Place of Birth: Oxfordshire
Date of enlistment: 11 December 1874
Age given at enlistment: 22
Location on 25 June 1876: Pack train escort & hilltop fight
Place of Birth: Oxfordshire
Date of enlistment: 11 December 1874
Age given at enlistment: 22
Location on 25 June 1876: Pack train escort & hilltop fight
Bearing in mind the wealth of biographical information freely available on the internet and elsewhere Private James Pym, Company B, 7th U.S. Cavalry, has not been well served by LBH ‘historians,’ past or present, which is very disappointing. Surely, a brave trooper who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on the second day of the battle deserves better?
I sincerely hope therefore that the following version of James Pym’s truly incredible life, and death, does him justice.
The Early Years
The parish of Garsington, which lies some five miles southeast of the famous university city of Oxford, has at least one minor claim to fame other than its link with the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
In 1866, the same year the celebrated 7th U.S. Cavalry was organised, the author H. Rider Haggard was sent at age ten to the village to be tutored by the Rev. H. J. Graham and in his books Garsington became “Garsingham.” Haggard took the surname of his fictional hero Allan Quatermain from William Quartermain, a farmer who befriended him and lived opposite the rectory.1 Twelve months earlier a John Quartermain had witnessed a rather unpleasant incident that would change the life of the future cavalryman forever.
A branch of the Pym family flourished in this near-idyllic Oxfordshire village for over 400 years and can be traced to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I without difficulty,2 but our story really begins on 28 February 1846 when 19 year-old Joseph Pym, an ostler, married 20 year-old Sabina Ballard, a general servant from the village of Charney Bassett, at the Register Office in Oxford.3 The young couple set up home in Garsington, then a close-knit community of around 600 souls, where they became near neighbours of the William Quartermain referred to above and who would have been well known to them.
Joseph and Sabina were destined to have eight children, the second eldest of which, James, was born at Southend, Garsington, on 7 November 1847.4 The infant was christened at the parish church of St. Mary by the Rev. James Ingram, President of Trinity College, Oxford, on 5 December; the same day that George Armstrong Custer was celebrating his eighth birthday. Nothing is known of James “Jim” Pym’s early life other than he attended school and at age 13 was working as a ploughboy, probably one of seven employed by Joseph Gale on his 420 acre farm in the same parish.5
However, it was an incident that took place on 14 April 1865, just five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, that was to have a profound effect on young Pym’s life. The details of this most distressing affair need not overly concern us here but a charge of “attempt to commit an unnatural crime with a mare” was brought against him, based on the eye-witness account of John Quartermain, a 19 year-old farm labourer, and an initial confession of guilt by the defendant.6 Pym (under the name Pimm) duly appeared at the Court of Quarter Sessions in Oxford on Monday, 26 June 1865, and despite a plea of “All I wish to say is that I never did it,” was found guilty as charged and sentenced to a term of six months imprisonment.7Clearly what happened in Farmer Joseph Gale’s stable was beyond the pale and it is highly unlikely therefore that a disgraced Pym ever returned to live permanently in his native village.
Enlists in United States Army
Nothing further is heard of this wayward ploughboy until 11 December 1874 when he presented himself at the U.S. Army recruiting office in Boston, Massachusetts, unless, that is, he was the subject of a tantalising story that has been handed down through four generations of another branch of the Pym family. It tells of a James Pym calling at the home of Emanuel and Elizabeth Pym in Oakley, Buckinghamshire, a small farming village not more than 10 miles from Garsington. Apparently he was “dressed in funny clothes and high-heeled boots,” and left behind a reputation in the family as being a “nasty, crude piece of work.” The fact that this incident most likely took place during the late 1860s, the visitor having confessed to being “a deserter from the British Army,” and afterwards “he went away to London never to be heard of again,” all add weight to the possibility that he was the same man who served in the 7th Cavalry?8
On enlistment Pym was described as being age 22, 5 feet 7 inches tall, having blue eyes, light hair, and a fair complexion, previously employed as a labourer.9 His youthful appearance evidently deceived the recruiting officer, Lieutenant William Harper, into accepting that he was indeed five years younger than his actual age. This writer hastens to add that there is absolutely no evidence to prove, or disprove, that he was a fugitive from the British Army but a calculated reduction of five years in age would have been a convenient way of making a fresh start and avoid having to answer any potentially awkward questions about a less than honourable phase of his life. Regrettably, the incorrect year of his birth continues to be widely quoted in printed works,10 the internet, and even on his tombstone!11
From Boston Pym was sent to Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, where he completed his basic training on 29 January 1875 and was assigned to Company B, then stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana. He arrived at Shreveport on 10 February 1875 along with 27 other new recruits, among whom no less than ten hailed from the British Isles. Shreveport was in the District of the Red River under the command of Lewis Merrill, the Seventh Cavalry’s second major.
Fourteen of the new recruits joined Pym in Company B, while the remaining 12 were assigned to Company G, which was garrisoned in the same city. In the absence of Captain William Thompson, who was on leave, and First Lieutenant Thomas Custer, who was on detached service at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson was commanding the company. The Regimental Return for February 1875 shows that Company B numbered 68 enlisted men, of which two were sick, one was on leave and five under arrest or in confinement.
