Crazy Horse c. 1842-1877
Crazy Horse (a translation of his Lakotan name, Tasunke Witko) achieved notoriety while he was alive for his skill as a military leader and his defiant attempt to resist Westernizing influences. Since his death, his actions have taken on further meaning, and he is highly regarded as a symbol of Lakota resistance, oftentimes considered wakan (spiritually powerful), and he continues to be emblematic of a traditional past.
Crazy Horse was born in 1841 or 1842 near the Black Hills (South Dakota). He apparently had yellow-brown hair and was initially called Light Hair and Curly. His father was a medicine man; but less is known about his mother, who died young; his father later remarried. He was reportedly good with horses, and this garnered him the name His Horses Looking. His interest in a married woman, Black Buffalo Woman, led to a shooting that left Crazy Horse with a scar. Later, he married Black Shawl and they had a daughter, They Are Afraid of Her, who died at age 2. In 1877 he also married Nellie Laravie, an 18-year-old mixed-blood woman.
His father and grandfather both were named Crazy Horse, and he himself finally earned this name in his teen years. Around this time, Crazy Horse had a vision that involved a horseman who is plainly dressed and riding untouched through a storm. Crazy Horse himself began to dress plainly, with a red-tailed hawk feather, and it was assumed that he and his horse were invulnerable. There are also reports that he would throw dust over his horse before battle and that he wore a small stone, or wotawe (sacred charm), for protection. He was a quiet and introspective man who seldom joined in public events.
In an effort to resolve the conflicts following from Western expansion, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agreed to settle at agencies, camps associated with government Indian agents that later became reservations, with the signing of the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty. Crazy Horse alone resolved to stay on his own lands in the Black Hills, until several events led to his surrender. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills and battles commenced against those who resisted the order to reservation land. Crazy Horse fought his best in the last two great battles, Rosebud and Little Bighorn. On June 17, 1876, assaults forced Brigadier General George Crook’s troops to retreat at the Battle of the Rosebud. Days later (June 25), Crazy Horse and others led the victory against Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
These victories led to increased military pressure and famine. Supplies and morale diminished at Crazy Horse’s camp with the dwindling of buffalo, restricted trade, and a cold winter. Given the promise of an agency in the northern country, Crazy Horse led 889 followers to Fort Robinson in May 1877, but the promised agency fell through, and Crazy Horse was given a campsite near Red Cloud’s agency close to the White River (Nebraska). There was concern on the part of those trying to maintain stable relations—both Indian agents and Lakota leaders—that Crazy Horse would continue to hunt, given his refusal of rations, and that he would weaken the elders’ efforts to maintain peace at the agency. Also, there might have been concern from the Lakota leaders of Red Cloud’s and Spotted Tail’s agencies that Crazy Horse was gaining too much favor from the Indian agents and unsettling the status of existing agencies.
After four months in the camps, General Crook issued an order for Crazy Horse’s arrest. Crazy Horse at first assumed he was going to a council meeting, but resisted when he realized he might be imprisoned. It seems that his ally Little Big Man restrained him, either to placate him, in order to protect himself from Crazy Horse’s knife, or to serve questionable political interests. A low-ranking cavalry soldier named William Gentiles is credited with stabbing Crazy Horse with a bayonet, intentionally or not. Crazy Horse died September 5, 1877, at Fort Robinson, and his father buried his son at an undisclosed site with the agreement of those in attendance that they smoke a pipe and pledge not to reveal its location.
Kadlecek, Edward, and Mabell Kadlecek. 1981. To Kill an Eagle: Indian Views on the Last Days of Crazy Horse. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books.
Marshall, Joseph M. 2004. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking.
McMurtry, Larry. 1999. Crazy Horse: A Penguin Life. New York: Viking.
Crazy Horse was a Native American in the Oglala clan of the Eton Sioux Indians. He lived during the middle of the nineteenth century, when the federal government attacked Native Americans to take their lands. Crazy Horse worked as a warrior to defend his people and their homelands and communities.
Crazy Horse was probably born in 1842 along Rapid Creek near Rapid City, South Dakota . His father, also called Crazy Horse, was a medicine man in the Oglala Sioux clan. His mother, Rattle Blanket, was a member of the Brulé Sioux.
Crazy Horse was known as Curly as a young child. In his teens, he was called Horse Stands in Sight. When he was around seventeen, his father observed how hard and well he fought in a battle against other Native Americans. At this time, Crazy Horse received his father's name as his own.
In the late 1840s, the California gold rush and the American victory in the Mexican-American War (1846–48) led to massive settlement of the western portion of the continent. Such settlement led to decades of conflict with the Native American populations who already lived there. By 1857, Crazy Horse had seen American soldiers destroy three Native American villages. That year, he attended a council of Native Americans near Bear Butte at the eastern edge of the Black Hills, South Dakota, to discuss the federal problem.
In the 1860s, Crazy Horse joined forces of Native Americans who resisted passage for the American military and settlers through the Powder River region, which is in Montana and Wyoming . The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 temporarily ended this dispute between the Sioux and the federal government. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, however, led the government to disregard the treaty in favor of gold prospecting.
During the Black Hills gold rush, Native American tribes joined to oppose the taking of their lands. On March 17, 1876, Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds (1822–1899) destroyed the village in which Crazy Horse lived. Crazy Horse led his people on a raid to recapture the horses taken by Reynolds and his men. On June 17, Crazy Horse and his men deflected forces led by General George Crook (1828–1890) near Little Bighorn, a river in Montana. On June 25, Crazy Horse fought the famous battle of the Little Bighorn, also called Custer's Last Stand , at which the Native Americans killed General George Custer (1839–1876) and all 264 of his men.
The Native American victory at Little Bighorn did not win the war. Crazy Horse's people went into winter quarters in the Wolf Mountains near the headwaters of the Rosebud Creek in Montana. On January 8, 1877, Colonel Nelson A. Miles (1839–1925) led an attack on the village. Crazy Horse continued to fight for four more months, but his people ran low on food for themselves and their horses. They surrendered to federal authorities on May 6, 1877.
Four months later, Crazy Horse was in custody at Fort Robinson in Nebraska . The federal government had not honored its promise to move Crazy Horse and his people to a reservation in Wyoming. The government, in fact, might have had plans to exile Crazy Horse, perhaps to Florida .
On September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse pulled a knife when he thought he was about to be imprisoned in a guardhouse. He was stabbed in the ensuing scuffle, either by his own knife or by a soldier's bayonet. Crazy Horse died hours later in the presence of his father and a man named Touch the Clouds. He supposedly was buried near Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Within a few weeks, his people were sent to reservations in South Dakota.
The Native American Crazy Horse (ca. 1842-1877), 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.
Details on Crazy Horse's life are in Mari Sandoz, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942), and Earl A. Brininstool, Crazy Horse (1949). A good, condensed version of his life is in Alvin M. Josephy, The Patriot Chiefs (1961). John G. Bourke, On the Border with Crook (1891), gives a contemporary assessment. □
Mari Sandoz , Crazy Horse, Strange Man of the Oglalas, 1942.
Robert M. Utley