John Wilkes Booth‘s last stand was by no means the only infamous last stand. It got me thinking about a wide range of other events from the last couple of hundred years that might fall within the same general guidelines. Last stands happened in many places in many times. I selected a few from the multitude of instances available and fixated on them. Custer’s Last Stand, well, that would practically be synonymous with the definition of a last stand. In fact that was the first thing that popped into my mind as I expanded past Booth. Undoubtedly that notion would be the same for much of the Twelve Mile Circle audience. I couldn’t simply skip it — that would be a glaring omission — so George Armstrong Custer needed a closer examination.
Custer Monument in New Rumley, Ohio by Jayson Shenk on Flickr (cc)
The spot where Custer died, the place of his last stand, was considerably better known than his birthplace. I figured I’d have a difficult time finding it because I didn’t think anyone would really care except for maybe me and a handful of other people fascinated by such things. I guessed wrong. People apparently did care. In fact I even found a Custer Memorial Association in New Rumley, Ohio, at Custer’s 1839 birthplace. They operated a small museum "open the last Sunday of each month from 1:00 to 4:00pm." They also maintained a roadside park open year round on the site of the original Custer homestead, of which little remained except for the foundation of the house where he was born (map).
However Custer spent much of his childhood in Monroe, Michigan, with the family of his half-sister.
Custer by Bill Harris on Flickr (cc)
The people of Monroe erected a monument to Custer after his death (map). He probably got a monument everywhere he ever set foot, or so it seemed, although some hadn’t fared well. Even the citizens of Monroe, a place where he spent much of his childhood, relocated the monument a bunch of times including sticking it out in the woods where vegetation overgrew it, before moving the statue to a more prominent part of town. Officially it was known as the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument, alternately Sighting the Enemy.
Gettysburg NBP – August 2008 by Michael Noirot on Flickr (cc)
Famously, Custer finished last in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However it was 1861, the Civil War was just underway, and the military needed officers in a hurry so they pressed him into service anyway. He performed remarkably well once in a combat role.
Throughout the war Custer continued to distinguishing himself as fearless, aggressive, and ostentatious. His personalized uniform style, complete with a red neckerchief could be somewhat alienating, but he was successful in gaining the respect of his men with his willingness to lead attacks from the front rather than the back.
Custer quickly moved up the ranks, becoming brigadier general then brevet major general of the U.S. Army and finally major general of the U.S. Volunteers in quick succession. He was only 23 years old when he first became a general, the youngest in the army. Custer also served the entire lengthy of the conflict, from Bull Run to Appomattox. At Gettysburg, he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that was instrumental in stopping a Confederate cavalry attack on the Union army’s right flank. He got a nice monument for that too. Actually, the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade earned the monument although Custer’s image appeared in a circular bas-relief sculpture just about half way up (map).
I mentioned all of that service because people tended to overlook his distinguished career and skip right to the ending.
The Last Stand
Custer's Grave at Little Bighorn by Jim Bowen on Flickr (cc)
Twelve Mile Circle is not a history website so I’ll only discuss the Last Stand briefly. There were plenty of other places on the Intertubes, or even entire books, where one could get a better account. Custer died on the battlefield near Montana’s Little Bighorn River in 1876 (map). The United States Army had a rule-of-thumb, naming battles for the nearest body of water during that period (e.g., the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Antietam) so the engagement came to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The situation leading up to it brewed for a long time. The government had been forcing Plains Indians onto reservations for awhile by that point. Various elements of the Lakota and Cheyenne resisted fiercely, sparking a whole chain of events known as the Sioux Wars. The final outrage in the eyes of native inhabitants had been a sudden incursion of settlers into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. The Sioux considered this a sacred area that had been promised to them in a treaty. That quickly collapsed after word leaked out about gold found in the area. Many bands, fed up with broken promises, left the reservations in an effort to fight for their ancestral lands.
The government began a protracted, coordinated campaign to crush resistance. Custer hadn’t gone out there alone, he simple commanded one force amongst several crossing the plains from late 1875 and into the first half of 1876 trying to tame the rebellion. However Custer made a huge blunder. His aggressive personality that served him well during the Civil War compelled him to rush headlong into battle without understanding the true situation at Little Bighorn.
He thought he was attacking a small encampment. Instead he led 700 men from the 7th Cavalry Regiment headlong into a force three times its size. Sitting Bull’s forces quickly turned the tables and utterly destroyed Custer and his men in less than an hour. Casualties also included Custer’s two brother, Thomas and Boston. Later historical accounts by members of the tribes expressed complete bewilderment that Custer would attack them when they were so strong.
George Armstrong Custer lived only 36 years.
There weren’t a lot of people on the Northern Plains and their settlements appeared only sporadically. Out there amongst the expansive void a place of a thousand residents would be called a city and drivers might not see another one for an hour. I wondered, where did people even buy their groceries? That didn’t mean the space was lacking in interests. The terrain, so alien from my normal experiences became the prime attraction.
