1st Lt. William W. Cooke

Facing death with Custer

Just before the 7th Cavalry was forever surrounded in the famous battle of the Little Bighorn, 1st Lt. William W. Cooke dashed off a note to Capt. Frederick Benteen.

"Benteen. Come On. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. WW Cooke. P.S. Bring Packs," he wrote at the behest of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.

The urgent message for the pack train was carried by a courier who managed to slip through the noose being tightened by the encircling Indians led by Sitting Bull.

It was Custer's last communique.

Every student of American history knows what happened next: Custer and nearly 260 soldiers, including regimental adjutant Cooke, died that hot Montana day on June 25, 1876.

What I didn't know until this past summer was that Cooke, Custer's regimental adjutant and friend, was family, albeit distant.

Given that Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to think about kith and kin, I've been pondering Lt. Cooke's legacy.

And I just read, "A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn" by James Donovan, published two years ago. It's a great read, a must for Little Bighornophiles. Having been his adjutant since 1871, Lt. Cooke is described as a longtime friend and confidant of Mr. Custer.

Admittedly, I have neither been a fan of Custer nor the effort to eradicate native people from their land. As a youngster, I tended to side with the latter when playing cowboys and Indians.

I learned of my family's connection to the Little Bighorn in July when our family scattered my mom's ashes on a hill overlooking the Columbia River where she was born near Entiat, Wash. Gladys Clara Cooke Fattig was 94 when she died.

A relative noted that our maternal ancestors arrived in the West by way of the Oregon Trail early in the 1850s, first settling in the Salem area. My great-great uncle E.N. Cooke was elected Oregon treasurer in 1862 and re-elected in 1866, serving until 1870.

Lt. Cooke was among E.N. Cooke's kin, although I'm not yet clear on where he hung on the family tree. The lieutenant is mentioned as kin folk by the late Ellsworth V. Cooke, my uncle, born in 1912, who penned an interesting book of family stories and poems.

To get another opinion, I called my first cousin Frank Cooke, 74, of Cave Junction, the family's "go-to" guy in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Frank, who retired from lumber-company management, is well versed in Cooke family lore.

Like all the Cookes I've ever known, he is a colorful character, tough as rawhide and a wonderful storyteller.

"Our ancestor's name is the fifth one down on that monument, right below Custer," Frank said of the battlefield monument in Montana. "When I was there, I was very moved, knowing he was family and knowing what happened to him."

What happened was that Lt. Cooke, who had turned 30 on May 29, 1875, was among the half-dozen who died alongside Custer. He was scalped twice. Apparently he wore long side whiskers called "dundrearies," one of which was peeled away along with the hair on top of his noggin.

I don't know about our kin folk, but knowing what was ahead would have scared the bejeebers out of me. Hey, I would have lost complete bladder control right in front of my commander.

As an Army veteran, Frank can tell you that Custer and his officers made some strategic blunders that sealed their fate. When I stood at the "Last Stand" two summers ago, I remember feeling the doom they must have felt.

In the book, the author cites superiority and arrogance as a major factor in the defeat. Many of the troopers were newly inducted, poor shots and had never fired a weapon in anger, according to the book.

Yet Lt. Cooke, a Canadian who was wounded while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, was described as an excellent shot and one of the fastest runners in the regiment.

As Frank irreverently noted, our ancestor wasn't fast enough.

When the smoke cleared, the 7th Cavalry was no more. The American Indian losses were no more than 150 killed and an equal number wounded, according to Red Horse, a warrior who fought on the winning side.

"But I'm very proud to have people in our family who were part of history," Frank observed.

That's a legacy I can live with.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or at

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