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Crazy Horse
1842 - 1877

The Native American Crazy Horse, Oglala Sioux war chief, is best known as the leader of the Sioux and Cheyenne renegades who won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Gen. Custer died.


Born on Rapid Creek, S. Dak., near the present Rapid City, Crazy Horse (Tashunca-Uitco) was a strange, quiet Sioux youth, serious and thoughtful. His skin and hair were so light that he was mistaken for a captive white child and was called "Light-Haired Boy" and "Curly."

Crazy Horse grew to manhood wild and adventurous, implacably hating the reservations and the encroaching whites. He married a Cheyenne girl and thus had close ties with that tribe. After he came to prominence as a warrior, many Cheyenne followed him.

Crazy Horse probably participated in the Sioux wars of 1865-1868 but as a warrior, not a leader. By the last of these wars, in 1876, however, he had risen to prominence. He and his followers refused to return to the reservation by Jan. 1, 1876, as had been ordered by the U.S. Army following the outbreak occasioned by the Black Hills gold rush. Crazy Horse and his followers bore the first burden of this campaign. Their village of 105 lodges was destroyed by Col. J. J. Reynolds on March 17. The Native Americans' horses were captured, but Crazy Horse rallied his braves, trailed the soldiers 20 miles, and recaptured most of the horses. On June 17 he and 1,200 warriors defeated Gen. George Crook and 1,300 soldiers, turning them away from a rendezvous with the forces of Gen. Alfred Terry.

Crazy Horse next moved north, where he joined with Sitting Bull's followers on the Little Bighorn River. On June 25 he was in command of the warriors who massacred Gen. George Custer and 264 soldiers. Then, with 800 warriors he went into winter quarters in the Wolf Mountains near the headwaters of the Rosebud River. On Jan. 8, 1877, the village was destroyed in an attack led by Col. N. A. Miles. Crazy Horse continued to fight for 4 months before surrendering on May 6 with 1,100 men, women, and children at Red Cloud Agency near Camp Robinson, Nebr. An army officer there described Crazy Horse as 5 feet 8 inches tall, lithe and sinewy, with a weathered visage; wrote Capt. John G. Bourke: "The expression of his countenance was one of great dignity, but morose, dogged, tenacious and melancholy. … He was one of the great soldiers of his day and generation."

On Sept. 5, 1877, the officers at the post, convinced that Crazy Horse was plotting an outbreak, ordered him locked up. Crazy Horse drew his knife and began fighting. In the struggle he was mortally wounded in the abdomen, either by a soldier's bayonet or his own knife. His death deprived the Oglala Sioux of one of their most able leaders.


Teton Sioux military leader. Since his violent and controversial death, Crazy Horse, or Tashunka Witko, has become almost a mythical figure of the Great Plains Indian wars. The place and date of his birth are uncertain, but he was probably born in the early 1840s near Bear Butte on the Belle Fourche River in South Dakota. His father was a medicine man of the Oglala subtribe, his mother a Brulé. There has been much speculation about the origin of the name Crazy Horse, but most historians now agree that his father had the same name. As a youth he was known as Curly, but acquired the father's name after proving himself in combat.

He was below average height, his body lithe, his hair and complexion lighter than that of most Indians. Various photographs bear his name, but most have been discredited, and probably none is genuine. Except for his last days near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, he was out of reach of frontier photographers.

His first encounter with U.S. soldiers was on the old Oregon Trail, July 25, 1865, at Platte Bridge, where he acted as a decoy to draw soldiers out of their defenses. During the following year, when soldiers marched up the Bozeman Trail to build forts, Crazy Horse honed his skills as a guerrilla fighter and studied the ways of his military adversaries.

In December 1866, when the Sioux and Cheyenne combined to challenge Fort Phil Kearny, Crazy Horse's daring as a leader of the decoy warriors brought Lt. Col. William J. Fetterman and eighty men into an ambush that became known as the Fetterman massacre.

During the following decade, Crazy Horse joined Sitting Bull in an unyielding determination to defend the Black Hills and resist reservation control. When the U.S. Army mounted a three-pronged military operation in 1876 to drive the "free" Plains Indians onto reservations, Crazy Horse confronted the column led by Gen. George Crook at Rosebud Creek, June 17. He concentrated his warriors against weak spots in Crook's lines, fighting hand to hand at times to win the day.

After the battle, the victors rode over to the Little Bighorn to join Sitting Bull's large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne. On the twenty-fifth, Gen. George A. Custer's column attacked the camp, and Crazy Horse and Gall, a chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, led their warriors in a pincers attack that quickly enveloped Custer's divided cavalry and wiped it out.

