Since his violent and controversial death, Crazy Horse, or Tashunka Witko, has become almost a mythical figure of the Great Plains Indian wars. The place and date of his birth are uncertain, but he was probably born in the early 1840s near Bear Butte on the Belle Fourche River in South Dakota. His father was a medicine man of the Oglala subtribe, his mother a Brulé. There has been much speculation about the origin of the name Crazy Horse, but most historians now agree that his father had the same name. As a youth he was known as Curly, but acquired the father’s name after proving himself in combat.
He was below average height, his body lithe, his hair and complexion lighter than that of most Indians. Various photographs bear his name, but most have been discredited, and probably none is genuine. Except for his last days near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, he was out of reach of frontier photographers.
His first encounter with U.S. soldiers was on the old Oregon Trail, July 25, 1865, at Platte Bridge, where he acted as a decoy to draw soldiers out of their defenses. During the following year, when soldiers marched up the Bozeman Trail to build forts, Crazy Horse honed his skills as a guerrilla fighter and studied the ways of his military adversaries.
In December 1866, when the Sioux and Cheyenne combined to challenge Fort Phil Kearny, Crazy Horse’s daring as a leader of the decoy warriors brought Lt. Col. William J. Fetterman and eighty men into an ambush that became known as the Fetterman massacre.
During the following decade, Crazy Horse joined Sitting Bull in an unyielding determination to defend the Black Hills and resist reservation control. When the U.S. Army mounted a three-pronged military operation in 1876 to drive the “free” Plains Indians onto reservations, Crazy Horse confronted the column led by Gen. George Crook at Rosebud Creek, June 17. He concentrated his warriors against weak spots in Crook’s lines, fighting hand to hand at times to win the day.
After the battle, the victors rode over to the Little Bighorn to join Sitting Bull’s large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne. On the twenty-fifth, Gen. George A. Custer’s column attacked the camp, and Crazy Horse and Gall, a chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, led their warriors in a pincers attack that quickly enveloped Custer’s divided cavalry and wiped it out.
Other military forces pursued the Indians, eventually driving Sitting Bull into Canada. Crazy Horse and his followers attempted to hold out in remote areas of the Yellowstone country, but soldiers hunted them relentlessly. On May 6, 1877, he gave himself up and spent the summer near Fort Robinson, awaiting the assignment to a reservation that had been promised him for surrendering.
The events affecting Crazy Horse during that long summer were imbued with elements of classical tragedy. Deceptions, betrayals, and false rumors engulfed him. He was disliked by some of the older Indian leaders, and because of his popularity among the young warriors, rumors spread that he was planning an outbreak. When on September 5 he was arrested, he offered no resistance at first. But when he saw that he was to be locked in a guardhouse, he struggled with his captors and was stabbed to death. From the day of its occurrence this incident has been described in several versions, all adding to the mystique of Crazy Horse.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.