John Koster’s provocative profile of Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face [“Rain of Death”] in your April 2017 issue confirms the adage there are two (or more) sides to every story. It also demonstrates the difficulty of documenting the lives and times of secondary actors on the historical stage, notably those of American Indians whose nomadic days before life on the reservation are largely unknown and unrecorded. Tribal oral history and tradition may fill part of the void created by the absence of primary Indian sources, but such “evidence” is not definitive. Military and civilian observations of warrior deeds necessarily reflect these viewpoints.
The article retells the story of the warrior’s capture by the U.S. Army for killing two unarmed civilians during the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition and his escape from the guardhouse at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Embittered Rain-in-the-Face, according to legend and lore, evened the score at the Little Bighorn, where he killed either George Armstrong Custer or his brother Tom and for good measure tore out the heart of the latter. To be sure Rain-in-the-Face might have recognized either Custer on that bloody Sunday by virtue of his incarceration and interrogation in 1874–75. Countering such identification was the chaos and confusion of battle. In general Indian testimony admits the identity of Custer’s command was not known at the time.
Also, there is insufficient firsthand evidence to determine whether Rain-in-the-Face was even at the Little Bighorn. Indian testimony rarely mentions him, let alone confirms or denies his presence. “Red Hawk,” Nick Ruleau told Judge Eli S. Ricker in 1906, “says Rain-in-the-Face was not in the battle; he was away and did not get back till sometime after the battle.” Testimony compiled by Ricker, George Bird Grinnell, General Hugh L. Scott, Walter M. Camp, Dr. Thomas B. Marquis, Stanley Vestal, David Humphreys Miller and others is silent on this matter. Therefore, in the absence of conclusive primary sources we can neither affirm nor deny his presence at the Little Bighorn, let alone his role in the death of Tom (or George) Custer.
Much of this claim is based on journalist W. Kent Thomas’ 1894 conversation with Rain-in-the-Face published in Outdoor Life (March 1903). Even if Thomas knew how to ask the right questions in the right way, the article reveals that the warrior’s “knowledge of English is confined to about 30 words.” We must thus infer that someone “interpreted” the warrior’s remarks. Grinnell and other subject matter experts attempted to use competent interpreters (such as Willis T. Rowland) or to communicate by sign language, but (as Camp admitted) even such circumstances could produce distorted, if not erroneous, results. If we consider the story’s impression that Rain’s remarks were recorded under the influence of alcohol, we must question the probative value of the 1894 interview at Coney Island. This source also contains numerous erroneous and inconsistent statements so as to further challenge its credibility.
C. Lee Noyes
John Koster responds: No one on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation today has any doubts about Rain-in-the-Face killing Tom Custer. Elizabeth Custer had seen Rain face to face and also never doubted it. Indeed, she hated him for it. Canadian witnesses describe Rain brandishing a war club during the dance when Sitting Bull first conferred with General Alfred Terry. Rain was bragging of the many soldiers he had killed at the Little Bighorn, just as he did in the Coney Island interview. Had Rain lied about this, he would have been ridiculed, as was the custom among the Lakota—brag all you want, but speak the truth. Mary Collins, a Congregationalist missionary, spoke to Rain on his deathbed after he had converted to Christianity and found his past killings worrisome. Rain was not bragging anymore, and she wrote that she believed him. Rain may have denied having killed Tom Custer to stay off the scaffold when he spoke to whites. At age 60 on Coney Island in 1894, when he spoke to W. Kent Thomas, Rain had one wife, no kids and was crippled. He was washed up. He was also somewhat drunk, which doesn’t seem to make any Indians I’ve known dishonest. Rain told Thomas the picture of the battle was a lie, like everything else white people said, and then described pretty much the same battle Richard Allan Fox Jr. and Doug Scott discovered in the 1980s with metal detectors and forensic archaeology.
The August 2017 Western Enterprise article “Stagecoach Drivers Were Frontier Royalty,” by John Koster, was very interesting. Mary Fields (pictured at right) was not included. She was the first black woman employed by the U.S. Postal Service (1895) as a mail carrier. Her nickname was “Stagecoach Mary.”
Mary Louise Slonaker
The editor responds: We published a story on Mary Fields in the February 1996 Wild West. When she delivered the mail in 1880s Montana between Cascade and Saint Peter’s Mission, she apparently used a horse and wagon, not a stagecoach.