The 7th Cavalry was engaged in what was known as ‘Reconstruction,’ the name of Government policy to resolve the issues of the Civil War after the Confederacy was defeated and slavery ended. Reconstruction addressed how former secessionist states would return to the Union and the constitutional and legal status of the former slaves. The Union troops were received by the disgruntled white community with thinly disguised hostility and mainly acted in a policing role rounding up members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organisations. However, their time in the South proved to be relatively uneventful.
On 19 April 1876 Companies B and G left Shreveport for Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, via St. Paul, Minnesota, and arrived at Bismarck eleven days later. Again Hodgson was in command of Company B [see Appendix One] as 62 year-old Thompson had recently retired and his replacement, Captain Thomas McDougall, did not join the company until 11 May. In the meanwhile, Tom Custer, who had been promoted to the rank of captain and transferred to command Company C, was replaced by First Lieutenant William Craycroft but he, too, was absent due to being a member of a ‘Board of Officers’ charged with purchasing horses for the regiment at St. Paul.
It was on 1 May that Companies B, G and K, under the command of First Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, crossed the Missouri River and went into camp about two miles south of Fort Lincoln. Companies H and M, under Captain Frederick Benteen, arrived from Fort Rice on 5 May and, later the same day, were joined by the Field Staff, the Band and the remaining seven companies of the regiment. This was the first time since its formation in 1866 that all twelve companies of the 7th Cavalry would actually serve together. They were preparing to take part in an expedition, under the overall command of Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, to operate against the Sioux who, because they had defied an order to report to designated reservations by 31 January, were regarded as ‘hostiles’ by the United States Government.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn
The events surrounding the Little Big Horn campaign and the first day of the battle are too well known to need reciting here in any detail. Suffice to say Company B, under the command of Captain McDougall, went on the Reno Scout which discovered the Indian trail leading up the Rosebud Valley; was assigned to escort the pack train; and joined Reno and Benteen’s beleaguered battalions on Reno Hill, without knowing what had happened to Custer and his five companies.11 Pym’s claim to have been one of Company B’s trumpeters at the time of the battle12 is supported by the fact that neither of the two regular trumpeters was present. John Connell suffered a kick from a horse on 29 May and was recovering from his injury at the Powder River Depot, while James Kelly was serving three months in confinement with hard labour at Fort Lincoln for being absent without leave and selling or disposing of a coat shortly before Company B left Shreveport.
On the morning of 26 June, the second day of the battle, the hot sun was already beating down and the wounded on Reno Hill were in desperate need of water. Benteen responded by leading a charge west of his position, which cleared a route down to the river, since named Water Carriers’ Ravine. Many men, including Pym, volunteered to go for water. They took with them iron canteens and camp kettles and made the hazardous trip to the river under heavy fire from the enemy during which a trooper was killed and several injured, one of whom was Pym, who sustained a gunshot wound to his right ankle. Each trooper is believed to have made more than one trip to the river. The water they brought back undoubtedly saved many lives. [See Appendix Two] As the day wore on the rate of enemy fire noticeably decreased and late in the afternoon the Indians broke camp before moving slowly away from the river in the direction of the Big Horn Mountains – the Battle of the Little Big Horn was over.
At about 10:30 a.m. the following morning General Alfred Terry, Colonel John Gibbon and Gibbon’s Chief of Scouts, First Lieutenant James Bradley, arrived at Reno Hill and brought the shocking news that Custer and all 209 men under his immediate command were dead.
Sometime later McDougall took Company B to the abandoned village to look for implements to use in burying the fallen and upon crossing the river they found Keogh’s horse, Comanche, in some bushes that lined the bank. One of the men (Pym perhaps?) was detailed to temporarily look after the badly wounded animal, which miraculously survived and lived a further 16 years. Reno ordered McDougall and his men to bury the dead of Company E, which the captain had commanded for several years. Most of the men had been killed in or near a deep ravine that was just across the river from the abandoned village. The stench was so great that many men began to vomit and, lacking proper tools, piled large chunks of earth broken off the side of the ravine over the decaying bodies,.13
Having done all it could at the battlefield with the limited resources available the much depleted regiment made its way to the mouth of the Bighorn River where it remained in camp from 30 June until 27 July when it moved to a new site near the confluence of Rosebud Creek and the Yellowstone.
Pym’s name appears on the petition reputedly signed on 4 July by 236 survivors of the battle, which was addressed to the President of the United States and Congress asking that Major Reno be promoted to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer; and that Captain Benteen be then promoted to fill the vacancy caused by the requested promotion of Reno. The veracity of this document continues to remain in doubt.15
Having suffered three killed16 and five wounded during the battle, further tragedy was to strike Company B on 25 July when Private Richard Wallace, who enlisted in Boston a few days before Pym and had travelled with him to Shreveport in February 1875, was drowned while crossing a small stream near the Yellowstone River to go on picket duty.
