Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend

Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend

by Mike Sajna

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"A treat . . . Insightful . . . Refreshing . . . A must-have . . . Not only is Sajna’s work a valuable historical resource, it makes for a compelling read as well."–American History

"There has to be someone left to tell the tale."

Little did the legendary war chief Crazy Horse know when he spoke these words in battle that it was

…  See more details below


"A treat . . . Insightful . . . Refreshing . . . A must-have . . . Not only is Sajna’s work a valuable historical resource, it makes for a compelling read as well."–American History

"There has to be someone left to tell the tale."

Little did the legendary war chief Crazy Horse know when he spoke these words in battle that it was his tale that people would be telling long after his death. Now, author Mike Sajna brings the renowned warrior back to life in this book about his epic struggle to save his culture and homeland amid the westward movement of white settlers. Sajna follows Crazy Horse from his days as a young boy chasing down wild horses to his later years as "one of the bravest of the brave," and includes new views on his role in the Battle of Little Big Horn and his eventual surrender and murder. Using an extensive collection of historic records, Crazy Horse is one of the most accurate accounts of the great Oglala chief, separating the facts from the many myths that have been passed down by other writers

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...Sajna has produced a detailed, accessible and compelling account of Crazy Horse..." (Times Literary Supplement, 19 October, 2001)
Suitable for the general reader, this biography of Crazy Horse attempts to match the few accounts of people who knew him with the historic record. Coverage includes Crazy Horse's boyhood, his development as a warrior, and his personal relationships as well as accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Crazy Horse's surrender less than a year later. Sajna is a columnist for the and the author of several history books. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Floyd B. Largent, JR.
Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend is a must-have for any serious scholar of the Sioux and wouldn't be out of place on the casual reader's bookshelf. Not only is Sajna's work a valuable historical resource, it makes for a compelling read as well.
American History

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6.22(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt



"Crazy Horse with Us"

Slowly the column made its way down the wide valley between two long, sloping bluffs. It was about ten o'clock in the morning.1 The sky was clear and bright, the plains gleaming with the night's rain and the first tender green of spring.

About a mile in advance of the column rode Lieutenant J. Wesley Rosenquest with a detachment of the 4th U. S. Cavalry.2 Five days earlier, on May 1, 1877, Rosenquest had left Camp Robinson in northwestern Nebraska to meet the "hostels," the band of the Oglala Lakota Sioux leader Crazy Horse, on Hat Creek. At the request of the Oglala Lakota Red Cloud, who had been out in the Powder River country negotiating Crazy Horse's surrender since mid-April, Rosenquest brought the band ten wagons of supplies and a hundred head of cattle.3 Rosenquest would later become known as the first army officer to shake hands with Crazy Horse, but interpreter William Garnett,who accompanied him on the mission, said that is a "mistake."4 He does not, however, elaborate.

To meet Rosenquest and accept the surrender of Crazy Horse, Lieutenant William Philo Clark, known to the Indians as White Hat, had ridden up Soldier Creek from Camp Robinson with twenty Cheyenne scouts and a reporter for the Chicago Times, most likely L. F. Whitbeck.5 The reporter would write of Clark:

There is a personal magnetism about the man that attaches a person to him as soon as one meets him. This is used to great advantage with Indians. His Indian soldiers perfectly worship him. His word is law to them. His perfect control of them shows that Indians can easily be got along with if dealt with honestly, treated kindly, and with a firm hand. Clark may well be proud of the splendid reputation he is getting in the Indian war.6

Clark's interest in the plains tribes would later lead him to write The Indian Sign Language.

Five miles outside of Red Cloud Agency, which stood one and one-half miles east of Camp Robinson, Clark's detail encountered Rosenquest and the advancing column of Indians. Alone at the head of the Indians rode Crazy Horse on a light-colored pony. Clark and his men waited until the column was about a half mile away and then rode forward to meet it. As they did, Crazy Horse dismounted and sat on the ground.7 According to Short Buffalo or Short Bull, youngest brother of Crazy Horse's close friend He Dog: "Crazy Horse spread out his blanket for Red Cloud to sit on and gave his shirt to Red Cloud; He Dog did the same for White Hat. This meant that they gave up to these two. He Dog gave his war-horse and saddle to White Hat. You can see by this that there was no ill feeling toward the whites."8

Halting his men, Clark moved ahead alone. When he was within a few yards of Crazy Horse, he dismounted and sat down facing the Oglala leader.9 For five minutes the two men remained in that position. What was said was not recorded, but the talk could well have been a reiteration of Crazy Horse's thoughts on the location of the agency he had been promised. Short Buffalo said: "In all the talk they had that day, Crazy Horse said, 'There is a creek over there they call Beaver Creek; there is a great big flat west of the headwaters of Beaver Creek; I want my agency put right in the middle of that flat.' He said the grass was good there for horses and game."10

