The Illusive Chief Crazy Horse – everything is a mystery

September 5, 1877

On this day legendary chief, Crazy Horse, was killed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, his death like much of his life, shrouded in mystery and domestic drama. 

Fact and fiction collide in accounts of that day.  Some witnesses claim he was stabbed with a bayonet by veteran trooper William Gentles in a struggle with his captors at the guardhouse.  A Lakota rival, Little Big Man, (right)  disputes the story, insisting Crazy Horse brandished two knives he had hidden in his blanket and was impaled by his own hand.  And then there was Nellie Larrabee, or Chi Chi, described by translator William Garnett as “an invidious and evil woman,”suspected of helping to orchestrate his fate. 

A leader of the Oglala Lakota, much about Crazy Horse is uncertain.  The year of his birth has been estimated between 1840 and 1845 somewhere near present-day Rapid City, South Dakota.  Native American oral history places the date in the spring of 1840. 

Born to a Miniconjou mother and an Oglala father also named Crazy Horse, he was fair-skinned with curly brown hair.  His appearance set him apart early and it is said he was a solitary youth because of it.

It’s also unclear how he received his fabled name.  Two other males of his line share it, according to genealogical records.  In one version it resulted from a vision vividly recounted by Nebraska Poet Laureate, John G. Neihardt, (right) in his book in “Black Elk Speaks.”   Much less mystical is that his father simply passed the name on to his son when he reached maturity, the elder Crazy Horse then using the name Waglulu (Worm)

Domestic trouble began when Crazy Horse fell in love with Black Buffalo Woman.  But she married another called No Water, a poor choice by some accounts.  Spurned but not discouraged, Crazy Horse continued to court her, finally persuading her to go on a buffalo hunt while No Water was away. 

Tacky by today’s standards, Lakota women were free to divorce their husbands by returning to relatives, taking up residence with another man or setting the husband’s belongings outside the lodge.  Rebuffed spouses were expected to cede to the woman’s wishes. 

 No Water, however, pursued the couple to the hunting camp.  Calling out Crazy Horse, he fired into the tepee from the entrance.  The shot went wild, perhaps deflected by a cousin, Touch the Clouds.  Crazy Horse was hit in the jaw, leaving him scarred for life.  

Tribal elders persuaded Black Buffalo Woman to return to No Water.  A relative of Spotted Tail named Black Shawl, (right) was sent to nurse the young Crazy Horse following his injury.  He and Black Shawl eventually married and had one child, a daughter who died at age three. 

Nellie Larrabee’s role in the household is controversial.  The daughter of a Cheyenne mother and a French father, she was sent by Red Cloud, perhaps to spy on Crazy Horse.  The fabled chief opposed the Dakota War and may have been in league with the Army in an attempt to bring about peace.   Whatever the case it was labeled a  “suspect marriage” by a number of historians.  Larrabee (right), was widely regarded as untrustworthy by the Lakota. 

Not in question was the young leader’s reputation as a warrior.  He first earned the title “Shirt Wearer”  in battles with the Lakota’s traditional enemies, the Crow, Shoshone and Pawnee.   His  later encounters with the U.S. military included the Battle at Platte Bridge the Battle of Red Buttes in 1865, the ambush of William Fedderman’s infantry in 1866  and the Wagon Box Fight near Wyoming’s Fort Phil Kearney the next year.

Crazy Horse rode into the history books  on June 17, 1876 when he helped lead a 1,500-member fighting force of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho  against Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.  Overwhelmed by the size and skill of the opposition forces, Custer, his two brothers and 268 soldiers and scouts were killed along Montana’s Little Big Horn River.  

Following the Battle of Wolf Mountain in Montana Territory, January 8, 1877,  his people hungry and cold, Crazy Horse decided to surrender.  On May 5, he arrived at the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson.  Together with others of his band he moved toward surrendering, living four months near the fort.  

Fort Robinson’s officer’s quarters in mid-1870s

More controversy surrounds his intent during the army’s pursuit of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.  The U.S. Government believed he would ally himself with the Nez Perce.  Soldiers sent to fetch him found his camp deserted, having fled to the nearby Spotted Tail Agency.  After a meeting at Camp Sheridan, however, Crazy Horse agreed to return to Fort Robinson the next day, September 5.   

Even the record of his death seems clouded.   Frontier physician and Native American advocate, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, (left), attended Crazy Horse, recording his death “near midnight.”   The U.S, Army sets the date as the 5th.   The doctor is more ambivalent.  It may have been after midnight, September 6.

The chief’s aging parents received his remains on the 6th, placing them on a burial scaffold near Fort Sheridan.   Later, however, they were moved to an unknown location.  If the date of his birth is correct, he would have been just 37.

Black Shawl outlived her famous husband by nearly 40 years despite having been diagnosed and treated for tuberculosis by Dr. McGllycuddy.  She died of influenza in 1927. Nellie Larrabee, also known as Helen “Nellie” Laravie, reportedly remarried and lived on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.  

Ever an enigma, Crazy Horse never signed his name to any document and an image discovered in the 1990s, (right), may not be Crazy Horse.   No photograph has actually been verified

Verifiably the Crazy Horse Monument is underway at Thunderhead Mountain between Hill City and Custer, South Dakota.   The massive sculpture will measure approximately 641 feet wide and 563 feet long upon completion, a larger than life tribute to the illusive leader.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer County, South Dakota, five miles north of the town of Custer, is a work in progress.  The late Polish American sculptor and designer, Korczak Ziolkowski, worked at the site until his death in 1982.  The memorial was commissioned by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear.  Ziolkowski’s 10 children and his grandchildren have continued work on the sculpture.  Privately funded, the memorial relies on donations and visitor fees to continue. 

Vans to the Welcome Center are available from mid-March to October 1, from 4:30 to 7 weekdays and 8 to 5 weekends.  Admission for private vehicles range from $12 per person, $7 for bikes and motorcycles and per vehicle, $30.  A number of free admissions include Native Americans, active military, local residents, Boy and Girls Scouts and children under 6. 

Admission price includes the museums located at the Memorial Campus including the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center.  For information on tours, hours and admission go to, e-mail, call (605) 673-4681 or write, Crazy Horse Memorial, 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730-8900.

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

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