chief crazy horse

American Indian History: The Life of Crazy Horse

In the vast and windswept plains of what is now South Dakota, a boy was born around 1840 into the Oglala band of the Lakota Sioux tribe.

Though the details of his early years are sparse, what we do know is that this boy, light of hair and destined for greatness, came into this world in a time of monumental change.

The Vision Quest That Shaped A Warrior

As a young Lakota male, Crazy Horse His father, an Oglala Lakota also named Crazy Horse, and mother, Rattling Blanket Woman, raised their sons in the rich spiritual traditions of their people.

When still just a boy, the one called Curly Hair undertook the traditional rite of passage known as the vision quest around age 16. He traveled alone to an isolated hillside, where he fasted and entered a trance state for several days.

Crazy Horse Vision Quest credit S.D. Nelson
Depiction of Crazy Horse’s Vision Quest (credit S.D. Nelson)

In his visions, he saw a powerful lightning storm, hailstones pounding the earth, and a hawk soaring overhead. To the Lakota, lightning symbolized speed and unfettered energy. Hailstones stood for power. The hawk represented wisdom.

Crazy Horse drew on these visions as protective symbols, painting the lightning bolt prominently on his face before riding into battle. This early quest shaped him into the legendary war leader he became.

He fought not for personal glory, but to defend the land and culture of his people from those encroaching upon it.

The Making of a Legendary Lakota War Chief

Though known for his heroic actions later in life, Crazy Horse displayed his warrior instincts at a very young age. As a teenager, he would lead raiding parties to capture horses from rival Crow tribes.

The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History

This was an honored tradition among the tribes of the Northern Plains, a way for young men to gain status and prove their bravery. Crazy Horse excelled in these dangerous raids, infiltrating Crow camps under the cover of darkness and absconding with their prized horses.

His stealth, courage, and skill in these missions foreshadowed his brilliance as a tactician in combat. They marked him early on as a Lakota leader destined for greatness.

In the decade following his daring horse raids as a young man, Crazy Horse’s reputation as a warrior and leader among the Lakota grew exponentially.

His early raiding feats had marked him as a man destined for greatness. Now, with his people’s land and way of life under threat from encroaching settlers, Crazy Horse’s destiny would be tested like never before.

The Warrior Who Fought For His People

He rose swiftly in the councils of Lakota elders, his bravery and cunning in battle earning him the respect of chiefs twice his age. Yet he shunned the spotlight, riding into fights adorned only with the lightning bolt of his vision painted down his stern face. Crazy Horse fought not for glory, but for the survival of his culture.

With the influx of white emigrants, conflict ignited on the high plains. Crazy Horse led the Lakota resistance during Red Cloud’s War, obliterating Fetterman’s brigade and Lt. Lyman S. Kidder’s 10-man scouting party in ambushes that shocked the frontier.

Warriors under Crazy Horse ambushed and annihilated Captain Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Phil Kearny in 1867. His cunning tactics and bravery in battle became legendary.

The Day Fetterman Followed Crazy Horse to His Doom

The winds howled mercilessly across the frozen Wyoming plains on the morning of December 21st, 1866. But the cold could not root the band of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, who had crept into position under the cover of darkness.

Capt. Wm Fetterman
Capt. Wm Fetterman

Hidden atop the ridges surrounding Peno Creek, they waited for the glimpse of blue coats marching up from Fort Phil Kearny. Rifles and bows at the ready, the Indians were prepared to spring a perfect trap on the unsuspecting soldiers below.

Among them sat a young Oglala warrior named Crazy Horse, shivering in anticipation. Just 25 years old, with the lightning bolt of his vision painted down his chiseled face, he had swiftly risen to become a prominent war chief.

When Lakota scouts galloped in confirming the soldiers’ approach, Crazy Horse was ready. His plan was bold and ingenious in its simplicity.

Minutes later, small groups of warriors appeared on a ridge within sight of the fort, taunting and provoking the garrison. Incensed, Captain William Fetterman saddled up his cavalry, bursting forth with over 70 men to chase down these “insolent savages.”

Little did he know the grim fate that Crazy Horse had designed for him this frigid morning.

As Fetterman and his brigade chased the few visible Indians over the ridge, nearly a thousand hidden Lakota and Cheyenne warriors exploded out of concealment. Like a net tightening around its prey, they surrounded Fetterman’s men, cutting off any slim hope of retreat.

