Chief Crazy Horse

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Disputed photograph of Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse (Lakota: Thašųka Witko, literally "his-horse is-crazy"), ca. 1840 – September 5, 1877, was a major war leader of the Oglala Lakota, who fought against the United States federal government in an effort to preserve the traditions and values of the Lakota way of life.

A legendary warrior, Crazy Horse stole horses from the Crow Indians before he was 13–years–old and led his first war party before his twentieth birthday. He fought against American settlers in Wyoming in the 1865-1868 war sometimes led by the Oglala Chief Red Cloud. He also had a major role in destroying William J. Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Phil Kearney in 1867.

When the War Department ordered all Lakota bands onto reservations in 1876, Crazy Horse became a resistance leader. He led a force of 1,200 Oglala and Cheyenne against General George Crooks on June 17, 1876, as he attempted to advance on Sitting Bull’s encampment on the Little Bighorn. He then joined forces with Sitting Bull and participated in the battle that destroyed General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry. He then battled General Nelson Miles as he pursued the Lakota and their allies relentlessly throughout the winter of 1876-1877.

This constant military action and the decline of the buffalo population eventually forced Crazy Horse to surrender on May 6, 1877. He was the last important chief to yield. Even in defeat, Crazy Horse remained an independent spirit, and in September 1877, when he left the reservation without authorization, to take his sick wife to her parents, General George Crook ordered him arrested, fearing that he was plotting a return to battle. Led to a guardhouse, Crazy Horse began to struggle, but how he actually died remains a controversy due to conflicting eyewitness accounts.

Photograph controversy

There is much debate over the authenticity of the supposed photograph of Crazy Horse (right). It is one of several purporting to be of him. The doctor who attended at Crazy Horse's death, however, stated that it was certainly not a photograph of him.

Crazy Horse resisted being photographed during his life because he had strong beliefs in preserving the culture and ways of the traditional Native Americans. However, it is known that his brother, who was said to resemble him, was photographed.

The photo is a tintype in the Custer Battlefield Museum collection. A definitive article on its authenticity or lack thereof was published in Whispering Wind Magazine, Vol 34 # 3, "Debating the Crazy Horse Photo" by Jack Heriard.

Early life

Crazy Horse was born in 1840, with sources conflicting as to whether this was in the fall or the spring. His birth name was "In The Wilderness" or "Among the Trees" (pronounced as Cha-O-Ha), meaning he was one with nature. His nickname was Curly. He had the same light curly hair of his mother.

Crazy Horse's father, a Lakota who was also named Crazy Horse (b. 1810), passed the name to his son, taking the new name of Waglula (Worm) for himself thereafter. The mother of the younger Crazy Horse was Rattling Blanket Woman (b. 1814), also a Lakota.


Crazy Horse lived in the Lakota camp with his younger brother, High Horse and his cousin Little Hawk. After witnessing the death of Lakota leader Conquering Bear, Crazy Horse began to have visions while in a state of trance. His father took him to what today is Sylvan Lake where they both began a vision quest. A red-tailed hawk led them to their respective spots in the Black Hills where they continued their quests separately.

View of the Black Hills from Harney Peak, near the spot of Crazy Horse's vision quest

Crazy Horse's vision first took him to the South, the Lakota direction of death. He was brought back, however, and was taken to the west in the direction of the wakiyans, or thunder beings. He received a medicine bundle containing medicines that would protect him for life. One of Crazy Horse's animal protectors would be the white owl, which according to Lakota tradition would give extended life. He was also shown his face paint, which consisted of a yellow lightning strike down the left side of his face and white, wetted powder. With three fingers, Crazy Horse also put marks over his vulnerable areas that, when dried, resembled hail stones. He also received a sacred song that is still sung today, indicating that he would be a protector of his people.

