The Death of Crazy Horse
By TOM REA
When he was 14 years old, Crazy Horse went looking for a vision and found one. He saw a rider, above a lake, his long hair loose as he rode through air full of bullets and arrows. Above him flew a red-tailed hawk. In some versions of the dream people told later, there were blue hailstones on the rider’s chest, and on the left side of his face was painted a yellow streak of lightning. In other versions the rider was not painted at all, and dressed very plainly. A small stone was tied behind his left ear. The horseman in the dream told Crazy Horse never to keep anything for himself, and always to look out for his people, especially the poor and the weak. Then, as the rider rode through the air untouched by the arrows and bullets, his own people reached up, grabbed him from behind by the arms, grabbed him fiercely, and pulled him down.
Crazy Horse was born about 1841. His mother was a sister of Spotted Tail, chief of the Brulé Lakotas, or Sioux. His father was a seer and healer, of the Oglala Lakotas. Crazy Horse became one of the great war leaders in the last years of the Indian fights on the northern plains—in western Nebraska, southern Montana, and what soon would become Wyoming. He was lighter skinned than most Indians, and his hair was brown, not black. All his life, he loved solitude, and spent time alone when he could.
In the wars, he led the warriors who decoyed Captain Fetterman and 80 soldiers out of Fort Phil Kearny to their deaths in 1866. He led the thousand warriors who fought General George Crook and his thousand soldiers to a bloody draw on Rosebud Creek in June 1876. And he led the warriors in the charge up the hill that outflanked Colonel George A. Custer at the Little Bighorn (left), just a week after the fight on the Rosebud. Custer and more than 200 of his men were killed—in about the time, one of the warriors said later, that it takes a hungry man to eat his breakfast.
It was the greatest Indian victory. But it was also their greatest disaster, because an angry United States decided the tribes should no longer be allowed to live their old, free lives.
After the treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, Red Cloud of the Oglalas and Spotted Tail of the Brulés had moved with their people to two agencies on the new Sioux reservation. These were the places where the Indians would receive the food and supplies the treaties promised them. Each agency also had an army post nearby. Fort Robinson was near the Red Cloud agency, on the White River in western Nebraska. Camp Sheridan was near the Spotted Tail agency, 40 miles away in southwestern South Dakota.
But many of the Lakotas, including Crazy Horse of the Oglalas, Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas, and the people who looked to them for leadership, stayed far from the agencies. They stayed in the Powder River country of southern Montana and what’s now northern Wyoming. This the treaty vaguely allowed. Instead of accepting the government food and supplies, they continued to hunt buffalo and seldom or never came to the agencies.
Then, in 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. Though this was on the new reservation that had been mapped and promised the Lakota just six years before, white gold miners started pouring in. The hills for a long time had been a special, holy place to the tribes. According to the treaty, it was the army’s job to keep the miners out, but the army decided it couldn’t do that.
(Custer, left center in light clothing, leads his expedition to the Black Hills, 1874.)
Government officials approached the Lakotas about selling. There was a huge gathering of the Lakotas in 1875 to talk it over, halfway between the two agencies. Crazy Horse was not there. He was an impatient person, who disliked the long speeches and talk, talk, talk that went on at such gatherings. Red Cloud and other leaders were for the sale, figuring the government would end up taking the land anyway. But they wanted a higher price than Congress was willing to pay. Other Indians, including Crazy Horse’s old friend Little Big Man, were violently against it. Soon the meeting broke up, with no one having agreed on anything.
The government then sent out word that all the Indians still living out in the Powder River country and elsewhere must leave that free life and come in to the agencies—right away, by the end of January, 1876, the coldest time of the year. This, Indians and whites understood, was really a declaration of war. That summer, the army sent thousands of troops under Crook, Custer, and other officers to find the Indians and bring them in. The result was the defeat of Crook on the Rosebud and the death of Custer on the Little Bighorn. These Indian victories only increased the whites’ desire to bring things to a quicker end.
