Crazy Horse

Thomas McGrath

Thomas McGrath was born in 1916, the oldest son of James and Catherine (Shea) McGrath. There were four younger brothers, Jim (killed in World War II), Joe, Martin, and the youngest, Jack. His sister Kathleen was born between Joe and Martin. His parents were farmers, the second generation of them, working the land in Ransom County, North Dakota, near the town of Sheldon, about forty miles west of the Minnesota border, between the Maple and Sheyenne Rivers.

War for Paha Sapa (Black Hills)

Paha Sapa

In 1872, rumors abounded that there was gold in the Black Hills. Miners, wagon trains, and cavalry led by General George Armstrong Custer beat a trail known as Thieves’ Road to the area. Custer was also knows as Squaw Killer because of his massacre of Black Kettle and his people on the Washita river in 1868.

Paha Sapa was sacred to the indigenous people. In the summer they went there to commune with the Great Spirit and seek visions. This was the center of the world, the point from which the hoop of the world bent in four directions.

Just four years before, in the Treaty of 1868, that land had been given to the Sioux forever. Now the government tried to get the Black Hills through treaty, but the Sioux refused. The Peace Commissioners then recommended that Congress decide on a “fair equivalent value” and present it to the Indians as “finality.”

The United States offered the Sioux six million dollars for the Black Hills. The Sioux rejected the offer for good reason: just one Black Hills mine would eventually yield five hundred million dollars. By February 1876, the War Department authorized General Sheridan to begin military actions against the “hostile Sioux,” including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse joined forces with Sitting Bull; they made their camps on the banks of the Little Big Horn. There were ten thousand people with three to four thousand warriors, their camps spreading for three miles. On June 24, 1876 General George Armstrong Custer came looking for the Sioux. He had split his forces into three columns. The Sioux, defending their women and children along the Little Big Horn, wiped out Custer and over 180 of his men. It was the worst military defeat that the U.S. government had ever suffered in the wars with the native peoples.

The whites viewed the defeat as a massacre. More soldiers hunted down the Sioux. For over a year Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse kept the soldiers at bay. Finally, Sitting Bull took his people to Canada while Crazy Horse continued to fight. In 1877, after a long winter, the United States offered Crazy Horse and his people a reservation in the Powder River country, the most precious of territory to the Sioux. Crazy Horse brought his people to the fort and waited for the promised territory. After four months he decided to take the land and marches his people to the Powder River.

Eight companies of soldiers rode out and arrested him. During the arrest procedure, Crazy Horse balked at the prison cell after he saw men in chains. Glad for an excuse to kill him, one of the soldiers ran his bayonet through Crazy Horse’s stomach

The Sioux mourned his death for weeks. His parents finally took his bones and heart and buried them in a desolate spot on their trek to Canada, near a creek called Wounded Knee. The U.S. military had never defeated Crazy Horse in battle.

More and more whites flooded into Sioux and Cheyenne territory, and the U.S. government tried to wrest more and more land from the tribes. In 1889, they “legally” stole land out in the middle of the Sioux reservation. The state was set for the end of the frontier and the way of life the native populations had known for millennia.

That end came in 1890 at Wounded Knee. It was the final large-scale military massacre committed by the whites against the indigenous. Many more deaths of native peoples would follow due to poverty, despair, injustice, but not until the 1970s would the big guns again be fired on the Sioux.



The Cheyenne Fight Back

Chief Black Kettle

In 1851, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Crow, and other tribes met with U.S. representatives at Fort Laramie. The United States wanted access to indigenous lands for roads, forts, and telegraph lines. The tribes granted the access, while not giving up their right to fish, hunt, or roam over the same lands.

Gold had been discovered in California in 1848, and again in the Colorado Territory ten years later. Thousands of miners came to Pikes Peak, building the village of Denver City in the process.

In 1860, the United States was on the brink of a civil war. The war slowed down the westward march of the whites, but did not stop it. That same year the first pony express rider reached California. The U.S. Congress also passed the Pre-emption Bill, which provided free land to settlers in western territories. Before the year was out a man named Spencer invented the repeating rifle.

In 1864, Black Kettle, a Cheyenne chief, heard of white soldiers killing Cheyenne without provocation. Black Kettle wanted “to be peaceable and friendly and keep my tribe so.” He always camped under the American flag that Colonel Greenwood had given him for protection.

The cavalry raids continued. Officers under the command of Colonel Chivington were ordered to “kill Cheyenne whenever and wherever found.” Clashes increased and the younger Cheyenne leaders, members of the Hotamitanio, or Dog Soldier Society, wanted to fight back.

After the Sand Creek Massacre the Cheyenne and the Sioux united to keep the whites out of the Powder River country. They called themselves The People, the last hope to save their ancestral hunting grounds. They were led by Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Dull Knife, and Roman Nose.

In the summer of 1865, a few months after the end of the Civil War, General Patrick Connor invaded the Powder River territory with four columns of troops. Conner built a fort and named it after himself; later it would be called Fort Reno.  Connor in 1863, had surrounded a camp of Paiute and massacred 278 of them. On this mission he was heard to say that the Indians had to “be hunted like wolves.” His orders to his men: “Attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age.” Conner’s goal was to open up the Bozeman Trail to give the whites more roads to the West.

Red Cloud and the other chiefs were angry because the whites had not asked permission to build forts and more roads through their country. That summer, the Sioux and Cheyenne killed hundreds of soldiers and cost the U.S. government millions of dollars. It was one of the worst military defeats at the hands of the Indigenous up to that time.

The next spring (1866) the whites wanted to talk peace. While Red Cloud and the others were negotiating, an army troop arrived at the fort with orders to build forts up and down the Bozeman Trail with or without treaties. Red Cloud denounced the peace commission and stormed out, taking everyone with him.

A guerrilla war followed. Crazy Horse developed a tactic of luring soldiers out of their defensive positions and into ambushes. It took great riding skill and courage, and earned him high respect from his comrades. The greatest victory was at Fort Phil Kearny, where Crazy Horse drew the soldiers from the fort and the combined forces of the Sioux and Cheyenne annihilated them.

Finally in 1868 the army gave up. Even General Sherman, who had led the Union march to the sea, could not subdue the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The United States agreed to abandon the forts. Red Cloud, not trusting the whites, replied that he would not sign a peace treaty until the forts were actually abandoned. As the troops left, the warriors set fire to the forts. Red Cloud still waited to sign, worrying the whites even more. It was one of the few treaties whose terms were dictated by the indigenous.

Fort Lyon, 1864

Black Kettle Attempts Peace

Crazy Horse

To tame a savage you must tie him down to the soil. You must make him understand the value of property and the benefits of its separate ownership.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior, 1851


One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.

Crazy Horse


One-Eye and Eagle Head, messengers from Black Kettle, approach Fort Lyon. Three soldiers stop them and take firing positions. Quickly the two Cheyenne make hand signals of peace and show a letter from Black Kettle. The soldiers take them prisoner and turn them over to Major Edward W. Wynkoop. In his mid-twenties, with only one battle against the confederates under his belt, he is both afraid and suspicious. The letter says that Black Kettle wants the soldiers to come out to Smoky Hill camp and guide the two thousand Cheyenne into the reservation. Suspecting a trap, Wynkoop delays a decision. Finally he decides to go.

Releasing the two prisoners, he tells them they are both guides and hostages. At the first sign of treachery from your people, I will kill you.

The Cheyenne do not break their word. If they do so I should not care to live longer, replies One-Eye.

On the march Wynkoop has the opportunity to have long conversations with the two Cheyenne. Later he writes: I felt myself in the presence of superior beings; and these were the representatives of a race that I had heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty, without feeling of affection for friend or kindred.

Black Kettle and the other chiefs hold a council with Wynkoop, telling him of the raids committed against their people. Wynkoop promises to do everything possible to stop the fighting and takes the chiefs to Denver to meet the governor of the Colorado territory and Colonel Chivington.

At Denver, Governor Evans privately tells Wynkoop, I want no peace till the Indians suffer more. But what shall I do with the Third Colorado Regiment if I make peace? They have been raised to kill Indians and they must kill Indians.  Unknown to Wynkoop was Colonel Chivington’s recent order to his soldiers: Kill all the Indians you come across.

Because of his friendly attitude toward the indigenous U.S. military officials replace Major Wynkoop with Major Scott Anthony as the commander of Fort Lyon.

In late November, Colonel Chivington and his troops ride into Fort Lyon. In the officers’ quarters, Anthony greets him warmly and Chivington talks of collecting scalps and wading in gore. Anthony is pleased, since he has been waiting for an opportunity to pitch into them.

The next day Lieutenant Cramer and a few others protest going out to Black Kettle’s peaceful camp where their safety has been guaranteed. It would be murder in every sense of the word.

Chivington becomes violent, angrily slams his fist close to Lieutenant Cramer’s head, and says, Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill them.

On the evening of November 28, Colonel Chivington and seven hundred men head out to the Cheyenne encampment in a horseshoe bend of the Sand Creek.


Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 56-70


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