The Violent and Disputed Death of Crazy Horse

An alleged photo of Crazy Horse, likely inauthentic. An alleged photo of Crazy Horse, likely inauthentic. (click for source)

One of the most acclaimed Sioux warriors of the plains was Crazy Horse. For years he led resistance to the encroachment of white American settlers. After a harsh, nomadic winter during the Great Sioux War, Crazy Horse decided to surrender in order to protect his band of Sioux. Under disputed circumstances, he was stabbed and killed by a bayonet at Fort Robinson, Nebraska on September 5, 1877.

Crazy Horse was born into the Oglala subtribe of the Lakota Sioux. His date of birth was probably sometime in the early 1840s. He was a quiet man and an able warrior.

This was an era of increasing white settlement in the Great Plains. First came the great migrations to Oregon and California, and forts were constructed to defend those trails. Then came overland settlement into Iowa and Minnesota, which slowly creeped over into what are now the Dakotas. Later, intrepid settlers could follow the Bozeman Trail into Montana. The Sioux tribe became directly involved by the 1850s. In 1862 a violent war broke out in Minnesota, in which 800 white settlers were killed and 38 Dakota Sioux hung in one day at Mankato.

Crazy Horse began participating in the Sioux conflicts shortly thereafter. He assisted in the Fetterman Fight (1866), in which a detachment of 81 U.S. Army troops was ambushed and killed in Wyoming. This episode actually brought respite to the Sioux for a few years, as it resulted in a treaty and the creation of a broad reservation. Yet in the long run the advance of the United States was glacial and inevitable. Gold was discovered in South Dakota. Reservations were encroached. Hostilities renewed. To aid in subduing the tribes, the killing of massive numbers of buffalo was encouraged, until that species became nearly extinct.

It was after the renewal of hostilities, in the Great Sioux War of 1876, that the famous Battle of Little Big Horn occurred. Crazy Horse was present for this victory and by this time was leader of his own band within the Oglala. This band spent the winter of 1876-77 in evasive maneuvers, but so many buffalo had been killed that subsisting was difficult. Desperate of options for the women and children of his group, Crazy Horse reluctantly decided to surrender. He turned himself in to the Red Cloud Agency (a reservation) in Nebraska on May 5, 1877. What happened between that time and his death remains disputed.

Other conflicts broke out between American Indian tribes and the U.S. in other regions of the West. Crazy Horse was under constant suspicion -- suspicion that he would flee and offer his assistance, and/or incite others to do the same. Some Indians from rival tribes were also jealous of Crazy Horse, and owing to some (probable) mistranslations the rumor got around that Crazy Horse planned to assassinate a U.S. General. His arrest was ordered.

On the morning of September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse arrived at Fort Robinson to convene with the post commander and discuss what was happening in the area. It was at this point that the U.S. Army attempted to arrest Crazy Horse, to his surprise. According to various witnesses, there either was or was not a scuffle as Crazy Horse either did or did not try to resist the arrest. It is more certain that he was stabbed with a bayonet by a U.S. soldier (though even this is disputed). The identity of the person who delivered the blow was never conclusively established.

What is known for sure is that Crazy Horse was stabbed, and that he died that evening in Fort Robinson. Like many incidents before and since, there are many opinions but no certainty as to how it all went down. In fact, it is not even certain where Crazy Horse was finally buried. That location was kept a strict secret by his family.

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