Crazy Horse (Tashunka Witko) was known among his people as a farsighted chief, committed to safeguarding the tradition and principles of the Sioux (Lakota) way of life. Distinguished by his fierceness in battle, he was a great general who led his people in a war against the invasion of their homeland by the white man. As a fierce enemy, Crazy Horse summoned the anger, fear — and respect — of the U.S. Government and its army.
Birth and childhood
Crazy Horse was born in 1844 at Bear Butte, possibly on the Belle Fourche River east of Paha Sapa, also known as the Black Hills. The boy's name at birth was Curly.
Curly's father, also named Crazy Horse, was an Oglala Lakota, and his mother, Rattling Blanket Woman*, was a Brulè Lakota. Curly also had a sister and a half-brother. Rattling Blanket Woman died when he was young. His father took her sister as a wife and she helped to rear Curly. He spent time in both the Oglala and Brulè camps. Curly’s boyhood was in the days when the western Sioux seldom saw a white man, and then it was usually a trader or a soldier.
Curly was groomed according to tribal customs. At that period, the Sioux prided themselves on the training and development of their sons and daughters, and they did not overlook a step in that development. Before he was 12, Curly had killed a buffalo and received his own horse. On August 19, 1854, he was in Conquering Bear’s camp in northern Wyoming when that Brulè leader was killed in the Grattan Massacre, a bloody dispute between Indians and soldiers over a butchered cow.
The way of the warrior was a societal role preordained for males in traditional Lakota life. Following the Grattan Massacre, Curly, like other young men, set out alone on a Vision Quest. He was not disappointed: The boy had a vivid dream of a rider in a storm on horseback, with long, unbraided hair, a small stone in his ear, zigzag lightning decorating his cheek, and hail dotting his body. Although a warrior, he bore no scalps. People clutched at the rider, but could not hold him. The storm abated, and a red-backed hawk flew over the rider’s head. When Curly reported the dream to his father, and the medicine man was consulted, the latter interpreted it as a sign of his son’s future greatness in battle.
The following year, Curly witnessed the destruction of Sioux tepees and possessions by soldiers during General William Harney’s punitive crusade through Sioux territory along the Oregon Trail. During his formative years, Curly experienced several more revelations about white people, stemming from incidents involving the U.S. Army. One such incident involved a retaliation in which the army wiped out most of an unsuspecting Lakota village, killing women and children as well as warriors.
At the age of 16, Curly joined a war party against the Gros Ventres, an offshoot of the Arapaho. He rode well in the front of the charge, and immediately established his bravery by closely following Hump, one of the foremost Sioux warriors — drawing the enemy's fire and circling around their advance guard. Suddenly Hump's horse was shot from under him, and a rush of warriors converged to kill or capture him while down. Nevertheless, amidst a shower of arrows, the youth leaped from his pony, helped his friend into his own saddle, sprang up behind him, and carried him off to safety — the enemy hotly pursued them.
Elder Crazy Horse took the name, Worm, after passing his name to his courageous son when he was about 18 years old. For the first time, at that age, Crazy Horse rode as an adult warrior in a raid on Crows. Like the rider in his dream, he wore his hair free, a stone earring, and a headdress with a red hawk feather in it. His face was painted with a lightning bolt, and his body bore hail-like dots. The raid was successful, but Crazy Horse sustained a wound in the leg. According to his father's interpretation, he had taken two scalps — unlike the rider in the vision.
Marriages and later career
Crazy Horse had three wives during his lifetime, Black Buffalo Woman, Black Shawl, and Nellie Laravie.
The warrior became further known to many of the Sioux bands for his courage in the War for the Bozeman Trail of 1866-68 under the Oglala Chief Red Cloud, when the army began to build a road in Powder River country from the Oregon Trail to the goldfields of Montana. He was one of the young chiefs, along with the Miniconjou Hump and the Hunkpapas Chief Gall, and Chief Rain-In-The-Face, who used decoy tactics against the soldiers. Near Fort Phil Kearny, in what is now northcentral Wyoming, Crazy Horse participated in the Indian victory known as the Fetterman Fight.
