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Firsthand account of Custer's death among UND's historical treasures

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Chief Joseph White Bull's self-illustrated account of his killing of Gen. George Custer. The document is housed in UND Special Collections. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Curt Hanson with the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections displays a scrapbook that includes paintings by Fannie Mahood Heath. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

A methodical Curt Hanson carefully clears a space on the end of a large table on the fourth floor of UND's Chester Fritz Library.

The chief archivist for the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections takes no chances as he removes a can of Mountain Dew and a coffee cup filled with water. A nearby pen must be traded for a pencil, too, before he disappears behind a locked door.

"For this, the gloves come out," he says upon returning with a flat manila package. "If the building burns down tomorrow, I think this is what will be missed the most."

Only after all is safely clear, Hanson slips on the protective white gloves and gingerly opens the four flaps of the cardboard envelope. Inside is a historic treasure.

Others have viewed copies of it at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but Hanson holds the real thing. This is the complete handwritten, illustrated ledger of Chief Joseph White Bull, nephew of Sitting Bull and the man who claims to have killed Gen. George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

"From a historical perspective, this is the most valuable piece we have because it is so incredibly unique and it deals with a very important and controversial part of American history," Hanson says.

History and origins

The story long referred to as Custer's Last Stand is deeply ingrained in American legend.

Against orders and despite scout warnings he could be outnumbered by as many as 2,500 Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in Montana Territory, Custer divided his regiment of 647 men and attacked. It was a terrible mistake. Custer and 262 of his men were surrounded and quickly annihilated.

Hanson says it was Usher Burdick, father of North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick, who commissioned the ledger in August 1931. Burdick was passionate about history and paid the 81-year-old White Bull $50 to record his life in words and pictures.

The hardcover black ledger — 10½ by 15 inches in size — is gold-stamped with the title "Sioux History in Pictures by White Bull" and includes 50 pages of color-pencil drawings and storytelling in White Bull's native Lakota language. A separate translation is included in "The Warrior Who Killed Custer," a book written by UND professor Thomas Howard.

"It truly isn't anything that can be definitively proven from a historical point of view, but it is just an amazing document," Hanson says before reading aloud the entry "White Bull Kills Long Hair Four." (Long Hair the name tribes gave Custer, and four representing the fourth pictograph in the series.)

"I am the son of Makes Room, the nephew of Sitting Bull. One Bull is my brother. I was 26 years old at the time. This is White Bull. I grabbed him and killed him. I counted first coup. He hit me with his fist and hurt me, and then he grabbed my braids. I grabbed his carbine and killed him with it. I was scared, but I finally succeeded. The soldier was Long Hair."

In his own words, Hanson continues: "This is fascinating because the Battle of Little Bighorn was such an important battle to the history of the settlement of the American West.

"People still argue about it today. They write magazine and journal articles. They write books. There are umpteen documentaries on the History Channel about this one specific battle ... and here White Bull claims to be the warrior who killed Custer at this incredibly important battle."

Hanson says he often pulls out the ledger when classrooms come to visit. Jaws drop. But there are many more treasures to be found for those willing to explore Special Collections.

The department named for the longtime UND professor who wrote the definitive book on North Dakota history covers most of the library's fourth floor. It includes extensive archival collections for well-known politicians

such as William "Wild Bill" Langer.

"Some people thought he was great, a true man of the people who was concerned for the average Joe," Hanson said. "And some people thought he was corrupt."

Langer's collection takes 900 boxes. A more recent collection from Sen. Byron Dorgan is so large — 1,700 boxes in all — it must be stored off site.

A treat for gardeners might be the detailed photo scrapbooks and letters from Grand Forks County pioneer Fannie Mahood Heath, known worldwide as "the flower woman of North Dakota." Determined to make something grow in the bare alkaline soil on her farm, she documented, sketched and photographed hundreds of flowers, plants, fruits and trees — sharing and trading seeds with others from as far away as London.

Much to enjoy

Hanson says more than 1,500 people came to pore over papers at Special Collections last year and three times as many researched via email from afar.

"We've never hit all 50 states in a single year, but we've been close," he said. "I think we hit 43 states in one year, and we had nine foreign countries."

In the temperature-controlled vault, archive boxes are cataloged and neatly stacked to the ceiling along rows of shelves.

Detailed papers, diaries, financial records, letters, meeting minutes, cemetery logs, photographs, video, audio, reel-to-reel, film strips, beta, VHS, DVD. There is history in every imaginable format.

Hanson said the department mainly collects materials related to North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, but it crosses the globe for its extensive "bygdeboker." With more than 1,700 volumes of history written by locals in Norway, he said it's one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind.

Fellow archivist Michael Swanson says he gets up to five requests each week from people researching their genealogy.

Unlike items throughout the rest of the library building, nothing here can be checked out.

"We stress preservation in everything we do, but what we try to do is preserve and make available things people want to read and research — not just look at from behind glass walls."

If you go

Hours are from 8 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The department includes permanent exhibits such as the one featuring the 164th Infantry Regiment from World War II, the Douglas E. Erickson Chinese Clothing Collection and the East Asian Room — a gift from Chester Fritz that includes ornate furniture and artwork from the Orient.

A brand-new exhibit remembers the 27 members of the UND Student Army Training Corps who died in the flu epidemic of 1918.