The Killing of Crazy Horse
by Thomas Powers; Alfred A. Knopf
Feared. Respected. Despised. Betrayed. Crazy Horse inspires the imagination in ways few other figures from the 1880s Plains Indian wars can. The Oglala warrior proved instrumental in leading the Lakota to some of their greatest victories against the U.S. Army: wiping out William Fetterman’s command in northern Wyoming in 1866; turning back General George Crook’s forces at the Rosebud in southern Montana in 1876; and, a few days later, in his most famous success, crushing George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.
“He was a very quiet man,” a friend, He Dog, said, “except when there was fighting.” Crazy Horse was an enigma in life and despite the efforts of top-tier biographers—Larry McMurtry, Stephen Ambrose, Mari Sandoz and Kingsley M. Bray among them—he has remained an enigma ever since. No artist drew his portrait. No photographer took his picture. His grave is undocumented.
Accounts of Crazy Horse’s death—he was bayoneted in the back by a soldier at Fort Robinson, Neb., on September 5, 1877—are controversial, often contradictory, even downright confusing. That’s what drew Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Powers to write about it. “It’s my working theory that pinning down what happened is always the first step to understanding why it happened,” Powers writes. “No official called at the time for a public accounting, and none was made. Histories of the Great Sioux War have treated the killing as regrettable but forgettable, something between a footnote and an afterthought. The event itself remained obscure, muffled, sketchily recorded.”
Many say Crazy Horse was murdered, others suggest an accident, and some even claim suicide. Powers handles the conflicting, Rashomon-style perspectives deftly. And he offers a fresh take by relying heavily on the recollections of William Garnett, a half-Lakota interpreter who witnessed Crazy Horse’s death but who has been practically ignored by historians.
Garnett was also present, Powers notes, when General George Crook met with 13 Oglala leaders to plot Crazy Horse’s death (a plan that was later changed to just arresting him). “He knew the ins and outs of the whole complex story,” Powers writes, “but even near the end of his life he had not made up his mind how to think about it.”
Powers doesn’t just include Garnett’s accounts. In the even-handed style of a seasoned journalist, he covers Crazy Horse’s death from the often-contradictory perspectives and theories of almost every witness. In the end, though, Powers acknowledges that a final resolution of the mystery remains impossible. Perhaps Touch the Clouds, a Lakota, put his friend Crazy Horse’s death in proper perspective: “It is good. He has looked for death, and it has come.”
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.