Retrobituaries: Buffalo Calf Road Woman, Custer's Final Foe

Three Cheyenne warriors on horseback.
Three Cheyenne warriors on horseback.
Edward Curtis, Library of Congress

For the Native Americans of the Northern Plains, the Battle of Little Bighorn was a glorious victory against U.S. government forces intent on claiming their land. Fought on June 25, 1876, in Montana Territory, the battle saw Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors quickly overwhelm and kill some 260 U.S. troops. George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War hero sent to remove the Native Americans to their reservations, was among them.

Though the exact circumstances surrounding Custer’s death have long been the subject of debate, a new and intriguing account of his final moments surfaced in June 2005 when members of the Northern Cheyenne broke more than a century of silence to recount their tribe’s oral history of the battle. According to their account, it was a female fighter named Buffalo Calf Road Woman (alternately called Buffalo Calf Trail Woman) who knocked Custer off his horse that day, leaving him vulnerable, and who may have killed him.

Frank Rowland, a Cheyenne elder, told the Montana-based Independent Record, “The chiefs said to keep a vow of silence for 100 summers. One-hundred summers have now passed and we’re breaking our silence.” (In fact, almost 130 summers had passed by 2005.) The Northern Cheyenne said they had never publicly issued their account of the battle before because they feared retribution from the U.S. government.

The 2005 account wasn't the first mention of Buffalo Calf Road Woman at Little Bighorn, however. Thomas B. Marquis’s posthumous 1967 book Custer on the Little Bighorn includes the account of a female eyewitness who says: “Most of the women looking at the battle stayed out of reach of the bullets, as I did. But there was one who went in close at times. Her name was Calf [Road] Woman …[she] had a six-shooter, with bullets and powder, and she fired many shots at the soldiers. She was the only woman there who had a gun.”

Other details of Buffalo Calf Road Woman's life are scant. Most likely born in the 1850s, she was married to a warrior, Black Coyote, with whom she had two children. In the 1953 book Cheyenne Autumn, the Western historian and novelist Mari Sandoz describes her at the 1878 Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork in Kansas as both a mother and a warrior—“a gun in her hands, ready, the baby tied securely to her back.”

Her battlefield courage first cemented its place in tribal history about a week before Custer's Last Stand, at the June 17, 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, where the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes fought against the U.S. Army. There, Buffalo Calf Road Woman saved her brother—whose horse had been struck down—by charging on horseback into a melee of gunfire to rescue him. After that, the Cheyenne referred to the Battle of the Rosebud as the “Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.”

Wallace Bearchum, Director of Tribal Services for the Northern Cheyenne, tells Mental Floss that her warrior exploits then surfaced at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where she fought “out in the open” instead of taking any cover, and where “she stayed on her horse the entire time.” Bearchum adds that although Buffalo Calf Road Woman was an “excellent markswoman,” she used a club-like object, not a gun, to knock Custer off his horse. It's not clear exactly what happened after that, but Bearchum says that Buffalo Calf Road Woman and other Cheyenne and Sioux women “finished off Custer and the other Calvary soldiers right after the battle was over," going "from soldier to soldier to finish them off or take things from them … remembering relatives killed by [U.S.] soldiers in previous attacks.”

"When [Custer] fell," Rowland explained to the Record in 2005, "he wasn't touched by the warriors because he was unclean. He was bad medicine." A scouting party found Custer's nude body two days later with two potentially fatal bullet holes, although we may never know for sure who caused them, or exactly which wound led him to lose his life.

A 1903 painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn
"The Custer fight," C.M. Russell, 1903 // Library of Congress

No matter how brave she was, Buffalo Calf Road Woman was fighting a losing battle against the federal government. Doggedly pursued by U.S. troops, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, her warrior husband Black Coyote, and the other Cheyenne in their group had been on the run and were reaching the point of starvation. They were eventually relocated in the summer of 1877 to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

Finding themselves homesick and miserable in their new territory, however, they soon joined the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, which took place from the fall of 1878 to the spring of 1879, during which some 300 members of the tribe sought to return to their homeland in the northern part of the U.S.

Unfortunately, during the exodus, Black Coyote's personality changed: He became unhinged, flying into fits of hostility and brandishing a gun against his own people. He also stole horses that were property of the U.S. Army. When then confronted by a tribal elder, Black Coyote fatally shot him.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman’s husband was also a danger to outsiders. On April 5, 1879, a party he led ambushed two U.S. soldiers who were repairing a telegraph line in Montana Territory, killing one of them. When U.S. forces tracked down the party, Black Coyote had some of the slain soldier’s possessions on his person. He and two cohorts were arrested and in short order tried, convicted, and sentenced to be executed by hanging.

While this was going on, Buffalo Calf Road Woman’s own situation began to deteriorate. She had caught the “white man’s coughing disease,” also known as diphtheria, and died at some point in May 1879. Bearchum says he doesn't know the exact location of her burial, but explains that back then, the Cheyenne custom was to bury the dead immediately in the nearby hills. He thinks Buffalo Calf Road Woman was buried in the hills near what is now Miles City, Montana.

Although there is no monument to her, and Bearchum says “funding is needed” for further commemorations, she has been the subject of at least one prize-winning novel, by Rosemary and Joseph Agonito: Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Story of a Warrior of the Little Bighorn.

Sushruta, Ancient Indian Surgeon and Father of the Nose Job

If you were a petty criminal, a prisoner of war, or an adulterous woman in the ancient world, you might have had the tip of your nose cut off as a punishment [PDF]. But rather than walking around disfigured, if you had the means—and lived in ancient India—you might have had your nose reconstructed thanks to an ancient surgical method espoused by the Indian physician and surgeon Sushruta.

There's some debate around whether Sushruta was a real individual or a legendary figure. Said to have been the son of a sage who lived around 600 BCE, he's primarily known today for the classic treatise Sushruta Samhita, or Compendium of Sushruta. The treatise is considered one of the foremost achievements of Indian medicine, and went on to influence the West. Along with Charaka and Vagbhata—two other possibly legendary authors of key texts—Sushruta is honored in India as one of the "Triad of Ancients."

The Sushruta Samhita describes more than a thousand diseases (including a very early awareness of diabetes), and about 650 types of drugs. The text includes a special focus on surgery, which it considers the apex of the healing art. The roughly 300 surgical procedures it describes include cataract surgery, the removal of bladder stones, hernia repair, eye surgery, and Cesarean sections. The treatise also describes how to control bleeding, set broken bones, use wine and other drugs to anesthetize the patient, and employ large ants as wound clips (apparently, their strong mandibles can close a gash in lieu of stitches). The text also stresses the importance of cleanliness in both surgeons and their instruments—safeguards Europe wouldn’t adopt for the better part of two millennia.

But the most famous part of the text is its technique for repairing and recreating a nose, known today as reconstructive rhinoplasty. Sushruta recommended using a long, broad "leaf of a creeper" as a template for cutting a flap of skin from the cheek or forehead. After scarifying the flap with a knife, the skin was then placed over the missing nose, after which "the coolheaded physician should steadily tie it up with a bandage decent to look at," the text says. Two small pipes—reeds or tubes from the castor oil plant—were inserted into the nostrils to facilitate breathing. The nose was then dusted with medicinal powders, enveloped in cotton, and sprinkled with sesame oil.

An 1816 image from a nose surgery using the Indian method
An image from J.C. Carpue's "An account of two successful operations for restoring a lost nose," 1816

Sushruta’s knowledge took a long time traveling west. The Sushruta Samhita was translated into Arabic around the 8th century CE, and that version may have arrived in Europe before the Renaissance; Sushruta’s techniques were apparently known to surgeons in Italy in the 1400s and 1500s. The Indian method for repairing a nose was then lost to Western medicine for a couple of hundred years, although of course Indian surgeons continued to practice it.

Then, in 1793, two British surgeons observed the procedure being carried out on a cart driver who had been taken prisoner by a sultan in the Third Anglo-Mysore war, and an acquaintance of theirs published an account of the surgery in London's Gentleman's Magazine the following year. A British surgeon named Joseph Constantine Carpue read about the procedure, and practiced it on cadavers for 20 years before performing the operation (successfully) on a patient in 1814. His subsequent publication popularized the procedure in Europe, and by the 1830s the technique had made it to the United States.

Sushruta is widely honored in India today. The country boasts several statues of him, and his image is on the seal of the Association of Plastic Surgeons of India. A version of his procedure, often called the Indian method, is still one of the preferred ways of repairing noses around the world.

