Lot 369

G.A. Custer ALS from Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory to Capt. Yates, Who Also Died at Little Bighorn, Re: Acquiring "good horses" from Kentucky for the 7th Cavalry

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G.A. Custer ALS from Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory to Capt. Yates, Who Also Died at Little Bighorn, Re: Acquiring "good horses" from Kentucky for the 7th Cavalry

Estimate: $9,000 - $10,000

Current Bid: $5,000

(7 Bids)

August 17, 2022 10:30 AM EDT
Live Auction
Wilton, CT, US


G.A. Custer ALS from Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory to Capt. Yates, Who Also Died at Little Bighorn, Re: Acquiring "good horses" from Kentucky for the 7th Cavalry

A 3pp autograph letter signed by George A. Custer (1839-1876), appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army several years earlier, in 1866, as "Custer." Written at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory (near modern day Morton, North Dakota) on June 11, 1871 on two sheets of blue-lined cream paper. (The second page is inscribed on the back of the first page.) Accompanied by the original stamped, postmarked, and letter-opened transmittal envelope also engrossed by Custer. Expected wear including flattened transmittal folds and a few tiny isolated breaks along some folds. An isolated closed tear is found at the top of the first page. Scattered pen smears throughout, else near fine and in remarkable condition. The letter pages measure 7.875" x 9.875" while the envelope measures 4.625" x 3.625." Provenance: Ex-Collection Forrest Fenn; Ex-Butterfields Auctions; Ex-Estate of Captain George W. Yates. This Custer letter was purchased at auction for just under $20,000 in March 2002! Please see below for more detailed provenance information.

Custer wrote this letter to Captain George W. Yates (1843-1876), a Civil War veteran who had also been assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1866. Yates was a personal friend of Custer's--one of the exclusive members of the close-knit "Custer Clan"--and was Custer's subordinate. Yates was mentioned in Custer's 1874 memoir, "My Life on the Plains" in Chapter 13, "Waging the Winter Campaign," while discussing Camp Supply and action taken against the Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle in 1868. Custer's envelope is addressed to "Captain GW Yates / Galt House / Louisville / Ky."

Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment would be dispatched to Elizabethtown, Kentucky later in 1871, to crack down on illegal distilleries and Ku Klux Klan activity in the area. (Custer's 2-year appointment as commandant of the Kentucky post would be so quiet that he would complete the manuscript of the aforementioned memoir.) Before this relocation to points east, however, Custer, back at Fort Lincoln, would write a detailed letter to Captain Yates, who had been tasked with acquiring cavalry mounts in Kentucky. There was nothing more important to a cavalry unit as horses, and Custer's directives were demanding.

Transcribed in full; punctuation has been added or modified to improve clarity. Paragraph breaks have also been silently inserted.

"Fort Lincoln, D.T.
June 11th 1871

My dear Yates,

Yours in regard to shipping your horses +c came yesterday - I will cause them to leave here next Monday in charge of Lonnegan. I could have shipped them tomorrow but they would have been on the cars over Sunday. All well here; no news except that Hart had a fall from his horse and broke his arm very badly. I see that McKabber of the 10th has been returned; this leaves Hart first.

I hope you will not buy many horses about Louisville as the Indiana horses are so much cheaper than Ky horses that Indiana people will ship their inferior horses across the river [the Ohio River] and try to pass them off on you as Ky horses. Lexington and neighboring towns can provide you all will require of the best kind. I wish you would get a good thoroughbred for me and Tom [Custer's younger brother, Thomas Custer (1845-1876)] and one for him also. And when you go to Lexington, please call on Mayor B.G. Thomas, a particular friend of mine, and a horseman. He can either let you have what you want or tell you where to find them. Tell him you called by my request -- I will try to drop him a line also.

Your family are all well; no news except what I have given. Clarks [sic] company arrived from Standing Rock [near Fort Lincoln] this week and has taken part in its [illegible].

I hope you will get some good horses -- I would not object to a four year old for my purposes and would not care whether it is a stallion, mare, or gelding provided it is not nervous a tad about the heels.

Your sincere friend,


Custer had the reputation of being an expert horseman ever since his days at West Point, and his cavalry service only deepened his knowledge and experience. Custer referred Yates to "Mayor B.G. Thomas," that is, the former Confederate Major Barak G. Thomas (1826-1906), for advice. Thomas is described in contemporary records as a superb "turfman" and horse-breeder. Just a few years later, in 1877, Thomas established Dixiana Farm in Lexington, Kentucky to devote himself exclusively to breeding and selling horseflesh. (Dixiana Farm is still in operation today.)

In 1873, Custer would return to Fort Lincoln in order to protect mineral excavation interests and railroad construction in the Dakota Territory. He would live at Fort Lincoln until his death in 1876.

Custer and Yates were both killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 in modern day Montana, in one of the bloodiest engagements of the Great Sioux War of 1876. Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment were quickly overwhelmed by superior numbers of Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux, and Arapaho indigenous fighters. Though Custer commanded all 12 cavalry companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, he personally headed up/accompanied only five of them: Companies C, E ,F ,I, and L. Captain Yates led Company F, nicknamed the "band-box troop" because of its discipline. Every soldier and officer attached to these five companies who arrived on the battlefield with Custer was slain on Last Stand Hill, so the exact progression of events is unclear. It is believed that Captain Yates fell somewhere near Custer; the pair were two of the 268 killed on the battlefield. (Custer's two younger brothers, Boston and Thomas Custer, were also killed, as was Custer's brother-in-law and nephew.) Yates's body was initially interred at the battlefield.

Custer had two horses with him during the Little Bighorn campaign: Vic, or Victory, a chestnut thoroughbred; and Dandy, a dark bay. Were these acquired in Kentucky, on a shopping trip similar to Captain Yates's several years earlier? Vic was likely killed during the battle, possibly to create a defensive position for the desperate soldiers scattered on Last Stand Hill. Dandy survived, as he was attached to the baggage train; he lived into his 20s.


Ex-Collection Forrest Fenn; Ex-Butterfields Auctions; Ex-Estate of Captain George W. Yates.

The lot is accompanied by a copy of Forrest Fenn's faxed auction invoice from March 2002, as well as several pages excised from the Butterfields auction catalogue.

1. The Custer letter was from the Collection of Forrest Fenn (1930-2020), the eccentric collector, art dealer, and author whose 2010 memoir "The Thrill of the Chase" inspired modern day treasure-hunting in the Rocky Mountains. Fenn was a lifetime collector of Native American and Old West pottery, weapons, handicrafts, and other memorabilia.

2. Forrest Fenn purchased this Custer letter for just under $20,000 at Butterfields Auctions (San Francisco, California) in March 2002. Lot 7045 was described as an "Important Autographed Letter Signed from General George Armstrong Custer to Captain George Yates (QFE88.A.3)." The Butterfields Auctions invoice dated March 28, 2002 shows the total purchase price of $19,555 (a hammer price of $17,000 plus a 15% buyer's premium of $1,555.)

3. Butterfields Auctions acquired the letter directly from the living descendants of Captain George W. Yates. According to the catalog description, the Custer letter "originated from the estate of Captain George W. Yates by descent through Hugh Moore Hewson, husband of Bessie Violet Yates, daughter of Captain George W. Yates and Annie Roberts Yates."

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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Bid Increments
From: To: Increments:
$0 $99 $10
$100 $299 $20
$300 $499 $25
$500 $999 $50
$1,000 $1,999 $100
$2,000 $2,999 $200
$3,000 $4,999 $250
$5,000 $9,999 $500
$10,000 $19,999 $1,000
$20,000 $49,999 $2,500
$50,000 + $5,000