On June 25, 1876, a horse from the Seventh U.S. Cavalry lay wounded amid the dead bodies and smoke in the valley of the Little Bighorn River, Dakota Territory. The horse, named Comanche, belonged to one of the dead soldiers, Captain Myles Keogh, who had bought him in Kansas for $90.
Two days later, Comanche was found in a ravine near the Little Bighorn, weakened by 20 bullets and barely able to stand. He was shipped downriver to Fort Abraham Lincoln, where 13 of the bullets were removed. Comanche survived to be retired by the Seventh Cavalry, lead ceremonial parades, be "interviewed" by a reporter from the Bismarck Tribune, and serve as popular hero for what some histories came to call "Custer's last stand."
When he died in 1889 at Fort Riley, Comanche was preserved by the best taxidermist in Kansas, Lewis Lindsay Dyche, explorer, naturalist and teacher at the Kansas University Museum of Natural History. Four years later, Comanche's tanned hide, mounted on a manikin of iron and clay, drew huge crowds to the Kansas Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Ever since, he has stood in the KU museum wearing his cavalry blanket and saddle - because of an unpaid bill. The U.S. government gave Comanche to the university in lieu of the $400 it owed for Dyche's taxidermy.
On the face of it, Comanche stands for the battle the Seventh Cavalry lost against the Sioux. But, in the larger sweep of history, Comanche stands for more than the Cavalry's lone survivor of a "last stand." Little Bighorn, as ethnologist Paul Dyck put it, was "where the nation was welded together to try to end the Indian question. Custer merely provided the catalyst." Although the Sioux won the battle, they lost the war against the relentless march of European civilization across the Great Plains - the army, the emigrants, the government policies and the smallpox, cholera and influenza brought by the settlers. By 1890, the Indians had lost their livelihood and their lands.
By 1890, the same forces had changed the face of the Great Plains. Wildlands were lost to the plow, people, and railroad. Natural systems were plowed under for agrosystems and paved over for urban systems. The American bison, which numbered in the millions, was slaughtered to near extinction. The long running prairie was no longer unbroken. Changed forever were its native peoples, its richness of animals and plants, its clear rivers and wetlands and its deep soils and aquifers.
Comanche embodies manifest destiny, the 19th century belief that the conquest and settlement of these territories were not only inevitable, but divinely ordained. Comanche carried dominion, the force sent ahead to subdue the plains.
At the KU Museum of Natural History, Comanche is more than a relic of the Battle of Little Bighorn. He stands for the transformation of the Great Plains by European civilization, for better and for worse. The land was mustered to provision the nation with food, fuel and fiber; with universities, museums and the artifacts of our past; and with a new world of jazz, science, literature and art. The land was also bloodied with terrible truths - the purging of its people and devastation of its natural habitats, in which "every page and every year has its dark stain," as Helen Hunt Jackson wrote in 1881 in "A Century of Dishonor." Comanche embodies the tension between magnificent exploits and deadly exploitation.
After a year of conserving the fragile mount, Comanche was recently moved to a larger, remodeled space on the fourth floor of Dyche Hall. How should Comanche be exhibited? History cannot be rewound, but it can and should be faced. We need to tell the stories of exploits and exploitation. In his new glass case, Comanche faces westward, the direction he carried dominion.
Imagine the Great Plains in front of him, flowing fields of bluestem and buffalo grass rippling to the horizon, mostly pristine and little trodden, a million years in the making. Behind him appears the Great Plains transformed: the fields of grains neatly tilled, the railroad neatly laid, the grain elevators neatly spaced and the schoolyards neatly tended. Dominion cannot be undone, but it can teach us to be better stewards of what we have made.
- Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University.