Bismarck Tribune Review ...Book tells saga of 'Custer survivor'

December 29, 2009 — Print this Page

By JEFF TOWNER Thursday, December 24, 2009

Title: “Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth, the Beginning of a Legend
Author: John Koster

John Koster has written a compelling new book that debunks the myth that no soldiers survived Custer’s Last Stand.

History has recorded that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, commanding the 7th Cavalry posted to Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota, attempted to launch a surprise attack on a large encampment of Lakota and Cheyenne people in the valley of the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana on June 25, 1876.

Once the attack began, the large number of Indian warriors, armed with repeating Henry and Winchester rifles, quickly counterattacked, and the outcome was complete annihilation of C Company, or so it has always been thought. Until now, all claims made by would-be sole survivors have been disproven.

The author has pieced together a wealth of historical information and added new forensic evidence to demonstrate that Sgt. Frank Finkel was the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As reported by other soldiers on nearby Reno Hill, some of the soldiers fled for their lives, and as many as eight or 10 members may have escaped the circle of death. The bones of some of these men were found years later and miles from the battlefield.

One of the Indian war chiefs, Rain-in-the-Face, recounted to a writer in 1894 that some of the women told him that one of the “long swords” survived, and that his pony ran past the Indian lodges. Coincidentally, Finkel’s sorrel horse, which sustained a rifle shot to the flank, was found dead several days later at the confluence of Rosebud Creek and the Yellowstone River.

Finkel was born in 1854 in Ohio to German immigrant parents. He joined the Army in 1872 at the age of 17, but gave his age as 27, his birthplace as Berlin, Prussia, and his name as “August Finckle.” He even convinced his best Army buddy, Charles Windolph, that he had been an officer in the Prussian army.

Finkel settled in Dayton, Wash., and in 1886 married Delia Rainwater, who was rumored to be part Cherokee. He told no one, including his wife, of his service in the U.S. Army or his participation in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

He kept the secret of his escape for 44 years until April 1920. He overheard a comment by someone while with a group of friends about what the Indians did to Custer. He didn’t appreciate that kind of talk in his wife’s presence. He asked the man what he knew about Custer. The man asked him how he knew so much about Custer’s Last Stand. Finkel said, “I was there.”

He showed the men old bullet wounds in his side and leg, and showed them two letters addressed to Frank Finkel, 7th Cavalry, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and a copy of the July 6, 1876, edition of the Bismarck Tribune with the names of the dead identified from the battle, his name listed fourth from the bottom. A few days later he spoke before a packed audience at a Kiwanis meeting, and his remarks were published in the local paper.

Finkel kept his secret all those years, perhaps fearing that returning to his post after the battle or reporting in later may have resulted in a desertion charge, and he was undoubtedly aware that two previous deserters had been hanged at Fort Lincoln.

Five years after Delia Finkel’s death, Finkel married Herminie “Hermie” C. Sperry in 1926. When Finkel died in 1930, Hermie began a 10-year letter-writing campaign to collect a widow’s pension from the U.S. Army. In the process, she invented new “facts” that nearly buried Finkel’s story forever.

The author provides the last piece of the puzzle with the opinions of five handwriting experts, in which the signatures are compared of “August Finckle” on his enlistment papers in 1872, and those of Frank Finkel from the probate of his first wife’s will in 1921 and his own will three days before his death.

These experts are unanimous in their opinions that these signatures were all made by the same person, Frank Finkel.

“Custer Survivor” is a compelling and fast-paced presentation of both old and new evidence of the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, and is a fascinating example of one man’s part in one of the seminal events in American history.

Printed from the History Publishing Company website, visit .

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