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Alexander, William

Place of Birth: County Armagh

Date of enlistment: [hired] April 1876

Age given at enlistment: circa. 38

Rank: Citizen Packer

Company: Quarter Master Department

Location on 25 June 1876: With packs and in hilltop fight

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Comments:

Please also consult: (i) ‘Military Register of Custer’s Last Command,’ Roger L. Williams, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Norman, Oklahoma, 2009, pp. 29, 32-33  (ii) ‘Men With Custer – Biographies of the 7th Cavalry,’ Edited by Ronald H. Nichols with Daniel I. Bird, CBHMA Inc., 2010, p. 5.

Shot Twice for playing “Big Indian”

According to his pension file William Alexander was born in County Armagh on 8 April 1838, that is, the date taken from an old family Bible, although many other records do not reflect this. Apparently he was orphaned while still a small child and brought to Canada by an uncle; most likely in 1845.

On 10 July 1860, in New York, he was enlisted in the U.S. Army by Lt. Henry C. Bankhead, 5th Infantry, and described as having blue eyes, light hair, a fair complexion, being 5′ 9″ tall, age 22, previously employed as a shoemaker. He joined Company F, 7th Infantry, at Fort Craig, New Mexico, on 18 October the same year and was transferred to Company A, 5th Infantry on 2 June 1864, at Fort Marcy, New Mexico, before being discharged at Fort Larned, Kansas, on 10 July 1865.

Fort Marcy, New Mexico, during the Civil War. A Fort Marcy Park photograph.

Alexander married a Mary Sloan, at Woodbury, Washington County, Minnesota in June 1872 and a daughter Stella, was born the following year.  On 4 May 1874, 18 year-old Mary, the plaintiff, was granted a divorce on the grounds of her husband’s alleged drunkenness, physical and verbal abuse, and non-support, and the defendant was ordered to pay $9 per month child support until Stella reached age 18.

In April 1876, at St. Paul, Minnesota, Alexander was hired by Lt. Eugene B. Gibbs, 6th Infantry, as a citizen packer for the forthcoming expedition against the Sioux in Dakota Territory and assigned to Lt. Henry J. Nowlan, 7th Cavalry, at Fort Lincoln,  Acting Assistant Quartermaster to  General Alfred H. Terry. His duties included driving the pack mules alongside the wagon train during the march from Fort Lincoln to the Powder River, for which he was paid $50 a month and entitled to one ration a day and transport back to St. Paul if honourably discharged.  It is generally accepted that Alexander was present in the hilltop fight at the Battle of the Little Big Horn which, if so, he survived unscathed. In any event he was discharged on 23 September 1876 when he was due $138.33 for the period of service  from 1 July.

A report in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune, 10 May 1878, reads – Wm. S. Alexander, an outrider for the Northwestern Stage Co [sic]., indulged too freely in fluid extracts on Tuesday last, and while playing “Big Indian” at Sturgis City, about three miles west of Fort Lincoln, was roughly but justly dealt with by Mr. Mitchell the owner of the station at that place. Alexander drove Mitchell into the house and abused his wife and finally fired two shots at Mitchell, who concluded he had permitted enough of that kind of fun and put a couple of shots into Alexander for keepsakes. He was brought to Bismarck and is reported doing well. A serious but effectual lesson.

Alexander’s version was that he was with a group taking horses out on the stage road and was sent ahead to water some of them at the ranch at Sturgis. There he had words about a pail with a man under the influence of liquor, and when the man pointed a Winchester at him to drive him away, the gun went off. The man claimed he did not know the gun was loaded. His right arm was amputated above the elbow by Dr. Henry Porter at Bismarck, mortification having set in [Military Register, pp. 29 and 33].

Note: Sturgis [City] was founded in 1877 and named after Lt. James G. Sturgis, who had been killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It was on the Bismarck-Deadwood trail and a stage station for the newly-formed Northwest Express & Transportation Company. A stage was ambushed as early as 20 July 1877 and only ten days before a messenger had actually mistaken a U.S. Senator for a robber – an understandable faux pas perhaps!   

Bismarck-Deadwood Stage Trail marker, South Dakota. This trail lasted for only three years as a shorter trail to the Black Hills was opened from Pierre, South Dakota in 1880.

In June 1880 he was a stage line station manager somewhere in Morton County, Dakota Territory. He successfully applied for an army pension in 1890 and by 1899 was an inmate in National Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C.  William Alexander died on 6 February 1922 and was buried in Section 4 – Grave 8518, of the cemetery there.

It is interesting to note that the St. Paul City Directory for 1875 lists a William Alexander as a cook at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the Federal Census for Boreman County,* Dakota Territory five years later shows a William Alexander as a cook, age 36, at Fort Rice. The 1880 census for Morton County was enumerated on the first of June, whereas Boreman, a neighbouring county, recorded its inhabitants between the 12-16 June. Both William Alexanders were alleged to be single, age 36 and born in Ireland. An extraordinary coincidence or the same man?  The fly in the ointment is the fact that the stage line station manager was an amputee and it seems highly unlikely that a gun-toting outdoors man would exchange the freedom of a life on the open range for the confined space of the former Fort Rice’s cookhouse. Also, other than the veteran Irish actor, the late David Kelly – Albert Riddle, an incompetent, one-armed dish-washer in the late 1970s British TV sitcom Robin’s Nest – who ever heard of a one-armed cook?  The jury’s still out on this one!

The author acknowledges with thanks the valuable contribution made by Roger Williams to the factual content of this biography.

Note: (*) In 1909 Boreman County was incorporated into Corson County, South Dakota. 

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