In search of ‘Yr Unig Cymro’ – the lone Welshman who fought at Custer’s Last Stand.
I FIRST became aware of William Batine James – “Yr Unig Cymro” (The Lone Welshman) – when BBC Wales screened a documentary on him – Little Big Welshman – in 2002.
Following up on the programme, I managed – in my role of local newspaper reporter – to trace James’s great-great-grand-nephew, an elderly gentleman living just a few miles from James’s home village of Dinas Cross, near Fishguard, and subsequently wrote an article on him and his wife for the County Echo as well as the Welsh Mirror.
On returning to work for the County Echo in Fishguard in 2014 and driving past Pencwnc Farm in Dinas (where James was born and raised) every morning, I found myself once more drawn to his compelling story.
What kind of person was he? What drove him to leave home, emigrate and ultimately enlist in the Seventh Cavalry? And wage war on Native Americans? More importantly, could I find a photo of this lost soldier – the only sergeant who died that day of whom a verifiable photo does not exist?
Unlike the BBC Wales team 12 years previously I now had the priceless advantage of having online access to the excellent Pembrokeshire Archives, near Haverfordwest, not all that far from Dinas.
Here I managed to trace a bundle of letters William James sent home to his younger brother, John Clement James, in the years prior to the battle. In his final letter – written at Opelika, Alabama, on April 21, 1875 – James enclosed his carte de visite which, alas, was not among the collection.
From a military viewpoint, the letters are a disappointment: apart from two date-marked ‘Ft A Lincoln’ there is no clue that the writer was serving in the US Army as – for reasons over which we can only speculate – James carefully concealed his enlistment from his family.
But what these five letters do provide is a very human side to the life of a frontier soldier.
James, like up to 40 per cent of the men in the Seventh, was a newly-arrived immigrant and, while he did not encounter the language barrier confronting so many of his fellow troopers from non-English-speaking European countries, the loneliness he was experiencing comes across as real and heartfelt.
In October 2016 I travelled to rural Montana to present copies of the James letters to the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument Museum.
I spent two days tramping the battlefield which, along with studying Indian testimony, gave me a fairly clear idea of what happened to James’s company, E Troop, (The Gray Horse Troop) as the battle unfolded
So who exactly was William James? And what made him the man he was? Those are questions this book will seek to answer.
As readers saddle up on a journey that will lead them to Canada, Chicago, the American Deep South and, finally, the Great Plains, they will have a companion on the odyssey that took ‘that strange wild boy from Dinas Mountain’ in north Pembrokeshire all the way to Last Stand Hill in Montana – Sgt James himself, relating his story in his own words.
While what he recounts is my own interpretation and theories of the experiences he encountered and the personalities he met, the essential chronicle of events portrayed are real as indeed are most of the characters he meets along the way.
And the missing photo of William James? As of writing it continues to defy all efforts to trace it, yet – like my kindred spirit young Arthur Nicholas – I remain dedicated to the pursuit, secure in the knowledge that the object of my quest lies out there somewhere…
Mike Lewis, October 2019