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The Belonger Family History.

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A New Story About Custer

by Mary Virginia Armstrong as related by Gene Swinbank

This writing is a bit of true family history that might be of interest to our Belonger people today, and it may also interest the general public, because, in addition to touching upon the Civil War and the Custer Massacre on the Little Big Horn, it also reveals unrecorded side-lights of the personalities and the doings of General George Armstrong Custer, and four great Indian chiefs: Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse of the Dakotas, and Cochise and Geronimo of the Arizona southwest region — all of whom were Uncle Joe Belonger's personal friends.

Out of thirteen children, four of the Belonger boys served in uniform when Abe Lincoln called for volunteers. They were Sam, Mike, Louis, and Joe.

During Civil War days, little Mary Dominica Belonger (later well known in Lafayette County as Mrs. William Swinbank) lived with her father, Simon, and an older sister in a cabin located on what was then called The Branch, at the foot of the hill east of where Charlie Harty's big house stands today, on the southeast edge of Shullsburg, Wisconsin.

Shullsburg

The hill above the Belonger cabin was used for a training ground, and Little Mary was the pet of all the soldiers.

Uncle Mike Belonger was one of the soldiers in training. When they marched away to entrain for the battle-front the fife and drum men played, "The Girl I Left Behind Me," all the way from Shullsburg, Wisconsin to Apple River, Illinois, without one rest.

Uncle Mike said years later, "I was never so tired of a tune in my life," and, no wonder, because it took the soldiers at least three hours to march the eleven or twelve miles to the Apple River depot.

After the war, the famous Ole Bull, then the world's champion violin soloist said: "Mike Belonger has the world beat when it comes to playing reels, jigs, and clogs, on a fiddle."

Also, before the Civil War, in Galena, Illinois, Ulysses Simpson Grant, then engaged in farming, wood hauling and the leather business was heard to say that Mike Belonger was the best dance-fiddler on earth. H.B. Chamberlin, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin — an ex-soldier musician, heard Ulysses Grant say those words many times.

Sam Belonger, when a boy of 18, walked barefoot with a wagon train across the ground where Denver, Colorado now stands. There were only two cabins then. At one time, about six miles east of where Denver's capitol-building now stands, Sam Belonger and Buffalo Bill Cody, while on a scouting trip, were chased and surrounded by a war party of eight Indians. Their only chance to survive the fight was to shoot their horses and use the bodies for breastworks. Both Uncle Sam and Buffalo Bill, being dead shots with rifles, killed all eight Indians and escaped.

Later, Sam began mining with his brother, Louis, who went west at the close of the Civil War. They made good and became wealthy. At one time they both lived on what was called Millionaires' Row on Capitol Hill in Denver.

Sam and Louis, well known all over the West in the seventies, eighties and nineties as the Belonger Brothers, started the Golden Eagle Saloon. In every corner of each square foot of the big floor-space was inlaid a twenty-dollar gold coin. Soon, however, they found that the gold pieces were too soft to stand the wear of many hobnailed shoes and boots. They removed the gold pieces and replaced them with silver dollars and renamed the saloon The Silver Dollar. Later Sam became a peace officer while Louis remained in business.

Sam became an A-1 Western sheriff. He served a long time in the 1870's and 1880's. Later, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was hired as a peace officer at 750 dollars a month to clean up a bad gang of outlaws.

Sam, a huge man over 6'3" and a dead shot with both .45 and rifle cleaned up the outlaw gang without getting shot. But later, back in Denver, while arresting a bad-man-outlaw, there was gun-play and a .45 bullet, glancing from a stove, struck Sam in the left eye. As a result he lost the eye; then he quit sheriffing and went into mining again, where, in the early 1900's he and Louis operated the Forest Queen mine up in the mountains west of Denver.

The most adventurous of all the Belonger men was Joe. Joe, a quiet, soft-spoken man who bothered no one, was a dangerous man to rile up. Joe shot and killed two men who tried to kill him. One was a hard-boiled desperado, and the other a close relative of Chief Cochise, the famous Apache leader. The young warrior, in war paint and feathers, was about to shoot an arrow into Joe, when Joe, snapping a shot from the hip, killed the Indian, then dragged the body and the riding gear to a nearby quicksand, dumped it all in and turned the horse loose. If they had known who killed the young Indian, Joe Belonger wouldn't have lived very long.

