A Forgotten White Reporter at The Battle of Little Bighorn

Photograph of Mark Kellogg

“From far Montana’s canons,/ lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux,  the lone-/some stretch, the silence,/ haply, to-day, a mournful wail/ haply, a trumpet/ note for heroes.”

—Walt Whitman, “A Death-Sonnet for Custer,”  July 10, 1876, reprinted as “From Far Dakotas Cañons,” in Leaves of Grass.

Mark Kellogg, who is now largely forgotten, was the only reporter who accompanied Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his troops in June 1876 when they clashed with Indian warriors in “Nebraska Territory” and were soundly defeated. The Lakota have celebrated “Victory Day” every year on June 25. Kellogg saw Custer’s military expedition as a great opportunity to boost his own career. Reporters were not meant to accompany Custer. Then as now, news and information about the war were supposed to be closely guarded by the generals. Kellogg weaseled himself into the campaign and observed some of the battle at “the Little Bighorn,” as whites have called it. Indians know it as “the Battle of the Greasy Grass.” Their victory in June 1876 came hard on the heels of other victories.

Had they gone on to defeat American forces again and again in the West in the last two decades of the nineteenth-century, Little Bighorn might have come to be known as a major turning point in the centuries old struggle between the indigenous inhabitants of the continent and the invaders preoccupied with Manifest Destiny. It might have been known as an “American Dien Bien Phu,” which was the place where the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954. The National Park Service proclaims that “The Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to symbolize the clash of two vastly dissimilar cultures: the buffalo/horse culture of the northern plains tribes, and the highly industrial/agriculture based culture of the United States.” That’s a sanitized story. The battle was part of a conscious plan to exterminate Indians. Still, Indians and whites tend to belong to two different cultures. That was made transparent during a panel discussion with attorney John Briscoe and Tribal Judge Abby Abinanti at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco on June 30 2022. The topic was “California’s Hidden History of Indian Slavery,” a fact that paralleled genocide.

At the Mechanics’, Abinanti, California’s first Native American female lawyer, emphasized storytelling. Briscoe emphasized facts and dates. Of course, not every white person spews facts and figures and not every Indian recounts stories. Still, there’s a discernable pattern of Indian storytelling and white history lessons. “The saddest thing for me,” Abinanti said, “is that I don’t have my own language, which unlike English is not noun based. Our stories  are coming back and more and more young people are speaking Indian languages.” It’s not too late for Indian stories about resistance to colonialism to emerge.

Historians and poets like Walt Whitman—at his most brazenly patriotic—have romanticized Custer and the defeat of white forces as his “Last Stand.” One might just as well call it “Mark Kellogg’s Last Stand.” After all, Kellogg died on the battlefield before he could file the big stories that he thought would make him as famous as Custer. Had he survived the battle, he probably would have gone on to do far more damage with his dispatches than he managed to do in a short amount of time.

He wasn’t the only one in that regard. In a story titled, “Massacre of our Troops,” The New York Times called the Indians at Little Bighorn “savages.” Telegrams and the telegraph sped news around the country faster than the Pony Express and its riders.

It’s too bad that historians have mostly ignored Kellogg. He aided and abetted the genocidal war that soldiers, generals, presidents and politicians waged against American Indians. On June 21, 1876, he wrote from the cusp of the battlefield to his editor at the Bismarck Tribune, “The hope is now strong and I believe, well founded, that this band of ugly customers, known as Sitting Bull’s band, will be ‘gobbled’ and dealt with as they deserve.”

Three days later, he sent another dispatch to his editor: “By the time this reaches you we would have met and fought the red devils, with what result remains to be seen. I go with Custer and will be at the death.” He meant that he’d be there for “the kill” of the Indians.

Kellogg made it abundantly clear why Indian land was so valuable to whites, and why it had to be seized, occupied and made a part of the US. On the subject of the Yellowstone Valley, he noted that it offered a “magnitude of facilities for commercial purposes.” He went on to spell out the bounty of the land “for grass and timber, not only in quantity but in quality; for richness of soil; for health and climate; for its abundance of game, its quantity of fish and other things besides.”

In her classic, The Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was originally published in 1966 and that has just been reissued in a new edition this year by the University of Nebraska Press, Mari Sandoz—a much heralded chronicler of the American West— only mentions Kellogg in passing. By leaving him out of the heart of her story she neglected to explore a crucial wartime relationship between one gung-ho reporter and one egomaniacal military officer. The Custer-Kellogg dynamic is emblematic of the chemistry that has long linked spirited reporters and free-wheeling military officers.

That explosive chemistry goes back to the earliest days of the American Republic. It continued though the Spanish-American War—ignited in large part by the jingoistic publisher William Randolph Hearst— and traveled all the way to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when journalists at The New York Times and elsewhere repeated the big White House lies about weapons of mass destruction and thereby whipped up hysteria for war. Sandoz observes that the stories about Little Bighorn set the stage for the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 when Hotchkiss guns mowed down women and children as well as male warriors. Kellogg would have cheered.

An opportunist and a self-promoter, he took the pen name “Frontier,” identified himself with western expansion, and cast himself as a public relations man for the U.S. military and especially for Lieutenant Colonel George Custer who did nothing to distinguish himself at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In fact, Custer was incompetent as a tactician and as a strategist in June 1876, as Sandoz makes abundantly clear. In the pages of her classic, Custer is mostly an invisible officer lost in the mayhem, the slaughter, the dust and the blood. Custer serves as just another dead body.

In his dispatches, Kellogg puffed Custer up bigger than life and made him into a mythical figure. He called him “a brave, faithful, gallant soldier, who has warm friends and bitter enemies; the hardest rider, the greatest pusher, with the most untiring vigilance, overcoming seeming impossibilities, and with an ambition to succeed in all things he undertakes; a man to do right, as he construes the right, in every case; one respected and beloved by his followers, who would freely follow him into the ‘jaws of hell.’”

Kellogg’s description served as a foundation for the worship of the lieutenant colonel that took off soon after he died and the battle ended. The US government, American historians and Custer’s widow augmented and embellished the story, in part because, from the start, they wanted to avenge the defeat of US troops. Promoting the battle as “Cluster’s Last Stand” in paintings, poems, books and blatant works of propaganda, diverted attention away from the genius of the Indian warriors, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and turned an incompetent soldier into a national hero.

Sandoz rightfully and insightfully points out that Custer had his eyes on the White House, and that he wanted to turn his own military victories against the Indians in the West into a successful run for the presidency. July 4th loomed on the horizon and the US prepared to celebrate its centenary. Custer thought he had a rendezvous with destiny and saw what he thought was an opportunity to finesse his image. He had long falsified the historical record and claimed for example to be the first white man in the Great Plains. A rogue officer, he defied his superiors, though he was ordered to cut his long hair and to look more like the professional soldier he was supposed to be,

Sandoz doesn’t pull many of her punches, though she mostly tells the story of the Little Bighorn from the point of view of the whites. Still, she rightfully nails the “whole Indian extermination policy” of the US government and the US military. “Kill them” was the order of the day. In the 1870s, Indian resistance to American forces was inevitable, she points out. The US government routinely broke treaties it had signed with tribes. Also, soldiers had mostly exterminated the buffalo and thereby removed a major source of food for the Indians. They would starve them to death. Settlers wanted western lands where Indians lived and hunted. Miners craved the gold that had been discovered in the Dakota territory. The railroads wanted big chunks of the West to lay down tracks, create stations and build an empire.

In the last chapter of her book, Sandoz observes that “since the Civil War there was further intensification on the only remaining field of conflict—the rivalry for officerships in the shrinking army and the necessity to keep the Indians stirred up not only for war profits for the manufacturers and contractors but to advance the careers of the military.” Sound familiar? It’s the same old story.

It was news in 1876 and again in 1996 when Sandoz published her book. It’s still news today. It exemplifies the notion expressed long ago and most succinctly by Marvin Garson—an activist, reporter, editor and co-founder of San Francisco’s underground newspaper Express Times—that “the bigger the story the slower it travels.”

Indians still don’t make the news very often. If and when they do, it’s because they stage a big event as they did at Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later at Standing Rock in 2016. After nearly half a century behind bars, Leonard Peltier, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, is still in prison, but that’s old news, isn’t it, and from Mark Kellogg’s point of view not deserving of a story or an interview. Hey, Mr. President, Free Leonard Peltier.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.