Crazy Horse

With winter approaching, some Indians began to drift back to the reservations to acquire food and annuity goods from the US army which had taken over from the civilian agencies, a move which further estranged some warriors. The US authorities further enraged the Indians by demanding that they cede the Black Hills to the government in exchange for supplies.

One after the other the hostile bands were overcome. General Miles effectively defeated Sitting Bull’s Sioux warriors by December and General McKenzie’s troops finally defeated Chief Dull Knife and his Cheyenne. Crazy Horse decided to negotiate peace with the US army and sent a delegation to meet General Miles to discuss terms. The delegation was ambushed and murdered by US army Crow scouts and Crazy Horse demanded revenge.

Miles sent out a force to search for the hostiles and at 7pm on the 8th January 1877, made camp and set up a perimeter on a ridge in the foothills of Wolf Mountains. Crazy Horse and Two Moons with some 500 warriors found them and immediately attacked, but the discipline and firepower of the soldiers, coupled with heavy artillery fire forced the warriors to withdraw. It was now clear to most Indians that they were not safe from the army even in winter and harsh conditions and many drifted back to the reservations.

Crazy Horse and his people struggled on throughout the winter, weakened by hunger. He decided to protect them by surrendering and went to Fort Robinson in Nebraska. On the 5th May 1877 he and other leaders including He Dog, Iron Crow and his jealous cousin Little Big Man, met with Lieutenant William Clark in a solemn ceremony to mark the end of the fighting.

For a few months Crazy Horse lived in his village near the government sponsored Red Cloud Agency with a half breed woman called Nellie Larrabee who is now thought to have been bribed by the army to report on him.  His celebrity caused jealousy and resentment among other Indians, particularly Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, two Lakota who had long before come to the agency and adopted its way of life. They spread rumours of Crazy Horse wanting to return to the old ways causing the army to keep a close watch on him. The army was also aware of Crazy Horse's reputation and feared that his presence could start a general uprising.

When, in August 1877, news came of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce warriors breaking out of their reservation in Idaho and fleeing through Montana towards Canada, the army asked Crazy Horse and his friend Touch the Cloud to join with them to hunt the chief down. Crazy Horse refused saying that he had promised to remain at peace after their surrender. What followed is controversial still, but it seems that he eventually agreed to help the army "till all the Nez Perce were killed", but his words were misinterpreted by a half breed scout named Frank Grouard as "to go north and fight until no white man is left". After being challenged over his interpretation, Grouad left and another interpreter called William Garnett was brought in who did little to correct the situation. Rumours abounded throughout the agencies and the army feared a general Sioux uprising. Crazy Horse was demonised by jealous Indians and nervous soldiers alike.

With tension rising, General Crook was ordered to the nearby Fort Robinson and a council was called with the Oglala elders, but was cancelled when Crook was informed (incorrectly) that Crazy Horse intended to kill him during the meeting.

Crazy Horse was ordered to be arrested and Crook departed, leaving military action to the post commander, Lieutenant Colonel Luther Bradley, who, on the morning of September 4th 1877, after ordering more troops from Fort Laramie, sent two columns against the village of Crazy Horse, but found on arrival that the occupants had scattered in the night. Crazy Horse himself travelled to the nearby Spotted Tail agency with his sick wife who was ill with tuberculosis and placed her in the care of her parents. He met with army officials at the nearby military post of Camp Sheridan and, after a discussion, agreed to return to Fort Robinson with Lieutenant Jesse.M.Lee, the Indian agent at Spotted Tail, his friend, the 7 foot tall Touch the Cloud, Little Big Man, plus some others.

The official version of his death states that on the morning of the 5th September Crazy Horse and the others departed for Fort Robinson and arrived that evening. Lieutenant Lee was ordered to hand Crazy Horse over to the Officer of the Day. Lee protested and went to Colonel Bradley's quarters to argue the point but without success. Bradley had received orders that Crazy Horse was to be arrested and taken under cover of darkness to Divisional Headquarters. Lee was forced to turn Crazy Horse over to Captain James Kennington the post guard commander. Once inside the guardhouse Crazy Horse struggled with Little Big Man and a guard and attempted to escape. Just outside the door, he was stabbed with a bayonet by a guard. He was taken to the Adjutant's office, where he was treated by the post surgeon, but died later in the night. Dr McGillycuddy, who treated Crazy Horse after he had been stabbed, wrote later "that he died around midnight".

Another version of events is provided by John Gregory Bourke's memoirs of his time during the Indian wars. He interviewed Little Big Man, both a relative and a rival of Crazy Horse, a year after Crazy Horse's death. Little Big Man stated that when Crazy Horse was taken into the guardhouse, he pulled two knives from under his blanket and held one in each hand. Little Big Man, standing behind him, seized Crazy Horse by both elbows, pulling his arms up behind him. During the struggle, Little Big Man lost his grip on one elbow and Crazy Horse drove his own knife deep into his back. The chief fell and surrendered to the guards.

When Bourke questioned him about the popular account of the guard bayoneting Crazy Horse first, Little Big Man said that the guard, believed to be Private William Gentles, did thrust with his bayonet but in the struggle missed entirely and the blade lodged in the frame of the guardhouse door. He also said that in the hours after the stabbing, the camp commander had suggested the story of the guard being responsible to hide Little Big Man's role in the death of Crazy Horse and avoid any inter clan reprisals.

There is little doubt that the army wanted Crazy Horse dead and to be killed while trying to escape would avoid any suggestion of an execution, leading many to believe that the whole affair was a set up. Little Big Man's version is questionable as it is the only one of seventeen eyewitness sources from Indian and army individuals that fails to attribute Crazy Horse's death to a soldier at the guardhouse. Perhaps he was looking for some fame or notoriety for having a hand in Crazy Horse’s death.

Perhaps the last word should go to an Indian witness to the event, "Crazy Horse, even when dying, refused to lie on the white man's cot. He insisted on being placed on the floor. Armed soldiers stood by until he died. When he died, Touch the Cloud pointed to the blanket that covered the chief's body and said, “This is the lodge of Crazy Horse".

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »