A Dane Who Survived the Little Big Horn Fight
by Leif Rudi Ernst
Jens Mathiasen Møller aka Jan Moller or Mollar
The post Civil War Frontier Army depended heavily on attracting the sons of newly arrived immigrants and foreign-born recruits into its ranks, and during the period 1866-1890 no fewer than 55 Danes served in the celebrated 7th U.S. Cavalry. Of the six who were present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on 25-26 June 1876, three were killed with Custer’s column, two were wounded in the hilltop fight and just one escaped totally unscathed.1 One of the wounded Private Jan Moller, Company H, was seriously hurt and never fully recovered from his injuries. This is his story.
On 15 September 1849, a male child was born in the village of Hasle, on the remote island of Bornholm, which lies some 80 nautical miles southeast of Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.
He was the seventh child in a family of five boys and four girls born to Hans Nielsen Møller, a coal worker, and his wife, Elisabeth Kirsten Hansen. Five weeks later the infant was baptised Jens Mathiasen in the local Evangelical-Lutheran church.2 When he was still only 11-years-old Jens was sent to work on a farm in the nearby town of Nyker but was back in Hasle on 4 April 1864 where he was confirmed, having attained the lowest grade for his Christian knowledge.3 His father died in 1867 at the young age of 48 but his mother lived to be 70.4
Jens Goes to America
Sometime around 1871 Jens made up his mind to leave his native Denmark and, along with a growing number of fellow countrymen, decided to seek a better life in “God’s own country” – America. He sailed from an unknown port for New York and eventually made his way to Chicago.5 Evidently he found that not all the streets of this rapidly growing city were ‘paved with gold’ and the prospect of being unemployed in a strange land during a bitterly cold winter may well have influenced him to opt for a term in the military. The records show that on 15 January 1872 he was enlisted into the United States Army by Captain Samuel Young, 8th Cavalry, and assigned to Company H, 7th Cavalry, then garrisoned in Nashville, Tennessee, under the command of Captain Frederick W. Benteen. We learn from his enlistment papers that Jens gave his name as Jan Móller, born Orsle, Denmark, aged 22 years, 5’ 8” in height, with grey eyes and light-coloured hair, previously employed as a labourer.5 Little could he have foreseen what dangers and excitement the next five years would bring.6
It is interesting to note that Captain Young wrote the name of Jens’ birthplace exactly as this young Bornholmer would have pronounced it. Inhabitants of Bornholm, which geographically is much nearer to Sweden than it is to the rest of Denmark, speak with an accent peculiar to that island and a stranger to this part of Scandinavia could quite easily interpret ‘Hasle’ as ‘Orsle’. It was the latter spelling that Jan Moller continued to use long after leaving the Army, probably for fear of getting into trouble with the law when filling in official documents.
On 26 July 1872 a young German from Bergen, on the Baltic Island of Rügen, joined Company H in Nashville. His anglicised name was Charles Windolph, whose experiences in the Seventh Cavalry are recorded in that excellent autobiographical account entitled I Fought with Custer, and would have been very similar to those encountered by Jan Moller, or Mollar.7
If Moller and Windolph joined the cavalry to fight Indians then initially they would have been disappointed as much of their time was spent tracking down members of the Ku Klux Klan and illicit whiskey distillers. However, over the following years Company H did see active service in the Yellowstone Campaign (1873) and the Black Hills Expedition (1874) before returning south to New Orleans on Reconstruction duty in the winter of 1875/6. Towards the spring of 1876 the whole regiment was assembled at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, in readiness for the forthcoming campaign against the Sioux and other tribes, which had been declared hostile to the U.S. Government.
Fight at the Little Big Horn River
The events surrounding the disastrous defeat of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn are too well known to be repeated here other than to say that Company H played a major part, and at great cost, in defending Reno Hill. Benteen, who to all intents and purposes had taken command of the depleted regiment, placed his own Company in a very exposed position on the bluffs facing south towards the river, but it was their failure to construct breastworks or dig rifle pits, due to the lack of trenching tools, that was directly contributed to the unacceptably high number of casualties.8 Jan Moller was struck by a bullet in the right thigh and pelvis and took no further part in the battle. It is interesting to note that Private William E. Morris, Company M, claimed that Moller had told him he heard heavy gunfire while watering at the morass, something that seems to have escaped the memory of both Benteen and Lieutenant Francis Gibson.
Along with over 50 other wounded men Jan was carried on a pallet made of blankets strung between two poles, with a mule at each end, twenty miles downstream to the junction with the Big Horn River. Early on June 29, the steamer Far West, with the wounded lying on beds of freshly cut grass on its deck, started out on its journey via the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers to Fort Abraham Lincoln. Jan was listed as ‘absent sick’ at Fort Rice from August 12 until his discharge on expiration of service, as a corporal of excellent character, on 15 January 1877.