War leader

Through the late 1850s and early 1860s, Crazy Horse's reputation as a warrior grew. His first kill was a Shoshone raider who had killed a Lakota woman washing buffalo meat along the Powder River. He was in many battles between the Lakota and their enemies, the Crow, Shoshone, Pawnee, Blackfeet, and Arikara, among others. In 1864, after the Sand Creek Massacre of the Cheyenne in Colorado, the Lakota joined forces with the Cheyenne against the U.S. military. Crazy Horse was present at the Battle of Red Buttes and the Platte River Bridge Station Battle in 1865. Because of his fighting ability, he was designated as an Ogle Tanka Un (Shirt Wearer, or war leader) in 1865.

Little Wolf/Little Coyote, Crazy Horse's ally

On December 21, 1866, Crazy Horse and six other warriors, both Lakota and Cheyenne, decoyed Lt. William Fetterman's 53 infantry men and 27 cavalry troopers from the safe confines of Fort Phil Kearney on the Bozeman Trail into an ambush. Crazy Horse personally led Fetterman's infantry up what Wyoming locals call Massacre Hill while Grummond's cavalry followed the other six decoys along Peno Head Ridge and down towards Peno Creek where some Cheyenne women were taunting the soldiers. At that moment, the Cheyenne leader Little Wolf and his warriors, who had been hiding on the opposite side of Peno Head Ridge, closed the return route to the fort.

Meanwhile, the Lakota warriors came over Massacre Hill and attacked the infantry. There were additional Cheyenne and Lakota hiding in the buckbrush along Peno Creek, effectively surrounding the soldiers. Seeing they were surrounded, Grummond headed back toward Fetterman but the soldiers were wiped out by the superior Indian force. The warrior contingent was comprised of nearly 1,000 braves. History books often refer to the incident as Red Cloud's War. In fact, however, Red Cloud was not present that day. The ambush was the worst Army defeat on the Great Plains at the time.

On August 2, 1867, Crazy Horse participated in the Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny. He succeeded in capturing one of the army's new Second Allin breech-loading rifles from a soldier on the wood cutting crew. However, most of the soldiers made it to a circle of wagon boxes that had no wheels and used them for cover as they fired at the Lakota. The Lakota took horrific losses in the fight, as the army's new rifles could fire ten times a minute compared to only three times a minute for the standard musket. The Lakota tactic was to charge after the soldiers fired, a delay of about 20 seconds to reload. As a result, Lakota casualties numbered around 200. Many who died in the battle are still buried in the hills that surround Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming.

First wife

In the fall of 1867, Crazy Horse invited Black Buffalo Woman to accompany him on a buffalo hunt in the Slim Buttes area in what is now the northwestern corner of South Dakota. She was the wife of No Water, who had a reputation as someone who spent a lot of time near military installations drinking alcohol. It was Lakota custom to allow a woman to divorce her husband at any time. She did so by moving in with relatives or with another man, or by placing the husband's belongings outside their lodge. Although some compensation might be required to smooth over hurt feelings, the rejected husband was expected to accept his wife's decision for the good of the tribe.

No Water was away from camp when Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman took off on their trip. No Water tracked down the couple in the Slim Buttes area. When he found them in a tipi, he called Crazy Horse's name from outside. When Crazy Horse answered, he stuck a pistol into the tipi and aimed for Crazy Horse's heart. However, Crazy Horse's first cousin, Touch the Cloud, was sitting in the tipi nearest to the entry and knocked the pistol upward as it fired, causing the bullet to hit Crazy Horse in the upper jaw. No Water fled, with Crazy Horse's relatives in hot pursuit. No Water ran his horse until it died and continued on foot until he reached the safety of his own village.

Several elders convinced Crazy Horse and No Water that no more blood should be shed, and as compensation for the shooting, No Water gave Crazy Horse three horses. When Crazy Horse saw that Black Buffalo Woman cared for him, he decided to make her his wife. She bore him a daughter, named They Are Afraid of Her, named after his maternal aunt, in late summer of 1872. However, the girl later died at the age of two in 1874.

