Kenneth Finkel still remembers the day, when he was in the third or fourth grade, that he spoke up during a discussion about the Battle of the Little Big Horn and Custer's Last Stand.
Finkel had recently been told by his father, an avid history enthusiast, that one of their relatives, Kenneth's great-great-uncle, Frank Finkel, had fought in the battle and lived to tell the tale.
Laughter from his classmates was not the response he expected.
Washington County Historical Society President Kenneth E. Finkel discusses materials related to his great-great-uncle, Frank Finkel, believed by some to be the sole survivor of the infamous “Custer’s Last Stand.” The History Channel is presenting a special about him, entitled “Custer’s Last Man: I Survived Little Big Horn.”
The Marietta Times
Photo courtesy of Kenneth E. Finkel
Born in Washington County’s Union Township in 1854, Frank Finkel is believed by some to be the sole survivor of the infamous “Custer’s Last Stand” at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana.
"The teacher basically reprimanded me and told me that I shouldn't make up such stories," said Finkel, now 68 and president of the Washington County Historical Society.
Now, a documentary on the History Channel makes the case Kenneth Finkel tried to all those years ago - that one man, born in Washington County, lived through the battle known for having no survivors. "Custer's Last Man: I Survived Little Big Horn" aired earlier this week and will be shown again at 6 p.m. Saturday.
"It's kind of vindication," Kenneth said.
When to watch
"Custer's Last Man: I Survived Little Big Horn"
6 p.m. Saturday, The History Channel.
A DVD is also for sale at shop.history.com
Other Washington County connections
Will Dye of Marietta was killed in the battle.
Levi Thornberry of Palmer Township went with another company when Custer divided his forces, and survived.
On June 25, 1876, Custer and 264 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were attacked by a force of as many as 3,000 Native Americans. Within an hour, the soldiers were dead - all except one, according to some historians.
According to Kenneth and others, like historian John Koster, author of "Custer Survivor," that man was Frank Finkel, born Jan. 29, 1854, between Lowell and Churchtown, in what was then Union Township.
"There's no doubt in my mind because my dad always said Frank, his character was so impeccable ... it would just be totally against his nature, of what he knew of him, for Frank to tell a bold-faced lie," Kenneth said.
Unlike some who make up fanciful stories to boost their own stature, Frank Finkel didn't paint himself as a hero.
"He accounts his survival to fortunate accidents," Kenneth said.
Frank Finkel claimed that during the battle, a bullet shattered the stock of his carbine, flinging splinters into his forehead. Shots also cut one of the reins and struck his horse, causing the animal to gallop through the Indian lines. Kenneth said the gunshot wounds his great-great-uncle suffered - in the back and heel - are consistent with being fired on from behind as his horse dashed off.
Away from the battle, Frank Finkel came upon a cabin occupied by two men who were at first wary of him, but took him in and nursed his wounds. One of the men, himself gravely ill, supposedly instructed the other in how to cauterize Finkel's wound with pine pitch, Kenneth said.
Although the story has been told many times before the History Channel production, it was decades before Finkel made the claim.
Around 1920, he was entertaining some friends at his Walla Walla, Wash., home when they began arguing over the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Finkel told them they didn't know anything about the battle and, when pressed for how he did know, he told them.
Kenneth said he can understand why his great-great-uncle kept the tale to himself for more than 40 years.
"Since he didn't report back in after he got back, he would have been classified as a deserter and that was punishable by death," he said.
Finkel did attempt to obtain a discharge at a fort, Kenneth said. However, he was told he had to have the form signed by an officer from his unit - all of whom were dead.
Finkel's story is not accepted as fact by all researchers. One problem is that his name was not on the rolls of any of the units involved in the battle.
Kenneth said his ancestor enlisted in the Army when he was 20, even though the legal age for enlistment is 21. Because of that he likely used an assumed name.
At one point it was claimed Finkel enlisted as "Frank Hall." Kenneth notes there are records of a man by that name but he was nearly a foot shorter than Finkel. He also claimed he went by "August Finckle," and analysis of their signatures by handwriting experts has shown they are the same man, according to Koster's book.
"It was ... almost 50 years later that he brings out the story," Kenneth said. "And it's a good possibility that he didn't remember" the name he used.
Local historian Louise Zimmer researched Frank Finkel for her 1993 book "More True Stories from Pioneer Valley" and included an entire chapter on Custer's Last Stand.
Zimmer said she is inclined to believe Finkel's claims, noting there were not many ways to definitively identify someone in the 19th century.
"You were who you said you were," she said, pointing to the lack of DNA testing, fingerprints, Social Security numbers and driver's licenses. "No matter what you've got in black and white, nobody (saying it today) was actually there."
Zimmer said another criticism of Finkel's tale was his recollection of a skirmish line being hastily formed during the battle. Historians said where the bodies were found didn't fit with that claim. However, the discovery of bullets and other material at the site after a wildfire in the 1980s supported Finkel's account.
"They found the evidence that there had been a line formed right where he said," Zimmer said.
Other criticisms have focused on inconsistencies in Finkel's story and known facts and his refusal to meet with other soldiers who were at Little Big Horn.
Zimmer was pleased with the documentary, which she said didn't provide a definitive answer.
"They didn't actually conclude yea or nay," Zimmer said.
Kenneth agreed that the documentary leaves viewers to decide the facts for themselves, but he feels certain of his ancestor's claims.
"He never, ever changed any part of his story," said Kenneth, noting the elder Finkel shunned many interviews and did not seek to capitalize on his notoriety.