Returns to Civilian Life
His whereabouts immediately after leaving the army are not known but we find him living in Spearfish, Lawrence County, South Dakota in April 1881 and was still there on April 12, the following year, when he applied for a disability pension in preparation for his intended return to Denmark. However shortly afterwards he moved to near Beulah, Wyoming, where he farmed alongside the Redwater Creek, a tributary of the Belle Fourche River. The Seventh Cavalry had passed through this beautiful valley in July 1874 during the Black Hills Expedition, which inspired Chief Engineer William A. Ludlow to write:
“The temperature was delightful; the air laden with sweet wild odors; the grass knee-deep and exceedingly luxuriant; while wild cherries, blueberries and gooseberries abounded, as well as many varieties of flowers. All these advantages, combined with that with an abundance of pure cold water, were ours, with rare exceptions, until the final departure from the hills.”
It is little wonder that Jan, also known as John, spent the greater part of the next 45 years here. On April 14, 1890 a man by the name Henry Slater, 35 years of age, and Jems [Jens?] A. Moller, age 31, both living in Beulah, stated “they had been well acquainted with Jan Moller for more than seven years.” The same year one Iver (?) Hejde, Aladdin, Wyoming, stated “he had been knowing Moller for 20 years”, which suggests they may have met on board the ship that brought them from Europe or soon after Jan first set foot in America.9
Jan Moller Takes a Wife and Returns to Denmark
Jan Moller married Carolina Anderson in Spearfish on October 4, 1891. Carolina was born in Swedenin 1849 and came to America following the death of her first husband in their native country in 1879, which left her a widow with two young children. There were no children born in the Moller marriage.
Jan and Carolina sailed for Denmark in the late spring of 1898 and bought a house in Vestergade Street, Nyker, a few miles from Hasle. In July that year Jan went to the Herredsfuldmægtig, P. Ipsen, [county head-clerk] in the nearby town of Rønne, who agreed to write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen, with a request for Jan’s U.S. Army pension to be paid in Denmark on a yearly or half-yearly basis. His letter was dated 23 July 1898. There was also reference to a similar letter being sent to the Royal Danish Consulate in Chicago. For whatever reason, Jan’s request was denied. The Mollers were to remain in Bornholm for the next four and a half years.10
Back to America and More Problems
On 3 March 1903, together with Jan’s younger brother Hans Andreas,11 the Mollers registered with the emigration office in Copenhagen as all three had decided to return to America.12 They gave Deadwood, South Dakota, as their intended destination, which was the home of Carolina’s son, William Nielsen. Sometime later they resettled near Beulah, close to the state line with South Dakota, where the injury that Jan sustained in the hilltop fight continued to give him a great deal of trouble. Dr. Alexander Otto Frasser, at Belle Fourche Hospital, South Dakota, examined him on Monday, 27 December 1909, and certified, “Mr. Jan Moller appeared before me this day and upon examination is suffering from a gunshot wound of right thigh. Of late he has been suffering from Rheumatism of right leg so that he is disable from doing manual labor. He is 60 years old and as a result of this Rheumatism of right leg is prevented from doing manual labor or gaining a livelihood. For the last 10 years this has fortially (sic) prevented him from doing manual labor and gaining a livelihood and during the last 2 years entirely prevented him from doing manual labor or earning a livelihood.”
A letter found among in his pension papers, dated 10 May 1912, contains the following information, “Question: Where did you live since discharge? Answer: Beulah (Crook County) Wyo. I Leve on a veset to Denmark for 5 yars? I was Sick.” On 19 September 1921, Moller stated that he had been living in Wyoming, near Beulah, ever since the date of discharge (1877). From this time he received a pension of $50 a month, which was granted to veterans who had served for 30 days or more during the Indian Wars [Act of Congress, 4 March 1917].13
Jan Moller’s Last Years
Around 1925, due to increasing infirmity, Jan and Carolina went to stay with her son, William Nielsen (or Nelson), at 63 Stewart Street, Deadwood. It was here that Carolina died on 11 January 1928. Jan passed away just six weeks later on 23 February. They were both interred in Mount Moriah Cemetery,14 overlooking Deadwood City, which they share with such celebrated Western characters as James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary. Jan is not only listed as ‘Mollar’ on the headstone but his date of birth is incorrectly shown as ‘Sept. 13, 1849′ when, in fact, he was born on 15 September that year.
An obituary was published in the Lead Daily Call on the day immediately following his death and a second was featured on the front page of The Deadwood Daily Pioneer-Times on 26 February, it reads:
Will Be Buried With All Military Honors
Funeral services for the late Jans Móller will be held this afternoon from the Schulte undertaking parlors and will be attended by those military who served their country in its wars in one of its military establishments. Rev. Hartung of the Methodist church will conduct the services at the undertaking parlors and at the grave.
