Custer Controversy

…and Fort Benton

June 22, 1876

Mary Adams (1852-1882) and Maria Adams (1849-1939), respectfully, were mixed race free blacks.  By 1875 both women worked for General and Mrs. George Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln.  In June 1876 Mary Adams accompanied Custer as his cook on the Sioux expedition.  She was present on June 22 when General Terry and Custer met for the last time.  Mary later swore an affidavit for the Army regarding what she had heard during that fateful final meeting, quoting General Terry as saying to Custer, “Use our own judgment and do what you think best.”  This has become crucial testimony in confirming that Custer in fact had a free hand going into his disastrous last campaign.  Historians discounted Mary’s testimony for may years because they knew an “M. Adams” had remained at Fort Lincoln with Mrs. Elizabeth Custer.  They considered that as proof that no Adams cook was in company with General Custer.  Finally in the 1970’s, Editor Joel F. Overholser, of the Fort Benton River Press, discovered proof that there were in fact two “M. Adams”.  Historians finally accepted Mary’s testimony and based on that concluded that Custer had not gone against orders given by General Terry, but rather used his own judgment.  After the death of General Custer, Mary and Maria were released by Mrs. Custer.  In 1878 they heard of the boom days and good wages at Fort Benton, so the adventurous young women took passage on the steamboat Nellie Peck.

On arrival, Mary began working for the I.G. Baker & Company store.  After leaving for a short time she returned to Fort Benton, seriously ill to live in a house she and Maria owned.  She passed away at the age of 30 and was buried in Fort Benton.  Maria Adams met and married a lively young black man, John “Duke”. In Fort Benton Duke operated his “elegant” shop in the Grand Union Hotel and as a barber in the Civil war had the distinction of having shaved three presidents, Buchanan, Lincoln, and Grant. They had two children.  Marie Adams Dutriueille died at the age of 90 in Great Falls in 1939.

Ken Robinson

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