Joe served many years as a part-time scout during our Indian wars under Chief Scout Buffalo Bill Cody. He also played in many a card game as Wild Bill Hickok's partner.

During the Civil War, Joe received a bullet, called a Minie-ball in his left hip. He carried that bullet with him to the grave.

For years Joe Belonger was a lone gold prospector to the Arizona and California deserts. He knew and had the friendship of all the Apaches, including Cochise and Mangus Colorado — and even the treacherous Geronimo, the most feared of all the Apaches. Many times in his lone desert camps parties of Apache Indians would stop and eat beans and bacon with him, and they always brought him plenty of fresh-killed meat. The Apaches called him Joe Straight Tongue because he never lied to an Indian.

At one time, Joe Belonger saved, single handed, a new settlement of 200 white people from massacre by Geronimo's outlaw band. Joe, alone and at the risk of capture and unspeakable torture, crept in darkness near enough to Geronimo's camp to hear the plans of the proposed raid upon the whites. At that time all the Apaches in the Southwest were on the warpath and had sworn death to all whites.

Joe, again risking capture, made his way over a mountain to the camp of his friend, Chief Cochise, who, by using Joe's scheme, persuaded Geronimo to wait four suns before raiding the settlement, till he (Cochise) received an expected message from the Great Spirit. That was Joe's clever ruse to hold off the massacre till the soldiers got there.

Joe Belonger joined the gold-rush to the Black Hill in 1874, and became a personal friend of both Sitting Bull, the great Sioux wars chief, and Crazy Horse, the powerful Ogalalla chief who commanded thousands of Northern Cheyenne warriors.

Joe, being quiet, friendly and honest enjoyed the good will and friendship of every Indian he met from the Sioux and Cheyennes in the Dakotas all the way down to the Mexican Border. Although a real hero of our early-day West, professional historians never heard of him because he never swaggered around talking about himself as many self-praising heroes do.

Easy going and fair dealing, Joe Belonger hadn't even one real enemy, red or white in all our great West. Only the other members of the Belonger family knew about his many brave acts of personal risk.

Joe always said that Cochise and Mangus Colorado were the best friends the white every had among the Apaches until certain arrogant white soldiers disgraced both the United States and their army uniforms by committing unpardonable acts of wanton cruelty against the reds which turned the two friendly chiefs and thousands of other Indians into ruthless white-man killers.

On one visit back to his old home in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, in 1927, Joe Belonger said, regarding Geronimo, the most deadly white-man-killer among all the Apaches: "In spite of all the cruelty of his Apache make up, it is only fair to say that many times when I was the only white man among a horde of red outlaws, Geronimo and his warriors treated me with respect. I could leave any of my belongings — even money, if I wanted to, in plain sight in the wickiup assigned to me, and not one Apache stole anything. And yet, maybe that very night parties of Geronimo's warriors would go out raiding and steal many horses, mules, or cows, and, in returning, would bring back four or five white scalps, and put on a scalp-dance that lasted the rest of the night."

Joe tried to enlist to go with General Custer into the battle that proved to be his last. If there had been enough horses and mules for all who wanted to go, Joe, with many other white men would have been killed along with Custer and his regular soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry.

Uncle Joe Belonger was on the Little Big Horn battle ground the day after General Custer's last fight. A great deal of controversy has been going on all these years about which Indians killed Custer and his men. Some claim it was the Sioux under Sitting Bull; others declare that it was the Cheyennes. The truth is that not one white soldier escaped to tell the story; and both Sioux and Cheyennes were so frightened at what they had done that they all scattered and ran. The few who did talk told so many different stories that no white man could believe anything they said.

To get the truth, that historians have been guessing at ever since that fatal day — June 25th 1876 — Joe Belonger questioned at least a hundred Sioux and Cheyenne children who had watched the battle in wide-eyed wonder. Those Indian children, every one of them, were Joe's friends, pals, and admirers.

It is a well-known psychological fact that if a grown-up person likes children, is kind to them, and treats them fairly and honestly, those children will tell that person the truth.

