Conlan, Thomas

Place of Birth: Ayrshire

Date of enlistment: 18 Deptember 1875

Age given at enlistment: 21 11/12

Rank: Private

Company: D

Location on 25 June 1876: Powder River Depot



Thomas Conlan’s name, date and place of birth have not yet been verified.

Escaped from Fort Rice Guardhouse

Ayr, county town of Ayrshire, Scotland.

  • The cardinal rule of biographical research is to establish beyond reasonable doubt the true identity of the subject. It follows that without fulfilling this basic requirement one is left with pure conjecture. Such is the case of Thomas Conlan who was enlisted under that name in the United States Army on 18 September 1875, at Boston, Massachusetts, by Lt. Henry W. Lawton. The U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments tells us that Conlan was born in Ayrshire,1 Scotland; had blue eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion, was 21 years 11/12 months,2 previously employed as a marble cutter.

Lieutenant [later Major General] Henry Ware Lawton, 4th U.S, Cavalry. A National Archives photograph.

  • Armed with such precise personal details it should be a simple matter to trace his place and date of birth but, as is so often the case with men who served in the 7th Cavalry in June 1876, it proved not to be so. A diligent search of Scottish birth and baptismal records, census returns and ships’ passenger lists covering the period 1845-75 failed to identify anyone who matched the description given at enlistment.
  • Conlan is a very common Irish surname [much rarer in Scotland] but there is an outside chance that the future cavalryman was the Thomas Conlan, age 8, born Renfrewshire ca. 1853. The Census of Auchinleck, Ayrshire (1861) records a Patrick Conlan, his wife, Catherine [Connor], and four children, living in the town. All four [one deceased] of Thomas’ known siblings were born in Auchinleck between the years 1849-57 and, in the absence of a birth or baptism certificate, he may have genuinely believed that Ayrshire was the county of his own nativity. However, until further information comes to light the true identity of Private Thomas Conlan must remain uncertain. Someone out there may know what happened to the Conlans of Auchinleck and, if so, I’d be delighted to hear from them.
  • We do know with certainty that someone who claimed to be Thomas Conlan, from Ayrshire, was assigned to the 7th Cavalry and joined his new comrades in Company D at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory on 21 October 1875.  Being a relatively raw recruit he did not participate in the Battle of the Little Big Horn and was on detached service at the Powder River Depot guarding the wagon train. He would have served with his company in the field during the rest of the summer of 1876 before returning to barracks at the end of that year’s campaign.
  • For whatever reason Conlan went absent without leave from Fort Rice, Dakota Territory on 16 December 1876 but was apprehended five days later. He was subsequently found guilty of desertion by a General Court Martial, held on 12 March 1877, dishonourably discharged and sentenced to “two years confinement at station of company.”
  • But that is not quite the end of the story because on 20 June 1877 [together with Private John Sims3] he escaped from the guardhouse at Fort Rice [Military Register of Custer’s Last Command, p.69] and “rode off into the sunset” never to be heard of again! 
  • Notes:
  • Does factual accuracy and attention to important detail really matter?
  • 1. Men With Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry (1972), Kenneth Hammer, appears to have incorrectly transcribed ‘Ayrshire’ as ‘Ayreshire.’ [see copy taken from the Register of Enlistments, below].  Admittedly the ‘r’ could easily be taken as an ‘e’ but there are only three, not four, letters before ‘shire’ and, of course, no such Scottish county of ‘Ayreshire’ exists! It is disappointing therefore that Hammer’s perfectly understandable literal was not spotted [and corrected] in either edition of Men With Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry (2000 & 2010), Ronald H. Nichols [Note: Nichols is editor NOT author].  Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn (2011), Frederic Wagner III, and Wild Geese of the Greasy Grass (2012), Keith Norman, and at least two Muster Rolls published online, all perpetuate the same misspelling. 

Extract re Thomas Conlan taken from the U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments. 18 September 1875. Note spelling of 'Ayrshire.'

  • 2. My own research into the men from the UK who served with Custer in June 1876 has revealed that at least 80% of the ages given at enlistment are incorrect, one by as many as seven years e.g. Private William Gibbs and others by five years, e.g. Felix J. Pitter and James Pym. Now even assuming that 21 years 11/12 months was the right age then Conlan had a 40% chance of being born in September 1853 and 60% in the following month – so why assume October 1853?  Hammer wisely didn’t quote a date or year of birth and ‘October 1853’ first appears in Men With Custer (2000). Wagner, Norman and the ‘muster rolls’ all recite the same unsubstantiated information as fact.
  • Military Register, p. 69 (Williams) rightly transcribes ‘Ayrshire, Scotland’ as Conlan’s given place of birth and, like Hammer, does not give a year of birth.
  • Another Briton, William J. Cunick [assigned to the 5th Cavalry] whose name appears on the same page as Conlan in the Register of Enlistments is shown as being born in “Wales, England.”  Another geographical howler, perhaps, but the whole of mainland Great Britain was universally referred to as ‘England’ in the 19th century, and even today!   
  • 3. Private John J. Sims, from Johnson County, Illinois, arrived at Fort Abraham Lincoln at the same time as Conlan and was also assigned to Company D.  As they were both on detached service at the Powder River Depot it is not unreasonable to assume that could have become fast friends. Sims deserted from Fort Rice on 20 January 1877 but gave himself up at Standing Rock on 25 February 1877. He, too, was found guilty of desertion by a General Court Martial, held on 10 May 1877, dishonourably discharged and sentenced to “two years confinement in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth.”  Clearly he was still incarcerated at Fort Rice almost five weeks later. His fate remains unknown to this writer.
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