At another treaty conference in the fall, the government simply took the Black Hills. The army, meanwhile, pressed on with the war. In November, soldiers under General Crook attacked Cheyenne villages under Dull Knife and Little Wolf. Dull Knife’s camp was on the Red Fork of the Powder River, west of what’s now Kaycee, Wyoming. Crazy Horse’s village, on the Tongue River further north, welcomed the Dull Knife people when they showed up, freezing and starving, ten days after the fight. Eleven of their babies had frozen on the journey. They had lost most of their horses, most of their lodges, and their winter stores of food.
In January, Crazy Horse’s scouts skirmished with Crow scouts working for General Miles, in Montana. In February, soldiers attacked Crazy Horse’s village on the Tongue. The people escaped, but not without losing three warriors and more food, lodges, and horses than they could afford. Now the Oglalas still with Crazy Horse were starting to talk about giving up and going in. Crazy Horse, furious, shot the horses of some families that tried to leave. When more families left, he began to understand what the end had to be. In March, Oglalas from the Red Cloud agency showed up with food, warm clothes, and presents, to persuade Crazy Horse to come in.
In April, Spotted Tail himself came. Crazy Horse respected his uncle, and realized at last that the end of the old life was near. Spotted Tail brought with him General Crook’s promise that Crazy Horse could have an agency of his own—his people would not have to live with Red Cloud’s people or Spotted Tail’s people. And later in the summer, after things calmed down, they could go out again and hunt buffalo. It didn’t sound too bad. At last, Crazy Horse and 900 people made the two-week trip to Fort Robinson (right). They arrived on May 9, 1877. They put on all their best clothes and made a splendid show of their arrival. It was surrender, but it looked like a parade. Over the next few days, they had to give up their horses and guns. Still, most thought they would be living at the agency for only a short time.
Now things got really complicated. Before, it seemed there had been only one, clear choice: Fight, or surrender? Now, nothing was clear. At the agencies, all the power lay with the whites, and the Indians who wanted to do well had to spend all their time getting white people to like them. This meant a world of gossip, backbiting, deceit, and betrayal. Red Cloud (below) and his people, and Spotted Tail and his people, were jealous of each other, and even more jealous of Crazy Horse and his people. Outside of his immediate family and a few close friends—his oldest friend He Dog, and the seven-foot-tall Minniconjou Lakota warrior Touch the Clouds—Crazy Horse had a hard time knowing who to trust.
He asked for an agency on Beaver Creek, on the west side of the Black Hills. Crook dragged his feet on that promise, and on the one to allow the people out for a summer buffalo hunt. The government officials pressed Crazy Horse to make a trip to Washington, D.C., where they could show him off like a war trophy. No deal, said Crazy Horse, or at least, not until we get our new agency.
Then in July, Nez Perce Indians in Idaho left their reservation and, chased by soldiers the whole way, started a long journey east, toward what they hoped was freedom in the buffalo country and finally north toward Canada. Now the army began pressing Crazy Horse for help fighting the Nez Perce. Other Lakotas were willing to go, but the army especially wanted Crazy Horse and his warriors. This made no sense, so soon after surrendering their guns and horses, to be asked to go to war again.
But still the soldiers kept pressing, kept demanding more meetings with Crazy Horse. At the same time the whispers grew, and the rumors flew. An Indian named Woman Dress warned Crook that Crazy Horse planned to kill him at a conference. Crook chose not to go.
Finally, angry and impatient with all the talk, Crazy Horse said he would go fight the Nez Perce, but if he went, he would fight until every last Nez Perce was killed. Was that what they wanted? The interpreter, a scout named Frank Grouard, for unclear reasons of his own, changed the warrior’s words when he delivered them to the officers. Crazy Horse, Grouard said, had promised to fight until every last white man was killed.
Crook (right) decided Crazy Horse was simply too dangerous to have around anymore. He wouldn’t send him to Washington. He would send him to Florida, to a prison called Fort Jefferson on the far tip of the Florida Keys. He ordered his old enemy’s arrest.
Late on the afternoon of the day Crazy Horse died, about a thousand Indians, most of them deeply angry, gathered on the parade ground at Fort Robinson. The day before, Crazy Horse had left his camp nearby to travel the 40 miles to the Spotted Tail agency with his wife, Black Shawl. She was not well, and Crazy Horse wanted to make sure she was safe in the lodge of his parents. Things were getting more tense by the hour, and Crazy Horse wanted to make sure she was safe before he figured out what to do next.
The day before, Indian policemen on Crook’s orders had shown up at Crazy Horse’s lodge to arrest him. He had already left, however. They followed him, but he traveled fast, and they couldn’t catch up. The next day, they met him on the way back, a mob of sixty or so Indian men in blue coats, heavily armed with rifles and pistols. Now the dust from their horses’ hooves thickened as they approached the parade ground. Crazy Horse dismounted, taking a red blanket from his horse’s withers and folding it over his arm. The policemen dismounted too, and briefly the thick crowd parted before the men heading toward the fort’s rough log buildings.
Agent Jesse Lee at the Spotted Tail agency had told Crazy Horse he would have a chance back at Fort Robinson to talk with the officer in charge there, General Bradley. Lee told Crazy horse he would have a chance to explain that he had never plotted against Crook, and had never said anything about killing white people if he went back to war. But now, General Bradley refused to see him. Crazy Horse was under arrest, the general said, and he belonged in the guardhouse—the jail at the fort.
As Crazy Horse, an officer, agent Lee, and the Indian police moved through the thick crowd of people, Crazy Horse spied his old friend Touch-the-Clouds (below), trying to get closer. He felt someone take his elbow in a strong grip. He looked around and there was another friend, Little Big Man, who had been so loudly opposed two years before to the sale of the Black Hills. Soon they had moved through a doorway and into one of the rough buildings. Inside it stank. There were bars on the windows! Crazy Horse had never heard of a jail before, or seen one, but immediately he must have figured out what this was.
He whirled, and lunged back outside. Little Big Man was now grabbing him by both his arms, and trying holding him back. Crazy Horse managed to get free enough to pull a knife from under his red blanket. He slashed at Little Big Man, cutting him on the hand. Little Big Man let go.
Bitter voices rang out. “Shoot him! Shoot him! Stab the son of a bitch!” Whether these words were shouted in English, or in Lakota, is still unclear. Probably both. Then there was a quick silence, then came the sounds of shells being slid into rifles and rifles cocked.
Then William Gentles, 47 years old, a private born in County Tyrone, Ireland, stepped forward and stabbed Crazy Horse twice, with his bayonet. A third time he missed, and the bayonet stuck in the frame around the side of the guardhouse door. Crazy Horse slumped to the ground, dying.
Though he was badly wounded, General Bradley insisted Crazy Horse was still under arrest, and still must go to the guardhouse. Touch the Clouds, from his great height, persuaded the general to bend on the matter a little, and finally Crazy Horse was taken into the adjutant’s office, where there was a cot, a chair, and a small table with a kerosene lamp on it.
Crazy Horse refused the cot, and his friends laid him on the floor.
Doctor V. T. McGillycuddy, whom Crazy Horse liked because he had helped Black Shawl with her tuberculosis, gave Crazy Horse a shot of morphine to ease his pain. Crazy Horse dozed for a while. The lamp smoked. Crazy Horse’s father arrived. After a while, the drug wore off and the doctor gave the warrior another shot. “Son, I am here,” said his father. “Father, it is no good for the people to depend on me any longer—I am bad hurt,” Crazy Horse said.
About 11:30 at night, Crazy Horse died on the floor. Touch-the-Clouds pulled the red blanket over him. “This is the lodge of Crazy Horse,” he said.
Hinman, Eleanor H. “Oglala Sources on the Life of Crazy Horse.” Nebraska History, Vol. 57, No. 1. (Spring, 1976) 1-51. Texts of interviews Hinman conducted in 1930 with He Dog (below, in his old age), Red Feather, and other Lakotas who had known Crazy Horse well. Hinman later turned this material over to her friend, Mari Sandoz, who used them to write her biography of Crazy Horse. (See Sandoz citation, below.)