On 8 August the regiment marched 35 miles up the Rosebud and joined General George Crook three days later. The combined forces then moved to the Tongue River and in about 40 miles crossed the Powder River before returning to the Yellowstone camp on the seventeenth of the month. The next two weeks were spent fruitlessly scouting the Powder River Country and by the end of August Company B was in camp at the cantonment of the Tongue River, where it remained until 18 October when orders were received to rejoin the regiment in camp on the Missouri River. By early December they were safely settled in their winter quarters back at Fort Lincoln.
It was towards the end of April 1877 that Companies B, E, G, K, I and L went into camp near the fort in preparation for a new campaign and a week later set out for the Tongue, via Fort Buford, to report for field service. They reached Buford on 17 May, at which place they were forced to remain for six days due to exceptionally heavy rain. However, by 29 May all the six companies had arrived at Cedar Creek where they set up a permanent camp in compliance with orders received from Colonel Nelson A. Miles, 5th Infantry. Company B left the regiment on 13 June to join the command of Major Henry M. Lazelle, 1st Infantry, which was engaged in scouting that part of the country between the Little Missouri and the Yellowstone; again without success in spite of having marched 550 miles in July alone.
During August Company B remained in the field under the command of Major James S. Brisbin, 2nd Cavalry, engaged in pursuing small bands of hostile Indians and scouting the Powder River Country, until it rejoined General Crook at Fort Buford on the twenty-fourth. The next nine weeks or so were again spent in the field and the regiment arrived back at Buford on 9 November, two days after Chief Joseph had been brought to the fort following his surrender to General Oliver Howard on 5 October at Bear Paw Mountain. On 10 November 1877 Companies B, E, I, L and M left Buford for Fort Lincoln to escort around 240 of the captured Nez Perce Indians, including Chief Joseph himself. The column stopped for one night en route at Fort Berthold and arrived at Fort Lincoln on 19 November. Four of the Companies went into winter camp there, while Company B was posted to the Standing Rock Agency.
Awarded the Medal of Honor
It was from Standing Rock on 17 March 1878 that Captain McDougall wrote to the recently formed Seventh U.S. Cavalry Medal Board recommending nine men from Company B and including a supporting statement for each of them. With regard to Pym he said:
Private James Pym behaved with extraordinary coolness during two days of fighting – especially so on the 26th when he volunteered to go for water in order to relieve the men on the line, which was a hazardous undertaking. He succeeded, however, in obtaining water, although under brisk fire from the Indians all the time. In reward for his brave conduct under the trying circumstances of our situation I recommend him for a Medal of Honor.17
Pym was still at the agency when he learned he was one of six members of Company B to be awarded the Medal of Honor and it is reasonably safe to assume it was ceremonially presented to him by McDougall at Standing Rock sometime soon after 5 October 1878.18The citation reads: “Voluntary went for water and secured the same under heavy fire.”
The time spent at Standing Rock appears to have passed without any major incident although on 27 August 1878 Company B set off after a party of Indians who had left the agency without permission. After a day and a half’s hard riding they caught up with the Indians about 12 miles west of Fort Rice and brought them and their ponies back to Standing Rock.
Company B remained at Standing Rock until 7 December that year when it was transferred to Fort Yates where on 10 December 1879 James Pym was discharged as a “private of good character;” thus bringing his truly eventful five-year enlistment in the United States Army to an honourable end.
Returns to Civilian Life
In common with many former members of the 7th Cavalry, Pym gravitated to the town of Bismarck (present-day North Dakota) from where, on 20 July 1881, he was the first person to request that his Medal of Honor be repaired or replaced. Writing on letterhead from the law firm of George Flannery and J.E. Wetherly, he stated that his medal was defective and parts were lost. By the same letter he forwarded the broken medal, asking that it be repaired and returned to him at Bismarck. The pendant had been lost due to a defect in the suspension rings. The War Department was aware of this defect and had authorised replacement for other medals where the pendant was lost. In a letter of 4 August 1881, the Adjutant General ordered a new medal, which was engraved as follows: “The Congress to Pvt. James Pym, Co. B. > “7” Cav. < for bravery in action at the Little Big Horn River, Montana Territory 25-261876.” The replacement medal was sent to Pym on 29 August 1881.19
The next twelve years or so is yet another obscure period in Pym’s enigmatic life. It is widely quoted that he served as city marshal in Lake City, Wabasha County, Minnesota, where he wed 24 year-old Sarah Kavanagh (née Underwood), originally from County Wexford, Ireland, on 30 March 1887; a marriage which would remain childless. It would seem that they left Lake City in something of a hurry. Indeed, a classic ‘moonlight flit’!
The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 25 September 1889 – Anxious about Jim Pym – Special to the Globe: LAKE CITY, Sept. 24, – James Pym and wife departed for parts unknown at 3 o’clock this morning, leaving behind them no word as to the place of their destination. Mr. Pym leaves debts amounting to about $200. One of his creditors was Fred Schmans, who made hot pursuit for his rent of $25 for the house in which they lived, but returned after a prolonged and fruitless search.
