Robert Utley Talks Billy, Custer and Sitting Bull

51OUes2fB2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_-2  Readers, I’m honored Robert Utley agreed to this interview. He’s a fine historian who has written many books about the American West and has been universally recognized as an authority.

  Q–Mr. Utley, I read your book on Billy the Kid, A Short and Violent Life, published in 1989. You seemed sympathetic toward the Kid and somewhat admiring. Is that the way you feel?

 A–I didn’t mean to appear sympathetic. I just wanted to find who he really was. He was not an admirable boy, in my judgment. One can admire several events in his life, such as when he took a leadership role in the burning McSween house in Lincoln in 1879 and led the group in a dash to safety amid heavy gunfire from surrounding deputy sheriffs.

 Q–I recently read some historian (can’t remember who) who claimed no one really knows what Billy did and didn’t do. For instance, there’s no evidence he was the one who killed Olinger and Bell when he escaped from a room at the Lincoln County Courthouse where he was being held. 

Robert Ollinger
Robert Olinger

 It was pointed out that an accomplice could have killed the lawmen.

A–This is all part of the clouds of myth that settled on Billy in the 20th century. I know many things Billy did and didn’t do and wrote them down in a book. Billy did kill Bell and Olinger. There is ample evidence of that.

The people in the Wortley Hotel ran to the front porch as Olinger ran under the window from which Billy shot him.

They were eyewitnesses, and some left their recollections, including Godfrey Gauss, the old German who lived behind the courthouse.

And nearly the whole town gathered to hear Billy’s speech from the courthouse balcony. 

The Lincoln County courthouse. Billy gave his speech from the balcony, seen here.
The Lincoln County courthouse. Billy gave his speech from the balcony, seen here.

(Readers, according to Utley, Billy told witnesses, “..he did not want to kill Bell but, as he ran, he had to. He said he had grabbed Bell’s revolver and told him to hold up his hands and surrender; that Bell decided to run and he had to kill him. He declared he was ‘standing pat’ against the world; and, while he did not wish to kill anybody, if anybody interfered with his attempt to escape he would kill him.”)

Q–It has also been alleged that Billy was not necessarily the same person who was born in New York City (as many believe) and no evidence who his mother was. 

Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett

What do you think? 

A–I believe he was born in New York City of Irish immigrant parents, but much of this story has been shown to rest on almost no evidence.

Q–Then why do you believe it?

A–I believe it because it is the most plausible explanation derived from all the meticulous research done by those who want it all in detail.

Lew Wallace
Lew Wallace

 Q–Why didn’t Governor Lew Wallace keep his word to give the kid amnesty?

 A–He lacked the power to grant amnesty but could have issued a pardon, which he failed to do immediately. Then Billy turned to outlawry, which made it impossible for the governor to honor his promise.

 Also, the only evidence we have for the meeting between Billy and the governor is a 1901 newspaper interview with Wallace. Nothing in his papers touches on the subject. His memory may have dimmed, and he may have exaggerated because Billy had become a well-known personage.

 I believe Wallace failed to keep his promise while Billy honored his.

Q–Where did the letters from the kid to Wallace come from?

A–They were obtained from Wallace’s son by historian Maurice Garland Fulton. The text appears Fulton’s book and several others. 51FV7NZ8XHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Q–How do you assess Geronimo? Some see him as a hero and some as a liar and murderer.

A–Geronimo was an Apache, a vastly different culture than our own. So he was a hero to some of his people and a villain to others. Of course he was a killer; that was the Apache way.

And he did lie on occasion. But you have to distinguish between the Geronimo before his surrender and the celebrity Geronimo became after his surrender.

One of many examples (of lying): The final Chiricahua outbreak from the reservation. The other chiefs did not want to go. Geronimo told them he had arranged to have the lieutenant in charge assassinated, then told them it had been accomplished. The chiefs knew what would happen next, so went in the outbreak. 


 As Mangas said, Geronimo “tricked them.”

 Arthur_K_Miller_General_George_Armstrong_Custer_1876_2671_385 Q–I’ve interviewed historians who believe George Custer was a good general who fell into unfortunate circumstances at the Little Big Horn (too many Sioux, too many unreliable officers) and some who believe Custer made disastrous decisions at the Little Big Horn.

 Then there are the Custer haters who believe Custer was a Indian-hating psychopath.

 How do assess this historical situation?

