custer.
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