Other military forces pursued the Indians, eventually driving Sitting Bull into Canada. Crazy Horse and his followers attempted to hold out in remote areas of the Yellowstone country, but soldiers hunted them relentlessly. On May 6, 1877, he gave himself up and spent the summer near Fort Robinson, awaiting the assignment to a reservation that had been promised him for surrendering.

The events affecting Crazy Horse during that long summer were imbued with elements of classical tragedy. Deceptions, betrayals, and false rumours engulfed him. He was disliked by some of the older Indian leaders, and because of his popularity among the young warriors, rumours spread that he was planning an outbreak. When on September 5 he was arrested, he offered no resistance at first. But when he saw that he was to be locked in a guardhouse, he struggled with his captors and was stabbed to death. From the day of its occurrence this incident has been described in several versions, all adding to the mystique of Crazy Horse.




Celebrated for his ferocity in battle, Crazy Horse was recognized among his own people as a visionary leader committed to preserving the traditions and values of the Lakota way of life.

Even as a young man, Crazy Horse was a legendary warrior. He stole horses from the Crow Indians before he was thirteen, and led his first war party before turning twenty. Crazy Horse fought in the 1865-68 war led by the Oglala chief Red Cloud against American settlers in Wyoming, and played a key role in destroying William J. Fetterman's brigade at Fort Phil Kearny in 1867.

Crazy Horse earned his reputation among the Lakota not only by his skill and daring in battle but also by his fierce determination to preserve his people's traditional way of life. He refused, for example, to allow any photographs to be taken of him. And he fought to prevent American encroachment on Lakota lands following the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, helping to attack a surveying party sent into the Black Hills by General George Armstrong Custer in 1873.

When the War Department ordered all Lakota bands onto their reservations in 1876, Crazy Horse became a leader of the resistance. Closely allied to the Cheyenne through his first marriage to a Cheyenne woman, he gathered a force of 1,200 Oglala and Cheyenne at his village and turned back General George Crook on June 17, 1876, as Crook tried to advance up Rosebud Creek toward Sitting Bull's encampment on the Little Bighorn. After this victory, Crazy Horse joined forces with Sitting Bull and on June 25 led his band in the counterattack that destroyed Custer's Seventh Cavalry, flanking the Americans from the north and west as Hunkpapa warriors led by chief Gall charged from the south and east.

Following the Lakota victory at the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull and Gall retreated to Canada, but Crazy Horse remained to battle General Nelson Miles as he pursued the Lakota and their allies relentlessly throughout the winter of 1876-77. This constant military harassment and the decline of the buffalo population eventually forced Crazy Horse to surrender on May 6, 1877; except for Gall and Sitting Bull, 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. Crazy Horse did not resist arrest at first, but when he realized that he was being led to a guardhouse, he began to struggle, and while his arms were held by one of the arresting officers, a soldier ran him through with a bayonet.


American Horse was a Sioux chief during the Lakota Wars of the 1860s and 1870s. His capture and death was one in a series of defeats for the Sioux after the historic Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876).


The son of Old Smoke becomes a shirt-wearer

American Horse, also known as Iron Shield, was the son of Old Smoke, leader of the Smoke People. The Smoke People were also referred to as the Bad Faces. Historians are not sure about when American Horse was born. Little is known about American Horse's early life as a Lakota, but sources show that his cousin Red Cloud (1822–1909) and another Lakota, Crazy Horse (1844–1877), were lifelong friends. (The Sioux Nation is made of Lakotas, Nakotas, and Dakotas.)

In 1865 four warriors, including American Horse and Crazy Horse, were made shirt-wearers. Shirt-wearers were young warriors who had proved themselves to be strong, brave, and generous. During a ceremonial feast, each warrior was given a shirt made from the hides of two bighorn sheep and decorated with feathers, quillwork (decoration using porcupine quills or the shafts of bird feathers), and scalps. Although shirt-wearers were not considered chiefs by their people, they were looked upon as leaders. They were expected to lead warriors in peace as well as in war, keeping the peace and respecting the rights of the weak.

Fort Laramie treaties

The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty set aside an area in northern Wyoming for Lakota hunting grounds. The treaty called for peace among the northern tribes, promised safety to the Sioux, and approved roads and military posts. In 1862, however, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, and three hundred thousand settlers crossed the Plains. In addition, gold was discovered in Montana. In 1862, John M. Bozeman (1835–1867) made a trail across the Lakota Territory. From 1863 to 1864, the Bozeman Trail was the main route to the Montana gold fields. The Lakotas attacked travelers on the trail. This was the start of the Lakota Wars.

