Civil War, American Indian Wars, Pioneers (1801-1900)

Crazy Horse

There are times when a famous person’s life and exploits are so embroidered by writers and historians that it difficult to get to the true story. Such a man was the Lakota Indian warrior Crazy Horse, who fought so hard to hold back the invasion of European settlers into his people’s lands which at the time stretched from Missouri to the Bighorn Mountains of Dakota.

Crazy Horse, or to give him his name in his native Lakota Oglala tongue, Thasunjke Witko, meaning “His horse is spirited”, is thought to have been born around 1840 near the present day Rapid City, South Dakota. There are conflicting accounts of the actual year of his birth, but the most likely is from his father who, speaking on the day Crazy Horse died, reckoned that, his son “Would soon have been thirty seven, having been born on the South Cheyenne River in the fall of 1840”. His parents came from two tribes of the Lakota division of the Sioux; his father, also called Crazy Horse, was an Oglala and his mother, Rolling Blanket Woman, was a Miniconjou. The boy’s name was originally “Curly” – a reference to his wavy hair – but his father passed his own name on to his son in the manner of the Sioux after the boy had proved himself in battle in a fight with the Arapaho in 1858. His father then changed his own to Wuglala, meaning “Worm”.

He was destined to become a legendary warrior and by the age of thirteen was already taking part in horse raids against the Crow tribe. Crazy Horse was born at a time when the Indian way of life was under increasing threat from white American expansion with wagon trains crossing their ancient hunting grounds, farmers and traders settling on the Plains and miners digging for gold. They brought with them sickness, liquor and lifestyles foreign to the Indians. To protect the migrants the US authorities sent soldiers who built forts along the trails as their bases.

Crazy Horse was fiercely determined to preserve the traditional way of life for his people and it is said that during his life he never signed his name, never allowed a photograph to be taken and never sat in a chair or at a table.

Through a series of treaties and sometimes through trickery, the US authorities took over much of the old tribal lands and tried to push the Indians into smaller areas and reservations. They appointed agents to handle Indian affairs and to hand out food, blankets and supplies in payment for Indian cooperation in allowing settlers to pass through their lands. Some Indians accepted the treaties and others did not. Crazy Horse and others moved their people northward into the Powder River area to avoid contact with whites. The agents appointed to deal with the tribes were frequently crooked and treated the Indians with contempt, causing much resentment among the tribes by issuing rotten corn, diseased meat and bad flour.

In August 1854, some 4,000 Brule and Oglala were camped near Fort Laramie in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of 1851. On the 17th, a cow which had wandered from the camp of a Mormon settler travelling along the Oregon Trail strayed into the Indian camp. A visiting Miniconjou Indian called High Forehead killed the cow and distributed the meat around the camp. When the Mormons complained, Lieutenant Hugh Fleming, an officer stationed at the fort went to consult with the Indian Chief, Conquering Bear, over the matter. Fleming was unaware, or chose to ignore the fact that such matters should be handled by the local Indian Agent, John Whitfield, who was due to visit the camp within the next two days bringing annuities with which any reparation could be made if necessary.

Conquering Bear offered to replace the cow with one from his own stock, but the Mormon refused and insisted on a payment of $25.00. High Forehead replied that “He would die first”. Fleming then asked that Conquering Bear arrest High Forehead and deliver him to the fort, but Conquering Bear refused as he had no authority over the Miniconjou and, furthermore, High Forehead was a guest in his camp. The talks ended in stalemate.

On the 19th, Second Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan of the US 6th Infantry Regiment led a party of soldiers to the camp to take custody of High Forehead and bring him to the fort. The young Grattan was very inexperienced, keen to make a name for himself and, contemptuous of the fighting ability of the Indians although he had never before encountered the Sioux. The Fort Laramie commander was later to recall that, “There is no doubt that Lieutenant Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards”.

Grattan’s force consisted of a sergeant, a corporal, 27 privates and a French half breed interpreter called Lucienne Auguste. By the time they reached the camp, Auguste was intoxicated from drinking on the way through fear of the coming meeting. He was no friend of the Indians and they, in turn, hated him. As he entered the camp he began taunting the Indians, calling the warriors women and saying that the soldiers were not there to talk but to kill them. All this was later confirmed by John Bordeau who owned a trading post nearby and observed the events.

The camp held some 1,200 warriors and Grattan now began to realise the peril he was in. He stopped to discuss the situation with Bordeau who advised him to talk direct with Conquering Bear and let him handle things. Grattan seemed to understand the wisdom of this advice, but then rode on to High Forehead’s lodge and ordered him to surrender. High Forehead said again that “He would die first”.

Grattan then went to Conquering Bear and demanded that High Forehead be handed over. The chief again tried to negotiate, offering five of his own horses, but the interpreter Auguste deliberately failed to accurately translate between the two while taunting the Indians. Conquering Bear asked that the trader Bordeau act as interpreter for the Indians who trusted him. When Bordeau arrived he could see that the situation had got out of hand. Grattan continued to press Conquering Bear as warriors began to move into flanking positions around the soldiers.

Grattan gave up and as he was walking back to his men a nervous private fired his rifle, killing a warrior. The Indians immediately began firing arrows and a general fight broke out in which Grattan, eleven soldiers and the interpreter Auguste were killed while Conquering Bear received wounds from which he would die some days later. The remaining soldiers tried to retreat to the safety of some rocks, but were quickly cut off and killed by a group led by a rising star in the Sioux camp called Red Cloud.

The killings caused outrage among the settlers and were made worse by newspapers whipping up anti Indian sentiments. Demands were made that the authorities act to better protect the migrants and resulted in the beginning of the Plains Indian Wars that were to last for another 40 years and only ended after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

All this was witnessed by Crazy Horse who lived in the camp together with his brother High Horse and his cousin Little Hawk. Following Conquering Bear’s shooting, Crazy Horse began to get trance visions and his father, following the Sioux custom, took him on a vision quest to Sylvan Lake, South Dakota, where through fasting and prayer they entered a mystic state. His visions took him to the land of the Thunder Beings. He was given a medicine bundle to protect him for life. One of his animal protectors was the white owl which would give him extended life. He was also shown his “Face Paint” for battle which was a yellow lightning bolt down the left side of his face and white powder which, when wetted was to be dabbed on all vulnerable areas to resemble hailstones. His paint was similar to his father’s which was a red lightning stripe and red dots on his forehead.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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