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Unit 3: Set 6: Section 3: The Great Agricultural Debate - Colonel Custer

Introduction | General Hazen | New York Times | Colonel Custer

Colonel Custer
Colonel George Armstrong Custer was a
well-known Army officer of both the Civil
War and the western frontier. He opposed
General Hazenís views on the poor agricultural
promise of the Missouri River country. 75-245

George Armstrong Custer took command of Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1873. From this post, he accompanied engineers of the Northern Pacific Railroad on their surveying expeditions to the Yellowstone River, explored the Black Hills, and ultimately marched his command to the deadly battle at the Little Big Horn River.

Custer opposed Hazen’s views on the agricultural potential of the northern Great Plains. Though his experience on the northern plains was not as extensive as Hazen’s, and Fort Abraham Lincoln was a relatively new post which did not have 8 years of records, he made strong arguments about why Hazen was wrong and gave a very positive view of the future of Dakota. He established his credentials as a competent commentator on the topic, by presenting notes from the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873 (from Fort Abraham Lincoln to western Montana), and asserted his personal experience on an Indiana farm in his youth.

Custer sent his letter to the Minneapolis Tribune which published the letter on April 17, 1874.
Here are excerpts from that letter:

. . . The agricultural lands which are peculiarly valuable as such are to be found east of the Missouri River, while the lands west of the Missouri are regarded as being valuable for purposes of grazing, and as a mineral region. . . .

My diary [of the Yellowstone expedition] shows that my command encamped every night, with a single exception, where wood, water and grass were to be had. The horses of my command [more than 3000 animals] were put out to graze every evening, their allowance of grain in consequence being reduced to less than one-third. The beef cattle subsisted entirely upon the grazing obtained by them after the arriving in camp in the evening. And their condition was good. . . .

For upwards of a hundred and fifty miles, after leaving the Missouri, we marched day after day over a beautiful and rolling country, by a route, which, under ordinary circumstances, would be entirely practicable for a lady’s [carriage]. Up to the dividing line, which is as distinctly marked as the opening furrow through a beautiful meadow, we rode without obstacle to where at our very feet, spread out before us, lay the wonderful awe-inspiring “Bad Lands” which, at first glance seemed impassable to man or beast. Yet we found a route for our immense wagon train to pass through without scarcely displacing a shovelfull of earth except in repeated crossings of a water-course. . . .

I have seen . . . at a great many points both in the “Bad Lands” of the Little Missouri and in those of the Yellowstone, the exposed veins of coal which future development could and will render of incalculable value to the adjacent country. . . .

. . . I will make one statement which can be applied generally to the country between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, along the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad, embracing about 225 miles of territory. From this I will deduct the two narrow strips of “Bad Lands,” the “exceptional waste tracts” running up and down the valley of the Little Missouri and the east side of the valley of the Yellowstone – in all say a belt twenty-five miles wide – deduct this, which as I have before stated, will never be valuable or fit for agricultural purposes; and the residue, taken as a immense area, constitutes as fine a grazing region as I have ever seen. We occupied but one camp which did not possess the three requisites of wood, water, and grass in sufficient quantities.

Custer cited a letter written to him by Brevet Major General W. P. Carlin who was in command at Fort Abraham Lincoln during the Yellowstone Expedition. Carlin wrote to Custer:

“We broke up eight acres for our garden in May, 1873, it was the first breaking. It was harrowed for the purpose of tearing the sod, and planted partly in May and partly in June. Last spring was considered a very late one – from two weeks to a month later than usual.

“We planted potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, cabbages, squashes, cucumber, water melons, muskmelons, radishes, lettuce, onions, beans, peas, tomatoes, egg plant and Minnesota early corn. The corn matured and was consumed long before frost. Some of the water melons ripened before frost though not of an early kind. The troops had all of the vegetables they could use until about the 21st of September when the garden was taken by the troops and teamsters of the Yellowstone expedition. I never saw a more luxuriant growth of vegetables than we had in the garden last year. If it had been broken the year before and planted early and some care had been taken to protect the melon and tomato vines with boxes, the top of which should have had and abundance of melons and tomatoes. No irrigation was required here last year. Rains were frequent and copious. As you are aware the garden was on the bench about thirty feet above the river. The old post where the infantry are now stationed is about two hundred and ninety feet above the river. On this high point I sowed a strip of oats about two feet wide, two hundred feet in length. The oats grew to about thirty inches in height, though thickly sown and matured early. Better oats could not be found.”

Custer continued:

. . . General Hazen has attempted to convey the impression to the uninformed reader that he writes from and of a point on the Northern Pacific Railroad and within its land grant when in fact he was at least 120 miles north of the located line and 200 miles west of the westernmost acre owned by the railroad company. He implies and endeavors to make his readers understand that the Northern Pacific Railroad Company is endeavoring to build a railroad through the region adjacent to Fort Buford, and that the company is trying to convince the public that said region is unfit for agriculture, when the facts are that the Company thoroughly examined this Buford region, rejected it as unfit for its purpose, and has never . . . wished to convey the impression, that this region is desirable for agriculture, or anything else.

Temperature Chart
Custer used a similar chart to explain the difference in temperatures between Fort Abraham Lincoln (on the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad) and Fort Buford.

Date / Temperature (degrees Fahrenheit)

Fort Buford

Fort A. Lincoln

Fort Rice

July 1873

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August 1873

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September 1873

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October 1873

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November 1873

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December 1873

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