The Pyms arrive in Miles City, Montana
Their next verifiable destination proved to be Livingston, Montana, where they most likely joined Sarah’s sister, Mary Cronin, and her husband Daniel. The Cronin’s first child, Margaret Janet, was born in Livingston on 5 May 1890. Jim Pym’s stay in the town is evidenced by the following entry in the Red Lodge Picket, 7 June 1890, which reads: Invitations are out for a birthday party at the residence of James Pym, on Second Street, on Friday, June 27th, in honor of the twenty-third birthday of Matthew Underwood. [Matthew, brother of Sarah and Mary, arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1884.]
However, Pym’s time in Livingston was a short one as before the end of the year he had moved on Miles City, Custer County, in the same state.
The Daily Yellowstone Journal, 1 January 1891 – J. J. Pym has opened a restaurant in the rear of Schmalsle’s saloon, where he will be prepared to furnish the best the market affords at all times. [German-born W. F. 'Fred' Schmalsle was a former buffalo hunter and had also been a scout for General Nelson Miles. In the Red River War he was noted for special bravery by helping rescue two of the German sisters, and bringing help to the Cavalry who were under an Indian attack.]
The Pyms rented a small log shack next door to Laton A. Huffman, the well-known frontier photographer. Although in many respects Pym was unassertive, quiet and ordinary, the former cavalryman quickly earned the reputation of being someone not to mess with. Huffman described him as “a product of his times, direct in action and tough as boot leather.” He recalled an incident when a young cowboy pulled a gun on the Pym in front of his studio. Without hesitation Pym took the gun out of the fellow’s hand, tossed it away, knocked his assailant down, kicked him and told him to leave town and not to show his face in it again. The cowboy left! On another occasion Pym was arrested for carrying concealed weapons. It all suggests, in Miles City at least, that the ‘Wild West’ had not yet been fully tamed.
For whatever reason, the restaurant did not do well, and Jim and Sarah went their separate ways. Pym filed an application for an army pension on 21 October the same year, which proved to be unsuccessful. [see Appendix Three] Now down on his luck, he resorted to various ways of earning a living by doing odd jobs around the town and, one occasion, 1 May 1891, he received $6.00 for “work on the streets.” He also found temporary employment in other towns, including Glendive. It was not a good time for the man from Garsington.
The Yellowstone Journal, 2 August 1893 – James Pym, who recently returned to Miles City, has became involved in serious difficulty with his wife and yesterday found it, from his standpoint, necessary to advertise the fact that he would not be responsible for her debts. Later in the day he became partially intoxicated, and created a disturbance in the neighbourhood of Mrs. Pym’s store in Park street. He was arrested and arrainged before Magistrate Gibb, entering a plea of guilty, and paying his fine of $5 and costs. [Sarah ran a fruit store which, on 10 August 1893, was broken into and a large quantity of oranges stolen.]
A brooding Pym continued to drink heavily and turned for solace to his sister-in-law, Mary Underwood, an uneducated immigrant from Ireland, wife of Daniel Cronin and the mother of two young children. Being employed on an outlying ranch, Cronin was often away from home and 29 year-old Mary took in washing to supplement her husband’s earnings. It was in the course of her duties as a laundress that the unfortunate woman became the sole witness to the killing of an unarmed Pym that shocked this fledging, frontier cattle town.
Gunned down by a Cowboy
Around 6 p.m. on Wednesday, 29 November 1893, a single pistol shot was heard in the area of North Fifth and Palmer Streets, Miles City, followed by the screams of a woman, coming from the home of Daniel Cronin. James Casey who lived in the adjoining house ran out just in time to see a man hurriedly leaving Cronin’s and turn down towards Main Street, while Mrs Cronin had fallen in the snow near the back door. Casey took her into his house before going into next door where he found James Pym lying on the floor, clearly dying. He at once gave the alarm and Dr Robert G. Redd,20 Deputy Sheriff Thurman, Chief of Police E. S. Jackson and Acting Coroner John Gibb were soon on the scene. Dr Redd pronounced Pym dead and the acting coroner proceeded to swear a jury, while the law officers immediately started an investigation.
According to Mary Cronin, Alvah Tilton, who had been working for the 7UK outfit, near Forsyth, returned to the city the day before and came to her house to collect some washing she had done for him. They were in the middle room of the three in the building when Pym opened the front door and burst in. As soon as he saw Tilton he walked up to him, and saying “You son-of-a-bitch, I’ve been looking for you all day,” hit him two or three times. Tilton staggered back against the wall and in an instant fired, although Mrs Cronin claimed that she did not see any weapon. Pym turned and left the room, laughing as he went, but died where he fell. Tilton ran out of the back door and disappeared.