As a result of the No Water scandal, Crazy Horse was stripped of his title as Shirt Wearer. At about the same time, Little Hawk was killed by a group of miners in the Black Hills while escorting some women to the new agency created by the Treaty of 1868. Crazy Horse did not consider himself bound by the treaty and helped attack a surveying party sent into the Black Hills by General George Armstrong Custer in 1873.

Great Sioux War of 1876-77

Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn

On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse led a combined group of approximately 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne in a surprise attack against Brig. Gen. George Crook's force of 1,000 cavalry and infantry, along with 300 Crow and Shoshone warriors, in the Battle of the Rosebud. The battle, although not substantial in terms of human loss, delayed Crook from joining up with the Seventh Cavalry under Custer, ensuring Custer’s subsequent defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

At 3:00 p.m. on June 25, 1876, Custer's forces attacked the Lakota and Cheyenne village, marking the beginning of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse's exact actions during the battle are unknown. Possibly he entered the battle by repelling the first attack led by Maj. Marcus Reno, but it is also possible that he was still in his lodge waiting for the larger battle with Custer. Warriors led by Chief Gall led the main body of the attack, and once again Crazy Horse's role in the battle remains uncertain. Some historians think that Crazy Horse led a flanking assault, assuring the death of Custer and his men, but the only fact that is known for certain is that Crazy Horse was a participant in the battle.

In September 10, 1876, Captain Anson Mills and two battalions of the Third Cavalry captured a Minicoujou village of 36 lodges in the Battle of Slim Buttes, South Dakota. Crazy Horse and his followers attempted to rescue the camp and its headman, (Old Man) American Horse. They were unsuccessful, and American Horse and nearly his entire family were killed by the soldiers after holing up in a cave for several hours.

On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse's warriors fought their last major engagement, the Battle of Wolf Mountain, with the United States Cavalry in the Montana Territory.

Surrender and death

Crazy Horse's band on their way to surrender

On May 5, 1877, knowing that his people were weakened by cold and hunger, Crazy Horse surrendered to United States troops at Camp Robinson in Nebraska. Crazy Horse and other northern Oglala leaders arrived at the Red Cloud Agency, located near Camp Robinson, Nebraska, on May 5, 1877. Together with He Dog, Little Big Man, Iron Crow, and others, they met in a solemn ceremony with First Lieutenant William P. Clark as the first step in their formal surrender.

For the next four months, Crazy Horse resided in his village near the Red Cloud Agency. The attention that Crazy Horse received from the Army elicited the jealousy of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, two Lakota chiefs who had long before come to the agencies. Rumors started to spread about Crazy Horse's desire to slip out of the agency and return to the old ways. In August 1877, officers at Camp Robinson received word that the Nez Perce of Chief Joseph had broken out of their reservations in Idaho and were fleeing north through Montana toward Canada.

With growing trouble at the Red Cloud Agency, General George Crook came to Camp Robinson, and a council was called of the Oglala leadership. However, it was canceled when Crook was informed that Crazy Horse threatened the previous evening to kill the general during the proceedings. Crook ordered Crazy Horse arrested and then departed, leaving the military action to the post commander at Camp Robinson, Lt. Col. Luther P. Bradley. Additional troops were brought in from Fort Laramie, and on the morning of September 4, 1877, two columns moved against Crazy Horse's village, only to find that its people had scattered during the night. Crazy Horse fled to the nearby Spotted Tail Agency with his ill wife. After meeting with military officials at the adjacent military post of Camp Sheridan, Crazy Horse agreed to return to Camp Robinson with Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee, the Indian agent at Spotted Tail.

