Adolph Metzger was, by all accounts, a rather unexceptional man. He was born in Germany in 1834, immigrated to America and enlisted for the first time in 1855 at the age of 21. Documents describe him as 5 feet, 5 inches tall with brown hair and blue eyes.
Yet, there was something about this seemingly ordinary man that made him stand out from all of the others.
“At the end of the Fetterman fight where he was killed, he was the only one whose body had not been mutilated,” said Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum Director Sylvia Bruner. “Some legends say that the Native American fighters covered him up with a bison blanket, which was a great sign of respect. So the question has lingered for the past 150 years: What did he do to deserve this great honor?”
What Metzger carried to battle was not a weapon but a bugle, which is currently housed at the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum. It’s flattened by a thousand hooves and faded over the course of 150 years. And yet, like its owner, it has also received an unexpected honor.
During the Wyoming State Historical Society meeting last week, Metzger’s Bugle was named the most significant historical artifact in the state of Wyoming for 2016 – beating out over 40 other artifacts ranging from a prehistoric turtle to a hand-carved rock from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
“When they announced the winners, they started at the tenth most significant and counted down,” Bruner said. “The lower they got, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, we have to be the next one, there’s no way we could be number one.’ I was just so shocked when I found out.”
The most significant artifact competition is in its second year and is co-sponsored by the University of Wyoming Libraries and the Wyoming State Historical Society. People from across the state voted online for their favorite artifacts over the past four months.
Patty Myers, a Jim Gatchell Museum board member who has served in a variety of capacities on the state historical society board, says the reason the bugle took the top spot all came down to one thing.
“It’s the story,” Myers said. “People are drawn to the bugle because the story behind it is memorable.”
Equally important was that the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum found just the right time to tell this story to a new generation, Bruner said. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Fetterman Fight.
“The story is definitely back in the public conscience now,” Bruner said.”It seemed like an ideal year to submit the bugle for the contest.”
The story of the bugle begins in November 1866, when 32-year-old Metzger traveled with the other members of Company C of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry to the recently completed Fort Phil Kearny.
Tensions were high upon his arrival as U.S. troops and Native American forces had been fighting in the area for months.
On Dec. 21, a wood train going up to what is now Story was attacked by native forces. Those on the train signaled for reinforcements, which were sent out under the guidance of Captain William Fetterman.
Native American decoy riders lured the troops over the ridge just north of the fort. There they were met by more than 1,000 Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho warriors. The troops were out of sight of the fort and were quickly killed by native forces.
As the bugler, Metzger was responsible for directing troop movement after he was given a command.
“He would have, to all of our knowledge, been unarmed,” Bruner said. “It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t armed, but unless he could have afforded it on his own, he wouldn’t have been issued a weapon by the military.”
Legend has it that Metzger fought for survival using only his bugle. This courage in the face of staggering odds is likely what earned Metzger the respect of the Native Americans, Bruner said.
While Metzger and all 81 men under Fetterman’s command were killed during the fight, the bugle lived on – abandoned on the battlefield before being discovered by early Johnson County rancher Christian Hepp in 1887.
The bugle first joined the museum’s collection when it was given to museum namesake Jim Gatchell in the early 1950s. Whether Gatchell received the instrument from Hepp or some other mystery middleman is unknown although there is evidence of communications and transactions between Gatchell and Hepp.
The story of the bugle’s 150-year-old journey is a captivating one, Bruner said. Now, 150 years later, it has one more satisfying chapter.
“I think the story behind this bugle is unusual enough that it really touched everybody in the state.” Bruner said. “It’s a really special piece of history.”