As soon as Tilton left the house he went straight to Hi Astle’s livery stable, where he had a saddle horse, put on his overcoat, hat and spurs, and took to the hills. The night was very stormy and cold, and it was unlikely he could get away, so no effort was made to follow him until the next morning, when Sheriff James B Hawkins, Deputy Thurman, and Chief of Police Jackson crossed the Tongue River, and set off in pursuit. About four miles above town they found Tilton’s campfire, near which he had passed part of the night, where his horse had been tied in the brush and a very fresh trail leading up river. Thurman and Jackson pressed on while the sheriff came back to town. Tilton’s trail was easy to follow on the snow-covered ground and he was soon found at Frank Herman’s ranch eating breakfast. Two Winchesters close to his head removed any idea of him making a fight, and shortly after midday he was safely locked up in the town’s jail. He said, and related circumstances to prove it, that after crossing the frozen river he came back to Cronin’s house on foot and remained in the neighbourhood for about an hour. It was during this time he learned that Pym was dead and the officers would not be following him until morning.21
Tilton was subsequently charged with murder but found guilty on the reduced count of manslaughter, which carried a sentence of six years. [For a report of the Inquest, the Preliminary Hearing and the Trial - See Appendix Four].
In spite of comprehensive reports of the trial in the Miles City newspapers we are left to wonder what this case was really all about. As far as is known, there had been no previous ill-feeling between Pym and Tilton so what was it that had driven a battle-hardened 46 year-old ex-cavalryman to spend a whole day tracking down with malice aforethought a fresh-faced cowboy less than half his age? Had Tilton being paying too much attention to Sarah, Pym’s wife? Why was Tilton carrying a gun? Why did it prove so difficult to find a jury? Were the good folk of Miles City biased against Tilton because Pym had been a popular member of the community? Or was it the other way round, that Pym was the villain and no one wanted to convict his killer? No explanation for the county attorney’s decision to impeach Mrs Cronin was given, so what was the reason? These are just a few of the many questions still waiting to be answered and, until such time as they are, we are left to speculate on the circumstances that led to the fatal shooting of James Pym and the abrupt end of the trial that ensued.
According to Laton Huffman, “Jim Pym was mighty good to his wife” and even if they were separated at the time he was killed she may well have carried some feeling of guilt for her part in the events leading to his death. It would be rather touching, and somewhat romantic, that an estranged wife was prepared to spend a significant sum of money to have her late husband decently buried, but this may not have been the case.
The Yellowstone Journal, 16 August 1894 – The remains of J. J. Pym were this morning removed from the Patter’s [Potter’s] field to a private lot in the protestant cemetary (sic) at the request of his wife. [Sarah Pym was a Catholic.]
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Sarah Pym chose the words “Jas. Pym/Co. B/7th U.S. Cav.” for the inscription on his headstone even though he had been out of the army for over 14 years. Like his still wearing his Medal of Honor, it speaks volumes of what his time in the Seventh meant to him. Sarah hadn’t even known him during his service days, which makes it all the more remarkable.*
Some years ago, through the good offices of the Veterans Association, the original headstone was replaced by the traditional military-style monument although an additional initial ‘J’ was incorrectly inserted and, as referred to above, his birth year is incorrectly shown as being 1852. The name of the cemetery was changed to the Custer County Cemetery in 1922 when the county purchased the old burial ground from a privately owned company.]
The Yellowstone Journal, 26 October 1894, announced that a “marriage license was issued to Jas. Welsh and Sarah Pym of Miles City. Another record shows that Sarah had actually tied the knot with 27 year-old James Welch (or Welsh), originally from Carroll County, Missouri, the previous day. This marriage ended in divorce and, on 1 July 1911, Sarah took 33 year-old Arthur Jellison, originally from Mariaville, Maine, to be her fourth husband. Sarah [Underwood, Kavanagh, Pym, Welch] Jellison died in Miles City on 30 November 1923 – thirty years and a day after James Pym was gunned down in the same city. Her grave has not yet been located by this writer.
Pym’s Medal of Honor, who was wearing it at the time he was killed, eventually came into the possession of Casey Barthelmess, son of Christian Barthelmess, Chief Musician, 22nd Infantry and photographer at old Fort Keogh. The story goes that a young woman, who wished to remain anonymous,* handed the medal to Barthelmess on the strict understanding that it was donated to the Custer Battlefield National Monument, which he duly did. In a letter to Casey Barthelmess, Olive, Montana, dated 26 July 1949, Superintendent Edward. S. Luce wrote:
On behalf of the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park service, I desire to acknowledge your gift of the Congressional Medal of Honor which was presented to “Pvt. James Pym, Co. B. ‘7’ Cav. for bravery in action at Little Big Horn River, Montana Territory, June 25-26, 1876.”
This gift is greatly appreciated and will, I believe, prove to be a valued addition to the proposed Custer Battlefield Museum in which it is to be deposited and accorded the same care and protection given our other materials. It is understood, however, that the Federal Government is not bound by any agreement regarding the care, display, or disposal of the property.27
Luce asked Barthelmess to write an explanation of how he came into possession of the medal but it seems he never did. Correspondence dated 12 October 1994, from Douglas C. McChristian, Chief Historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, to Casey E. Barthelmess, Jr, Miles City, reads:
We have been unable to find a letter written by your grandfather concerning his acquisition of James Pym’s Medal of Honor. I am certain that if Superintendent Luce had received one, it would have been placed in the museum accession files. We also checked our old correspondence for that time period.28
Note (*): Martha Jellison, born c. 1915, the adopted daughter of Arthur and Sarah Jellison [the former Mrs James Pym] is this writer’s ‘prime suspect’ as she continued to live in Montana for many years after her mother’s demise, which places her in the right place at the right time to hand the medal to Casey Barthelmess. Martha married William S. Saltmarsh at Columbus, Stillwater County, MT on 2 July 1941. From there the trail goes cold.