I treated Mt. Rushmore (map) as a do-over. Me and some friends rented a recreational vehicle and drove around the United States visiting many of its famous national parks long ago in 1992. I recounted a small portion of that journey in Crossing of South Dakota on Interstate 90 on my travel pages. It included a stop at Mt. Rushmore where I recalled feeling underwhelmed. The massive sculpture seemed so small and distant, a disappointment. And couldn’t they have cleared the debris pile? Would I still feel this way, an older and hopefully slightly wiser version of myself almost a quarter century later?
At least I brought a better camera. This was the best we could manage with a cheap Kodak Instamatic point-and-shoot film camera during the pre-digital days of my previous effort:
My Earlier Visit to Mt. Rushmore in 1992
I’d downplayed the experience so much that I created low expectations for my wife who’d never seen the sculpture. She felt we had to go there despite my minimal enthusiasm because she couldn’t conceive of driving directly through the Black Hills without stopping at Mt. Rushmore. It was one of those sites, she noted, that all Americans needed to experience at least once in their lifetimes. I grumbled a bit and muttered that she might be disappointed although I didn’t disagree with her logic. We drove up to the park, still mobbed with tourists even after Labor Day, and walked towards the viewing deck as we pushed past disgorging busloads. I didn’t have anything better to do I figured, while I tried to clear away my earlier impressions. Yes, it was better than my past experience although the entire notion of defacing a mountain in the middle of nowhere still seemed weird. My wife thought it was incredible, I’m guessing because the genuine version eclipsed the negative vibe I’d so carefully crafted ahead of time.
Several loyal Twelve Mile Circle readers suggested that I should visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (map), just a short hop from Rushmore. Sure, why not. People seemed to enjoy carving outcrops with giant sculptures in the Black Hills. I might as well take a peek at their handiwork.
Crazy Horse’s emerging presence on Thunderhead Mountain served as a fitting counterweight to the image of US presidents appearing on Mt. Rushmore. It represented the point of view of the original inhabitants, the Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation. Many of them resented everything Mt. Rushmore presented, the defiling of a sacred mountain with gigantic sculptures of their oppressors. The insult couldn’t be removed although they could commission an even bigger and better sculpture of their war leader Crazy Horse (~1840-1877) who resisted territorial encroachment and died battling US troops. It was more sensible than carving an oversized middle finger although I wouldn’t blamed them if they’d done that instead.
Work began in 1948. Much remains undone. The current sculptors dedicated Crazy Horse’s face in 1998 and moved on to the horse. When finished, Crazy Horse will sit atop his steed with arm pointed forward. The sculpture will stand 563 feet (172 m) high and 641 feet (195 m) wide, possibly the largest in the world. They have not accepted any Federal funding in order to maintain independence. The project continues to move slowly as money allows. Crazy Horse won’t emerge completely during our lifetimes and maybe not even in the lifetimes of our children at the current pace.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I mentioned earlier that I took a detour to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map) mostly as a pretext to capture a couple of extra counties I’d never visited before. What a lucky decision. The park was practically empty, an otherworldly corner of North Dakota’s badlands. We hit the southern unit based in the town of Medora. I didn’t have much to say about Medora because it seemed like they rolled-up the sidewalks after Labor Day. I had a tough time even finding a sandwich for lunch. The place looked nice enough in a faux old-timey "western" kind of way although it resembled a ghost town in mid-September.
We drove into the park and took the 36-mile (58km) Scenic Loop Drive. A word of caution, when signs posted a 25 mph speed limit they meant every word of it even along the completely empty back section. Thank you Mr. Park Ranger for, ahem, letting me off with a verbal warning when I truly deserved a ticket. Much obliged.
The loop offered several scenic overlooks, some right by the road and others needing short simple hikes. My favorite was called the Wild Canyon Trail and it led to a bluff high above the Little Missouri River. The park was noted for its wildlife although we didn’t experience much of that other than a few prairie dogs and a small herd of wild horses. We didn’t see the famed bison although several hundred roamed freely there. It became a running joke for much of the rest of the trip until days later when our luck improved in the Black Hills. Instead we were left with the incredible scenery which more than held its own ground.
See! Pixilated Bison!
Ironically, as I leafed through photographs upon our return, I noticed a few black dots and zoomed way in. They were bison. The bison were always present during our visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and ready to be discovered if we’d only looked a little harder.
This was my second trip to Devils Tower (map), seen previously on that same epic journey as my original visit to Mt. Rushmore. In contrast I recalled being awed by Devils Tower, a thousand foot (300 m) remnant of an ancient volcanic plug. Once again I walked around its base, neck craned skyward in appreciation of the spectacle and searching for climbers working their way to the top. We didn’t stay overnight so I couldn’t confirm if the campground still screened "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" every evening or not. I bet they did.
Most of the terrain lacked the dramatic flair of badlands, mountains and extinct volcanoes. There was a vast emptiness all the way to the horizon, hour after hour. I never got bored. The loneliness fascinated me. Once I drove a hundred miles (160 km) from the Montana border (map) to the town of Baker mid-afternoon with perfect weather. I never saw another car in my lane ahead of me or behind me the entire time. Maybe a half dozen cars drove past in the opposite direction. That was some serious Big Sky.
