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The Story of Curly

Lieutenant Colonel George Custer was based at Fort Abraham Lincoln at Mandan. He rode out of the fort on May 17th, 1876 and never returned.

On this date in 1907, the Washburn Leader printed a letter with memories of the Little Big Horn massacre. Letter writer Grant Marsh was a riverboat pilot and captain. His exploits on the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers are legendary. 

In his letter, Marsh said his memories were triggered by a casual encounter with a man named Courtney who had a woodyard on the Missouri river. In 1874, Marsh’s steamer Josephine stopped there to resupply. Marsh asked about a party of Indians who were just leaving. Courtney said they were friendly Crow on their way to visit obsorikas, a Crow word meaning “soldiers.” It was the only Crow word Marsh ever remembered, and it would become important.

Two years later, Marsh was the pilot on the Far West, Custer’s supply steamer. A small group of men was fishing in the Little Big Horn River about 500 yards from the boat. Suddenly an Indian rode out of the brush. With a shout of “Indians!” every man grabbed his gun. The lone Crow warrior held his rifle over his head, indicating that he meant no harm. When the men recognized him as one of Custer’s scouts, they motioned for him to cross the river. He was quite excited. They took him to Captain Baker, who was in military command of the boat. They later learned that the scout was called Curly.

Curly could speak no English and no one on the boat could speak Crow. Curly took a pencil from Marsh’s pocket. He drew a circle on the top of a wooden box. He made dots inside the circle. With each dot he repeated obsorikas. Then he drew a larger circle around the first one. As he made dots in the second circle he repeated “Sioux.”

Captain Baker wondered aloud what obsorikas meant. Marsh was able to say that it meant “soldier.” It was the entirety of his Crow vocabulary. Baker knew immediately that Custer’s force was surrounded and probably soundly defeated. Curly had brought the first word of the battle of the Little Bighorn, or Greasy Grass.

The men in Major Reno’s command had also seen action, and the Far West would soon be racing back to Bismarck with more than 50 wounded troopers.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Washburn Leader. “An Incident of Custer Massacre.” 4 December 1907. Washburn ND. Page 1.

National Park Service. “Grant Marsh.” https://www.nps.gov/mnrr/learn/historyculture/grantmarsh.htm  Accessed 1 November 2018.  

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