Those Indian children, every one, liked and trusted the gentle and friendly Joe Belonger. So, when Joe asked those Sioux and Cheyenne children to tell him all about Long Hair's big fight, they declared to the last child, in their earnest, childish ways, that while the Sioux under Sitting Bull had planned, intended, and were waiting ready to massacre Custer's whole outfit, it happened — because of an unexpected move on the part of General Custer — that a large war-party of Northern Cheyennes, led by the Ogalalla chief, Crazy Horse, happened to be closer to Custer than Sitting Bull and his ten-thousand warriors, so, the Cheyennes, who had made no plans whatever to kill Custer, found themselves with a chance to wipe out Custer's command — which they did to the last white soldier in approximately thirty minutes. The only human being to escape that death-charge of Crazy Horse and his war party of Cheyennes, was one friendly Crow scout called Curly.

The older Indian children went deeper, by tapping their foreheads and declaring to Joe Belonger, that they felt sure the white pony-soldiers must have all been crazy when, watching wide-eyed and speechless, those children saw Custer's small command of less than 300 men, climb down from horse-back and attack the Cheyenne camp, on foot, that held at least 2000 warriors ... and worse yet, when there were at least 10,000 Sioux braves under Sitting Bull close by, ready and waiting to charge into the fight.

According to earnest words from those eye-witnesses, Indian children who had no reason to lie, Long Hair and his small handful of soldiers might well have been considered as already dead the minute they dismounted and attacked hostile warriors numbering, all told, close to 15,000.

So it was, in spite of all official reports, that the soft-spoken, unassuming Joe Belonger learned the real truth about who killed Custer.

Joe, who kept his own counsel, told no one, except certain close relatives, the facts about Custer's death. This is the first public report. Today, as this piece is being typed in 1962, Gene Swinbank, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, is the only person living who heard Joe Belonger tell how he learned the real truth about General Custer and the Little Big Horn tragedy.

There is one more interesting fact about Joe Belonger. He was naturally gifted with music, and could play all instruments of that day, and he played them all good, by ear.

He could make small fife-like instruments out of dried hollow reeds. He taught hundreds of Indian children how to make those small musical toys, and how to play simple tunes like, "Home Sweet Home." He also taught the wild, red-kiddies to carve cute little baskets out of acorns and plum-stones. Those were only two of his many ways by which he won the friendship and the confidence of thousands of wild Indian children.

He met his death, an old man in his 90's, when a young Mexican bad-man stabbed him with a Bowie-knife in Seattle, Washington, and robbed him of 18,000 dollars in big bills that he had sewed inside the lining of his vest. The woman that Joe hired to sew the bills there told the Mexican about them.

Joe always said: "I've lived in the toughest towns in the West — Abilene, Dodge City, and all the rest, and I kept out of trouble by minding my own business and staying sober." Joe used to say, "That's my advice to all young men — mind your own business and don't get drunk."


Mary Virginia Armstrong is a great-grandniece of the Blonger Bros.

A note typed at the end of the original manuscript says: 

Mary Virginia Armstrong won the Pennebohm Award and citation from Governor Nelson for her contribution of this "Belonger Family History" in 1962.
A short news item, taken from this write-up, called "A New Story about Custer" was published in the Badger History magazine.

The item is found in the May, 1962, edition of the magazine, which published stories of historical interest written by Wisconsin schoolchildren.  Here is the text of that article:

A New Story About Custer
By MARY VIRGINIA ARMSTRONG, Grade 7, Pecatonica Pioneers
Holy Rosary School, Darlington
The story of the Belonger family gives personal glimpses of the Civil War and the Custer Massacre. Uncle Joe Belonger was a personal friend of General Custer and four Indian chiefs — Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chocise, and Geronimo.

Joe was on the battlefield of the Little Big Horn the day after the massacre and questioned 100 Sioux and Cheyenne children, his friends, about what happened.
This long and exciting story, with its new information about what really happened to Custer, will be published in a future issue.

...but apparently never was.  Thank goodness the manuscript was preserved and found its way to Carolyn Salsman, the Belonger family genealogist from whom we obtained it.  Who says children can't make a contribution to writing history?  Thanks, Mary!

Find all this a little hard to believe?  Be sure to read Assessing the Armstrong Account.


 

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