John Tradescant, Royal Gardener and Forefather of the Natural History Museum

Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Alamy

Two ribs of a whale, a dragon’s egg, the hand of a mermaid, and a picture made entirely from feathers: These were just a few of the items displayed at the curiosities museum that John Tradescant the Elder opened around 1630.

Tradescant is best known for two accomplishments: being the forefather of the modern English garden, and opening the first public museum. He collected seeds and plant samples on his extensive travels, then incorporated these flowers into the envy-inspiring gardens he was hired to create for the British nobility. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment on its own, but Tradescant is also remembered for his cabinet of curiosities, which eventually grew to become the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England.

Not much is known about the Tradescant the Elder’s early years. Thought to have been born around 1570, he made his first mark in the historical record when he married in 1607. Two years later, he was appointed gardener to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury. Tradescant continued to work for the Cecil family for about six years, then took a job with Edward, Lord Wotton, for another eight years. Lord Wotton released him for two major collecting journeys: one as part of a diplomatic mission to the Russian Arctic in 1618, which resulted in him introducing the larch tree, a valuable timber source, to England; and one as part of a 1621 expedition against Algerian pirates. Although the mission failed to do much about the pirates, Tradescant did succeed in bringing back samples of gladioli, wild pomegranate, and Syringa persica—better known as lilac, which became a favorite in English gardens.

Tradescant then served George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, for five years, before the duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army officer and King Charles I himself summoned Tradescant's services. The king appointed Tradescant the Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by his queen, Henrietta Maria. Tradescant would become celebrated as the gardener to the "Rose and Lily Queen."

On Tradescant's travels, he tended to favor trees and flowers that looked interesting above those with a pleasant aroma, since he had no sense of smell. From his trips to France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, he returned with tulips, anemones, irises, clematis vines, and poppies. He also began actively seeking out curiosities, such as "a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree," and "the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone," according to one 1638 accounting of his collection. (He also collected what we might today consider more run-of-the-mill cultural artifacts, like clothing and weapons.) Aside from his own collecting, he contacted British trading ships and asked merchants and diplomats around the world to find him “All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve.”

Tradescant first began displaying his collection of oddities—fondly known as The Ark—at his home in Lambeth, London in 1628. The museum was a chance for Londoners to see creatures previously unknown to them—animals like salamanders and pelicans were on view—and to touch fantastic relics, such as wood that supposedly came from the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Like other cabinets of curiosity of its era, it combined scientific curiosities and mythological artifacts without strict organizing principles: A brightly colored parrot might be displayed next to a gourd, a precious coin, and some artistically arranged shells. At some point, the collection also incorporated a dodo, described in a 1656 accounting as being a “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big." (While most of the specimen was disposed of due to rot in the mid-18th century, the head—now the only soft tissue dodo specimen known to exist—and several other parts of the specimen are currently in the collection of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.)

Tradescant charged visitors sixpence to view his curiosities, which became one of London's most popular and famous attractions for nearly half a century (it was especially popular with schoolchildren). One early visitor praised it as a place "where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell."

Although the museum was a success, it was not a full-time project. Tradescant also continued to garden for nobility until his death in 1638; his last project, undertaken a year before he died, was a Physic Garden for herbal remedies at Oxford.

Tradescant is called the "Elder" because he also had a well-known son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662), who carried on his work. The younger botanist also gardened for nobles, traveled the world, and collected both plants and curiosities. In 1638, he assumed his father’s title as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. All the while he kept collecting, adding to the Tradescant legacy.

Tradescant the Younger had a son he hoped would carry on the family tradition, but his heir died at 19. Heartbroken, he deeded the collection to a friend and antiques aficionado, Elias Ashmole. It was a decision they came to regret after a variety of squabbles and a court case, which upheld Ashmole's right to the collection. Ashmole paid for and helped compile a catalog of the Tradescant objects in 1656, the first printed catalog of a museum collection in England.

Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Alamy

Ashmole donated the Tradescant curiosities to his old school, the University of Oxford, in the 1670s, alongside some items he had acquired himself. The museum built to exhibit the whole collection officially opened in June 1683, and remains open today.

But it's not the only museum inspired by the work of the Tradescants. The church where the Tradescants (both Elder and Younger) are buried is now known as the Museum of Garden History; it was initially created to preserve the their magnificent tomb. Carved with images from their travels and collections, it incorporates a long epitaph attributed to John Aubrey that describes their curiosities as "a world of wonders in one closet shut."

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