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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (C)
General George Armstrong Custer

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 Orkney.

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 descendants."

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 historical character.

"It’s not that well known, but it’s perhaps something which would be worth exploring," the spokesman said.

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