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Published:November 5th, 2013 08:27 EST
Why Was Frank Finkel`s Claim that He Survived the Little Big Horn Dismissed in the 1920s?

Why Was Frank Finkel`s Claim that He Survived the Little Big Horn Dismissed in the 1920s?

By John G. Kays

The History Channel repeated Custer`s Last Man - "I Survived Little Big Horn" (original broadcast was on May 4, 2011) on Saturday, so with the strength of the content, which was readily grabbing my attention, I impulsively hit the red record button on my Time Warner Cable remote! As a young man, I had learned that there were no survivors of Custer`s Last Stand, but now we have the nearly buried story of Frank Finkel (from Dayton, Washington), who claims he got away from the slaughter that consumed George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn (June 25, 1776).

Well, there`s always the possibility I was getting it all wrong when I was a kid; there`s ample proof of that many times over, so I paid close attention to what was being said on Custer`s Last Man. I quickly realized my knowledge of the battle was at best sketchy, so I paid the UT General Libraries (Perry Castaneda) a visit, after printing a lengthy bibliography from the Wikipedia entry, located nearly an entire shelf brimmed with titles on the Last Stand. It`s hard to say which books are the best, so I settled on 2 titles, looking for one that would give me the Big Picture (not bogging me down, such as happened to Custer).

A small disappointment is that UT didn`t have Douglas Ellison`s (who is prominently featured in the History Channel special) book, which favors the claim that Frank Finkel did escape the battle. The real question for you and me, is what side do we fall on the argument? Is it persuasive enough, did Frank get away before Sitting Bull`s brave warriors decimated the US Seventh Cavalry? After watching the special 3 times, I come down on the side of the believers of Finkel`s bold assertion, which would seem to be a minority.

Certainly, at the time when Frank went public with his tall tale, talking to a newspaper reporter by the name of W. H. Banfill in his hometown of Dayton, Washington, which he had the good fortune to somehow drift to after his harrowing encounter, the news print story seems to have faded into the mists of obscurity. That is, nobody was buying it at the time; somewheres, as many as 70 different people have claimed survival from CLS. This may have acted as a mute on Frank`s claim, who contrary to these other charlatans, never asked for any money and wasn`t really seeking notoriety, as far as these researchers could see. 

This is one of the factors that make me believe his claim; another one cited in the special, is his accurate descriptions of the early scene of the battlefield, that support how the Indian survivors describe the battle, one of which is that Custer was unaware of the large Indian encampment, since the rolling hills obscured his view (or perhaps his scouts also overlooked the sizable encampment). The Indians had more than 2,000 warriors, whereas the Seventh Cavalry had just over 200 soldiers. The number of dead is a can of worms itself, that helps the argument that Finkel got away.

I`d like to read W.H. Banfill`s article to get a better sense of the type of detail Frank had at his disposal, when intimating his recollections to a canny reporter, who seemingly was scooping the story of his lifetime, in the early 1920s. I enviously watched the archivist Scott Cross (Ashkosh Public Museum) , who was wearing gloves, handle the yellowing clipped article, that should have exploded on the scene, but instead, faded out without a hint of its real significance. We have to be thankful that a copy was preserved there at the Ashkosh Public Library. History has been re-written once again! Bush had faulty intelligence in Iraq, just like Custer did at Little Big Horn. And I learned it wrong in the 1960s and have to start all over again; history is so chameleon-like.