The Author, Editor & Webmaster
The Road to Little Big Horn
- In common with countless others born in the late 1930s, my interest in the American West can be directly traced to a boyhood spent in the cinemas of post-war Kent where we were weaned on a diet of B-Western Cowboy movies, often serialised, which was the staple fare at the local Saturday morning children’s clubs.
- This latent obsession was released in a most unexpected way during the summer of 1995 when a fellow passenger on a flight from Aberdeen to Orkney – a group of islands lying off the northeast coast of mainland Scotland – informed me that he had seen the name “Custer” carved on the gable-end wall of a house in Victoria Street, Kirkwall that, from the description he gave, was almost certainly the very same as the one in which my father had been born some 86 years before.
- The Islander, a free newspaper specifically published for visitors to the county, annually informed its readers that the renowned Civil War hero and Indian-fighter, George Armstrong Custer, was of Orkney stock, which never failed to catch my attention. The story is told of two sons of the last Cursiter proprietor of Binscarth, an ancient farm in the parish of Firth, who went to America and settled in New York City where they ran a prosperous paper milling business until it was destroyed in a disastrous fire. This prompted them to move out west and it is one of these brothers, William Cursiter, who is reputed to be the ancestor of the iconic general. I must confess to having been rather sceptical about this seemingly fanciful tale that has long been dismissed by the vast majority of Custer scholars.
A name carved in stone
- In view of the information gained on the flight from Aberdeen, however, I allowed myself to be persuaded that perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a grain of truth in the story after all and one will readily understand that I was eager to see the graffiti for myself. Needless to say, soon after my arrival in Kirkwall, I made my way to Victoria Street, number 66 to be precise, a C-listed dwelling that stands back from the road in a small close next to the offices occupied by the Red Cross. The inscription, which actually reads, ‘JA. CUSITER J – 1864,’ is somewhat smaller than I had expected, but perfectly legible, save for the fourth digit of the year which, due to weathering and the rugged nature of the stone, was more difficult to decipher – the consensus of opinion being that the number 4 is the most likely. [The old Orcadian surname of ‘Cursiter,’ also spelt ‘Cusiter,’ was traditionally pronounced ‘Custer’ in these northern isles.]
- Now the year 1864 could be significant, not only because it fell during the American Civil War [1861-65] but was just 12 months after 23-year-old George Armstrong Custer had been promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers, one of the youngest ever to attain that rank in the history of the United States Army.
- So who was James Cusiter? I assumed that the single letter J stood for ‘Junior,’ which, if so, clearly pointed to one man, James Cusiter, son of James Cusiter (1798-1863), a tailor, and Mary Balfour Bankier (1811-1856), who was born in Kirkwall in 1838. As young James Cusiter is absent from the 1871 Census for Orkney and, having lost both parents by 1863, he may well have decided to leave his native islands to start a new life in a foreign land. It was then he chose to literally leave his mark by carving his name and the year of his departure on the gable-end wall of what was to become my paternal grandparents’ house? Pure supposition, I admit, but not an entirely unreasonable one. To date, I have been unable to find any further information about this particular branch of the family or even a remote link with the Custer and, consequently, my first line of research came to an abrupt end.
- Despite falling at the first hurdle I was more determined than ever to solve this enduring mystery and, on returning to London, I read everything I could find about the General’s heritage. My hopes were surprisingly soon raised, for on page 3 of my paperback copy of The Custer Story, by Marguerite Merington, [for many years the nearest friend and literary executor of Custer’s widow], she wrote:
- The Custers were of English (sic) origin, descended from the Cusiters of the Orkney Islands.
A letter from Orkney
- But things got even better because on pages 291-2 of the same volume, there appears an extract taken from a letter that Custer sent to his wife, Libbie, from Washington, D.C., on 23 April 1876, in which he says:
- I received a letter from a gentleman at Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, of the name of Custer. He traces our relationship to the family, back to 1647, and gives the several changes the name has undergone, – Cursetter, Cursider, Cusiter, Custer, all belonging to the same parish. He writes “I have been established in business here for 33 years. I have noted your name, conspicuous as a General, and occasionally as author, and from descriptions of you I am convinced we are of the same stock …. “
- In Philadelphia, while visiting the Centennial buildings, I discovered another branch of the Custer tree – I enclose their business card – I sent in my name and was most cordially received … The family resemblance is marked. Tell Maggie that when I come into my Orkney inheritance ….
- Not only build and height and coloring, but they were nice, like me.
- Just nine weeks later, on Sunday, 25 June 1876, Lieutenant Colonel [Brevet Major General] George Armstrong Custer, 7th U.S. Cavalry, and all 209 officers, enlisted men and civilians under his direct command were wiped out by an overwhelming force of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, in what has become to be popularly known as ‘Custer’s Last Stand.’
A visit to the battlefield
- Merington intimated that a few of the more personal letters were to be deposited in the library at Yale University but the bulk of the correspondence was destined to gather dust in the archive at the Custer Battlefield, now known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
- As this collection had yet to be indexed there seemed no alternative other than for me to undertake the research myself. In June 1998, accompanied by my wife, Sopharana, I flew out to the battlefield and planned our trip to coincide with the 122nd Anniversary. Although the Museum Curator, Kitty Belle Deernose, was most helpful I failed to find the letter I was seeking.
