Capt. Grant Marsh and the steamboat Far West played an integral role in lives of the Custers and the Seventh Cavalry in the dangerous summer of 1876.
Before their emotional parting in mid-May, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, who had followed her husband, Lt. Col. George Custer, through many campaigns and even onto a Civil War battlefield, was making plans to join him on the Yellowstone.
“He was sanguine that but a few weeks would elapse before we would be reunited, and used this argument to animate me with courage to meet our separation,” she wrote.
The Far West, under contract to supply the Army, was the first steamer to arrive at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, after the Seventh departed. The steamer was welcomed by the anxious ladies at the fort who came down to the landing and boarded the sturdy mountain boat.
Capt. Marsh, always solicitous of his guests, invited the women to an impromptu lunch on board.
Libbie and Mrs. Algernon Smith, who would also soon be a widow, asked the captain if he would take them with him on his journey to Montana. Marsh, however, did not want the responsibility and convinced the two women that they would be more comfortable on the more luxurious and spacious Josephine, which was due soon.
It was a decision that she would always
regret, said John Doerner, recently retired chief historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield.
The Far West, fortified against attack with steel plates and sandbags, was loaded with 200 tons of military supplies. The steamer weighed anchor at the fort on May 28 and met Gen. Alfred Terry, campaign commander, at the mouth of the Powder River a few days later.
The general made the Far West his headquarters. Thus began the fateful campaign for the hardworking little mountain boat, its shallow draft perfect for the low waters of Eastern Montana rivers.
When the Far West arrived at the mouth of the Tongue, Marsh found Custer disappointed that his wife had not made the journey. Custer was frequently aboard the Far West in the coming weeks, and so were his brothers, Capt. Tom Custer and civilian Boston Custer, who had joined George on the campaign.
Boston and Marsh struck up a friendship, and the captain offered the youngest Custer brother a cabin on board, as well as a chance to learn the steamboat trade. Boston took up the challenge.
On June 21, the Far West arrived at the mouth of the Rosebud, where Terry called his commanders together to plan their campaign.
It was decided that Custer would strike out the next day marching up the Rosebud, and that Col. John Gibbon, at the head of the Montana Column out of Fort Ellis, would go up the north bank of the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn and wait for the Far West to ferry the troops across.
They expected to rendezvous on the Bighorn around June 26.
Custer and Gibbon left the Far West that night, but Tom Custer, his brother-in-law Lt. James Calhoun and a number of other officers stayed late into the night playing high-stakes poker with Capt. Marsh.
“A lot of money won and lost up there, ended up blowing in the wind down here,” said battlefield historian Doerner. “Some of it the Indians sewed into saddle blankets.”
Most of the rest of the command, Custer included, spent the evening writing letters. Some wrote their wills. Doerner said Custer probably put the finishing touches on an article that he was sending to a journal in the East.
Just before Custer rode off on the morning of June 22, his brother Boston made the fatal decision to abandon his plans to remain on the steamboat. He joined the rest of the doomed family on the march to the Little Bighorn.
Ominously, after the mail had all been gathered and loaded on a skiff to take it to nearby Fort Buford, the skiff overturned in the whirling waters of the Yellowstone. The mail bag went down along with three soldiers, who drowned.
The mail pouch was recovered with a boat hook, and the letters and documents were spread out on the upper deck of the Far West to dry. These last letters from many of the men made it safely to their recipients.
On the 26th — the day after Custer attacked the massive Sioux and Cheyenne village spread out for miles along the Little Bighorn River — Terry ordered Marsh to take the Far West down the Bighorn to the mouth of the Little Horn so supplies would be near the troops in the field. The general did not know that a battle had already taken place.
It was a treacherous journey down a river never before navigated by a steamboat. Rapids and sandbars obstructed the narrow channel, and, at some points, the Far West had to be dragged upriver with cables suspended from trees onshore.
Not recognizing the mouth of the Little Horn, they steamed past 15 miles before Marsh turned the boat around and headed back downstream on June 27. That was the day that Gibbon and Terry found the remains of Custer and five companies of the Seventh Cavalry and relieved seven other companies under siege a few miles away from where Custer fell.
The crew aboard the Far West tied up on an island opposite the mouth of the Little Horn and spent the day fishing. Suddenly Curley, a Crow scout they knew had gone with Custer, rode up signally frantically.
Marsh recalled later that the teenager was wild with grief and threw himself down on deck, rocking to and fro groaning and crying. No one spoke Crow, but he was handed a pencil and drew a picture of a battle lost.
The next morning, their worst fears were confirmed when scout Muggins Taylor, pursued by warriors, came racing toward the steamer. He confirmed what Curley had conveyed.
Terry’s scouts arrived the next day, the 29th, with orders to make the boat ready to take on the wounded.
The deck of the ship was covered with 18 inches of fresh grass topped by canvas tarpaulins. Marsh ordered his men to build fires five or six miles out to light a trail.
Fifty-two wounded started coming aboard about 2 a.m. on the 30th. The troopers also found space for Comanche, Capt. Myles Keogh’s badly wounded horse — considered the sole cavalry survivor.
Terry came aboard, and Marsh turned the Far West down the narrow Bighorn and made the 53 miles to the Yellowstone that day. For the next two days, the Far West helped ferry Gibbon’s troops across the Yellowstone and took on a heavy load of wood to power its two engines.
Finally, at 5 p.m. July 3, Terry ordered the Far West to Bismarck, 710 miles away, with as much speed as the steamer could safely manage. Marsh lost no time chugging down the river day and night. He and pilot Dave Campbell took four-hour shifts at the wheel.
The engineer was told to keep steam at its highest pitch, Col. Clement A. Lounsberry wrote in 1919 for “The Early History of North Dakota.”
“Once, the steam gauge marked a pressure that turned his (Marsh’s) cool head and made every nerve in his powerful body quiver. The crisis passed, and the Far West escaped a fate more terrible than Custer’s.”
The steamer made only a few brief stops, including one at Fort Stevenson, N. D., where her flag was lowered to half mast and her bow draped in black. In an amazing 54 hours, the Far West completed its journey to Bismarck.
The boat’s Little Bighorn story does not end there.
Martha Edgerton Plassman, daughter of an early Montana governor, described a journey on the Far West from Fort Benton in 1881. At Fort Burford, the Far West stopped to board a contingent of Sitting Bull’s people who had surrendered after exile in Canada. They were being taken to the Standing Rock Agency.
The Far West was 11 years old then — very old for a mountain boat, and Plassman at first expressed distain for her condition. She came around, however, on learning of the Far West’s storied history.
In October 1883, the Far West hit a snag near St. Charles, Mo., and sank from history.
For years, Libbie couldn’t bring herself to read Custer’s last letter, Doerner said. It was simple and comforting:
“My Darling — I have but a few moments to write as we start at 12, and I have my hands full of preparations for the scout. Do not be anxious about me. You would be surprised how closely I obey your instructions about keeping with the column. I hope to have a good report to send to you by the next mail. Your devoted boy, Autie.”