A relic of one of the most famous battles of the Old West may have found its resting place in Pierre.
The South Dakota State Historical Society is in possession of a guidon – a swallow-tailed flag carried by individual companies in a regiment – that most likely is from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Lt. Col. George Custer’s regiment, the 7th Calvary, had 12 identical 33-by-27-inch silk guidons, that were hand-stitched by a New York seamstress during the Civil War, when it engaged Lakota and Northern Cheyenne forces on June 25, 1876.
Bill Markley, who recently compiled an article about the historical society’s guidon for the June edition of True West Magazine, said the flags were used as formation markers or rallying points and it was part of a company’s pride to keep its guidon safe.
“Men would die to keep a guidon from being captured,” Markley said, noting that one survivor of Little Bighorn tucked his company’s flag into his shirt in order to preserve it.
At the end of the battle, the 7th Cavalry had lost seven guidons, with four eventually recovered. One was retrieved the day after the battle following another skirmish. The second was discovered on a soldier’s body by the detail tasked with burying the dead. That guidon wound up at the Detroit Institute of Art, and was auctioned off for $1.9 million in 2010. Two more were found – one had been turned into a pillow – following later battles with Native Americans in 1876.
The guidon currently in the society’s possession was donated in 1954 by Leon Roach, who had inherited it from his mother, Flora. The story goes that a Native American, either an old woman or young boy, encamped at the Standing Rock Agency in the Dakota Territory gifted it to her while her husband, 2nd Lt. George Roach, was stationed there with the 17th Cavalry.
That a fifth guidon would wind up in Flora’s hands makes sense, Markley said. Most of the Native Americans at the Standing Rock Agency were Hunkpapa Lakota, and it was a Hunkpapa village attacked by Maj. Marcus Reno during the battle. Also many Native Americans were disposing of any relics they possessed from the battle out of fear of reprisals from the cavalry, he said.
Markley, who had the privilege of seeing the guidon last summer, said he believes the flag definitely comes from Custer’s Last Stand.
“It’s spot on,” he said, “And if it didn’t come from the Little Bighorn, where did it come from?”
Dan Brosz, curator of collections at the historical society, said he is 99.9 percent certain the guidon is from the battle, but without hiring a textile expert to examine the silk and stitching and compare it to another of the surviving flags he can’t know for sure.
However, the short, well-documented chain of possession gives it excellent historical credentials.
“We don’t have the funds right now to have the scientific verification, but the supporting history behind it is pretty bullet-proof,” Brosz said.
If it is from the battle, it is one of the best preserved flags of the five, he said, noting that the one that sold at auction was much more faded and tattered. Brosz attributed the guidon’s condition to it being in private family hands and not exposed to as many harsh elements.
The guidon, if genuine, is also a connection to an iconic moment in history of the West and a battle where ancestors of the state’s residents may have fought on both sides, he said.
“It’s an incredibly important artifact because of how rare they are and the mystique that’s behind them,” Brosz said.
Because of its fragility, the guidon is kept in the society’s collections room, but a replica is on display.