However, there was yet another twist to this ever intriguing tale. Ms. Deernose not only took me completely by surprise when she produced a copy of The Guidon – Journal of British Custeriana [previously not known to me], in which her interview by the editor, Roger Young, was featured, but Roger actually lived in the same postal district in West Yorkshire as my daughter and I frequently passed the end of his road on my way to visit her. I decided to send him a postcard from the Garryowen Post Office and promised to make contact on my return, which I did.
The whole experience surrounding the 122nd Anniversary of the battle had a profound effect and was further enhanced by a most enlightening conversation with the Reverend Peter Powell on the return flight to London, which went via Chicago: perhaps there was something of interest in this “Custer Story” after all. The rest, as they say, is history.* (see below].
- Anyway, back to that elusive letter, I subsequently contacted George Miles, curator of the Beindecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale, who confirmed by email that neither Custer’s letter to Libbie nor the correspondence from John Cursiter is among the papers in the Elizabeth Bacon Custer Collection given to the university by Merington.
John Cursiter (1819-1886)
- Despite having been unable to trace the original of the correspondence referred to above, there can be no doubt as to the identity of the Kirkwall businessmen who appears to have convinced the General it was Orcadian – not Teutonic – blood that was coursing through his veins.
- His name was John Cursiter, son of George Cursiter, a slater originally from the parish of Firth, and Catherine Heddle, who was born in Kirkwall, on 7 June 1819.
- Like many other successful businessmen of his day, John Cursiter took a philanthropic interest in the welfare of his local community. For more than 20 years there was scarcely a public body in Kirkwall with which he was not connected. Together with Thomas Traill of Holland and James Williamson, a distant relative of this writer, he was a prime mover in improving local sanitary conditions and, at considerable personal expense, laid on a piped water supply to his aerated water factory in Junction Road (1881). From this source he provided a reservoir for public use – a considerable time before a water and drainage scheme was adopted in Kirkwall.
- In the autumn of 1885 Cursiter was diagnosed as suffering from an infection of the liver, which subsequently developed into jaundice. In spite of having received the best available medical attention the illness proved fatal and on 23 April 1886, exactly ten years to the day that Custer wrote to his beloved Libbie about his ‘new found’ Orkney heritage, John Cursiter died peacefully at his Kirkwall home. He was lies buried with both of his wives and an infant daughter in the grounds of St. Magnus Cathedral, where a fine granite headstone marks the spot.
- We have no cause to doubt that John Cursiter sincerely believed he shared a common ancestor with the legendary Custer but his supposition is not borne out by the facts and, to my mind, it was a classic case of someone being unduly influenced by family ‘oral history,’ otherwise known as an ‘old wives’ tale!’
- There is compelling evidence, though perhaps not entirely conclusive, that Paul Kűster, who arrived in the colony of Pennsylvania from the Rhineland of Germany in 1684, was the General’s direct ancestor, and this is now universally accepted by present-day Custer historians. On the other hand no less than two, possibly three, of his maternal great-grandparents emigrated from England to America as late as the second half of the 18th century, which gives him an even closer affinity with the United Kingdom, if not with Orkney.
- As far as Custer himself was concerned, I contend that he was far too busy making history to dwell in the past and knew (or cared) little or nothing about his family’s distant pre-American heritage. If this were the case, he would have been perfectly receptive to John Cursiter’s plausible claim of kinship.
- Of course, there is no way of knowing if the words he wrote to Libbie about his Orkney ancestry were not made with ‘tongue firmly in cheek,’ though I am prepared to believe that George Armstrong Custer rode to his death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn happy in the knowledge that his roots lay deeply embedded in Orkney – Land of the Vikings – and, until such time as it is proved otherwise, I will continue to cherish this tenuous association with the legendary general.
- Note: (*) With characteristic exuberance, it wasn’t long before I submitted the first, of two, articles and a few photographs to The Guidon [which ceased publication after only nine issues in June 2000].
- In November 1999 I became founder Membership Secretary and Treasurer (later Chairman and Vice-president) of the Custer Association of Great Britain (CAGB); designed the newly-formed group’s logo, its letterhead and other documents, which are still in use today; for the first 20 issues was Editor (Literary) of its biannual newsletter-cum-journal, The Crow’s Nest, during which time I contributed a similar number of researched articles.
- I did not seek re-election to the Committee of the CAGB in 2010 as I had long been a lone voice in the desire to promote the stories of the men from this country who ‘fought with Custer’ and the independent spirit in me felt the time had come to blaze a new trail.
125th Anniversary of the Battle - 25 June 2001
Paying homage to George Armstrong Custer
- In October 2004 John Doerner, then Chief Historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana, invited me and two other Plains Indian Wars’ enthusiasts from England to join him on the hallowed ground within the strictly private enclosed area on Last Stand Hill that contains the markers where, symbolically at least, George Armstrong Custer and other brave men fell on 25 June 1876. It was, indeed, an honour and one suspects a rare privilege to be given such an opportunity: an experience that will stay long in my memory.