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Custer's Dogs

Updated: May 8, 2023

Custer Was An Inveterate Dog Lover

George Armstrong Custer was a great dog lover and he had that to commend him. At one time late in his life he had between 40 and 80 dogs of motley breeds. His wife, Libby, wrote in her book, Tenting on the Plains, that they had so many dogs, that when she and her husband dressed to go riding, the dogs “leaped and sprang about the room, tore out on the gallery, tumbled over one another and the furniture, racing back, and such a din of barking and joyful whining—the noisier the better for my husband!”






























Libby’s favorite dog was Ginnie, probably an English setter (see #2 photograph). When she gave birth to a litter and two of three puppies were very weak, Libby wrote that George stayed up all night trying to save the puppies.


During his time stationed in Texas after the Civil War (August 1866 – February 1867), Custer became enamored of hunting with large hounds. He acquired 23 dogs by that time, many of them Scottish Staghounds (also called “deerhounds.”) Later he would also have Russian and Irish wolfhounds, even larger.) Libby wrote that they had great fun riding across open prairie with a herd of dogs running alongside.


In 1868, during the Cheyenne Washita campaign (what would later become recognized as a massacre), Custer had with him two huge Scottish staghounds named Blucher and Maida. They chased a buffalo bull and brought him down but could not finish him. Custer dismounted, ran to the fray, and cut the bull’s hamstrings with his knife, then finished him with his revolver, once he was sure he would not shoot his dogs. Blucher and Maida were both killed at the Washita.


When the Custers were stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Custer assigned a private named John Burkman to tend to all of their dogs in 1870. He would exercise them by linking them up in pairs then running them along on his mounted horse. Burkman told a reporter: “They was a purty sight, so slick and slim, eighty of ‘em canterin’ along.”


Late in 1875, the Custers were assigned to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakotas. On May 17, 1876, they left the fort for the last time for General Custer’s Indian campaign. As she usually did, Libby rode with her husband out on the plains and camped with him that first night, then returned to the fort. Custer wanted his wife to take all the dogs back with her, but several wanted to stay and he acquiesced. But Burkman wrote that he realized then that the expedition might be especially dangerous.


On June 12, 1876, Custer wrote in a letter to Libby: “Tuck regularly comes when I am writing, and lays her head on the desk, rooting up my hand with her long nose until I consent to stop and notice her. She and Swift, Lady and Kaiser sleep in my tent.”


The night before the 7th Cavalry left for the Little Bighorn, Burkman drew guard duty all night. We wanted to go with the Cavalry but, when Custer realized he’d been up all night, he told him to stay behind and keep the dogs in camp. That was the last Burkman and Custer’s dogs saw him.


Besides Custer, there were other frontier icons who loved dogs. One of the earliest was Meriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland, Seaman, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition all the way to the Northwest Passage. He was credited with saving Lewis from a charging buffalo bull and has been commemorated in statues across the Lewis and Clark Trail.


The Earp brothers also loved dogs. Wyatt had a mutt named Earpie that traveled with him and wife Sadie, to their California Happy Days Mining Camp near the Whipple Mountains. (SEE #4). Brother, Morgan Earp, also loved dogs. The day that he was assassinated in Tombstone on March 18, 1882, reporters of the Tombstone Nugget wrote: “At the front door of the saloon stood a hound dog raised by the Earp brothers who, with the instinct peculiar to animals, seemed to know that his master had been struck down. Despite entreaties, he remained whining and moaning. When the body was taken to the hotel, no sadder heart followed that that of the faithful dog.”


Native Americans, too, had wolf-like dogs that were not only beloved pets but guard dogs, babysitters, and beasts of burden that carried loads and even babies, or pulled travois. (SEE PAST POST ABOUT INDIANS AND THEIR DOGS.)


Because mines were so overrun with vermin, miners domesticated a small, wild species of cat called the civet or ring-tailed cat for rodent control. The small, big-eyed, big-eared felines with bushy ringed tails were easily domesticated, very affectionate, great ratters, and usually slept in freight boxes bedded with rags near the stove for warmth. But, sometimes, they slept with the miners! Life on the frontier was harsh, and even the crustiest sometimes needed a cuddle…

PHOTOS: (1 & 2) Custer at camp with his dogs during the Civil War Peninsula Campaign, Virginia, 1862. Shown at his feet in #2 probably his wife’s favorite dog, Ginnie, an English Setter. (3) Custer in 1874 during the Black Hills Campaign, conferring with his scouts as his Scottish Staghounds laze at their feet. Custer is at center, with Hunkpapa/Arikara scout, Bloody Knife, pointing left of Custer. The white man behind Custer is believed to be John Burkman, Custer’s orderly and dog wrangler. The two other scouts are believed to be the Sihasapa (Blackfoot), Goose, standing, and Little Sioux. (4) Wyatt Earp and his wife Sadie with Earpie begging at his feet. Tough old Wyatt must have been a real push-over when it came to Earpie… look how fat his little dog is! Earpie traveled with them to their California Happy Days Mining Camp, shown here, near the Whipple Mountains. (5) The modern Native American Indian Dog (NAID) developed in the last several decades, recreates the Indian wolf-dog breed before it went extinct in the 1800s from European dog diseases and systematic killing. (SEE PREVIOUS POST: INDIANS & THEIR DOGS. (6) The wild western ring-tailed cat, or civet, which miners domesticated as a pet and ratter.


You may be interested in these related posts:

-Indians & Their Dogs

-Prairie Pets

"Custer's Dogs" was originally posted June 22, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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