BILLINGS - In the heat of battle with an enemy dead at his feet, 19-year-old Northern Cheyenne warrior Limpy took the cartridge belt from a trooper who had dared threaten the village his people shared with the Lakota on the banks of the Little Bighorn River.
A cartridge belt was a valuable prize in a season rife with war. U.S. troops were moving in from east, west and south to force the Cheyenne and their allies onto reservations.
"In all of the belts taken from the dead men there were cartridges," Limpy's contemporary, Wooden Leg, told his biographer Thomas Marquis several decades after the June 25, 1876, battle. "I did not see nor hear of any belt entirely emptied of its cartridges."
Marquis, a lawyer, physician, photographer and writer, befriended many survivors of the battle as a government doctor at Lame Deer. In 1922, he began to probe their memories to chronicle their version of the Little Bighorn Battle. He learned sign language and consulted his elderly sources including Limpy, Wooden Leg and Bobtailed Horse on every detail.
In 1927, more than 50 years after the battle, Limpy bequeathed his captured cartridge belt to Marquis. Marquis snapped a photograph of the old warrior holding the ragged souvenir and displayed it along with the belt in his private museum in Hardin.
Now it is part of a new display that Sharon Small, curator at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, is putting together at the visitor center museum near Crow Agency. Other items taken from the battlefield by the victors and later given to Marquis are also featured in a new display case.
"This is my favorite collection," Small said of the Marquis photographs and artifacts.
Marquis, who was meticulous in his documentation of Cheyenne history, photographed the objects in his collection with the people who gave them to him.
"Some of the text used in this exhibit is copies of original text used in Marquis' Custer Museum in 1931 in Hardin," Small said.
She's not quite finished with the exhibit. It's not as easy to view as she would like. But it is a unique piece of history.
In addition to Limpy and the cartridge belt, the exhibit includes a pair of Civil War-era saddle bags that Bobtailed Horse captured at the battle. The saddle bags were apparently given to Bobtailed Horse's brother, Hollow Wood. Hollow Wood's wife, Minnie, either gave or sold them to Marquis. The exhibit includes a picture of Minnie holding the saddle bags in 1927.
The caption that Marquis included with the picture said: "Bobtailed Horse was one of the four Cheyenne warriors who rode out into the river to stop the entry of Custer's battalion (gray horse troop) into their camp at the lower end of the big village on the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876. The others were Roan Bear, Mad Wolf, Calf and White Shield. This delayed Custer's charge until sufficient numbers of additional warriors could ride into the fight and force the soldiers to retreat to the hilltop."
Also included behind the display glass is a bag fashioned from the leather of a 7th Cavalry boot.
"All of the soldier boots were taken from them," Wooden Legs told Marquis. "But they were not worn by the Indians. The bottoms were cut off and discarded. Only the tops were used. These made good leather pouches, or the leather was cut up to make something else."