Crazy Horse

Heroes usually let you down — peel back anyone's public image, you'll find something ugly. No heroes for me, thanks, but one of the Americans I admire most was a man who might've killed me for calling him an American.

Crazy Horse was born in the winter of 1841-42, near what's now Rapid Creek, South Dakota. According to his people, he was a solitary but curious child. 

When he was about 12 years of age, a cow wandered away from a passing Mormon caravan, on August 19, 1854. A visitor to the Sioux encampment captured and killed it for meat and leather, and thought it was a great stroke of good fortune.

US troops led by Lt John Grattan disagreed, rode to the encampment, and demanded that the visitor be remanded into custody.

The penalty for cattle rustling was usually a hanging. There's no knowing whether the band's elder, Conquering Bear, knew that, but he must've suspected. He offered apologies and restitution for the cow, but refused to let the soldiers take his visitor.

During the argument, a jittery soldier drew his gun and shot one of the natives. Suddenly gunshots and arrows filled the air, and Conquering Bear was shot and killed. He was the only Sioux casualty in what became known as the Grattan massacre — 30 soldiers were killed, including Lt Grattan. It's likely that the Americans exaggerated the toll to rally vengeance, but 30-1 is the score in the history books.

On September 3, 1855, Crazy Horse witnessed the US Army's retaliation for the Grattan massacre, the Battle of Ash Hollow. Gen William Harney led an attack that left more than a hundred Sioux dead. Crazy Horse was not injured, but he was left with a life-long hatred of white people.

You could call that racism, I suppose, but calling it 'common sense' would be more accurate.

Over the next decade, Crazy Horse led several battles that blocked US hopes to open the Bozeman Trail to settlers and gold miners in Sioux territory.

On December 21, 1866, he led a confederation of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho forces in the Fetterman massacre, luring Captain William Fetterman and his men into an intricately laid trap near an Army fort, and killing 81 white soldiers.

Two years later, the Sioux Chief Red Cloud signed a treaty with the Americans, agreeing to relocate the tribe to a reservation on the Missouri River, but Crazy Horse and his followers refused to resettle. In 1873 and '74, warriors led by Crazy Horse repeatedly engaged troops commanded by General George Armstrong Custer.

Then Crazy Horse walked away. He married an Oglala woman, Black Shawl, and retired from warfare ... until a peaceful encampment of Sioux was attacked by Army troops. The survivors sought refuge with Crazy Horse, and he swore to avenge the dead.

He led the attack on the bluecoats in the Battle of Rosebud Creek on June 17, 1876, a decisive victory for the Sioux.

A week later, in the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, Custer's men attacked Crazy Horse's forces, which by then included several thousand men. Custer was killed, along with some 250 of his men, but in response the US flooded the territory with so many well-armed soldiers that the Sioux couldn't win.

As Union forces advanced over subsequent months, Crazy Horse's followers split into two groups, with some retreating to Canada while others, under Crazy Horse, fought on.

In December of 1876, cold, hungry, and almost out of ammunition, he sent a small party of men bearing white flags, seeking terms of surrender from General Nelson Miles, but Miles' men opened fire on the surrender party.

With his warriors and thousands of women and children, Crazy Horse then fled, as Miles' men pursued them.

On January 8, 1877, the Army attacked while Crazy Horse and his men slept. Though the Sioux soon ran out of bullets, they fought with bows and arrows, and it was the Army that eventually withdrew from what's now called the Battle of Wolf Mountain.

That spring, US emissaries sent Crazy Horse promise of a reservation alongside the Powder River if he surrendered, and at the urging of the respected Chief Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and his men laid down their arms on May 5, 1877.

The reservation they were promised was never granted, but he and his men camped on Red Cloud's reservation for a few months.

In the pre-dawn hours of September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse was roused from his sleep by order of General George Crook, and told he would be taken to an important meeting. Instead he was brought to a guardhouse, and when he understood that he was about to be imprisoned, he ran, and was bayoneted in the back.

His body was claimed by his parents, who buried him, and never revealed the whereabouts of his grave.

Crazy Horse™ is now a brand of women's wear, owned by Liz Claiborne™, and in 1982, the US Postal Service issued a 13¢ Crazy Horse postage stamp.



  1. It's not easy to compose a just-the-facts essay about one of the leaders of the million and more North American indigenous people who were murdered, imprisoned or penned in reserves over a 300 year period, but you did a really fine job in getting the facts arranged in a compelling way and just telling the story. I think this was one of the best short pieces on the one-sided War of North America and one of your best essays. There is energy and passion lurking just beneath the factual story, and it shines and flickers like a low-wattage Native campfire of lost hope.

    Thanks for all the work that went into this piece.


  2. Wow... that's a really good writeup, and at the end is some of your finest sarcasm maybe ever.

    Are you interested in Native Americans in general or is it limited to Crazy Horse?

    1. Thank you both. Kindness makes me squirm but it's better than a bad review.

      Natives aren't a driving passion for me, but I'm drawn to underdogs, especially when my great-great-grandfather's tax dollars are used to kill and swindle them.

    2. And now American Indians are getting even via casino gambling, and building schools and hospitals with some of the proceeds and, of course, the entire tribe gets paid but a few get paid a lot more than others. Why shouldn't the proud American Indian culture be any different than other cultures throughout history?

      For a reason I can't quite put my finger on, this reminds me of the last words of Bat Masterson. Mr Masterson ended up, after dust-ups in Dodge City and several other western towns, boxing promotion in Denver, and friendship with (and a U.S. Marshall appointment from) Teddy Roosevelt, writing a column for the New York Morning Telegraph. He died at his desk in 1921, the copy for his last column still in his typewriter. The copy read, in part,

      "There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I'll swear I can't see it that way."


    3. Sounds like an ally not an enemy. Did you read his stuff?

      Why 'Bat', I wonder but not enough to google it...

    4. He carried a cane that he used for a weapon. Gunplay was a last resort.


    5. Aaah, thank you. I think I knew that but forgot it.


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