In 1865, the southern Lakota signed a new peace treaty. When attacks along the Bozeman Trail continued, the government realized the northern Lakota leaders had not agreed to the treaty. The commander at Fort Laramie was ordered to have all Lakota sign a new treaty in 1868. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 promised that the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho groups could travel the buffalo grounds of the upper Missouri as long as the buffalo herds survived. The treaty also required their children to attend Christian missionary schools and promised that Fort Phil Kearney would be burnt to the ground.

The Black Hills

In 1874, while on a scouting mission in the Black Hills, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) discovered gold. This discovery brought a new wave of miners into the Black Hills. A Senate commission then met with Red Cloud and other chiefs and offered to buy their land. Seven thousand Lakota came to a special council meeting in September 1875. Red Cloud said he would not accept payment of less than seventy million dollars and beef herds to last seven generations. Others called for war and vowed to protect their sacred land.

In December 1875, in the middle of a bitter Plains winter, the U.S. Interior Department ordered all Sioux to the Dakota reservations. Those who did not report by January 31, 1876, would be considered hostile. Because it was winter, when no one moved around on the northern plains, the Indians remained where they were. Unfamiliar with the area and the tribal customs, the Interior Department ordered the military to drive the Lakota onto the reservations. General George Crook (1828–1898) led his troops to the region to carry out the military's orders.


Little Bighorn

On March 17, 1876, a group of Crook's soldiers surprised a small Lakota camp, destroying all the tepees and winter food stores. The following month, Sitting Bull held a council to talk of war. As Sitting Bull prepared for war, many of the reservation Indians joined him. There were several minor skirmishes between soldiers and Lakotas before summer that year. By June, the Indians made camp at the Little Bighorn in the Bighorn Mountains.

Depending on who tells the story, either Custer surprised Sitting Bull's camp or Sitting Bull ambushed the Seventh Cavalry. Whichever version actually occurred, 189 soldiers, 13 officers, and 4 civilians died on June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn, according to official military records. Hundreds of warriors had overwhelmed the Seventh Cavalry. After their victory celebration, Sitting Bull's forces broke into smaller groups and began their summer buffalo hunt.

The Battle of Slim Buttes

General Crook and other military leaders began searching for the Sioux. By September 1876, Crook's troops had run out of supplies. He sent a small group of soldiers, led by Captain Anson Mills (1834–1924), for supplies. Mills's scout found signs of a Lakota camp, and on the morning of September 9, 1876, the soldiers stampeded the tribe's horses through the sleeping camp. A private saw Custer's Seventh Cavalry guidon, or pennant, hanging on American Horse's tepee. Mills's troops also found uniforms, guns, ammunition, a letter addressed to a Seventh Cavalry soldier, and other supplies. This was considered proof that American Horse had taken part in the Battle at the Little Bighorn in June. Later, other Lakota said American Horse had not taken part in Little Bighorn and that these things had been brought into his camp by other Native Americans. No historical evidence has ever been found to prove American Horse took part in the Little Bighorn battle.

When the soldiers attacked, many Lakota escaped into the surrounding bluffs and started firing back. A small group of Lakota managed to kill some of Mills's pack mules and held off the soldiers from inside a gulch. Mills sent a message to Crook asking for help.

After two hours of exchanging shots, Crook ordered the shooting stopped. Thirteen women and children surrendered. Crook asked the women to return to the gulch to tell the remaining holdouts they would be treated well if they surrendered. A young warrior helped American Horse out of the gulch along with nine more women and children. Two warriors, one woman, and a child were left behind, dead. Cyrus Townsend Brady in The Sioux Indian Wars from the Powder River to the Little Big Horn said, " Even the women had used guns, and had displayed all the bravery and courage of the Sioux."

American Horse had been shot in the gut. When he came out of the gulch he was holding his wound and biting down on a piece of wood to keep from crying out. He handed Crook his gun and sat down by one of the fires. American Horse died that night. It was the first of many defeats for the Lakota.

In Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, Marie Sandoz reported that American Horse said, "It is always the friendly ones who are struck," before he died. Other writers indicate American Horse said nothing before he died. In any event, American Horse is remembered as a brave Sioux fighter and leader who defended his people, the land, and the Sioux way of life.










This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008