McGillycuddy, V. T. "Narrative of the life of Crazy Horse," Nebraska History Magazine, Vol. 19, (1929) pp. 36-38. McGillycuddy won Crazy Horse’s trust while attending to Black Shawl in her illness, after she and Crazy Horse came in to the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson.
Lee, Jesse M. "Narrative of the life of Crazy Horse," Nebraska History Magazine, Vol. 19, (1929) pp. 12-17. Lee was the Indian agent at the Spotted Tail agency, who persuaded Crazy Horse to return to the Red Cloud agency the day he died.
Frazier, Ian. Great Plains. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989. The chapter on Crazy Horse is on pp. 93-119. An eloquent meditation, focusing finally on the meaning of Crazy Horse’s refusal of the cot in the adjutant’s office.
McMurtry, Larry. Crazy Horse: A Life. New York: Penguin books, 1999. Another eloquent treatment by the author of Lonesome Dove and many other novels and stories of the West. McMurtry does a nice job navigating the few sources of information on Crazy Horse’s life, and explaining which ones he trusts and why.
Marshall, Joseph M. III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking Press, 2004. Marshall is Lakota and grew up hearing stories of the great war leader from his relatives. This is a useful and personal book, giving a sense of Lakota attitudes toward storytelling and the past that is lacking in accounts written by whites.
Sandoz, Mari. Crazy Horse, The Strange Man of the Oglalas: A biography. New York: Hastings House, 1942. Using the Hinman interviews as noted above, plus her own life experience and love for the Plains, Sandoz wrote what was for decades the only full-length book on Crazy Horse. More like a novel than a biography, it’s a wonderful book.
Josephy, Alvin. The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance. New York: The Viking Press. Viking Compass edition, 1974. The Crazy Horse chapter is on pp. 237-309. Another good, short account and a great place to start in on the subject.
Try this short biography of Crazy Horse from the PBS website on the West, for its excellent links to related people and subjects.
The Crazy Horse Monument, on U.S. Highway 16/385 in the Black Hills near Custer, South Dakota, about 50 miles east of Newcastle, Wyoming, will when finished be the largest sculpture in the world—much bigger than Mt. Rushmore. It’s a short trip from anywhere in eastern Wyoming. Between visits, check the webcam for recent progress carving Crazy Horse's image out of the mountain. Contact the monument directly at Crazy Horse Memorial, Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730. Phone (605) 673-4681. Fax (605) 673-2185. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Fort Robinson, on U.S. Highway 20 in Nebraska about 50 miles east of Lusk, Wyoming, has exhibits about the Red Cloud Agency at its museum and preserves the guard house and adjutant’s office where Crazy Horse died. The fort is part of a 22,000-acre Nebraska state park. FMI: Fort Robinson Museum, PO Box 304, Crawford, NE 69339-0304. Phone: 308-665-2919, email email@example.com, and for information on group tours call 308-665-2919.
Fort Phil Kearny, Fetterman Massacre site, Wagon Box Fight site, near Story, Wyoming between Buffalo and Sheridan. The fort is a state historic site, maintaining a visitor center and a reconstructed stockade. The site of the Fetterman fight is dramatic, particularly after reading Indian accounts of the battle.
The first photo is from The Nature Conservancy's page on Thunder Basin, in eastern Wyoming. The Little Bighorn photo is on PBS' website on the West, as is the photo of Custer and the wagons. The sketch of Crazy Horse's people en route to Fort Robinson was first published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 9, 1977. It's in the Library of Congress, reproduced in Wikipedia's Crazy Horse article. The Crook photo is from his Wikipedia article. The photos of Red Cloud, Touch the Clouds, and He Dog are all from www.firstpeople.us, which offers thousands of historical photpographs and much more.
No photograph of Crazy Horse is known to exist, though the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen, Montana, owns one that it claims is genuine, and came down through the family of the scout Little Bat Garnier. See more on the dispute under "Photograph Controversy" in the Wikipedia article.