On the morning of September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse and Lee, accompanied by Touch the Clouds and a number of Indian scouts, departed for Camp Robinson. Arriving that evening, Lee was informed that he was to turn Crazy Horse over to the Officer of the Day. Lee protested and hurried to Bradley's quarters to debate the issue, but without success. Bradley had received orders that Crazy Horse was to be arrested and forwarded to division headquarters. Lee turned the Oglala war chief over to Captain James Kennington, in charge of the post guard, who accompanied Crazy Horse to the post guardhouse. Here accounts of what happened next vary. The official version is that, once inside, Crazy Horse struggled with the guard and Little Big Man and attempted to escape. Just outside the door of the guardhouse, Crazy Horse was stabbed with a bayonet by one of the members of the guard. The mortally wounded war leader was taken to the adjutant's office where he was tended by the assistant post surgeon at the post, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy. Crazy Horse died late that night.

Dr. McGillycuddy wrote that Crazy Horse "died about midnight." According to military records, however, he died before midnight, making it September 5, 1877. According to the Oglala Sioux, he died after midnight, making it September 6, 1877. The monument located at the spot of his death says September 5, 1877. Each year the Oglala Sioux meet at the spot of his death on September 6.

The following morning, Crazy Horse's body was turned over to his elderly parents who took it to Camp Sheridan, placing it on a scaffold there. The following month when the Spotted Tail Agency was moved to the Missouri River, Crazy Horse's parents moved the body to an undisclosed location possibly somewhere on the present Pine Ridge Reservation. His final resting place remains a mystery to this day.

Controversy over his death

Monument marks the spot where Crazy Horse met his death.

John Gregory Bourke's memoir of his service in the Indian wars, On the Border with Crook, however, details an entirely different account of Crazy Horse's death. Bourke's version is based on a personal interview with Little Big Man, who was present at Crazy Horse's arrest and wounding. Little Big Man's account claims that, as Crazy Horse was being escorted to the guardhouse, he suddenly pulled two knives from under his blanket, one in each hand. Little Big Man, standing immediately behind Crazy Horse and not wanting the soldiers to have any excuse to kill him, seized Crazy Horse by both elbows, pulling his arms up and behind him. As Crazy Horse struggled to get free, Little Big Man abruptly lost his grip on one elbow, and Crazy Horse's own arm accidentally drove his knife deep into his own lower back.

When Bourke asked about the popular account of the Guard bayoneting Crazy Horse, Little Big Man explained that the guard had thrust with his bayonet, but that Crazy Horse's struggles resulted in the guard's thrust missing entirely and his bayonet being lodged into the frame of the guardhouse door, where the hole it made could still be seen at the time of the interview. Little Big Man claimed that the camp Commander suggested the story of the guard being responsible for Crazy Horse's death as a means of hiding Little Big Man's involvement and thereby avoiding inter-clan reprisals.

Little Big Man's account, however, is questionable, as it is the only one of 17 eyewitness sources which challenges the idea that Crazy Horse's died as a result of being stabbed by a soldier at the guardhouse. The identity of the soldier is also debatable. One eye witness account identifies the soldier as Private William Gentles. Other witnesses later challenged this and provided two alternative names. The issue has never been clearly resolved.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse is currently being commemorated with the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota—a monument carved into a mountain, in the tradition of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial (on which Korczak Ziółkowski had worked). The sculpture was begun by Ziółkowski in 1948. When completed, it will be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. Some Native American activists, most notably Russell Means, have criticized the project as exploitative of Lakota culture and Crazy Horse's memory.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer: The epic clash of two great warriors at the Little Bighorn. Pocket Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0743468640
  • Goldman, Martin S. Crazy Horse: War Chief of the Oglala Sue. Franklin Watts, 1996. ISBN 978-0531112588
  • Guttmacher, Peter. Crazy Horse: Sioux War Chief. Chelsea House, 1994. ISBN 0791017125
  • McMurtry, Larry. Crazy Horse. Puffin Books, 1999. ISBN 0670882348
  • Sandoz, Mari. Crazy Horse, the Strange Man of the Oglalas, a biography. University of Nebraska Press, 1961. ISBN 978-0803251717

External links

All links retrieved December 10, 2023.


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