Just who killed the Lakota fighting man remains in dispute.
The scenario is familiar: Crazy Horse, greatest war chief of the Lakota Nation, harasser of George Crook and destroyer of George Custer, struggles to avoid being shut in the guardhouse at Camp Robinson, Nebraska, and is bayoneted by a soldier. Books and movies have depicted Crazy Horse’s demise—but there is a lot of room for debate and a very good chance it didn’t happen that way.
The circumstances of Crazy Horse’s arrest, while complicated, are not in serious doubt. He surrendered his weapons to the United States on May 6, 1877, so his people wouldn’t starve to death. Then, in August, the U.S. Army asked Crazy Horse to take up arms again and help subdue Chief Joseph’s Nez Perces, who had broken out of custody to avoid being deported from their homeland. Sarcastically—and probably with an escape of his own in mind—Crazy Horse told his captors that he would fight until not a Nez Perce was left. Frank Grouard, an interpreter who disliked Crazy Horse, twisted the Lakota chief’s words to suggest he would fight until not a white man was left.
Faced with this menacing but almost certainly false translation, General Crook condoned the arrest of Crazy Horse and left the post, possibly to avoid what might happen next. The commander of Camp Robinson, Lt. Col. Luther P. Bradley, dispatched Captain Daniel Burke to negotiate with the Indian agent for the Brulé Sioux (Sicangu Lakota), Jesse Lee, a former Army lieutenant who knew Crazy Horse as a friend and had invited him to sit-down dinners with his family. Crazy Horse was a nephew of Chief Spotted Tail, and Burke promised both Spotted Tail and the agent that Crazy Horse would be well treated if he left all weapons and came in for a peaceful talk. The idea that the government already had plans to ship Crazy Horse to the Dry Tortugas off the Florida coast, last stop on earth for many warriors, is controversial. But the Army had no intention of releasing Crazy Horse after his “threat against Americans.” Accounts vary as to whether he was to be shipped to Omaha, Cheyenne or the Tortugas.
Handling arrangements at Camp Robinson on September 5, 1877, was Lieutenant William Philo Clark, known as “White Hat” to the Lakotas, an Indian sign language expert and Crook’s right-hand man in Indian matters. Lee had sent notice that Crazy Horse was coming into camp with a handful of other now-peaceful Indians and had been told to arrive unarmed and to expect good treatment—although the warrior himself had been plagued with foreboding. In fact, when the party arrived at the camp, Clark told Lee that Crazy Horse would be handed over to the officer of the day, a euphemism for detention.
When Crazy Horse, surrounded by soldiers and Indian agency police, saw the guardhouse and realized what was happening, a struggle broke out, during which the chief was mortally wounded. Crazy Horse died about midnight. The Army gave his body to his grieving parents, who buried him in an unknown location —possibly near Wounded Knee Creek.
The anecdotal details of that last fight, however, remain controversial. The most frequently repeated account has Crazy Horse struggling with Little Big Man, a former warrior and close friend who had since “sold out” to the ceska maza (“metal breasts”). While Crazy Horse and Little Big Man wrestled, a middle-aged soldier, 14th Infantry Private William Gentles, rushed up and rammed his bayonet into Crazy Horse’s side, piercing both kidneys.
Little Big Man shared a different story: At an 1881 Sun Dance, he told Captain John Bourke that Crazy Horse had pulled a concealed knife. Slashed in the struggle, Little Big Man then deflected Crazy Horse’s knife into the chief’s own side, fatally wounding him. Little Big Man insisted that the guard’s bayonet had missed Crazy Horse completely, leaving a gouge in the guardhouse door still visible in 1881. Bourke leaned toward Little Big Man’s account, believing he had been motivated by a desire to share in the death of the greatest warrior of his time. Or perhaps Little Big Man was cleansing his soul before the Sun Dance, a time of intense purification among the Lakotas, when sweat baths and fasting achieve wakan, a state of harmony—the worst possible time to indulge in lies or empty boasts.
Suggestions that Crazy Horse may have stabbed himself deliberately seem unlikely. Among Lakota warriors, death in combat was preferable, while suicide was a sort of “woman thing.” But if there is such a thing as a “suicide gene,” it’s worth noting that Crazy Horse’s birth mother, Rattling Blanket Woman, had reportedly hanged herself. It is thought she perceived the two younger wives and 15-year-old prospective wife her husband brought home as a studied insult after she had failed to conceive another child. Crazy Horse was actually raised by his maternal aunt—the “mother” mentioned in most accounts to avoid dismaying those who object to Lakota polygamy. Confusion among outsiders is common, as Lakota wives called one another “sisters,” even when unrelated by blood, and children called all the father’s wives “mother.”
William Garnett, a scout and the half-blood son of a Lakota woman and a Confederate general killed at Gettysburg, was present at the arrest and also claimed to have seen a knife in Crazy Horse’s hand. He said the guard had merely tried to prod the chief with the bayonet, but that Crazy Horse fell against it, inflicting the lethal wound. Unfortunately, the middle of Garnett’s account has disappeared.
Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, the agency physician, was also present, but his account (“I saw he was done for”) leaves some doubt that he saw the stabbing. McGillycuddy examined what he described as a bayonet wound, administered opiates by hypodermic to ease the agony and sat down with Crazy Horse’s father (Waglula, or “Worm”), mother (technically, stepmother) and Lakota Chief Touch the Clouds for the death vigil.
Captain Bourke, who took down Little Big Man’s account, throws the story another curve: “Little Big Man himself assured me…that he had unintentionally killed Crazy Horse with the latter’s own weapon, which was shaped at the end like a bayonet (stiletto) and made the very same kind of a wound,” the officer wrote in his On the Border With Crook. “He described how he jumped on Crazy Horse’s back and seized his arms at the elbow, and showed how he himself had received two wounds in the left wrist; after that, in the struggle, the stiletto of the captive was inclined in such a manner that when he still struggled, he cut himself in the abdomen instead of harming the one who held him.”
The idea that Crazy Horse slashed Little Big Man with a knife fashioned after a bayonet makes no sense. Army bayonets of the era had triangular blades and made triangular punctures; they couldn’t be used to slash, as only the tip was sharp. Indians commonly carried flat-bladed butcher knifes that made slashing incisions for eating, scalping and self-defense.
The question arises: Was Gentles—a 47-year-old Irish-born private who had soldiered for 20 years and never made corporal—the actual killer of Crazy Horse? Or did Little Big Man fashion a special assassination knife from a bayonet in case an expendable bungler like Gentles couldn’t get the job done? Gentles reportedly died a year later of asthma—an odd cause of death in the clean, dry air of the West, but perhaps a good excuse for the designated killer of a celebrity to disappear.
The manner of Crazy Horse’s death, while controversial, confirms at very least that he preferred death as a fighting man to a humiliating end in prison. He refused to outlive his honor and pride as a man. For this reason, as well as for his courage, tactical brilliance and generosity, he remains the most esteemed of the Lakota fighting men. Still, nobody really knows who killed him—and that too is part of the legend of Crazy Horse.
John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor. Suzie Koster and Minjae Kim assisted with the research.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.