Apparently Pym had further troubles with his medal as the pendant currently on display in the battlefield museum is suspended from a Grand Army of the Republic brooch and much worn ribbon. In the unlikely event that further information comes to light, the whereabouts of Pym’s Medal of Honor from the time it was removed from his breast by the coroner in November 1893 until it was handed to Casey Barthelmess, sometime before 1949, will remain yet another unsolved mystery in the extraordinary life, and death, of Private James Pym, Company B, 7th United States Cavalry.
No photograph or other image of James Pym is known to exist.
Ed Saunders, Laurel, Montana, is to be congratulated on his sterling effort to replace James Pym’s existing weathered grave marker in the Custer County Cemetery, 1010 Main Street, Miles City, with a pristine new headstone.
It was rather disappointing, however, as with the similar case of Private Abram B. Brant, that no-one involved in this most worthy of projects thought to check that the inscription to be engraved on the new headstone was factually correct. James Pym had only one given name, the second initial ‘J’ clearly standing for “Jim,” a shortened version of James, and should not have been duplicated. James “Jim” Pym however would have been acceptable. Also, this trooper was born in 1847, not 1852 as erroneously appears in his enlistment papers. These details were widely published on both sides of the Atlantic as long ago as 2008. (a) The Miles City History & Genealogical Form, [from] 7 June 2008; (b) The Crow’s Nest, Volume 8 Number 2, October 2008, the biannual journal of the Custer Association of Great Britain and (c) the Newsletter, No. 10, December 2008, Little Big Horn Associates.
In 1935 Emma Klawitter, widow of Private Ferdinand Klawitter, Company B, then in her late seventies, told the following story to Mark Lagerberg about her journey with the 7th Cavalry from Shreveport, Louisiana to Fort Abraham Lincoln in April 1876.
She said: We were stopped in St. Louis for eight days and it was there where I got another big scare. A soldier name Pym, who had been company cook for many years, went on a spree. His sweetheart worked for one of the officers, and of course, a private wasn’t allowed in the officer’s coach; but this time Pym tried to force his way past the negro porter.
Lieutenant Hodgson came out and then the brawl began. Hodgson said, “I’m going to draw some of your English blood if you don’t get back to your quarters!” That just made matters worse. Pym replied, “I’m going to make you shoot me,” and he commenced to take his shirt off. Then the commanding officer [Lt. Donald McIntosh] came out, called the guards, and they set Pym down in a seat right in front of mine.
But Pym wasn’t conquered yet. He kept on swearing so long that the commanding officer put a wooden gag in his mouth, but I could still hear that he kept on trying to swear. In the morning, his tongue was so thick it completely filled his mouth. I heard Pym say that he was going to kill Hodgson if the Indians didn’t beat him to it; and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, because Hodgson was killed just as his horse had crossed a river out in Montana and Pym was out in the deep water just behind him. [Pym was with the packs!] Pym never denied that he shot Hodgson, either; but, you know they never did anything to Pym for that. That man Pym was never conquered.
Note (*): Mrs Klawitter incorrectly referred to ‘Hodgson’ as ‘Hutchison’ and ‘Pym’ as ‘Pim.’ Both names have been corrected to avoid any unnecessary confusion.
While he was a resident of Miles City, Pym confided to friends the circumstances of the incident for which congress had voted him the medal of honor. Major Reno, he said, had been driven back across the river by the Indians engaged in the battle, and held him on Reno Hill. The situation on the hill grew desperate on account of the lack of water. Time after time soldiers of the Reno command volunteered to go down to the river and bring back canteens filled with water, but were repulsed by the ever-watchful Indians who lurked in the shadows along the path which about the only trail possible to travel on the way to the water.
Pym had related that a desperate situation required a desperate effort to overcome. While he had been repulsed in an effort to gain the river bank, he stated that he was able to make some observations of which he took advantage in his final effort, which succeeded.
Fastening a number of canteens together he placed them about his body and over his shoulders. He carried two in his mouth. Moving stealthily along during the morning of June 26, Pym was able to reach the water where he filled the canteens. The most hazardous part of the trip was the undertaken. He crawled along on hands and knees. The canteens at first seemed to be light enough, but as he proceeded, keeping out of sight sand covering his progress without betraying his presence, the metal containers began to “weigh like lead.”
Unable to release his hands to ease the weight of the two filled canteens he was carrying in his teeth, Pym would describe the agony he experienced in a manner to indicate the pain he felt. He realized every drop of water was precious, and he was determined that none of it should be lost. Reaching a point within what he considered was a hailing distance from the top of the hill, Pym threw precaution to the winds, and removing the canteens from his mouth, “which by their weight nearly pulled my teeth out of their sockets,” he made a rush forward. When within sight of the soldiers he felt that he had come under their protection, and gaining the top fell exhausted, but every canteen had been brought filled with water. He was regarded as a hero.
