Football fans are sure to recognize Adam Vinatieri, kicker for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Not as familiar may be the football pro’s direct connection to George Armstrong Custer: His great-great-grandfather was Custer’s bandmaster.
We here at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West are only about three hours south of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Lee and Michele Noyes are editors of the Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association’s Battlefield Dispatch. They keep us informed with research and new discoveries about the conflict variously called the Custer Massacre, Custer’s Last Battle, or Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Recently, the Noyeses forwarded this letter dated August 31, 1875, from Felix Vinatieri (1834 – 1891). He asked to be relieved of his duties as chief musician of the 7th Cavalry. He had a conflict with his immediate commanding officer, one Lieutenant James Calhoun, the regimental band commander.
In a note authorizing the request, Calhoun wrote that Vinatieri was not a “competent person.” Next to that, Custer “respectfully approved.”
Musician and composer Vinatieri immigrated to America from Italy. He eventually settled in Yankton, Dakota Territory. In the mean time, the Army sent Custer and the 7th Cavalry to Fort Abraham Lincoln, across from Bismarck, also in Dakota Territory. On their way, the Seventh spent several weeks in Yankton. There organizers held a ball on April 9, 1873, to honor Custer and his officers. It seems Custer was quite impressed with the bandmaster who led the musicians “with gusto.” He enlisted Vinatieri as Chief Musician—which appears to have had little sway with Calhoun!
The National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion holds the Vinatieri Archives with “133 original, handwritten manuscripts from the pen of Felix Villiet Vinatieri (1834 – 1891), Custer’s Bandmaster.” Some of the titles tell volumes about his life on the frontier:
- Dakota State Lancer
- Black Hills Polka
- Evening of the Cricket Grand Waltz
- Mosquito Bites of Dakota Waltz
- Yankton Waltz
- General Custer, Last Indian Campaign March
- Sound from Fort Abraham Lincoln Quadrille
- Uncle Sam Quadrille
As he embarked on the campaign to the Little Bighorn, Custer ordered the Seventh Band to remain on the steamboat Far West. The vessel was anchored in the Powder River, thus sparing the musicians’ lives. Felix Vinatieri eventually returned to Yankton; and the NFL can thank its lucky stars for a kicker named Adam.
(Author note: You NFL fans probably all know the story of the “battlefield to the football field.” Until I received the Felix Vinatieri letter from Lee and Michele Noyes, I had no clue! Do you know of other surprising, little-known facts of history? Let us know!)