From Orkney to the Little Bighorn
by John Ross writing for the Scotsman.
THE letter arrived out of the blue and
turned the attention of one of America’s greatest heroes to a corner of
faraway Scotland. A few weeks later, George Armstrong Custer rode to his
death, by then convinced by the few lines that his family roots lay in
The letter, from an Orcadian businessman,
was read by General Custer two months before his legendary Last Stand at
the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Custer and more than 200 officers and
men of the 7th US Cavalry died at the hands of an overwhelming force of
Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.
As historians gather on Monday to mark the
125th anniversary of the fateful confrontation, they will be debating the
facts surrounding his heritage.
Many historians believe Custer’s
ancestors emigrated from the German Rhineland to the American colony of
Pennsylvania during the 17th century. However, the letter from Orkney has
added to the evidence and the mystery.
Peter Russell, the membership secretary of
the Custer Association of Great Britain, says the Orkney connections
cannot be ruled out.
In an article for the association’s
website, he said that, on 23 April 1876, during the time Custer was
appearing as a witness at the Belknap impeachment trial in Washington, he
wrote to his wife, Elizabeth, mentioning the surprise letter.
"I received a letter from a gentleman
at Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, of the name of Custer," wrote the
general. "He traces our relationship to the family back to 1647, and
gives the several changes the name has undergone - Cursetter, Cursider,
Cusiter, Custer, all belonging to the same parish.
"He writes, ‘I have been established
in business here for 33 years. I have noted your name, conspicuous as a
general, and occasionally as an author, and from descriptions of you I am
convinced we are of the same stock’."
Although searches of Custer archives have
failed to uncover the letter, Mr Russell has identified the author as John
Cursiter, who was born in Kirkwall on 7 June 1819. He became a shoemaker
and worked for a firm in Edinburgh and London before returning to Orkney
and setting up his own general merchant’s business in the 1850s.
He was involved in many public bodies and
became best known for setting up a bakery which was the first commercial
business in Orkney to use machine power.
He died on 23 April 1886, ten years to the
day after General Custer wrote to his wife about his Orkney heritage.
Cursiter, pronounced "Custer" in
Orkney, is a historic island name which is still found locally today. Mr
Russell’s research shows that the main branch of the family lived for
centuries in the parish of Firth and is recorded as having owned land as
far back as 1587.
He said tradition has it that two men from
the family went to the US, where they ran a business in New York until it
was ruined by fire.
This prompted them to move west and one of
the brothers is believed to be the ancestor of General Custer, who was
born in December 1839 in Ohio.
Mr Russell said: "While it must be
conceded that John Cursiter did not produce any specific evidence to
substantiate his claim that Custer’s ancestors came from the Northern
Isles, there is equally nothing to prove that he did not.
"Until such time, therefore, as
further information is forthcoming, Orkney will proudly continue to
include General George Armstrong Custer among its most distinguished
A spokesman for Orkney Tourist Board said
very little has been written about Custer’s Orkney connection and few
people locally are aware of the possible link to such a well-known
"It’s not that well known, but it’s
perhaps something which would be worth exploring," the spokesman