One of the most iconic Native American warriors, ‘Crazy Horse’ – Tasunke Witco – is famous for his role in fighting the US federal government as part of the Sioux resistance to the encroachment on the northern Great Plains by white American settlers.
Crazy Horse’s fighting skills and participation in several famous battles earned him great respect from both his enemies and his own people. In September 1877, four months after surrendering to US troops, Crazy Horse was fatally wounded by a military guard while allegedly resisting imprisonment at Camp Robinson in present-day Nebraska.
Here are 10 facts about this fearless warrior.
1. He wasn’t always called Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse was born a member of the Oglala Lakota near present-day Rapid City in the Black Hills of South Dakota, c. 1840. He had a lighter complexion and hair than others, and very curly hair. As boys weren’t traditionally permanently named until they had an experience earning them a name, he was initially called ‘Curly’.
Following his bravery in a battle with Arapaho warriors in 1858, he was given his father’s name ‘Crazy Horse’, who then took on a new name, Waglúla (Worm) for himself.
2. His first battle experience was due to a loose cow
In 1854, a loose cow wandered into a Lakota camp. It was killed, butchered and the meat shared among the camp. Shortly after, Lieutenant Grattan and his troops arrived to arrest whoever had stolen the cow, eventually killing Conquering Bear, the Lakota’s chief. In response, the Lakota killed all 30 US soldiers. The ‘Grattan massacre’ became the opening engagement of the First Sioux War.
Crazy Horse witnessed the events, furthering his distrust of white people.
3. He followed instructions from a vision
An important rite of passage for Lakota warriors was a Vision Quest – the Hanbleceya – designed to provide guidance for a life path. In 1854, Crazy Horse rode alone into the prairies for several days without food or water to undertake his quest.
He had a vision of a simply-clothed warrior on horseback who rode out of a lake and directed him to present himself in the same way, with only one feather in his hair. The warrior said he was to toss dust over his horse before battle and place a small brown stone behind his ear. Bullets and arrows flew around the warrior as he charged forward, but neither he or his horse were hit.
A thunderstorm started, and after the warrior broke free from those holding him back, he was struck by lightning, which left a lightning symbol on his cheek and white marks on his body. The warrior directed Crazy Horse never to take any scalps or war trophies, and he would thus not be harmed in battle.
Crazy Horse’s father interpreted the vision, stating that the warrior was Crazy Horse and that the lightning bolt and marks were to become his war paint. It is said that Crazy Horse followed the instructions in the vision until his death. The vision proved relatively prophetic – Crazy Horse was never injured in ensuing wars with only one mild exception.
4. His first love was a married woman
Crazy Horse first met Black Buffalo Woman in 1857, but while he was away on a raid, she married a man named No Water. Crazy Horse continued to pursue her, eventually eloping with her on a buffalo hunt while No Water was with a hunting party in 1868.
Lakota custom allowed a woman to divorce her husband by moving in with relatives or another man. Whilst compensation was required, the rejected husband was expected to accept his wife’s decision. When No Water returned, he tracked them down and shot at Crazy Horse. The pistol was knocked by Crazy Horse’s cousin, deflecting the bullet into Crazy Horses’s upper jaw.
The two came to a truce after intervention by elders; Crazy Horse insisted that Black Buffalo Woman shouldn’t be punished for fleeing, and he received horses from No Water in compensation for his injury. Black Buffalo Woman later had her fourth child, a light-skinned baby girl, suspected of being the result of her night with Crazy Horse.
Soon after, Crazy Horse went on to marry a woman named Black Shawl who’d been sent to help him heal. After she died of tuberculosis, he later married a half-Cheyenne, half-French woman named Nellie Larrabee.
5. He played an important role as a decoy
After gold was discovered along the Bozeman Trail in Montana in 1866, General Sherman built a number of forts in Sioux territory to protect travellers. On 21 December 1866, Crazy Horse and a handful of other warriors lured a detachment of American soldiers under Captain Fetterman’s command into an ambush, killing all 81.
The ‘Fetterman Fight’ was the worst military disaster ever suffered by the US Army on the Great Plains.
6. He played a vital role in the Battle of Little Bighorn
Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. After a number of Native American tribes missed a federal deadline to move to reservations (to enable gold prospectors on Native American lands to flourish, violating treaties on the Sioux’s territorial rights), General Custer and his 7th US Cavalry battalion were dispatched to confront them.
General Crook and his men attempted to approach Sitting Bull’s encampment at Little Bighorn. However, Crazy Horse joined Sitting Bull, and led 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in a surprise attack on 18 June 1876 (the Battle of Rosebud), forcing Crook to withdraw. This deprived George Custer’s 7th Cavalry of much-needed reinforcements.
One week later, on 25 June 1876, Crazy Horse helped defeat the 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Little Bighorn – ‘Custer’s Last Stand’. Custer had entered the battle ignoring the advice of his Native guides. By the battle’s end, Custer, 9 officers, and 280 of his men were all dead, with 32 Indians killed. Crazy Horse was noted for his bravery in the battle.
7. He and the Lakota were starved into surrender
Following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the US Government sent scouts to round-up any Northern Plains tribes who resisted, forcing many Native Americans to move across the country. They were followed by soldiers, and ultimately forced to surrender through starvation or exposure.
The harsh winter decimated the Sioux. Sensing their struggle, Colonel Miles tried to strike a deal with Crazy Horse, promising to help the Sioux and treat them fairly. After being shot at when they went to discuss the deal, Crazy Horse and his emissaries fled. As winter went on, buffalo herds were deliberately decimated. Crazy Horse negotiated with Lieutenant Philo Clark, who offered the starving Sioux their own reservation if they surrendered, which Crazy Horse agreed to. They were confined to Fort Robinson in Nebraska.
8. His death may have been a consequence of a mistranslation
During negotiations, Crazy Horse experienced trouble both from the army wanted his help with other native groups, and his own people, fearing he was getting too friendly with their enemy. Negotiations broke down, with eyewitnesses blaming a translator who incorrectly translated that Crazy Horse had promised he wouldn’t stop fighting until all white men were killed. (Other reports say Crazy Horse was arrested after leaving the reservation without permission when his wife became ill).
Crazy Horse was escorted by soldiers towards a cell. Realising what was happening, a scuffle broke out – Crazy Horse drew his knife, but his friend, Little Big Man, tried to restrain him. An infantry guard then lunged with a bayonet mortally wounding Crazy Horse, who died shortly after, around midnight on 5 September 1877, aged 35.
9. He was never photographed
Crazy Horse refused to have his picture or likeness taken, as he assumed that by taking a picture a part of his soul would be taken, shortening his life.
10. A memorial to Crazy Horse is being carved out of a mountainside
Crazy Horse is commemorated by an as-yet incomplete memorial carved out of a mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Crazy Horse Memorial was started in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziółkowski (who also worked on Mount Rushmore), and will be the largest sculpture in the world when complete at over 171 metres high.
The likeness created was developed by descriptions from survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn and other contemporaries of Crazy Horse. The memorial is also designed to honour the values Native Americans stood for.