Did Custer Have a Cheyenne Mistress and Son? Native Oral History Says Yes
When Rocky Mountain College history professor Tim Lehman decided to include the potentially controversial statement that George Armstrong Custer had a son with a Cheyenne woman whom Custer called Monahseetah (Meotzi) in his book, Bloodshed At Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, it wasn’t put in to create controversy. It was merely one part of his research garnered from all the best sources he could gather. He couldn’t exclude the research once it was done.
“I just go by the best evidence I can,” he said. “There are a number of oral traditions passed on through the Cheyenne people with different families and branches that all talk about that. It’s consistent with all the evidence.”
But since the time of Custer’s death, propaganda to portray Custer as a Christ-like hero of Manifest Destiny has always been an agenda. Custer’s grieving widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, garnered so much sympathy from the U.S. public and military—it was rare for anyone to speak ill of Custer. She’d write three books on her husband that according to Lehman “silenced his critics and elevated his claim to greatness.”
Any personal knowledge of a Cheyenne mistress—especially that he fathered a Cheyenne child—would eventually be thrown into the ash heap of history as Libbie would live to be 90, outliving most whites with potential knowledge of the affair.
Recorded Native oral history, however, has several sources that say Custer had a son named Yellow Swallow with Meotzi. She considered him her “husband” and she was devoted to him. Lehman says although many people are dismissive of oral accounts because they can have variances, there was more than enough overlapping stories about Meotzi and Custer’s son to conclude that it couldn’t be dismissed.
“I guess the fans of Custer want to ‘see no evil,’” Lehman said of those most often dismissive of the evidence. Their agenda to whitewash history and view Custer as a saint-like martyr loyal to Libbie would be skewed; and likewise it would spell odd for Natives since he’s often viewed as the ultimate manifestation of a white villain.
According to Lehman, after the 1868 Washita River Massacre, Custer kept captured women and children as prisoners of war for four months. Meotzi birthed a baby two months into captivity, but would get impregnated by Custer afterwards. She was employed by him as an interpreter even though she couldn’t speak English.
In 1927, a cousin of Meotzi’s, Kate Bighead, recounted to Thomas Marquis in detail how after the Washita Massacre she first saw Custer in the spring of 1869 when he smoked a peace pipe with Cheyenne Chiefs, promising he’d never attack them again. “I was then a young woman, 22 years old, and I admired him,” she said. “All of the Indian women talked of him as being a fine-looking man.”
Bighead detailed how Meotzi was sought after by Cheyenne men because of her beauty, which was also described at length in a letter written by Custer. “She said that Long Hair (Custer) was her husband; that he promised to come back to her, and that she would wait for him,” Bighead recounted. “She waited 7 years, and then he was killed.”
It was during that seventh year in 1876 that Oglala Lakota and Battle of the Little Bighorn veteran, Joseph White Cow Bull, met Meotzi. In 1938, White Cow Bull spoke with Western artist and author David Humphreys Miller about that account. He recalled how he tried to court Meotzi, and while doing so he saw her son Yellow Swallow, a boy with light streaks in his hair.
“They said the boy’s father had been a white soldier chief named Long Hair; he had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle [at the Washita River Massacre] eight winters before, they said, and captured her. He had told her he wanted to make her his second wife, and so he had her,” White Cow Bull told Miller.
“She was in her middle 20s but had never married any man of her tribe,” he continued. “Some of my Shahiyela (Cheyenne) friends said she was from the southern branch of their tribe, just visiting up north, and they said no Shahiyela could marry her because she had a 7-year-old son born out of wedlock.”
Unlike many other troopers who fell during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s dead body was spared from drastic mutilation because some Cheyenne women recognized him as father to one of their own, according to Bighead. “In a kinship society like the Cheyenne, that means a lot,” Lehman said.
Bighead said Meotzi mourned hard upon the news of Custer’s death, cutting her hair and gnashing her arms. She was heartbroken that the man she’d considered her husband was forced to be killed by her own tribe and allies after he broke his peace pipe promise to never attack them again.
This story was originally published October 6, 2014.