Custer's last policy: General George Custer's life insurance policy is now on display at the fort he called home before the Battle of Little Bighorn.
A replica of that policy is now on display at the Custer House in the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, N.D., thanks to New York Life.
Before the railroad stretched across the expansive plains, when North Dakota was still called Dakota territory, and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had yet to become household names, intrepid New York Life Insurance Agent Ion Studdart traveled 440 miles from St. Paul, Minn., to sell policies to Custer and five of his officers. Custer's $5,000 policy was written on June 4, 1874--two years and 21 days before Custer would lead his troops to their deaths at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn.
Since the written policy was triggered--when Custer and about 260 cavalry troopers were killed at Little Bighorn June 25 and 26, 1876--it has been kept safely tucked away in the archives of New York Life.
Then Frederick Sievert, president of New York Life Insurance Co., was visiting agents in Bismark this past summer when he took an excursion to the state park, the site where Custer's 7th Cavalry was stationed before marching to their deaths at Little Bighorn.
Sievert visited the rebuilt Custer House, a replica of the house where Custer and his wife lived at the fort. "There's a great old period desk there. We thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could display a replica of the New York Life policy on that desk,'" Sievert said.
He promised to try to find the policy. "We keep extremely good records," Slevert said. "We were founded in 1845, and still have policies from 1845 and 1846.
New York Life commissioned an artist to make a replica of the original policy, then donated it to be placed on Custer's desk. Visitors can now see the policy when they tour the Custer House. New York Life also made a donation of $5,000 to the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation.
The policy features an engraving that still hangs in New York Life's headquarters in New York. The engraving, which depicts a mother eagle feeding her chicks in a nest, was used as New York Life's first logo and dates back to at least 1860, New York Life said.
That $5,000 policy would be worth about $500,000 today, Sievert said. Five of Custer's officers had also purchased life insurance through New York Life, and some had purchased more coverage, up to $10,000, Sievert said.
Because they were covered by New York Life claims checks, Custer's wife, and the wives of the five officers, declined to take money raised in a national campaign to support the wives widowed by the Little Bighorn battle. That left more money for the other wives and families.
By 1875, Fort Abraham Lincoln would have been one of the largest and most important frontier forts on the Northern Plains. About 650 infantry and cavalry soldiers were stationed at the fort.
In 1876, the army marched into the valley of the Little Bighorn to force the non-treaty American Indians back to their respective reservations. "Outnumbered, outgunned, and out-maneuvered, 260 cavalry troopers would not return to Fort Abraham Lincoln in a battle that would become known as 'Custer's Last Stand,'" according to the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation.
It would also become the last stand for the American Indians, who were forced to surrender less than a year after the battle.
After the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its expansion to Montana in 1883, Fort Abraham Lincoln's importance declined. The fort was officially abandoned in 1891 by order of Congress.