Fetterman and Crazy Horse

The ominous view as that net closed in – hundreds of painted warriors letting out war cries as they charged with rifles and bows – would be the last thing those bluecoated soldiers ever saw.

When the scattered gunsmoke cleared just 15 fateful minutes later, Fetterman and over 75 of his men lay dead in the snow, victims of Crazy Horse’s tactical brilliance. The U.S. Army had never suffered such a defeat by Plains Indians before.

But for Crazy Horse and his warriors, it was a resounding victory, one which delayed American expansionism into their sacred lands. Thanks to the cunning and courage of one 25-year-old Oglala, the high plains would remain free that much longer.

His fearsome tactical brilliance was becoming legendary. When miners flooded the sacred Black Hills after the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, Crazy Horse took up arms once more.

He struck back ruthlessly, leading a band that demolished George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 expedition into Lakota land. Meanwhile, his regal bearing and spiritual gifts earned him the reverence of fellow warriors.

By 1876, Crazy Horse stood as one of the most respected war chiefs in the Lakota Nation. As white settlers swarmed further west, their greatest remaining camp was under threat.

The Unification that Doomed Custer’s 7th Cavalry

Crazy Horse allied with leaders like Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota. Together, they would galvanize the warring tribes of the plains into a force that even Custer could not tame.

rare photo of crazy horse and sitting bull
Rare photo of Sitting Bull (l) and Crazy Horse (r)

Legendary leadership was required for the titanic fight looming ahead. The Oglala called Crazy Horse had more than earned his place at the head of it.

Crazy Horse led the Lakota’s resistance, attacking survey parties led by none other than George Armstrong Custer himself. Raids on emigrant parties and isolated frontier forts soon erupted into open war.

By that fateful summer of 1876, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had united the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho into the largest gathering of Plains Indians ever assembled.

Over 1,000 warriors strong, they defiantly camped near the Little Bighorn River. But the 7th Cavalry under Custer rode feverishly to confront them.

On the storied day of June 25th, Crazy Horse led the charge that smashed into Custer’s flank, pinning his men down in a hilltop bastion as warriors swarmed from all sides. Rebel yells and gunsmoke filled the valley where Custer and over 200 soldiers ultimately met their demise.

This stunning victory inspired Native peoples nationwide. Yet it also hardened the Army’s resolve to subdue them.

Betrayal and Martyrdom: The Tragic End of Crazy Horse

The endless blizzard winds lashed mercilessly at the Lakota encampment through the bitter winter of 1876-1877. Hunkered down in their ragged buffalo hide tipis, Crazy Horse and his freezing, starving followers debated their options.

Game was scarce, their way of life crumbling. After months of resisting, negotiating surrender with the Army seemed the only hope for his people’s survival.

That spring, Crazy Horse reluctantly rode to Camp Robinson to meet with Lieutenant Philo Clark. In return for bringing in his band peacefully, Clark assured Crazy Horse a reservation would be created for the Oglala.

It was a hollow promise that Clark had no authority to make. But the earnest lieutenant convinced the war-weary chief to lay down his rifle and come in.

On May 6th, 1877, Crazy Horse led nearly one thousand Oglala to the Camp and formally surrendered, handing his carefully kept rifle to Clark. As the days passed, however, Crazy Horse saw the Army’s betrayal unfold.

memorial for crazy horse
A monumental effort is underway to memorialize the legend of Crazy Horse

No separate reservation materialized. Meanwhile, thousands more Lakota were arriving, overflowing the post. Tensions steadily rose.

When Crazy Horse learned the Army intended to ship him and other “troublemakers” off to a distant fort, he angrily confronted the post commander. The outraged warrior left resolved to lead his people away from this injustice.

But before he could, the Army moved decisively to stop him. And on September 5th, when Crazy Horse struggled against being jailed at Fort Robinson, a soldier’s bayonet plunged fatally into his torso.

That midnight, the great Lakota leader passed into the next world. The exact details remain disputed, but all agree the Army wrongfully took his life. For he fought not for ego, but for the survival of his culture and dignity of his people.

Though buried in an unmarked grave by his grieving parents, Crazy Horse’s legend lives on. Revered as the warrior who defiantly fought to defend his ancestral lands and spiritual traditions, his name still conjures images of courage in the face of oppression.

The massive mountain carving underway in South Dakota stands as a monument to his symbolic fight for the rights and heritage of Native peoples. For he was not only a warrior, but a determined leader and proud Lakota to the very end.

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