Collector's Corner - Little Bighorn Native Capture Gun

Collector's Corner - Little Bighorn Native Capture Gun

Posted by Jim Olson on May 20th 2022

Imagine if you will the tale of a gun. It’s a Springfield Model 1873 carbine which was issued in 1874 through the Springfield Armory. A gun that was issued to a member of the Seventh Cavalry. A carbine that, as it turned out, was carried into battle on June 25th, 1876 in Montana—at the battle of the Little Bighorn!

On that fateful summer day in 1876, every member of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry fell at the hands of the Native American warriors. It was one of the worst losses the United States Army ever suffered. The soldier who carries this weapon, just like all other members under Custer’s charge, did not survive. Here is what has been found out about our gun over the years.

The carbine in this tale was picked up from the battlefield by a Native American warrior and spirited away as a spoil of war. The Native American warrior who wound up with this gun was named High Eagle. A member of the Sioux tribe, he was only about 14 at the time. High Eagle was later noted by historians as a well-documented participant in the battle. High Eagle is also historically linked to the Sitting Bull arrest during the Ghost Dance uprising at Pine Ridge and also Wounded Knee.

High Eagle obviously cherished this gun as is evident by its tacked decorations and well-worn appearance. It even has a small “H” tacked into the stock using brass nails. It also has an old repair using wire and tacks to strengthen the wrist area of the stock, a standard Native American style “fix” in the 1800s. It is very much a “Native” looking gun from the period.

At some point, after the advent of smokeless powder in 1895, somebody put a smokeless powder cartridge in this gun and tried to use it—causing and explosion which blew off the breechblock and rear sight! Most of the brass casing is still lodgedin the barrel (the brass casing being a good indicator this accident happened later as copper casings would have been used around the time of the battle). The gun must have meant quite a bit to High Eagle, because even after it became unusable, he kept the weapon.

High Eagle lived a long life and in 1951, for the 75th anniversary of the battle ofLittle Bighorn, Life Magazine did an article in which High Eagle was mentioned as being one of the last surviving participants of the battle. There is even a photo of him in the article. He is also mentioned in the Book, “Sitting Bull - Champion of the Sioux” by Stanley Vestal. High Eagle was well-known as being one of the last authentic Sioux warriors living into modern times.

Through circumstances unknown to us, High Eagle became close to a man named William Fowler. The story handed down through the years is that High Eagle helped raise Mr. Fowler. What we do know is that after High Eagle passed on to the Happy Hunting Grounds, Mr. Fowler inherited the carbine.

Mr. William Fowler subsequently passed away and in 1965, the weapon was purchased at his estate sale by a school teacher and collector named Gary Holtus. Gary was told by the local Sheriff at the sale that Mr Fowler had been close to an old Sioux Warrior named High Eagle and the gun had belonged to High Eagle (no connection to the Little Bighorn was mentioned at the time that we know of).

Gary Holtus never bothered to find out any further information on High Eagle and he kept the weapon until 1970, when he sold it to a man named Dick Harmon. The history of the Custer battle connection and who High Eagle had been, faded with the passage of time. Both Mr. Holtus and Mr. Harmon were just happy to add a Native American used and decorated weapon to their collections, neither realizing at the time what a piece of history they possessed.

As it turned out, in 1984, Dr. Douglas Scott who was then head of the Rocky Mountain Division, Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service, asked Dick Harmon to join him as the firearms expert for the archeological project at the Little Bighorn battlefield, as Dick was a noted historical firearms expert.

While doing research about the incident, Dick Harmon was shocked to realize the gun he had bought all those years earlier fell into the serial number range of weapons issued to Custer‘s Seventh Calvary. Other serial numbers very close to his gun were being historically linked to the battle. Further research revealed that the Native American named High Eagle was in fact at the Little Bighorn and then the research began on who High Eagle was. Imagine his delight and surprise as each piece of the puzzle was uncovered and fell into place!

Given the serial number of the carbine and a bunch of other circumstantial evidence he found out about the weapon, Dick Harmon and Dr. Douglas Scott were able to put two and two together and conclude this very gun had been a Native captured gun from the battle and it had wound up with High Eagle! They were able to re-connect the story for the first time in many years!

Dick Harmon kept this gun until the year 2001 when he sold it to a man named Ken Stasiak, who has kept it in his collection for the last 20-plus years. Ken has been a good steward of the carbine and kept all of the documentation and provenance together with it—which amounts to a good bit.

Now, Ken is ready to offer this Historical weapon to somebody else. Some lucky person will have the opportunity, for the first time in over two decades, to become the new curator of this gun. And, the new buyer will only be the fifth person to own the gun since High Eagle wound up with it after the battle all those years ago! A stack of letters and documentation/evidence comes with the purchase.

Western Trading Post is proud to offer this historical Springfield Trapdoor Carbine for auction on June 18th, 2022 during the “Advanced Collector’s Auction.” Who knows, maybe you could be the one to carry the tale of this gun forward!