- Joseph C. Porter
Crazy Horse (1840–05 September 1877), Oglala Lakota war chief, was born near Bear Butte in present-day South Dakota, the son of Crazy Horse, a noted Oglala warrior and medicine man, and (according to some sources) Rattle Blanket Woman, a Minicoujou Lakota of the prestigious Lone Horn family. By 1861 the boy had inherited the name Crazy Horse from his father. Believing himself informed by visions and protected by war medicines prepared by Horn Chips, a respected Oglala wicasa wakan or holy man, Crazy Horse was an extraordinarily courageous warrior who commanded the respect of both his own people and his enemies. During Oglala leader Red Cloud’s war against wagon roads, army forts, and other white incursions on Lakota lands in Wyoming and Montana in the mid-1860s, Crazy Horse demonstrated courage and remarkable skill as a leader of warriors in the Fetterman Fight at Fort Phil Kearny, the Hayfield Fight, and the Wagon Box Fight. Lakota resistance persuaded the government to cease fighting and begin the difficult negotiations that led to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, establishing a reservation in South Dakota. However, although Red Cloud and some Lakota chiefs signed the treaty, Crazy Horse and other Lakota leaders rejected it.
Crazy Horse’s triumphs as a warrior and as a war leader earned him admiration among all of the Lakota tribes as well as among the northern Cheyenne, with whom he lived periodically, which helped to strengthen the alliance between the Cheyenne and the Lakota. His stature and unyielding resistance to the U.S. government made him a central figure among the nontreaty Lakota, who increasingly looked to him for leadership. Compared to other leading warriors, Crazy Horse was a quiet, modest, sometimes reclusive man. To outsiders—and even to some of his own people—these qualities made him appear unorthodox, yet his people fully accepted him because his behavior and his steadfast assurance sprang from dreams and visions, which, in traditional Lakota culture, guided one’s conduct.
In 1868 Crazy Horse earned the highest formal honor from his people. A large camp of Lakota gathered in northeast Wyoming where, a witness recalled, leaders selected Crazy Horse and three other young warriors as head warriors or “shirt wearers,” who “represented in their commands and acts the entire power of the nation.” Crazy Horse remained a shirt wearer until 1870, when a dispute arose after a Lakota woman, whose name was Black Buffalo Woman, left her husband for Crazy Horse. Lakota women had the right to end one marriage and begin another; however, in this instance, the husband shot Crazy Horse in the face with a pistol. The Lakota expected their chiefs to be above personal matters, and this quarrel cost Crazy Horse his formal position as a shirt wearer.
By the mid-1870s government officials and army officers recognized Crazy Horse as one of the most prominent leaders of the Lakota resistance to the whites. During the conflict with the U.S. government over the Black Hills region of South Dakota and Lakota hunting grounds in the Yellowstone River basin, areas assigned to the Lakota in the 1868 treaty, many Lakota turned to Crazy Horse for leadership. In 1874 gold had been discovered in the Black Hills, and by 1875 Lakota leaders on and off the reservations were angry and alarmed about the growing number of prospectors and miners moving into the Black Hills, trespassing on Lakota land. Negotiations failed because the Lakota rejected a government proposal to lease the Black Hills, and the army was reluctant to keep the miners out of the area, thus angering the Lakota.
In December 1875 the government ordered the Lakota bands living in the Yellowstone and Powder rivers area to report to the reservations in Nebraska or on the Missouri River within six weeks or face punitive military action. The ultimatum was absurd because even if the nontreaty Lakota had intended to comply, and most did not, they would have been reluctant to move their families and villages to the reservations because of the difficulty of traveling during the winter months. Some Lakota and northern Cheyenne had decided to wait for spring and then go to the reservations so that they could decide what to do after they had seen the situation there. Contemporaries of Crazy Horse have claimed that in the early winter months of 1876 he had adopted a similar attitude toward the government’s demands.
After the army attacked a northern Cheyenne village in March 1876, however, Crazy Horse and other Lakota and northern Cheyenne chiefs prepared for war against the army. A rare leader whose reputation and personality permitted him to maintain his authority over a large number of warriors from other tribes, Crazy Horse, along with Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota, emerged during 1876 as the most conspicuous leaders of the Lakota-Cheyenne alliance.
Crazy Horse was a central figure in the two most significant battles of the Sioux War of 1876. On 17 June 1876 he was one of the leaders of a force of approximately 1,500 warriors in an attack on a 1,300-man military column led by Brigadier General George Crook along Rosebud Creek in southern Montana. Crazy Horse helped coordinate the warriors’ attack, which resulted in a strategic victory for the Indians. On 25 June Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and units of the Seventh Cavalry attacked the Lakota-Cheyenne village in the battle of the Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse was conspicuous in leading his warriors in charges that destroyed Custer and his immediate command.
The Indian victories spurred the army to relentlessly pursue the Lakota and the Cheyenne in the Yellowstone River country during the winter of 1876–1877. The increased force convinced many warriors to move their families to the reservations. Recognizing that further fighting would be futile, on 7 May 1877 Crazy Horse and his followers surrendered at Camp Robinson, Nebraska.
Despite his disdain for reservation life, Crazy Horse hoped to live quietly on the reservation. Because he had been the pivotal leader of the Lakota in their fight against the army, government officials and army officers were anxious to meet the chief who had been such a skillful adversary. This attention caused jealousy among other Oglala and Sicangu chiefs, who spread rumors that Crazy Horse intended to escape from the reservation. Junior army officers believed the malicious gossip and reported it to their superiors as fact. By September 1877 the rumors convinced army officers to arrest Crazy Horse. On 5 September 1877 during an attempt to imprison him at Camp Robinson, a soldier bayoneted Crazy Horse, who died a few hours later.
In 1871 Crazy Horse married Black Shawl Woman, an Oglala. The couple had his only child, a daughter named They Are Afraid of Her. The girl died around 1873. Always somewhat reclusive, Crazy Horse devoted his life to warfare after the death of his daughter, when he created the Last Child Society, whose members were the last-born boys of their families. Crazy Horse remained married to Black Shawl Woman until his death. In 1877 he also took Nellie Laravie as his wife. Both wives survived him. Black Shawl Woman never remarried. She lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation until her death circa 1927. Nellie Laravie remarried, and she lived on the Rosebud Reservation.
The valor and skill with which Crazy Horse led the Lakota marked him as a great Native-American leader, and the passage of more than a century has not diminished his stature.
Although Crazy Horse left behind no personal correspondence or memoirs, his contemporaries, Indian and non-Indian, have documented their recollections of him. The Eli S. Ricker Collection at the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln contains numerous interviews conducted by Ricker with contemporaries of Crazy Horse. Other works based at least in part on interviews with Lakota who had been associated with Crazy Horse include John G. Bourke, On the Border with Crook (1891); E. A. Brininstool, Crazy Horse, the Invincible Ogalalla Chief (1949); John M. Carroll, ed., The Eleanor H. Hinman Interviews on the Life and Death of Crazy Horse (1976); and Amos Bad Heart Bull with Helen H. Blish, A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux (1967). The Walter M. Camp interviews are in manuscript collections at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Mari Sandoz, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942), remains the most comprehensive biography. A good recent guide is Richard G. Hardorff, The Oglala Lakota Crazy Horse: A Preliminary Genealogical Study and an Annotated Listing of Primary Sources (1985).