An escort from Co. “F” 109th Engrs., will accompany the body to its last resting place on Mount Moriah. At the grave “Taps” will be sounded by a trumpeter. After which the usual three volleys of rifle fire will be fired over his grave. The military escort will accompany the body as guard of honor from the undertaking establishment to the cemetery.
Jans Móller served two enlistments with that most famous of regiments of the cavalry service of the United States government, the Seventh, and was with it when it took part in engagements with hostile Indians in the northwest and southwest, left the service as a non commissioned officer and with the highest discharge that the service can grant an enlisted man, both having inscribed on them the simple word “Excellent”, which means so much to the soldier who has served his country.15
Jan Moller was survived by his brother Hans, Belle Fourche, and stepson.
The author is very thankful to Peter Russell for the great work he has done to make this article readable in English.
First published in The Crow’s Nest, the Newsletter of the Custer Association of Great Britain, Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 4 Number 1.
1. They Rode With Custer, John M. Carroll: (i) Killed with Custer’s Column: Cpl W. Teeman, Company F, Private Christian Madsen, Company F, Blacksmith Charles Siemon, Company L; (ii) Wounded in the hilltop fight: Private Frederick Holmstead, Company A, Private Jan Moller, Company H; (iii) Survived uninjured: Private Christian C. Boisen, Company K. Tribune Extra, Bismarck, 6 July 1876: wounded Jas. Muller, [Company] H right thigh. Fred Holmsted, [Company] A, left wrist. There may have been a seventh Danish trooper, Private Henry Witt, Company K, but he was on detached service at the Powder River Depot. His enlistment papers give Cincinnati, Ohio, as his birthplace whereas his death certificate says 10 December 1852, Heide, Denmark (Men With Custer, CBHMA, Inc., 2010, p.432).
2. Parish Register, Town of Hasle, Bornholm. Denmark. Census 1845 and 1870, Town of Hasle, Bornholm. Denmark.
3. Parish Register, the Town of Hasle, Bornholm. Denmark. Parish Register, Nyker, Bornholm. Denmark
4. Hans Nielsen Møller died on 28 September 1867, 48 3/4 years old. Elisabeth Kirstine Møller died on 1 May 1886, 70 3/4 years old. Parish Register, Hasle, Bornholm. Denmark.
5. A man with the same name, occupation and age registered to New York City on 14 September 1871. Last residence was on the Danish mainland in the town of Kolding, Vejle County. Copenhagen Police Ledgers: “Indirectly”emigration from Denmark (1868-1940). Ledger No. 200. Id. No.I7172M0724.
6. National Archives, Washington, D.C.: Enlistment papers and Pension no. SA-18110 and SC-11044.
7. Carl Windolph, (Charles in America) born 9 December 1851, was the last surviving member of Custer’s soldiers who saw action at the Little Big Horn. Ironically, to escape compulsory military service in the Franco-Prussian War, he came to Denmark, and from there he emigrated to the United States in June 1871. He left Copenhagen on the ship Humboldt. Five months later he joined the 2nd U.S. Infantry, deserted, and on 23 July 1872 he enlisted at Nashville, TN. He came to serve in the same Company as Jan Moller. Discharged Fort Meade, South Dakota on 21 March 1883. He died 11 March 1950. Ibid and Copenhagen Police Ledgers: “Directly” emigration from Denmark (1868-1940). Ledger No. 22. Id. No. D7181V0105. And Hunt, I Fought with Custer.
8. One officer (Benteen) wounded, 3 enlisted men killed, 19 wounded, one of which (Private William M. George) died on board the Far West on 3 July.
9. National Archives, Washington, D.C.: Enlistment papers and Pension no. SA-18110 and SC-11044.
10. Udenrigsministeriets Arkiv, 1856-1908, Rigsarkivet (Denmark). Ks. 591, sag. B4836.
11. Hans Andreas Móller, a stone cutter, born 27 February 1852, together with his wife, Anine Nielsine and five children aged from six months to eight years, lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, before moving their belongings by a team and wagon to Beulah in the 1880s. They made their home on Redwater Creek with brother Jan Moller for three or four years. Hans is listed as ‘Single’ in the Census of Crook County, Wyoming (1920).
12. Copenhagen Police Ledgers: “Indirectly” emigration from Denmark (1868-1940). Ledger No. 221. Id. No.
I0203M1110, I0203M1111 and I0203M1112.
13. National Archives, Washington, D.C.: Pension no. SA-18110 and SC-11044.
14. Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, Addition 3, Section 2, Lot # 200.
15. There is no evidence to substantiate that Moller served two enlistments the 7th U.S. Cavalry.