Archive for Monday, July 2, 2001

Historic horse lives on at local exhibit

Legendary mount Comanche still serving at KU museum 125 years after Battle of Little Bighorn

July 2, 2001


— In life he survived the Ku Klux Klan, moonshiners and American Indians.

In death, he survived college pranks, crude conditions and a near drowning.

Museum volunteer Kevin Williams cleans the display case of Comanche
in the Natural History Museum at Kansas University.

Museum volunteer Kevin Williams cleans the display case of Comanche in the Natural History Museum at Kansas University.

Such is the legend of Comanche. Now, 125 years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, the muscular, brown steed remains a symbol of the American frontier and the equestrian role in taming the Old West.

His life is much simpler today. Preserved in a climate-controlled case on the fourth floor of the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, Comanche is considered by many of the museum's 200,000 annual visitors as its prime exhibit.

"This is what they associate with the museum," said Brad Kemp, a museum spokesman.

Partners in battle

Comanche was born in the wild in 1862 near the present-day border of Oklahoma and Texas. Taken to St. Louis, he was sold to the U.S. Army on April 3, 1868, for $90. His first assignment was at Fort Leavenworth, before going to the 7th Cavalry's encampment near what is now Ellis.

A few months later, Comanche was sold for $90 to Capt. Myles Keogh, an Irishman and veteran of the Civil War. The two would serve throughout the United States before Keogh died at Little Bighorn.

As the story goes, Comanche got his name when he and Keogh were in a skirmish with the Comanches. The horse was struck in the right hind quarter with an arrowhead. A soldier told Keogh that he noticed that when the horse was hit by the arrow it let out a yell just like a Comanche. The name stuck.

Through 1869 and 1870, Keogh and Comanche served in Kansas, each getting injured in battle and requiring time to heal. In 1871, the two were dispatched to Southern states to quiet disturbances between the Ku Klux Klan and carpetbaggers. Comanche was wounded again in 1873 in Kentucky while chasing moonshiners.

During the next three years, Comanche and Keogh saw duty with the 7th Cavalry from the Plains to the Canadian border, including action in the Black Hills to keep miners from Indian lands.

On Sunday, June 25, 1876, a column of five companies from the 7th Cavalry led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer met up with the Sioux at Little Bighorn in Montana. According to some accounts, Custer was killed early in the battle, while Keogh shuttled between platoons before being killed.

The Sioux won the battle, defeating the cavalry in what became one of the Army's worst defeats on the frontier.

Comanche was left for dead. When he was found two days later by a burial party, the horse was taken to Fort Lincoln where he was nursed to health. Eventually he found a permanent home at Fort Riley until his death in 1891.

Preserved at KU

Not knowing what to do with the carcass, officials at Fort Riley sent Comanche's remains to the Kansas University. There, taxidermist Lindsay Dyche the building that houses the museum is named for him mounted the horse for $400.

However, Kemp said, the cavalry never paid the bill.

Some believe the officers never intended to pay the bill or reclaim Comanche, evidenced by their providing of reins, saddle and saddle blanket stitched with a golden "7" on a field of blue.

Others have written that the fort gave the horse to the university because it would be difficult to move Comanche from post to post as the cavalry moved.

Thus, Comanche became, and remains, at Kansas University. Except for a brief exhibit at the Chicago Exposition in 1893, Comanche has stood his ground on Mount Oread.

The last effort to move the horse came in 1946 by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, a hero of Bataan and an old cavalryman.

Wainwright wanted to return Comanche to Fort Riley, and his efforts made headlines nationwide. But Chancellor Deane Malott held his ground and kept Comanche, saying it would set a bad precedent for the university to return a gift from a donor.

Numerous unsuccessful attempts have been made by residents of Montana to have Comanche moved to sites near the Little Bighorn.

But Comanche hasn't remained in Lawrence without controversy.

Kemp said students from Haskell Indian Nations University approached the museum about a placard describing Comanche as the "sole survivor" of Little Bighorn.

"They pointed out, and rightly so, that many Indians survived the battle," Kemp said.

The museum changed the sign to reflect that Comanche was the only living thing found at the battlefield when the cavalry arrived two days later.

Comanche has survived other brushes with danger while at the museum, including an attempt by students to whisk him away late one night and a near-drowning.

Kemp said the horse was nearly lost when a goose being thawed in a sink in the floor above plugged the drain, causing water to cascade onto Comanche.

Tom Swearingen, who has taken care of the exhibit for 41 years, said Comanche was reconstructed, removing much of the early materials used by Dyche in the 1890s. He noted that the display is climate-controlled to keep the horse at the proper temperature and humidity.

However, he and Kemp agree that the exhibit is likely to change in the coming years. The museum's mission focuses on evolutionary biology and has an extensive collection of fossils.

Kemp said he envisions Comanche as the centerpiece of an exhibit about Dyche or on the use of horses through the ages.

Swearingen likes the idea of showcasing the role of the horse and downplaying the conflict between American Indians and the cavalry.

As for Comanche, Swearingen said: "He can stay here endlessly."

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