According to Short Buffalo, Crazy Horse originally wanted his agency located near what is now Gillette, Wyoming, or on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains where Sheridan, Wyoming, stands. If he could not have an agency in either of those locations, he was willing to accept one on Beaver Creek east of Camp Robinson. This was the only cause of misunderstanding at that time, Short Buffalo said. Crazy Horse wanted to have his agency established first. Then he would go to Washington to talk with the president. White officials wanted him to go to Washington before he was given an agency.11

The talk over, Clark rose, stepped closer to Crazy Horse, and extended his left hand. According to Garnett, Clark had been instructed to use his left hand because the Indians believed the "left hand is next to the heart, but the right hand does all manner of wickedness."12

Clark's action broke the tension, and Rosenquest, the Times reporter, and several of the most important Lakota warriors moved forward to exchange handshakes. "Most of them gave a good hearty grip, and seemed to mean it," the Times noted. "Three gave the left hand, a few just touched their fingers very politely, not even saying 'How koola? ' But nearly all gave good hearty evidence of submission." About a hundred yards behind the group sat another three hundred warriors divided into five bands, with a headman at the front of each. Darkening the bluffs above the scene were the band's women, children, old men, and young warriors.13

During the entire ceremony, according to the Times, Crazy Horse remained seated alone where Clark had first met him. When the party returned, he was joined by Little Hawk and He Dog. Like Crazy Horse at one time, He Dog was an appointed leader of the highest rank, officially called wicasa yatapike, "owners of the tribe" or "supreme headmen," but commonly known as "shirt wearers."14

In his reminiscences recorded more than twenty-five years later, Garnett reported that Crazy Horse then presented Clark with "a war bonnet, war shirt, pipe and beaded sack for tobacco and kinni kin-nick and pipe. Clark was told to put on his Indian clothing, being assisted by some of his new friends, and made an imposing appearance."15 The Times reporter, writing that same day, though, reported that He Dog opened the council by saying: "I have come to make peace to those only I like and have confidence in. I give these."16 He Dog, not Crazy Horse, then removed his ceremonial bonnet and heavily beaded and embroidered war shirt. He hung the shirt over Clark's shoulders and placed the war bonnet on the lieutenant's head. Clark responded by sitting next to Crazy Horse.

"We have come to make a lasting peace, never to be broken," Clark said. "We had a rain last night that has washed out all bad feelings that have ever been between us. The sun is now shining brightly. All shows the Great Spirit is pleased with our actions. To ensure this lasting peace it is necessary to give up arms and ponies. This afternoon, when we reach camp, I will take the names of all Indians who turn in ponies and arms, and will send them to the great father at Washington. General Crook is now in Washington, looking out for your interests. We want to count the Indians so as to provide them with rations, and keep them supplied."17

Well-known among the Lakota for holding his tongue at councils, Crazy Horse replied: "I have given all I have to Red Cloud."18 It was his only recorded comment at the surrender council. The Times reporter and many writers since have taken Crazy Horse's words to mean that he had given his possessions to Red Cloud. But that might be too literal an interpretation or even a mistake in translation, since Crazy Horse remained in possession of such things as his Winchester rifle and pony. As Short Buffalo indicated, the remark probably meant that he had ceded his authority to Red Cloud.

In response, Red Cloud told Clark: "Crazy Horse is a sensible man. He knows it is useless to fight longer against the whites, and is now willing to give himself up." Through Red Cloud, the warriors then asked to be allowed to surrender their arms voluntarily at Red Cloud Agency and not have them forcibly taken away. Clark agreed and laid out a plan that called for each warrior to deposit his guns on the ground at the agency and then give his name.19

By noon the council was over and the march begun to Red Cloud Agency. Clark and Rosenquest led the column, followed by their Cheyenne soldiers, and a quarter of a mile back Crazy Horse and his warriors, as the Times reported, "marching with the regular order of troops."20 The Lakota horses were brightly painted, and all but Crazy Horse, who wore his customary plain shirt and single eagle feather, were dressed in their best shirts, ceremonial bonnets, blankets, and leggings heavily ornamented with glass beads, brass, silver, and tin. "The sun shining on them made such a dazzling show as almost to blind the eyes," the Times noted. "Behind the warriors [came] the two thousand ponies then tepees and lodge poles. It was a grand and imposing sight."21

As the column approached Red Cloud Agency at 2: 00 P. M., there was none of the parading, wild firing of weapons, whooping, or celebrating that had followed some earlier surrenders. From one end to the other of the two-mile-long column arose a solemn peace chant. Watching the band of 899 Lakota approach through field glasses, one officer was moved to exclaim: "By God! This is a triumphal march, not a surrender!"22

On a wide plain bordered by bluffs along the White Earth River (White River), the band pitched their lodges in a crescent about three-fourths of a mile from Red Cloud Agency and two and three-fourths of a mile from Camp Robinson. When they turned in their ponies, chief packer Thomas Moore stopped counting after seventeen hundred, according to the Times. Other sources report the final total to have been about twenty-two hundred horses and a few mules.23