 A–Custer was not an Indian-hating psychopath or even a psychopath. In fact, he wrote of his admiration of Indians. He was an exceptional general in the Civil War–major general at 24. On the plains, he scored a couple of triumphs but was excellent at self-promotion, which created an image for the people back east.

At the Little Bighorn, I believe he might have won had he been properly supported by Major Reno and Captain Benteen. 

Marcos Reno
Marcos Reno

One must take into account the nature of Indian warfare. When surprised, as the Sioux and Cheyenne were at Little Bighorn, they scatter to take care of their families rather than fight in a unified manner. That makes them vulnerable to a smaller, organized force.

In all battles, however, if defeated the commander is at fault. And so Custer must be judged at the Little Bighorn.

Q–Was Custer really unfaithful to Libbie and was he unfaithful with an Indian woman?

A–This is controversial. I believe, and so contended in my biography of Custer, that he was sleeping with the Cheyenne Monaseeta while in camp after the Washita fight. 

George and Libbie
George and Libbie

Q–Why do you believe it?

A–Cheyenne oral tradition, Benteen, who was in the camp, and interpreter Raphael Romero, who was Custer’s “procurer.”


 Q–Some historians believe Reno and Benteen were good officers and some believe one or both made cowardly decisions at LBH, leading to the massacre.

 Which do you believe?

 A–This historian believes that they were mediocre officers who disliked Custer enough to fail to give him proper support. They didn’t make “cowardly” decisions, but they did not act as they should have.

 I do not believe they were good officers, although Benteen had a fine record in the Civil War.

 Q–You wrote Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. Did you choose this title? Why is Sitting Bull referred to as an American Patriot?

 A–No, I did not choose the cover or the title. The book was first published in 1993 as The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull51L89M9KQOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

 After a run with hardcover, it was published in the same format by Ballantine as a paperback. When that ran out, the advance on royalties had also run out, so I receive full royalty for every book sold.

 But the original publisher, Henry Holt, put it out as an Owl Paperback. The size is greatly reduced, the  title is changed, and the cover is much less effective.

Q–Many historians have written books about Sitting Bull, and some of them have said he was a medicine man who acted in an inspirational role at Little Big Horn, and some have said he was a war chief who laid plans for the Sioux war against the cavalry.

What do you believe?

A–Sitting Bull was indeed a medicine man, but far more. He was one of the few who practiced the four cardinal virtues of the Lakotas: Bravery, fortitude, generosity, wisdom. He was an inspiration in whatever context. At the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse was the leading warrior.

by Thom Ross
by Thom Ross

  As an “old man” in his fifties, Sitting Bull was not expected to fight; leave that to the young men.

 But of course he ranged the battlefield and was an inspiration.

 He laid no plans for the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. By this time had counseled his people to act simply in a defensive mode–to fight only when attacked. Earlier he led in war against the encroaching whites.

 This is the point of the real title of the book: the lance for active war, the shield for defensive war.

 Q–Some historians admire The Texas Rangers, like, seemingly, Sam Gwynne (Empire of the Summer Moon), and some believe the rangers were cold-blooded prejudiced killers.

Which do you believe?

A–I believe the Texas Rangers, both then and now, were fine lawmen. I have written two books with essentially that theme. 

Texas Rangers
Texas Rangers

Q–Did the Rangers really attack a Mexican town during the Mexican war and kill civilians and did they really tend to shoot down Hispanics more than White men?

(Personally, I believe the rangers practiced La Ley De Fuga with all fugitives)

A–You are not referring here to Rangers as lawmen.

A regiment of Rangers was federalized to fight in the Mexican War.

With other army units, this Texas regiment (they were referred to as the Texas Regiment) fought in the Battle of Monterey, in which they played a conspicuous part. 

Battle of Monterey
Battle of Monterey

 If civilians were killed it was part of battle in which non-Texans also participated. And no I think you are wrong in your assessment of “La Ley De Fuga.” As lawmen they did not single out Hispanics.

 Q–In your book Indian Wars, written with a co-author, you have this to say: “Washburn and I breasted the popular tide by trying to show that both Indians and Whites were products of their time and place, not ours…If war resulted, it was the collision of two ways of life, not the malevolent   $_35determination of one to overcome and victimize the other.”

 Do you still believe that?

 A–Yes, I do. Washburn and I wrote at a time that Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee conditioned the public to weep for the fate of the poor Indian against the aggressions of the white people.

 Rather it was as we wrote then and still is. 

Robert Utley
Robert Utley



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