Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sioux Leader Crazy Horse / Death at Fort Robinson

fort robinson nebraska
Main Post, Fort Robinson
There are many interesting things to do in Nebraska and stopping by at old Fort Robinson is one of them. Fort Robinson is located in the far northwest corner of Nebraska, just west of the town of Crawford. Today, this site is a State Historic Park filled with old west history. If you find yourself on a Nebraska vacation or on a trip to the general area, Fort Robinson is a good side trip to make and excellent for a family vacation. There are a lot of reasons for this. Fort Robinson had the distinction of being located very near to the epicenter of the Indian War fighting. It was also at the site of the 1879 Cheyenne outbreak and it was at Fort Robinson that the famed Sioux leader Crazy Horse was slain in 1877. There was a lot of history made at Fort Robinson and the site is excellently preserved and exhibited. Fort Robinson State Park is comprised of over 20,000 scenic acres and has it's own buffalo herd within it's boundaries. Fort Robinson was also one of the country's longest operating forts, starting during the Indian Wars and ending after World War Two. During the war what even used to house German POW's. The museum at the fort is operated by the Nebraska Historical Society. Visitors to Fort Robinson can also begin their visit with a fun horse drawn tour. It's a beautiful and very historic part of our country and makes a good family vacation destination or side trip.


Who was Crazy Horse? Historians pretty much all agree that the Sioux leader Crazy Horse played an active role in the 1876 defeat of George Armstrong Custer and his regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Some have contended that Crazy Horse may have led a flank assault on the troopers and that this might have sealed Custer's fate. Whatever the actual involvement Crazy Horse had in that battle, it was an important one and it handed the army it's biggest single defeat to that date. Crazy Horse made his name among his fellow warriors as being one of the fiercest fighters against white settlement in the West. Many historians also place a young Crazy Horse at the site of the Fetterman Massacre which occurred just about a mile outside of Wyoming's Fort Phil Kearny in 1866. That was during Red Cloud's War against the troops, gold prospectors and settlers traveling on the old Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud's War in which Crazy Horse was very involved in was the Sioux Indian's only "war victory" over the U.S. military in as much as the three military posts along the Bozeman Trail were abandoned per the peace treaty between the Sioux and the U.S. Government. The building of the forts along that trail which crossed the heart of Sioux territory was the primary reason Chief Red Cloud went to war.


Crazy Horse was thought to have been born in 1840. Some biographers have pointed to 1838 however 1840 is probably more accurate. His parents were Lakota Sioux and his father was also named Crazy Horse. The tale is that when Crazy Horse grew up his father transferred his name to his son and found another one for himself. An interesting side note concerns possible photos of Crazy Horse. There is some disagreement as to the authenticity of purported pictures of Crazy Horse since his biography states that he didn't allow photographs to be taken of him. Sketches drawn of him at the time may be more accurate.

fort robinson buildings
Fort Robinson restored structures
During the Sioux War of 1876-77 and after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, many of the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes scattered all around Montana, Wyoming as well as into the Dakotas. Some decided to return to the reservations. Sitting Bull and about 200 of his followers fled to Canada. Crazy Horse remained in the area. Crazy Horse held out during the remainder of 1876 and into 1877. Times were very tough since the buffalo had largely been driven away and the winter season took it's toll. At the same time Crazy Horse and his Sioux and Cheyenne brothers really had no idea what the army had in mind although the military had a habit of trying to attack during the winter months when Indian ponies were considered weak and the Indians themselves tended to group together. Finally in July of 1877 Crazy Horse worked out an agreement to surrender at Fort Robinson with a few thousand others. Crazy Horse was informed that he could discuss grievances at the fort and in his thinking felt that things could be worked out.

surrender of crazy horse
Drawing depicting Crazy Horse surrender
One of the things that Crazy Horse requested after his surrender was an agency on Beaver Creek. He desired his own agency. This was west of the Black Hills. General George Crook was not amenable to the request and also on a prior promise to allow the Indians out for a summer buffalo hunt. At the same time the military brass wanted to send Crazy Horse to Washington D.C to show that he was now under the custody of the army and serve as good publicity for the army. Crazy Horse refused, especially because of General Crook's refusal on his demands. The army supposedly also wanted Crazy Horse to fight against the Nez Perce which was the military's latest conflict. Again, Crazy Horse refused.