Before the warriors would turn in their arms, they asked that all whites withdraw. The request was made "apparently meaning to convey the idea that their pride was so crushed that they did not want the further humiliation of having spectators at the scene," the Times reported. "They were humored in this, all white people and Indian soldiers making themselves scarce and leaving a large open place in which they could deposit their arms." Only Clark, Rosenquest, Lieutenant Charles Johnson (the acting agent for Red Cloud Agency), and two interpreters remained to watch Crazy Horse and his warriors give up their arms.24

The collection of arms caused the only hitch in the surrender. According to the Times, the band's warriors turned in only forty-six rifles and seventy-six pistols. Believing there were more, Clark refused to accept the arms and told Crazy Horse he knew the band had more weapons and it was a requirement of the agreement that all arms be surrendered at once.25 Garnett said the Cheyenne soldiers had mingled among the band on the way in to Red Cloud Agency, "watching for guns and counting those the Indians carried; these scouts were most active, industrious and faithful in their new capacity."26

Confronted by Clark on the issue of guns, Crazy Horse remained stoic and did not reply. The warriors picked up their arms and went to their lodges. Clark immediately ordered up a wagon and with Rosenquest, two interpreters, and a detachment of Cheyenne soldiers, began searching every lodge for arms, "taking everything of the kind he could find." By 8: 00 P. M. the search had produced 113 guns, 9 less than the warriors originally had turned in. According to the Times, "two fine Winchester rifles were taken from Crazy Horse's tent. No objections were made, no assistance given. Nearly half the guns are Winchesters; a good many are Sharp's carbines." Frustrated by the search, Clark ordered that no rations be issued to the band until all arms were surrendered.27

The date was Sunday, May 6, 1877. As the Times reporter telegraphed his story on Crazy Horse's surrender for the next day's newspaper, only Sitting Bull, of the important plains Indian leaders, remained free, in Canada. Scattered, small-scale fighting between whites and Indians would continue for more than a dozen years, finally ending when Hotchkiss guns overlooking Wounded Knee Creek, a tributary of the same White Earth River where Crazy Horse pitched his camp that day, were fired on a band of Miniconjou Lakota of Big Foot on the bleak winter morning of December 29, 1890.

But it was the surrender of Crazy Horse that was the epochal event in the plains Indian wars and in the history of the West. The arrival of Crazy Horse at Red Cloud Agency marked the end of more than three and a half centuries of massive Indian resistance to the white takeover of North America. And the whites were well aware of it. "CRAZY HORSE WITH US. . . . End of the Last of Our Great Indian Wars Practically Reached," blared the headline on the Times story.28

Despite what had happened at the Little Big Horn River just ten months earlier, most white Americans, long certain of their eventual triumph over the Indians, already had shifted their attention to other things. News of Crazy Horse's surrender made only page seven of the Chicago Times. Page one belonged to the approaching war between Russia and Turkey over the treatment of Christians in Turkish Armenia. There also was a note on the appropriation by the Illinois General Assembly of $27, 000 for the Lincoln monument in Springfield, and two stories of suicides. John T. Daly, a New York millionaire, hanged and shot himself in a dilapidated Long Island house. Embarrassment over financial problems was believed to be the cause. And Frank Fisher of Torch Lake, Michigan, hanged himself in the Houghton, Michigan, jail. Fisher had been confined in the jail after cutting off his hand with an ax and attempting to kill himself by driving a chisel into his brain.

Even a story by "Romeo" about how William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody once helped to tame the "decadence of romantic Indian fighters on the frontier" by presiding over a marriage ceremony appeared before the story of Crazy Horse's surrender. The author lamented:

I fear that the heroes of the west, the fellows who knew the western life and had imbibed much of its natural wildness in their dress and speech and manners are fast falling away. . . . The necessities when rough men were needed to fight Indians, and fully as savage white men, are fast passing away, and, with the necessities of the time, the men whom the necessities created.29

Among the more thoughtful commentators on the surrender was Lieutenant John Gregory Bourke. Stationed at Fort Laramie, Bourke had been part of the long hunt for Crazy Horse after Custer's defeat. In his diary, Bourke wrote:

If our Government will only observe one-half of its promises, the Indians will comply faithfully with their agreement, I am certain; the great danger of the future is not from the red man's want of faith so much as from the indifference of our Government to the plainest requirements of honor. Our own faith is worse than Punic; yet, we always prattle about treachery. . . . If the Government will only keep its promises and treat these red men with justice, we shall have no more Indian wars.30

For Crazy Horse, though, it would never end. In fewer than four months, fear, jealousy, and misunderstanding would drive the bayonet of a middle-aged cipher of a white private into his back while his arms were being held by an old friend.

Meet the Author

MIKE SAJNA is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the author of several books including Days on the Water, The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, and Buck Fever: The Deer Hunting Tradition in Pennsylvania.

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