As the story of the Custer Battle was unfolded, Pym was cited by his superior officer for the above brave deed he had performed. Recommendations where made when congress voted him the medal of honor. He prized it highly within himself, but was hesitant when it came to a matter of exhibiting it on his person, for it was always “out of sight.”
Fearless in battle, loyal to his military organization, and winning the gratitude of a grateful nation for his extraordinary exploit during the Custer Battle, his friends said of him that he was his own greatest enemy.
Source: ‘James Pym, Hero of Custer Fight, Was killed in Brawl at Sister-in-Law’s Home; Friend Fired Shot,’ by “Montana Lou” Grill, Montana Newspaper Association – 25 January 1937.
Although James Pym was wounded while fetching water for the wounded on the second day of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, for which he was awarded to coveted Medal of Honor, he never actually received an army disability pension despite the opinion of the doctor who examined him his claim was a valid and legitimate one.
Pym’s ‘Declaration for Original Invalid Pension’ form and other documentation were completed at Miles City, Montana, on 3 October 1891 and duly filed by the Pensions Office on 21st day of that month, being allocated Claim No. 1066405. He stated that “while in the service and in line of his duty at [the] Battle of Little Big Horn in the state of Montana on 26th day of June 1876 he incurred a gun shot wound of right ankle under the following circumstance: I was one of a party of Volunteers to go after Water in sight of the Enemy (hostile Sioux Indians) the entire Command having been cut off from the supply of Water and famishing for the want of it, especially the wounded. That I was treated in the Field Hospital on Little Big Horn, Mont., for after being wounded, afterwards on the same Expedition I returned for duty although suffering from my wound.”
A medical examination was arranged with Dr. Andrew R. Duncan,1 Glendive, Montana, for 2 March 1892 when Pym claimed that “the gunshot wound of his right ankle still gives him great pain, that he also suffers from cholera,2 catarrh3 & neuralgia,4 and that he suffers from scald of both arms.5”
Upon examination Dr. Duncan observed a scar on the inner side of the right ankle, which measured one inch wide and three inches long. There were several brown patches surrounding it. The scar was adherent and tender. Pym told the doctor that it “breaks out” occasionally. Duncan could find no evidence of cholera but agreed that the mucous membrane of the claimant’s nose was reddened and congested although there were no ulcers. Pym’s throat was reddened also and his tonsils slightly enlarged. He complained of frontal headache and “Neuralgia across bridge of nose.” On the outer aspect of his right forearm there were slight scars due to scalds, but they were not deep and Duncan did not think that they impaired the usefulness of the arm. Pym’s left wrist and forearm also showed slight scars, but again not sufficient to cause disability. It was noted that the tongue was coated brown and fissured. The liver was normal. And, finally, Pym had a slight cough.
Dr Duncan stated that in his opinion Pym was entitled to a 6/18 rating for the disability caused by the gunshot wound of ankle and 4/18 for that caused by catarrh, but nothing for that caused by cholera and for that caused by scalds of both arms.
On 28 May 1892 Pym provided the Department of the Interior with information regarding his marital status, when and where he was married and that he did not have any children. The paper trail then goes cold until 29 September 1902 when the Attorneys, Allan Rutherford & Co, Washington, D.C., wrote to the Hon. Commissioner of Pensions informing him that letters addressed to the claimant at Miles City, Montana were returned by the Post Office marked “unclaimed,” which is hardly surprising as this brave, if enigmatic, cavalryman had been dead for over eight years! I have found no record of his widow, Sarah Underwood, ever claiming or being granted an army pension.
The killing of James Pym was reported in the Daily Telegraph [Quebec, Canada], 1 December 1893.
Veteran of Custer Fight Killed: Miles Alfred (sic) Tilton, a cowboy, yesterday (sic) shot and killed Jim Pym, an ex-soldier, who wore a medal of honor voted him by Congress for bravery in the action in Custer’s fight on the Little Big Horn in 1876.
Red Lodge Picket [Red Lodge, Montana], 9 December 1893.
Jim Pym, one of Custer’s men, who wore a bravery medal voted by congress, was killed in Miles City because he tried to discipline one Arthur (sic) Tilton, a cow puncher.
After the coroner’s jury had been sworn in on the Wednesday evening an examination of Pym’s body was made when it was found that the bullet had entered the left side, just below the ribs, and had not come out. Clearly Pym was proud of his actions at the Little Big Horn battle, which is evidenced by the fact that he was actually wearing his Medal of Honor at the time of the shooting and this prestigious decoration was “removed from his breast” by the coroner. An adjournment was taken until 10 a.m. on 2 December in order that Dr Redd might hold a post mortem examination. He completed the autopsy, and the same day Pym’s remains were buried in a pauper’s grave, except for some parts that were kept for further examination, pending an adjournment of the inquest for another twenty-four hours.22
Alvah Tilton was brought before Justice Gibb at the sheriff’s office at 2.30 p.m. on 4 December for his preliminary hearing. After having the warrant read to him he took his seat and was asked if he had counsel to defend him in the charge for which he stood accused. He replied that at present he had no counsel or money with which to procure one but expected that in a few days he would be able to furnish the same. Attorney Myers stated to the court that he would act on his Tilton’s defence until such counsel was procured, which was accepted by the judge. Myers then stated on behalf of the defendant that he would demand a hearing, which was set for 10.00 a.m. the next morning at the office of the police magistrate.
