Today In Western History: Crazy Horse Surrenders

May 6 —

Today is the beginning of the end for the Sioux leader, Crazy Horse.  He was an Oglala Sioux Indian chief who fought against removal to a reservation in the Black Hills. Crazy Horse was an uncom-promising and fearless Lakota leader who was committed to protecting his people’s way of life.  He comes into the White River Valley, with his entire band of 800 to 1200 warriors, women and children.  Once he surrenders, the army will confiscate the band’s entire herd of 1,700 ponies and their entire supply of weapons – some 117 rifles and what little ammunition they have left. 

Crazy Horse never allowed anyone to take his picture, because he believed it would steal his spirit, so no one knows exactly what he looked like. 

Crazy Horse was an Ogala Sioux, and it is generally believed that he was born somewhere near what is now Rapid City in South Dakota, around 1840, and given the Native American name of Tashunka Witco.   Even as a young boy, Crazy Horse stood out from the other boys.  He was fair-skinned and had brown, curly hair, giving him an appearance that was noticeably different from other boys his age.  There is no concrete proof of how he got his name Crazy Horse, but he was known as Curly for most of his youth.   One story states his father, who was also named Crazy Horse, passed the name on to him after his son had demonstrated his skills as a warrior.  These physical differences may have laid the groundwork for a personality that even among his own people made him a loner and a bit distant.

Historian Mike Sajna wrote that say Curly had a vision one day of a man  riding up out of a lake on a horse, changing colors as he rode toward him.  Although the man did not speak, Curly could still  hear him talking to him.  The man told Curly he was to  never wear a war bonnet, never tie up his horse’s tail, and rub dust all over himself and in his hair before a battle and he would be immune to injury.  He was also told to wear only war paint in the form of a lightning bolt down the side of his face, and a to put a white stone with a hole in it on a thong and wear it under his left arm.   Beyond his seemingly mystical ability to avoid injury or death on the battlefield, Crazy Horse also showed himself to be uncompromising with his white foes. He refused to be photographed and never committed his signature to any document. The aim of his fight was to retake the Lakota life he’d known as a child, when his people had full run of the Great Plains.  But there was little hope that would ever happen.

Crazy Horse’s birth had come during the peak of the Native American Culture, and it was a great time for the Lakota people. A division of the Sioux, the Lakota represented the largest band of the tribe. Their contact with whites was minimal, and they were the kings of their domain, which included a giant swath of land that ran from the Missouri River to the Big Horn Mountains in the west.  In the 1850s, however, life for the Lakota began to change considerably, and not in a good way. As more white settlers began pushing west in search of gold and a new life out on the frontier, competition for resources between these new immigrants and the Lakota created tension. Military forts were established in parts of the Great Plains, bringing in even more white settlers and introducing diseases that took their toll on the native Indian populations.

In August 1854 everything boiled over in what became known as the Grattan Massacre. It started when a group of white men, led by Lieutenant John Grattan, entered a Sioux camp to take prisoner the men who had killed a migrant’s cow. After Chief Conquering Bear refused to give in to their demands, violence erupted. After one of the white soldiers shot and killed the chief, the camp’s warriors fought back and killed Grattan and his 30 men.  The Grattan Massacre is widely considered the conflict that kicked off the First Sioux War between the United States and the Lakota. For the still young Crazy Horse, it also helped establish what would be a lifetime of distrust for whites.

As conflicts escalated between the Lakota and the U.S., Crazy Horse was at the center of many key battles.  In one important victory for his people, on December 21, 1866, Crazy Horse led an attack on Captain William J. Fetterman and his brigade of 80 men. The Fetterman Massacre, as it came to be known, proved to be a huge embarrassment for the U.S. military.  Even after the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which guaranteed the Lakota important land, including the coveted Black Hills territory, Crazy Horse continued his fight.

Following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, ironically on an expedition led by Gen. George Custer, and the U.S. government’s backing of white explorers in the territory, the War Department ordered all Lakota onto reservations.  Crazy Horse and Chief Sitting Bull refused. On June 17, 1876,

Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull Architect of the Little Bighorn Fight
Sioux Chief,  Sitting Bull
Architect of the Little Bighorn Fight

Crazy Horse led a force of 1,200 Oglala and Cheyenne warriors against General George Crook and his brigade, successfully turning back the soldiers as they attempted to advance toward Sitting Bull’s encampment on the Little Bighorn River.

General George Crook, Civil War soldier and Indian fighter
General George Crook,
Civil War soldier and Indian fighter

A week later Crazy Horse teamed up with Sitting Bull to decimate Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his esteemed Seventh Cavalry in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, perhaps the greatest victory ever by Native Americans over U.S. troops. Lakota were at the peak of their power.

Gen. George Armstrong Custer, hero in the Civil War and failure in the Indian Wars
Gen. George Armstrong Custer, hero in the Civil War and failure in the Indian Wars

Following the defeat of Custer, the U.S. Army struck back hard against the Lakota, pursuing a scorched-earth policy whose aim was to extract total surrender. While Sitting Bull led his followers into Canada to escape the wrath of the Army, Crazy Horse continued to fight.  But as the winter of 1877 set in and food supplies began to shorten, Crazy Horse’s followers started to abandon him. On May 6, 1877, he rode to Fort Robinson in Nebraska and surrendered. Instructed to remain on the reservation, he defied orders that summer to put his sick wife in the care of his parents.

After his arrest, Crazy Horse was returned to Fort Robinson, where, in a struggle with the officers, he was bayoneted in the kidneys. He passed away with his father at his side on September 5, 1877.  One hundred and thirty nine years after his death, Crazy Horse is still revered for being a visionary leader who fought hard to preserve his people’s traditions and way of life.


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