Crow Indians had a name for the first superintendents of the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
At sunrise, local residents would watch as the ghost herder walked from his stone house and raised the flag over the National Cemetery, which was the resting place for some of the men who died with Custer.
They thought that was a signal to the spirits to stop haunting the battlefield and return to their graves, said John Doerner, chief historian of the battlefield.
With such a history of bloodshed — the scalpings, suicide runs, mutilations — the battlefield has its share of ghost stories. Visitors and employees at the historic grassy hills above the Little Bighorn River have reported everything from psychics who watch as ghostly warriors count coup on dozing battlefield workers to tales of soldiers roaming the battlefield on moonlit nights.Famous siteIn her book Big Sky Ghosts, Debra Munn called the battlefield the most famous haunted location not only in Montana but arguably in the entire Western United States.
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Some of the stories are comical, like the one about a woman ready to bite into her sandwich when she heard a screech, like that of a phantom teakettle.
Perceiving that she was being warned about something, (she) looked at her lunch, which included some leftover chicken, Munn wrote. She decided that it had spoiled and threw it away, feeling grateful to the spirit who might have saved her from food poisoning.
The battlefields Stone House serves as a veritable headquarters for the ghosts.
Perhaps this is only to be expected, Munn wrote, since the basement of the structure was at one time used to store bodies before they were buried in the adjacent cemetery.
The two-story building was built in 1894 to serve as the home for the superintendent of the National Cemetery. One of the early government workers reported a terrifying apparition on his first night in a second-story room in the Stone House, Munn wrote.
In the middle of the night, he awoke and felt someone sit on the edge of his bed and saw a shadowy figure. He reached for a Colt .45 on the nightstand.
He saw the torso of a soldier, minus the head and legs, move quickly across the room until it disappeared into an adjoining one, Munn wrote.
Dozens of stories circulate about the house. Many involve lights being turned on and off when no one is there, even in the middle of winter when fresh, trackless snow surrounds the building.Strange lightsA former historian at the battlefield who wishes to remain anonymous — to prevent any additional teasing from her relatives — saw a light on in the second story one night. Knowing all about the tales of ghosts, she asked for another employee to accompany her up the stairs. The other employee, who lived with his wife near the Stone House in a dormitory apartment, offered to check on the light. As he was upstairs, the mans wife came running out of her apartment.
She was terrified. A strange voice had spoken through her TV saying only: second floor, second floor, second floor.
Battlefield Superintendent Neil Mangum had his own encounter with the alleged ghost lights in the house.
I was walking through the cemetery and noticed light in the Stone House, he said. I asked about it the next day and found out people had left it on.
In his 12 years at the battlefield, Mangum has never met the supposed ghosts. Most of the reports of ghosts, he said, come from seasonal employees, not permanent staff.
I never saw anything or heard anything that didnt have an explanation to it, he said. There are lots of mice in the house. I could hear stuff in the walls and the roof that sounded exactly like a mouse and not a spirit. I simply never had any encounters with the spirit world. Maybe I just dont have the chemistry.
Im not against ghosts. I just havent seen any.
The Stone House now serves as an archive and office space for the battlefield.Return of the bossOther accounts from Munns book have former Superintendent Edward S. Luce haunting the house.
The ghost of Luce, who served in the 7th Cavalry from 1910 to 1913, has even been spotted peering from the circular window in the second story of the house, Munn wrote.
Luce began his long tenure as superintendent in 1941.
Dan Old Elk grew up near the battlefield and remembers Luce. He was a mean old man, Old Elk said. Old Elk and his friends would often ride on the battlefield with their horses, only to be chased off by Luce, who kept his own horses on the site, Old Elk said.
The boys would return late at night to switch around the letters of the sites sign so it read Busters Cattlefield.
Old Elks grandfather, Curley, was a scout for Custer and built a home bordering the battlefield, which is considered sacred by soldiers and scouts on both sides.
Nearly every morning, Curley would come up from his cabin below the Little Bighorn River and sing honor songs to the fallen soldiers. The Old Elks continue to own Curleys land.
We were taught to respect the battlefield area, Old Elk said. We were always told never to bother the artifacts.
There is a difference between ghost stories and the presence of spirits, cautioned Louella Johnson, of Lodge Grass. Johnson has deep connections with the battlefield. She lived there in the early 1980s, while her husband, Gary, was a Park Service employee. Her two brothers are buried in the National Cemetery. So is her grandfather, Custer scout White Man Runs Him.
There is something there. We did feel a lot of peace there. Kind of ironic, isnt it? she said. What we felt was protection and peace rather than being afraid of anything or seeing anything. We felt a calmness there, rather than any turmoil.
That doesnt mean her young son wasnt afraid of encountering ghosts when the family moved to the battlefield. The couple told their son he would be protected by the spirits of his ancestors buried at the battlefield.
We said Your very own friend is buried here and he would never bother you. He will protect you, Johnson said. I guess I dont believe that spirits harm you.
But tales of sacred spirits dont sell books.
In W. Haden Blackmans The Field Guide to North American Hauntings, the battlefield is portrayed as the Mecca for all sorts of good and evil supernatural beings.
Blackman wrote that Custer has even taken up residence in the museum. There, he can be seen roaming the hallways late at night, he wrote. But, dont ask Old George for directions. Custer remains eerily silent.
The battlefield gets a ghost rating of four RIP symbols in Blackmans book, which means The chance of an encounter is probable at all times. The infamous Amityville Horror House in New York received only two RIP ratings.
Blackman said the battlefield is the perfect training ground for ghost hunters. Be warned, however, the ghosts are often surly and ill tempered, he wrote. Custer is especially grumpy.
Avoid angering the spirits in any way, Blackman wrote. Laud any specters for their heroism.
Blackman also recommended not hassling Custer for his long history of murderous actions toward Native American people. Some ghosts of soldiers will try to repent. If Custer seems to share this drive, encourage him to seek forgiveness.
Blackman lists dozens of questions to ask ghosts that tourists are likely to stumble through while visiting haunted sites. The first ought to be What is your name? Ghost hunters should then progress to asking: Physically, how do you feel? and Are you tired of being a ghost? Later in the interview, Blackman suggests asking, Do you consider yourself normal and well-adjusted?
The National Park Service tries to keep the site solemn, not silly. Employees are directed to avoid the subject of ghosts. When Chief Historian Doerner was first asked about the ghost stories, he replied: The National Park Service has an official stand on that. We dont like to publicly acknowledge that.
Superintendent Mangum added: When we talk about the National Cemetery, I dont want to get into ghost stories. Its not really the focus of this place.
Mangum takes it all in stride. The ghost stories are a part of the battlefields history. The battlefield is, in fact, a place where hundreds of young men died.
One hundred year later, some of the old timers still refer to me as a ghost herder, Mangum said. I guess thats what we do. I dont mind being called that.