May 23

This Day in History

Old West

May 23, 1923:

Curley is buried at Little Big Horn

The Crow scout Curley, the last man on the army side to see Custer and the 7th Cavalry alive, is buried at the National Cemetery of the Big Horn Battlefield in Montana.

Born around 1859 near the Little Rosebud River, Montana, from an early age Curley had participated in fights with the Crow's hated enemy, the Sioux. Like many of his people, Curley viewed the Anglo-American soldiers as allies in the Crow war with the Sioux. When he was in his late teens, he signed on as a cavalry scout to aid the army's major campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the summer of 1876.

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry arrived in the Powder River country of southern Montana in early June 1876. As Custer proceeded toward the Little Big Horn Valley, he found increasing signs that a large number of Indians lay ahead. On June 22, Curley and five other Crow scouts were detached from a different unit and sent to Custer to bolster his Arikara scouts.

On the morning of June 25, Curley and the other scouts warned Custer that a massive gathering of Indians lay ahead that far outnumbered his contingent of 187 men. Custer dismissed the report and made the unusual decision to attack in the middle of the day. Both the Crow and Arikara scouts believed this would be suicidal and prepared to die.

Right before the battle began, however, Custer released the Crow scouts from duty. All of the scouts, except for Curley, obeyed and rode off to relative safety. However, since the hills were now swarming with small war parties of Sioux and Cheyenne, Curley initially thought he would be safer if he remained with the soldiers. As the fighting gradually began to heat up, Curley reconsidered. He left Custer and rode to the east. Concealing himself in coulees and ravines, Curley avoided attack and made his way to a ridge about a mile and a half to the east. There he watched much of the battle through field glasses, the last man from the army side to see Custer and his men alive. When it had become clear that Custer's army was going to be wiped out, Curley abandoned his looking post and rode away to warn the approaching Generals Terry and Gibbon of the disaster.

In the weeks following the battle, Curley provided an accurate and valuable account of the final moments of Custer's 7th Cavalry. Unfortunately, some interviewers later pushed the eager-to-cooperate Curley to revise his account and others simply misrepresented his testimony to fit their own theories. Consequently, for many years Curley was dismissed as a liar. Later historians, however, have vindicated the accuracy of Curley's initial story.

Little is known about Curley's life after the Little Big Horn, but at some point he moved to the Crow Agency in Montana where he died of pneumonia on May 21, 1923. Two days later, he was buried at the National Cemetery at the Little Big Horn Battlefield.

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