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He witnessed the killing of Crazy Horse, but his account vanished.

Billy Garnett witnessed a lot of Indian wars history, and he was born to see it from both sides. Garnett was the only son of a Confederate general killed at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, but his mother was an Oglala Lakota, and Billy grew up among people who spoke Lakota or French rather than English. He was an undisputed witness to the death of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, but the most important passages of his verbatim narrative vanished, leaving historians to ponder what actually happened.

Richard Brooke Garnett, Billy’s father, was the son of William Henry Garnett and Anna Maria Brooke—both of English ancestry—born in 1817 at the family plantation, Rose Hill, in Essex County, Va. He and cousin Robert Seldon Garnett both attended the U.S. Military Academy and graduated in the middle of the class of 1841. Richard served in the Second Seminole War and in a noncombat role during the Mexican War. He arrived in the West a first lieutenant, was promoted to captain in 1855 and served as commandant of Fort Laramie, the virtual embassy to the Great Sioux Nation.

Billy’s mother was known around the fort as Molly Campbell, but her Lakota name was Akitapi Win (Looks at Him Woman), which suggests a certain wandering eye. She was reportedly one of two simultaneous Indian wives of a French fur trader named John Baptiste Boyer when she first looked at Richard Garnett. Boyer took a back seat as she moved in with the commandant. Billy, born in 1855, was their only child.

When the Army transferred Garnett to California, he left behind Molly and Billy at Laramie. “Fort marriages” were understood to be temporary, and traditional Indian mothers warned their daughters against them, though the trinkets and steady diet tempted some. Molly again turned to Boyer, who took her back. “I lived with them and did not know until later years that Garnett was my father,” Billy told interviewer Walter Mason Camp. “Sally Boyer was my half sister through my mother.… Mich [Mitch Boyer, one of Custer’s scouts at the Little Bighorn] was one of four…by the Yankton woman.”

The Lakotas esteemed a one-man woman, but when couples did separate, they favored letting the wife’s brothers play the foster father role, mainly to keep a stepfather’s jealousy from coming down too heavy on a stepson. Race was not an issue: The Lakota word for mixed-blood children was iyeska (“talks white”), and the resulting linguistic ability, if not the paternity, was admired. Indians feared incest but not intermarriage.

Indians killed John Baptiste Boyer while he was trapping in 1863. That same year Richard Garnett, Billy’s actual father and by then a brigadier general in the Confederate army, was killed leading his troops at the head of Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. His body was never identified, though his sword later turned up in a Baltimore pawnshop. Twice bereft, Looks at Him Woman married a man named John Hunter, who let Billy use his surname. A born survivor, Looks at Him Woman lived until 1928, almost as long as son Billy.

Billy Garnett had no use for school at Fort Laramie and soon ran off to join his Oglala relatives. He later returned to work as an interpreter for traders around the post. When the government moved the Red Cloud Agency to Nebraska in 1873, Garnett served as an interpreter, showing up in a group photograph the following year. A highly dubious story has Billy fighting with the Lakotas at the Little Bighorn. This is most unlikely. As Frank Huston, a former Confederate soldier and proud renegade squaw man, told Colonel W.A. Graham, “[Sitting] Bull was ‘peculiar’ and at such times objected forcibly to the presence even of half-breeds—or ‘breeds’ as we termed them.”

Garnett went back on the Army roll in 1876 as an interpreter and remained on the books until the fall of 1877. He is said to have served with Colonel Ranald Mackenzie during the attack on Dull Knife’s Cheyennes in November 1876. Garnett’s role in the death of Crazy Horse appears to have been as an observer rather than a conspirator, though he interpreted for William Philo Clark, the officer rumored to have undermined the moral authority of Crazy Horse after his surrender and at least indirectly contributed to the Lakota’s seizure and subsequent killing while resisting arrest.

At 65, Garnett dictated a somewhat garbled account of the circumstances to Indian Agent James McLaughlin and Maj. Gen. Hugh L. Scott, a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners. Garnett said that Woman’s Dress, a Lakota serving as an Army scout, had warned Billy and his friend Baptiste Pourier that Crazy Horse and his followers, by then a minority of the Oglalas, meant to murder Brig. Gen. George Crook when the general visited the agency. Clark managed to both head off Crook and thwart an attempt by a group of Lakotas to murder Crazy Horse. When a detachment of soldiers set out to arrest Crazy Horse, the warrior initially fled but was persuaded to surrender. On arrival at Fort Robinson, soldiers led him to what proved to be a guardhouse, but he refused to be shackled.

Garnett’s firsthand account of what happened next disappeared. A reconstructed account appeared in the 1926 book Soldiers of the Plains, by P.E. Byrne:

Little Big Man had Crazy Horse by the wrists, and Crazy Horse had a knife in one of his hands, and he was trying to break loose from Little Big Man. Just then, when they came out of the door, the sentinel had his bayonet at Crazy Horse and made a little pass, just enough to touch him. I always thought that the sentinel did not intend to stab Crazy Horse but only to touch him so he would drop his knife. But in the struggle Crazy Horse stumbled against the bayonet.

The extant account takes up with somebody hitting Little Big Man in the stomach and saying, “You have done this once before.” The passage doesn’t reveal who hit Little Big Man in the stomach or what he had done “once before.” From that point on names are named, and descriptions are once again easy to follow.

Byrne’s reconstructed account doesn’t sound anything like Garnett’s verbatim style. But having Crazy Horse stumble and fall on a bayonet was certainly more comforting to those whites and Indians involved than a premeditated backstabbing. The actual killer, accidental or otherwise, was said to be 47-year-old Private William Gentles of the 14th Infantry, an Irish-born Civil War veteran who died less than a year later of asthma. The paraphrase of Garnett’s account shows every sign of having been doctored. Billy himself expressed respect for Crazy Horse in his correspondence with Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, the physician who attended the Lakota warrior as he lay dying.

Had Billy Garnett’s verbatim account survived, the killing of Crazy Horse might be less controversial and better understood. The details of Garnett’s own life take up where Looks at Him Woman left off. Billy married Zuzella Janis around 1875, divorcing her in 1880; then married a woman named Emma, divorcing her in 1884; and finally married Filla Janis that same year, staying with her for the remainder of his life, which ended in 1930. Indian-sanctioned accounts refer to Garnett as a “spy,” and his role in the death of Crazy Horse remains unclear. But his account, along with Dr. McGillycuddy’s, is the closest thing to an accurate description ever likely to emerge.


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.