What happened next is explained in a few slightly different versions. Similar to many historic events that occurred so long ago, there were a few different versions. The result of the September 5, 1877 attempted arrest of Crazy Horse is however not in dispute. During this action he was stabbed by a bayonet and died later that night at Fort Robinson. The relations between Crazy Horse and General Crook were deteriorating for some time due to the circumstances explained above. In addition, a rumor (not necessarily credible) spread that Crazy Horse wanted to kill Crook whenever they were scheduled to meet. Another apparent miscommunication occurred when it was falsely translated to Crook that Crazy Horse would "go north and fight until there was not a white man left". Crazy Horse had departed Fort Robinson a few days earlier in September because his wife was ailing and he wanted her to be closer to his relatives. When he returned to Fort Robinson he was facing arrest per orders of General Crook. Based on many things Crook seemed to have had enough and wanted Crazy Horse locked up in the guard house. The story also is that there was concern among the military that Crazy Horse might bolt from the reservation and try to lead another rebellion. How plausible that scenario would have been is a matter of debate. As was typical for the times, his arrest was carried out by both the Indian police and the army working together. Crazy Horse resisted the arrest attempt and allegedly grabbed a knife and cut the hand of one of the Indian police. In a way, the circumstances were a bit similar to what happened to Sitting Bull years later at the Standing Rock Agency. It was an attempted arrest that got out of control.

The official story is that the fatal stabbing came from a bayonet wielded by a forty-seven year old army private named William Gentles. The tale is that Gentles stabbed Crazy Horse twice and missed on the third attempt. Crazy Horse slumped to the ground and was dying. He was eventually take to the adjutant's office and refused to be laid on the cot. He was laid on the floor, the fort doctor gave him a few shots of morphine, and with his father present at his side, Crazy Horse died at about 11:30 that night. His remains were turned over to his parents the next morning and eventually were buried at an undisclosed location after the reservation was relocated. The exact site of where Crazy Horse is buried remains unknown to this very day although historians have identified four probable locations.

fort robinson nebraska sign
Fort Robinson plaque
Another excellent travel stop in addition to Fort Robinson while exploring the life of Crazy Horse is the memorial  being carved into granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This project, which is quite a unique undertaking, was begun in 1948 by a Polish-American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski who was chosen by a group of Lakota elders although there still persists to this day a degree of controversy about the project. There are some who contend that the building of the granite Crazy Horse monument is counter to what the life of Crazy Horse stood for and oppose it. Regardless, the work is still going on. Korczak could have been chosen since he had some experience in this type of undertaking having worked on the nearby Mount Rushmore project in 1924.

When the Crazy Horse Monument is finally completed, the dimensions should be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. When Korczak passed away in 1982 his family continued on with the project. Today, Korczak's grandchildren are involved. A good deal of the work now involves dynamite blasting. Nobody really knows when this massive monument to Crazy Horse will be completed. What is known is that if and when the sculpture is finally completed it would probably be the largest of it's kind in the world.

statue of general george crook
Statue of General George Crook
In addition to the work on the Chief Crazy Horse memorial, Korczak and his family also built the Indian Museum of North America at the site. The family was involved with all aspects of the construction. Almost all of the museum collection has been donated by Native Americans and non-Natives. The Indian Museum of North America is a very good resource for both Indian and non-Indian students. Over fifty years after the project began, Korczak's family continues his tradition and work. The museum was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1973. The site is 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore. There are several good Custer South Dakota lodging choices when you plan your trip to the Crazy Horse Monument and a visit to the Indian Museum of North America. I think you'll find this trip one of the more unique concerning the Sioux and a family vacation to remember.


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1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading the history of Crazy Horse

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