Bad day at the American Horse camp at Slim Buttes!

September 9, 1876

On this day, caught in the cross hairs after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Lakota chief American Horse the Elder and 25 women and children were killed by members of General George Crook’s 7th Cavalry.

It was a chance encounter at Slim Buttes in present-day South Dakota.  Crook’s troops had endured 15 days of forced hardship best explained by the event’s title, Horse Meat March.   

While most of the other Army commanders had left the field, General Crook, (right) continued to pursue Custer’s  combatants, believing they would scatter to their respective hunting camps and reservations. 

The General left the Powder River on August 26, 1876, with 1,500 cavalry, 250 infantrymen, 240 native scouts and 44 civilian scouts and packers with a scant 15-day supply of rations.  Americans, eager to revenge Custer’s defeat, received blow-by-blow accounts from four war correspondents traveling with Crook’s troops.  John Wallace “Captain Jack” Crawford. (right) became a national celebrity with his dispatches to the New York Herald.  

The  American Horse camp, 37 lodges and several hundred Oglala, Minneconjous, Brule and Cheyenne was discovered by a detachment of 150 soldiers under the command of Col. Anson Mills. (Below)  An estimated 30 or 40 were thought to be warriors.  

The advantage of a surprise nighttime assault was lost when the approaching soldiers caused a stampede of the horses alerting the camp allowing them to escape into the surrounding ravines.  American Horse and 25 women and children, (some sources put the number at 15 ) and three men of fighting age took cover in an area of shallow caves.    

 The camp’s winter stores of dried meat and staples were quickly devoured by Crook’s men before the general himself arrived that morning. He quickly turned his attention to routing American Horse with a firestorm of bullets.  Hoping to spare the lives of the women and children, American Horse emerged mortally wounded.  Crook’s men chanted “no quarter,” at his capture but none could bring themselves to fire a fatal shot.

The ubiquitous frontier physician, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, was on hand to minister to the dying chief.  He would be at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, nearly a year to the day later to attend Crazy Horse in his final hours.

Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy at the Slim Buttes site

American Horse lingered overnight, dying at 6 a.m. the following day, according to Dr. McGillycuddy, “. . .satisfied that the lives of his squaws and children were spared.” 

Despite his historic designation as “elder,” American Horse was just 36 at the time of his death and on the rise as a leader of the Lakota.  Born in 1830, son of the important Old Smoke people.  Either a cousin or brother to Red Cloud, he was a friend and ally of Crazy Horse during both Red Cloud’s War and the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  He was also a signatory to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.   An earlier treaty in 1851 had fleetingly guaranteed the Lakota permanent ownership of South Dakota’s Black Hills before in 1874 General Custer  announced that gold had been discovered at Deadwood Gulch.

He became the “elder” posthumously when Red Cloud’s son-in law, Can Not Walk, (right, circa 1900) assumed the American Horse name upon hearing of the Elder’s death. The Younger died in 1908.

War correspondent, Captain Jack Crawford, spent a number of years in the Klondike prospecting, authored a number of books and, billed as the “poet scout,” was a lecturer and entertainer.  He died in Woodhaven, New York in 1917 at age 70.

Col. Mills retired from the Army as a brigadier-general in 1897 and went on to become wealthy manufacturing cartridge belts for the military during the Spanish-American War. He served on the International Boundary Commission for the southern border for 20 years and died in Washington D.C. at the age of 90.

General Crook, after endless pursuit of legions of Native Americans, underwent a change of heart and spent his last years advocating for his former adversaries.  He died suddenly in Chicago in 1890 at the age of 59 while serving as commander of the District of Missouri and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Dr. McGillycuddy was perhaps the oldest survivor of the Horse Meat March.  He later served as dean of the South Dakota School of Mines, the mayor of Rapid City and a delegate to South Dakota’s Constitutional Convention.  In 1918 he traveled to Alaska during an influenza epidemic.  When he died in San Francisco in 1939 at age 90, flags were lowered to half-staff on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  His ashes were eventually buried at Harney Peak, now Black Elk Peak, (left), in the Black Hills.  A small plaque at the site is inscribed, “Valentine McGillycuddy, Wasicu Wakan (Holy White Man).

The Journey Museum and Learning Center, 222 New York Street, Rapid City, South Dakota, features a panorama of Black Hills history from Sue to T-rex to Sitting Bull.  The museum’s five collections include paleontology, geology, archeology Native American culture and the pioneers  The Native American collection includes the artifacts and artistry of the Sioux and the robust spirit of the cowboys and the early settlers.

Interactive exhibits, the Wells Fargo Theater and the Paleontology Tent, bring together both the distant and  recent past, the present and the future of this unique region.  

Open from May through September, from 9 to 6, Monday through Saturday and 11 to 5, Sunday and from October through April, 10 to 5, Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday.  Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $7 for students 6 to 17 and children 5 and under free with families. For more information go to, call (605) 394-6923, fax 605) 394-6940 or write 222 New York Street, Rapid City, SD 57701. 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

♦Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.