In December 1866, Crazy Horse acted as a decoy leader helping to lure Lt. Colonel William J. Fetterman and 80 soldiers from Fort Phil Kearny into a trap, then utter defeat by Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Owing to such deeds, Crazy Horse became a war leader by his mid-twenties. Chief Sitting Bull looked to him as a principal war leader. In fact, he was one of the youngest Lakota men in memory to receive one of the highest honors and responsibilities accorded to males: the title of Shirtwearer. Crazy Horse honed his skills as a guerrilla fighter and studied the ways of his military adversaries.
When Red Cloud and Chief Spotted Tail settled on reservation lands following the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, in which the army agreed to abandon the posts along the Bozeman Trail, Crazy Horse became war chief of the Oglalas, with some Brulè followers as well. Moreover, he gained friends and followers among the Northern Cheyennes through his first marriage to Black Buffalo Woman, a Cheyenne.
In March 1876, when General George Crook's scouts discovered an Indian trail, he sent a detachment under Colonel Joseph Reynolds to locate an Indian camp along the Powder River in southeastern Montana. At dawn on March 17, Reynolds ordered a charge. The Indians retreated to surrounding bluffs and fired at the troops, who burned the village and rounded up the Indian horses. Crazy Horse regrouped his warriors and, during a snowstorm that night, recaptured the herd.
On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse led a combined group of approximately 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne in a surprise attack against General George Crook's force of 1,000 cavalry and infantry, and 300 Crow and Shoshone warriors in the Battle of the Rosebud. Repeated assaults forced Crook’s troops to retreat. The battle delayed Crook from reinforcing the 7th Cavalry under George A. Custer. After the successful engagement, the Indians then moved their camp to the Bighorn River to join Chief Sitting Bull's large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne. Eight days later, on the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) River, he led Lakota and Cheyenne warriors again in a decisive victory against George Custer's 7th Cavalry.
On the 25th of June, 1876, the great camp was scattered for three miles or more along the level riverside. Behind a thin line of cottonwoods stood five circular groups of teepees, ranging from half a mile to a mile and a half in circumference. Here and there stood a prominent, white, solitary teepee; these were the lodges or "clubs" of the young men. Crazy Horse was a member of the Strong Hearts and the Fox (Tokala) lodge. He was watching a game of ring toss, when a warning came from the southern end of the camp of the approach of troops. Although taken by surprise, they instantly responded. Crazy Horse led his men northward to cut off Custer and his troops. Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, a chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, led their warriors in a pincer attack that quickly enveloped Custer's divided cavalry. There would be reprisals.
When the nomadic hunting bands ignored the order to report to their reservations by January 31, 1876, the military organized a pogrom against them. The next autumn and winter, Colonel Nelson A. Miles led the 5th Infantry in a ruthless pursuit of the Indian bands, wearing them down and making it difficult for them to obtain food. Crazy Horse received word that if he surrendered, his people would have a reservation of their own in the Powder River country. On May 8, he knew too well that his people were weakened by cold and hunger, so he surrendered to United States soldiers at Fort Robinson on the Red Cloud Agency in northwestern Nebraska.
In September 1877, Crazy Horse's wife became critically ill, and Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy went to his camp to treat her. Crazy Horse then decided to take her to her parents at Spotted Tail agency. He left the reservation without permission, so General Crook, fearing that he was plotting a return to battle, ordered him to be arrested. 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 one of the arresting officers held his arms, a soldier ran him through with a bayonet.
Crazy Horse had signed no treaties, and he surrendered only because he did not want his followers to suffer depravation, cold, and hunger. Except for Gall and Sitting Bull, he was the last important chief to yield.
*Sister of Spotted Tail .
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Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E. Ambrose.
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