Truth or Myth?

Did it really snow on Custer? What’s a Snow Camp?

At first I didn’t believe it. It sounded like an urban myth, an old wives tale, or cowboy folklore.

In fact, when I repeated the story, I felt guilty, like I was telling a falsehood.

How could one “opposite season” weather event contribute to a black mark on American history?

It was a miserable 3 days for 1200 men

Now I know the story is true. In fact, we spent an afternoon surveying, photographing, and hiking the hills and valley where it happened.

 

 

Custer’s Snow Camp

It’s not an easy place to find, but once you know where it is, a low-energy hike across the valley will show you all you the spot.

Hill bove custer snow camp Mary silhouette

The hills near the valley would have been where Custer posted sentries over the snow camp

The Custer Snow Camp is on the Custer Trail Auto Tour. The trail is a well-marked route of mostly gravel roads south of Interstate 94 from near Fryberg to Sentinel Butte

Along the way, pull-offs such as the one for the Snow Camp are marked. Sometimes the exact spot, such as the Custer Snow Camp is accessible only on rugged two-track trails.

two track trail to custer snow camp

 

We found the exploration of the valley to be fairly easy. 

 

 

However, for the 7th Cavalry, the time in the valley was a horrible experience.
The night of May 30, 1876, started off with dropping temperatures and rain.  The ground was sticky soft mud.

 

On May 30, the mass of soldiers, civilians and animals headed to Square Butte, settled in the valley north of the Butte and shivered for three days, until June 3. Accounts of the 3 day snow vary from six inches to a foot deep.  The region is not forested, so firewood was rare.

A sibley stove near the side of the tent kept officers warm.

Interior of a Sibley Tent, sketched at Camp John A. Andrew, near Annapolis, Maryland”, 12/1861

 

Even so, enlisted soldiers huddle around fires to stay warm. 

Officers stayed in walled tents with heating stoves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

L.J. Chorne writes

The northeasterly wind increased with a most chilling effect that would render the night for the pup tent dwellers and animals miserable.
Most of the enlisted men who had a fire going, preferred to sit by the fire with their poncho covered bodies back to the wind rather than lay in the miserable 3-man pup tent.

1200 men, 1700 horses and cattle, 160 wagons

About 30 years after the June snowstorm a Belle Fourche Publication wrote this:

The train was composed of about one hundred and sixty wagons, twenty of which belonged to citizens and some of their stock became so weak that it was all they could do to haul their empty wagons. When we came to a long hill, a muddy place, or a ford we had to get ropes and help them out of their difficulty. What a nuisance they were!
From the Belle Fourche Bee, Belle Fourche, SD, December 1913.
Here is Peter Thompson’s account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Also from Chorne:
“Their meager diet consisted mostly of beans, bacon and hard tack, many time eaten cold, unless they were luck enough to obtain some game and make a fire to cook it in.”

Now, after reading the details,  I’m back to wondering if it could be true.  Chrone’s book has several pages dedicated to the traumatic three days.  In fact, those three days were so bad, men got sick and were carried out.  The ordeal weakened not only their numbers but their personal strength.

We examined the perimeter of the Snow Camp valley

tall prairie grasses at snow camp

 

We parked at the trail head, went through the lift gate and decided to take the low road. 

Interpretive sign for custer snow camp

Custer Snow Camp sign is next to the Battle of the Badlands sight — both happened here, 12-years apart.

The high road up the hill goes to an overlook of the Snow Camp and of Sully’s Badlands Battle site.  It’s a good place to start so you can get an idea of what lies below — besides cattle.

 

A rancher leases the acres so his cattle were very attentive when we meandered through the herd. 

We tried not to spook the Angus, but, they were nervous.

 

 

 

Tall grass covers the valley, and at least three creeks cut the valley floor. On the very north side is the notable Andrews Creek.  So, going up and down the steep valleys was a challenge.

Wood ticks were glad to see us. .

We stopped several times to imagine how the valley was populated with the soldiers.

hills around Custer snow camp

From the tops of nearby nestled around Square Butte, we imagined how sentries and scouts must have been posted at the high points nearby.

We were completely distracted from all things Custer when we realized we were surrounded.  By cactus. Blooming cactus. And blooming yucca plants.

wild currants at custer snow camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

91 Degrees Hot

It was just a bit on the hot side – quite the opposite of what it was for Custer’s troops.  For us, windless sunny grassland challenged our hot weather endurance. We drank all the water we hiked with, and then more from the cooler we left in the pickup at the trailhead.

From the parking lot to the northern point of the camp, we crossed three creek tributaries. Two flow in to the third called Andrews Creek.

Those treed valley’s apparently stood bare in 1876. Now they are overgrown.  That was good for us. The trees gave us a moment to cool off.  Such a contrast to the what the teenage boys and young men went through 144 years ago.

When we got to town, the electronic time and temperature board said it was 91 degrees. 

So, if you want to visit the site – do it when the thermometer stays below 80.  And take lots of water. 

Oh, and wear plenty of sunscreen.  And insect repellent. We wound up with 16 of the buggers.

Fire-up your imagination and see if you can picture how the valley floor must have looked in May and June of 1876.

FAQ

  • Can you walk to the Custer Snow Camp?
    Yes.  A parking lot at the trail head includes a map and storyboard to direct walkers the two miles to the camp site.
  • Where is the Custer Snow Camp? Exit 23 is the West River Road Exit.  Go south at the intersection, follow the highway to the marked signs for West River Road and Custer Trail.  Head west on gravel following the signs.
  • When was Custer at the Snow Camp?
    May 30-June 2, 1876
  • How much did it snow on Custer?
    Report indicate 6 inches to 12 inches of heavy wet snow fell on muddy soil and created moderate flooding in the creek valleys.

The Custer Trail can be followed from Fryberg to Sentinel Butte.  It a gravel road that gives visitors and first hand view of the Badlands and National Grasslands, as well as cowboy and ranch culture.  The trail goes by the amazing Initial Rock where two soldiers carved their initials in the soft sandstone.  We love the back roads, the gravel roads, including one that goes from Beach, ND to Belle Fourche, SD.  We’ll be showing you that eye-opening road trip.

The Custer Trail Auto Tour is one of our top 10 free adventures for those who are social distancing. 

We’ve got two more of the top 10 to develop for you to consider.  Of course the list is here, but we like to give you a little more info.  So, subscribe to be the first to know when a new story is published.

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