From The Battle of Little Big Horn to KHS: An Artifact’s Journey

By Deb Van Horn, registrar

crittenden watch
The Crittenden watch.

Museums acquire artifacts through donation or purchase. Often museums take in loans to help tell stories through exhibits or for research. Recently, a pocket watch loaned to KHS 66 years ago became an acquisition – and does it have a unique story to tell.

Second Lt. John J Crittenden III, a native of Frankfort, came from a distinguished Kentucky family. His grandfather was U.S. Sen. John J. Crittenden. His father was Civil War Gen. Thomas Leonidas Crittenden. The younger Crittenden also served in the United States Army, but on June 25, 1876—just 19 days after his 22nd birthday—he was killed in action at the Battle of Little Big Horn. After the battle, the victors removed the personal effects of many slain soldiers from their bodies. Among the items was a pocket watch that Crittenden wore. It had been a gift from his father.

A French-Indian named Gladieux took this watch to Canada and sold it to a gentleman named Gigot for $3. Gladieux told Gigot that he had purchased the watch from a Sioux Indian who said he took it from a dead American soldier.

With the hope that he could identify the watch’s owner and return it to the soldier’s family, Gigot wrote to the watch maker, Robert Roskell & Co. of Liverpool, England. The company’s records indicated that the watch had been purchased by a Mr. Crittenden on July 15, 1850. Inspired by his progress, Gigot then contacted Gen. William T. Sherman and learned that the watch was Crittenden’s. Sherman returned the watch to Thomas, the lieutenant’s father.

Fast-forward to the mid-20th century. In 1949, the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) received the watch on loan for display. No one picked it up after the loan period, so it remained on loan until this year when the KHS historical resources staff decided to try to gain title to it through the state abandoned property statute.

Why? Museums can do nothing with a loaned item that isn’t stated in the loan agreement. Obviously, loan agreements are good documents to have – unless the owners disappear. When that happens, a museum can’t use the artifact to its fullest potential as a research/learning tool and, if needed, can’t even repair it or conserve it (unless the agreement allows it). The older a loan, the more unlikely it is that a museum can find the owners. That’s why many states have developed a process for museums to gain title to “abandoned” artifacts.

In accordance with Kentucky’s statute, KHS made several attempts to contact the people named on the loan agreement for the Crittenden watch, but armed only with their names and no known address, the process was difficult. We also contacted living descendants of the Crittenden family and looked at Crittenden family genealogies to see if we could match family names to those on the loan form. We did not find a match.

The Kentucky abandoned museum property statute states that if a museum is unsuccessful in locating the owner through other means, it must advertise the watch in several newspapers in hope that the owner will see it. Once an item is advertised, the owner has six months to claim it before the title transfers to the museum that files the claim. In the case of this watch, the advertisements did not rouse the owners, six months passed and KHS gained clear title to the piece.

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