The defendant’s appearance signified anything in the world but he was a murderer. He stood 5 feet 9, was of light complexion, clean shaven, and in carriage followed the same description as would be given to the manner of walk, etc, nine out of ten cow punchers had, his expression was very dull and his face in general did not portray anything that would class him among intellectuals. On the stand he stated he was 22 years old (actual age 20) and displayed no outward sign of distress apart from changing his sitting position and generally wanting to do something with his hands.
The Preliminary Hearing
It was arranged for Tilton to appear before Justice Gibb at noon on 5 December 1893 but owing to some unexplained confusion as to the correct time and venue, the hearing was delayed until 1.00 p.m. at which time the prisoner and witnesses were all on hand and the hearing was proceeded with. The first witness was Dr Redd, who said in substance that Pym had come to his death by a bullet wound, which caused his demise some thirty minutes after the infliction. Deputy Sheriff Thurman and Chief of Police Jackson testified that Tilton had admitted to them that he had killed Pym, but that he had acted in self-defence.
On the part of the defence Mary Cronin was called and said that Pym had entered the house, had abused Tilton by words and action, and that a shot was fired, but that she did not see it. This completed the evidence before the court and the prisoner was committed to jail to answer the charge of murder.23
On Friday, 16 February 1894, Alvah Tilton was brought into court and seemed perfectly cool and collected, even more so than his father, who sat beside him. Jason W. Strevell, Thomas J. Porter and George Myers appeared for the prisoner and County Attorney Charles H. Loud represented the state of Montana.
The work of selecting a jury was immediately commenced, and the original venire of 24 was soon exhausted, without securing the necessary twelve. A special venire was issued for 15 more, but with no better result. Another 20 talesmen were summoned for 7.30 that evening and in about an hour twelve impartial men had been accepted, whereupon the court adjourned until the next morning when the jury was sworn in. After a statement of the case by the county attorney Mrs Mary Cronin, the only eyewitness to the shooting, was called. Her direct examination occupied the court’s time until noon, when E. K. Chapman and W. W. Alderson were sworn as bailiffs to assist Deputy Sheriff Thurman in looking after the jury.
When the court reconvened at 1.45 p.m. the county attorney created quite a sensation by moving for the impeachment of Mrs Cronin, who was his own witness, and the court took the matter under consideration, excusing her from cross-examination until a decision was given. Deputy Sheriff Thurman then took the stand, followed by Chief of Police Jackson, John Gibb and Dr Redd who were also examined on behalf of the state, after which the court adjourned.
At the afternoon session on the next day, the county attorney recalled Jackson and Thurman, and then the matter of the application for impeachment of Mary Cronin was brought up, and the court decided not to permit it. Mr. Loud thereupon rested his side of the case. The court then adjourned to give Tilton’s attorneys an opportunity to arrange their line of defence. In the event, they put just one witness – Hi Astle – on the stand and then closed their case.
The sudden closing of their side of the case by the attorneys of Alvah Tilton was a surprise to those who had watched the trial, especially when it was known that they had subpoenaed a number of witnesses and had used only one, but the action of the county attorney in endeavouring to impeach Mrs Cronin, his own principal witness, suggested a failure to prove what the state expected to, and undoubtedly caused the speedy termination of the trial. However the strain on both the prisoner and his father began to tell on their nerves and sighs of smothered emotion, mingled with fear of a ‘guilty’ verdict, were frequently heard.
When Myers closed his argument, he was followed by Jason Strevell, who made an eloquent appeal for the young man, and then Mr Loud closed for the state. The court then took a recess to give Judge George R Milburn an opportunity to prepare his instructions to the jury and then everyone went to supper. It was therefore 8.00 p.m. before the jury retired to deliberate upon a verdict, when they found Tilton guilty, not of murder, but of manslaughter. The penalty was left to the court, but was limited by law to not less than one or more than ten years imprisonment in the penitentiary. The prisoner was remanded to the custody of the sheriff until 20 February 1894 to await his sentence, which proved to be six years. In the circumstances Tilton should have considered himself lucky that his killing of an unarmed man was so lightly punished.24
Alvah Tilton entered the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge on 21 February 1894 and was discharged on 15 May 1898, having served a little over two-thirds of his sentence. Prison records show he was 20 years of age, 5’ 9” tall, weighed 175 pounds, born Des Moines, Iowa, previously employed as a farmer, son of Arthur and Emma Tilton and brother of Julia and Etta, of Ankeny, Polk County, a north-eastern suburb of Des Moines.25 His ultimate fate remains unknown to this writer.