Selling Custer's Last Stand

Buffalo Bill's Duel With Yellow Hand
Buffalo Bill's Duel With Yellow Hand
Postcard representing Custer's Last Fight
Postcard representing Custer's Last Fight
Custer's Last Battle in New Light
Custer's Last Battle in New LightLorenz, Alma

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows brought to urban audiences the dramatic staging of real events so that staged reality became more familiar than the facts of the actual events. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the transformation of the Battle of Little Bighorn into “Custer’s Last Stand.”


At the Battle of Little Big Horn (25 June 1876), a united force of Cheyenne and Lakota defeated and killed General George Armstrong Custer and 215 American soldiers. It was a startling military victory for the Indians seeking to defend their territory on the Great Plains, and an embarrassing defeat for the U.S. Army. At the time, the American press labeled it a massacre, an unfair fight in which Indians had set upon unsuspecting soldiers.


Buffalo Bill helped to popularize the image of the battle as “Custer’s Last Stand,” and benefited commercially from the popular interest in Custer as a romantic hero. In the summer of 1876 Cody left his stage show to work for the Army in their campaign against the Lakota and Cheyenne resistance on the western plains.


Shortly after hearing the news of Custer’s defeat, Cody’s unit engaged in a skirmish with a group of Indians trying to leave their reservation. During the battle, a Cheyenne named Yellow Hair was killed and Cody took his scalp, declaring it the “first scalp for Custer.” Returning to his stage show the following fall, Cody and his partner Captain Jack Crawford presented themselves as “Renowned Historical Celebrities” in a re-enactment of the scalping of Yellow Hair, a show that featured the Indian’s actual scalp as a prop.


The scalp of Yellow Hair made William Cody a star, and a wealthy man. But Cody was not alone on using Custer’s image for commercial gain. The Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company commissioned a painting of the battle and distributed it to thousands of saloons throughout the United States. This image was so popular that it was reproduced as a postcard.


In a battle for the continent, however, one side’s massacre is the other side’s victory. As the American Indian writer Charles Eastman wrote in 1890, the Battle of Little Big Horn “was a fair fight. Custer offered battle and was defeated. He was clearly out-generaled at his own stratagem.” But this was not to be the interpretation that would survive in the popular imagination, or in the history textbooks for most of the twentieth century.