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  • Before Custer: Surveying the Yellowstone, 1872 ed. by M. John Lubetkin
  • Brad D. Lookingbill
Before Custer: Surveying the Yellowstone, 1872. Edited by M. John Lubetkin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 328 pp. Illustrations, maps, tables, bibliography, index. $34.95 cloth.

During 1872, executives of the Northern Pacific Railroad and officers of the US Army intended to survey Indian lands. The expeditions departed from Fort Ellis in Montana Territory and Fort Rice in Dakota Territory. They expected to meet where the Powder River entered the Yellowstone River.

M. John Lubetkin, a retired cable television executive and an award-winning author, has compiled firsthand accounts of this joint venture in the Yellowstone valley. Lubetkin annotates [End Page 151] newspaper articles with diaries, letters, and reports from previously unpublished documents. In part 1, he details a pivotal episode in late March, when a Lakota named Spotted Eagle visited Colonel David S. Stanley at Fort Sully. Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader and holy man, sent word through his emissary that any invasion would be met by force. Parts 2 and 3 illustrate how the Lakota frustrated an army of nearly a thousand men for months. Surveyor teams and their military escorts turned back after a concerted strike led by Sitting Bull himself. Another party retreated in the face of multiple blows. Even the Gatling gun failed to daunt the Lakota. Part 4 features the final reflections of key officers, who were dismayed by setbacks.

Furthermore, Lubetkin found that the white male participants documented a risky business. Financier Jay Cooke assumed that he was “God’s chosen instrument” to build a transcontinental railroad, but the route was nothing if not a gamble. With the Northern Pacific Railroad in jeopardy, the largest private banking house in the United States failed. The lack of cash left laborers unpaid, prompting many to riot. Construction on the line halted. The Panic of 1873 ensued.

Lubetkin has organized an impressive array of primary sources associated with the Northern Pacific Railroad surveys. In addition to offering botanical and geological descriptions, the vivid testimony notes obscure individuals such as Gall, a Lakota warrior. Indeed, the seminal events along the Yellowstone brought fame to Sitting Bull and led to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s transfer to the Department of Dakota. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, which began on June 25, 1876, resulted in Custer’s death at Indian hands. Despite whatever happened later, historians of the American West should not ignore the fascinating evidence presented in Before Custer.

Brad D. Lookingbill
Columbia College of Missouri
Columbia, Missouri


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pp. 151-152
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