Center of the Nation articles:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Transporting a participant through a grueling six day, six state race series created a huge benefit for a geo-geek such as myself, the inherent need to cover a lot of territory. I’d driven through parts of the target area previously on a cross-country trip many years ago. I’d completed the typical tourist trek through Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower on an Interstate 90 flyby in 1992. I didn’t have much of a chance to stop and linger during that long ago road trip. This time it would be different. I’d poke into completely obscure corners as dictated by race sites.
The series embodied two underlying premises, running and geography. The race director had to align six distinct events as close as possible to the confluence of multiple state borders to minimize travel distances, generating unusual selections removed from tourist trails. It served the needs of a very small and elite target audience; marathoners (and half-marathoners) who wished to complete a race in each of 50 US states. I held only one goal in common — the geographic portion — and that was enough. I was going to grab some rare spots on the map and leave the extreme athletic achievements to others.
We crossed a lot of state borders. Our efforts focused on passing between various small towns near state boundaries where each race would take place the following morning. Routes generally strayed away from Interstate highways although I did enjoy driving a completely legal 80 miles per hour (130 km/hr) briefly on I-90 as we left Wyoming.
I began to notice something peculiar on the lightly-traveled back country byways of the High Plains. There always seemed to be a pull-out by the side of the road at each state border where one could safely park a vehicle and walk to the boundary sign to snap a photograph. It seemed that highway officials recognized the precious few tourist attractions and went out of their way to turn anything noteworthy into a photo op. The next thing I knew, and without really trying, I’d compiled a collection of state border signs for Nebraska (above), Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Nebraska sign (map) showed Chimney Rock which I will talk about in a future installment. I didn’t stop for Colorado. I’m not sure why, I think I was getting tired of the game by then.
I completed a personally memorable state milestone during the trip that I’d been chasing for awhile. I’d long since visited all 50 US states, completing that journey more than a dozen years ago. However a handful of those crossings involved lackluster efforts, barely placing a toe on the other side of the border. My Montana "visit" had been particularly egregious, a thirty second effort when I visited Yellowstone National Park on the aforementioned cross-country trip so many years ago. One of the races took place in Baker, Montana so I spent the night there. I also spent a night in South Dakota two days later, whereas previously I’d only driven across the state without stopping. With those two events, I could now say I’d stayed at least one full night in every state.
Amidon, North Dakota (map)
Notwithstanding, counties were the real stars of the trip as I colored a slew of hard-to-reach spaces on my county counting map. Our route zigged and zagged in counterintuitive directions as I steered across as many county borders as possible while eliminating doughnut holes. I realized I might not travel this way again anytime soon. This might be my only chance. I drew a nice, solid rectangle of captured counties on the eastern side of Wyoming and Montana, and the western side of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, tallying 28 new counties in the process. My total stood at 1,301 at the end of the journey, 41.1% of counties in the United States.
As an example, the first race was held in Baker, Montana and the second race in Bowman, North Dakota. Here was the path I blazed between them.
Logic would have dictated an easy 45 minute straight-line drive to the east. Instead I drove three sides of a square for two and a half hours, capturing four new counties I would have missed otherwise: Wibaux, MT; Golden Valley, ND; Billings, ND and Stark, ND. Plus I got to visit the scenic badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. See how it worked?
That wasn’t even the most ridiculously contrived route, either. I think that honor went to day five when I drove between Chadron, Nebraska and the final race in Sterling, Colorado.
That little exercise converted a trip that should have lasted less than three hours into something extending nearly four and a half hours. However, I added four Nebraska counties that would have created a large doughnut hole otherwise: Sioux; Scotts Bluff; Banner and Kimball. The out-and-back portion also allowed me to visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site before returning to Scotts Bluff National Monument where I could cross additional county lines.
I also recorded several minor county milestone in the process.
- Counties, Plural. I have now been to counties — plural — in each of the 50 states. The fewest was Hawaii with two of five counties visited. I’m in the double digits for most states.
- Smallest of the Smallest: Wyoming had the fewest residents of any state during the 2010 Census, with a population of 563 thousand. Niobrara County had the fewest residents in Wyoming, with 2,484 people. Not only did I visit Niobrara, I stayed overnight in its county seat, Lusk. Granted there were counties in other states with smaller populations (e.g., Loving County, Texas with 82 residents). Still, I thought it was a memorable triviality to be in the least populated county in the least populated state.
- A Very Small Seat: We passed a curious sign as we drove south from the North Dakota badlands to the next race in Bowman, ND. Diminutive Amidon (map) perched along US Route 85 proclaimed itself to be the "Nation’s Smallest County Seat." Oh, and also North Dakota’s "Longest Running County Fair." I had to stop for a photo. Later I checked the claim. Wikipedia said Amidon was the smallest seat until 2010 when it was passed by Brewster, Nebraska population 17. Being the 2nd smallest seat didn’t bring the same glory, I guess, although the sign remained. At least Amidon still had the fair
Some 12MC readers recommended a visit to Carhenge since it would have fallen on the most direct route. I didn’t make it. Quite simply, county counting provided an explanation. Something had to give. I couldn’t leave any doughnut holes behind so Carhenge fell off the schedule.
Center of the Nation articles:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr