Who Was Crazy Horse? - History & Explanation

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Many Indian Chiefs were great warriors that earned the respect of their people and of white Europeans. The Oglala Sioux Tribe had a leader whose name would become infamous. Learn here about Chief Crazy Horse.

Early Life

Crazy Horse was born in the winter months of 1841-42 near present-day Rapid Springs, South Dakota. His father, who was also named Crazy Horse, was a holy person within the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Crazy Horse stood out against other children because he had brown hair and light skin in a tribe that traditionally had long and straight jet-black hair. He was known to not talk much and preferred solitude.

Grattan Massacre

When Crazy Horse was 12-years old, he was involved in what would become the start of the First Sioux War. A Mormon wagon train had lost a cow that ended up being killed for meat by a visitor in the village where Crazy Horse was staying. Fort Laramie administration sent 24-year-old Lieutenant Grattan to arrest the shooter, but the village chief attempted to talk Grattan out of the arrest until the local Indian agent could come. Conquering Bear was explaining that the shooter was a visitor and not under his command, but Grattan's interpreter was reported to be intoxicated and angry. The Indians offered to pay for the cow and apologize for the incident, but Grattan would take nothing less that the arrest. One of Grattan's men fired a shot and killed Conquering Bear. In quick retaliation, the Sioux ran down and killed Grattan and his 29 men. Crazy Horse immediately rode to a nearby hill to try to understand all that had happened. He had a vision of a warrior with a lightning bolt on his face that went through many battles unscathed. From that point on, Crazy Horse would always paint a black lightning bolt on his cheek before a battle. The U.S. military would come back for revenge on the Sioux at the 'Battle of Ash Hollow.' Crazy Horse was not injured in the retaliation attack at Ash Hollow by the U.S, but he did witness over 100 Sioux die. This grew his hatred of whites and his need to become a great warrior.

What Crazy Horse witnessed at the Grattan Massacre and Battle of Ash Hollow inspired hatred of whites
grattan and ash

Fighting Begins

Crazy Horse immediately knew that he was supposed to be a great warrior. A year after Ash Hollow, 13-year-old Crazy Horse snuck into the rival Crow Indian camp and stole their horses. In his late teens and twenties, Crazy Horse earned the title of War Chief and led numerous war parties during Red Cloud's War. He led the Sioux in the Fetterman Massacre in 1866, in which he laid a trap for a group of U.S. troops chasing him and then killed all 80 soldiers. In 1868, Red Cloud signed a peace treaty with the U.S. government. Crazy Horse refused to sign and would continue to attack troops and forts.

Personal Life

Crazy Horse was known to never apply his signature to any documents and never allow his photograph to be taken. Crazy Horse was married to a Cheyenne woman in the 1860s. There are no accounts of what happened between them. In the early 1870s, Crazy Horse fell in love with a Sioux lady named Black Buffalo Woman. She would end up marrying another Sioux warrior and Crazy Horse was injured in a gun fight over her. Crazy Horse later married an Oglala Sioux woman named Black Shawl and had a daughter. He began to enjoy a slower, family life. That would soon change again.

Great Sioux War

In 1876, a peaceful Sioux village was attacked and almost completely wiped out by U.S. troops. Survivors went to Crazy Horse for leadership and protection, in response to which he promised revenge on the attackers. At Rosebud Creek on June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse led nearly 1,200 warriors against General George Crook, who was chasing Sitting Bull's village in an attempt to force all Sioux onto the Great Sioux Reservation. Crazy Horse's repeated attacks caused Crook to retreat.

Battle of the Little Bighorn

After the victory, Crazy Horse joined Chief Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn River for a Sun Dance ceremony. On June 25, the large village was attacked by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry. This Battle of the Little Bighorn would be Crazy Horse's greatest victory. He turned back over 200 troops attacking from the south, then attacked the over 200 on their north side led by Custer. Custer retreated to an open ridge and attempted to defend their position. Crazy Horse, in what would be called Custer's Last Stand, would overrun Custer's troops within twenty minutes.

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