South Bend, Indiana
January 11, 2007
Many Thanks to Ida Chipman for graciously allowing us to reproduce this article.

Custer's last message?
Dispatch rider from Little Bighorn spent final years in Plymouth.

John Albert Martin was a dispatch rider attached to Gen. Crook's 5th Cavalry during the Indian Wars.
He eventually settled in Marshall County.

Tribune Correspondent

PLYMOUTH -- No one survived. From an American military perspective, Custer's Last Stand was among the biggest blunders of all time.

Some 200 soldiers and scouts rode into an ambush by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors near the Little Bighorn River in Montana on June 25, 1876.

By some estimates, 75 Indians died in the fight, too, but it was a major victory for Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors because not a single white man survived to tell the story.

In the decades that have passed, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's tactics at Little Bighorn have been examined in 40 movies and more than 1,000 books.

One part of the legend that hasn't been resolved is who carried Custer's final message asking for more help just before he sent his 7th Cavalry to its annihilation.

Marshall County has at least a place in that discussion with John Albert Martin, who is buried in Plymouth's Oakhill Cemetery.

His tombstone reads: "John Martin -- Ohio Pvt. 5 Cav. Indian War January 9, 1928."

At the base is a bronze plaque installed by the Marshall County Historical Society with the inscription, "Bearer of Custer's Last Message: Battle of the Little Big Horn."

But was he really?

There is no doubt that the John Albert Martin who lies under the fancy plaque in Plymouth was a dispatch rider.

Attached to Gen. George Crook's 5th Cavalry, he did carry messages to Custer.

But 79 years after his death, there are no reports of him claiming he carried that final message.

In an interview in The Plymouth Daily Democrat on June 5, 1926, he told how he was dispatched by Crook to deliver a message to Custer, "and while I was there, the fight took place."

In that story, he does not speak of delivering a message from Custer.

But according to the newspaper article:

"Mr. Martin has a nationwide distinction in that he was the last man to speak with General Custer before he went into his fatal battle with the Indians."

Other accounts say the final messenger probably was a different John Martin.

Giovanni Martini, a trumpeter attached to the 7th Cavalry, also is listed as Custer's orderly. His name was Anglicized to John Martin on Army records.

Custer reportedly barked his orders to adjutant William Cooke, who wrote them down for Martini.

Discovering he was greatly outnumbered and just before the bloody engagement, Custer sent a message to Capt. Frederick Benteen.

The note read: "Benteen, come on -- big village -- be quick -- bring packs. P.S. bring pacs." The packs (pacs) referred to the cantankerous ammunition mules.

Years later, sitting in his rocker on his front porch at 801 W. Washington St., puffing on his pipe, John Albert Martin would talk about his adventures and what he knew about the massacre at Little Bighorn.

He would tell how Custer made some really bad mistakes.

First off, he disregarded the scout's advice and underestimated the enemy.

He had planned for an attack on a small Sioux village. Indian scouts saw the soldiers coming and began to strike their lodges and get their women and children out of the way.

Custer, afraid they would escape him if he waited, made his second big error by dividing his small army into three groups -- his own, Maj. Marcus Reno's and Capt. Benteen's.

The general ordered Reno to cross the river and charge the village while he would go behind the bluff and cut off their retreat.

Custer expected to find a cluster of 75 or 100 lodges; he found a village of 1,500 to 2,000, swarming with warriors.

Custer was trapped. His troops fell back. There was no place to defend themselves.

His men and their horses were exhausted. The general had ridden them over 70 miles with very few breaks (apparently against orders from his superiors).

They were easy prey.

Martin described the carnage he saw on the battlefield when he and other troops arrived and said, "Gen. Crook came with his army after the fight was over and drove Sitting Bull across into Canada.

"The march northward," he said, "gave me no great pleasure to recall."

For the next 28 days, the men had nothing to eat but raw horse meat. They couldn't even build a fire, as the smoke would signal their whereabouts to hostile Indians.

Martin also told his children of other fights. One was in the Little Bighorn region with Chief Rain-in-the-Face.

"I remember," he said to his boys, "Christmas Day in 1876. Apaches were good at ambushing solitary riders. I was bushwhacked. My horse plunged into a ravine full of 'em.

"They got one boot -- but not me," he told his sons.

Martin, who was born in England on March 4, 1849, had grown up in a Cleveland orphanage.

He had enlisted in the Army in Arizona in 1872 at the age of 23.

He had hoped he'd be assigned to familiar Sioux territory. Instead he was attached to Gen. Crook's 5th Cavalry.

Said to be "smart and resourceful" he became a dispatch rider, adept at eluding the wily Apache warriors of Geronimo and Cochise.

He earned a reputation as a trustworthy soldier.

A photocopy from the National Archives of his Army enlistment and subsequent discharge five years later, on May 24, 1877, gives his occupation as a farmer.

He was described as a fair-complected, light-haired, blue-eyed male, standing 5-foot-5 4. Wiry and tough, he weighed about 150 pounds. All muscle.

After his five years with the Army, he carried mail for the government with the Pony Express in Montana for a few years. He left the West in 1883, after a series of colorful and exciting adventures and came to Indiana, where he met and married Virtue Cole, an Argos farm girl.

She was 19, he was 39. They had nine sons and one daughter.

After farming for awhile, he became a railroad engine hostler in Plymouth. A number of his progeny still live in the area now.

They would include grandsons Ron and Phil Martin, of Plymouth, and Terry Martin, of Bourbon; and great-grandchildren Phil Martin, of Nappanee, twins Chris and Kelly Martin, of Elkhart; PJ. Martin, of Plymouth, and Jon Martin, of Warsaw.

Two of his great-grandchildren are in the service -- Jeff Martin in the Air Force and Ben Martin in the Navy.

The tombstone of John Albert Martin is in Plymouth's Oakhill Cemetery. Beneath the stone is a bronze plaque installed by the Marshall County Historical Society with this inscription: "Bearer of Custer's Last Message. Battle of the Little Big Horn."
Tribune Photo IDA CHIPMAN

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