Valentine Mcgillicuddy, forever linked to the death of Crazy Horse

Time Before Now, February 1849  Zachary Taylor had been elected president in November and would serve only 16 months, dying of suspected cholera in July of 1850.  Taylor’s predecessor, James Polk, was photographed on Valentine’s Day by famous Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady,  the first U.S. president to be photographed.  British-born Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn a medical degree, controversial for her anti-feminist beliefs and her relationship with a much younger man.  And New York machinist Walter Hunt patented the safety pin. (Right)  He sold the rights for $400, about the average yearly wage at the time.  Hunt also invented the fountain pen, a knife sharpener, street sweeper and street car bell.

February 14, 1849

On this day, frontier doctor, Valentine McGillycuddy, was born with the inevitable name.  He would become a friend to Crazy Horse, a nemesis to Red Cloud, and a ubiquitous figure on the Dakota plains.  

With an uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time, McGillycuddy seemed to be everywhere during the most consequential quarter century of the American frontier.  He met, treated, befriended or opposed some of its most iconic figures including Little Big Horn principals, George Armstrong Custer, (left) Gen. George Crook, and Major Mark Reno as well as Buffalo Bill Cody,Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane Canary,   legendary Sioux chiefs Sitting Bull and American Horse and John Wesley Powell, the man who mapped the Grand Canyon. 

Not a plainsman by birth, he was raised in Racine, Wisconsin, and Detroit, entered medical school at 20 and came West after literally nearly “going crazy” as a physician in a mental hospital.   At the behest of Army engineer, General Cyrus Comstock, McGillycuddy surveyed and mapped the Great Lakes and Chicago’s devastation after the Great Fire.  

In 1875 he joined the Newton-Jenney Expedition to the Black Hills, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey.   Part scientific exploration, part treasure hunt, it was where Calamity Jane met Wild Bill and was sparked by the George Armstrong Custer foray into the land of the Lakota and the reports of gold he brought back. 

Fort Robinson, Nebraska Territory

That experience led to his appointment as the Army surgeon at Nebraska’s Fort Robinson and later administrator at Nebraska’s Red Cloud Agency in 1877.  It placed him at the center of an internecine struggle between the young upstart Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, the dominant chief of the Oglala Lakota. 

The two were worlds apart in their politics.  Crazy Horse resisted Anglo American incursion at every turn, taking part in nearly every important battle including the Little Big Horn and the subsequent Dakota War.  Red Cloud, (left) a signatory to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, was deeply disappointed in the treaty’s failure.  After having his own war named for him,  Red Cloud’s War of 1866, he was finally willing to go along to  get along.  He and his band settled on the reservation, where he squabbled incessantly with the government’s agency man, Dr. John J. Saville, and eventually accused him of financial malfeasance.  Forced to resign, Saville was cleared of wrongdoing.

A large part of McGillycuddy’s legacy is forever entwined with the murky events of the life and death of Crazy Horse, beginning when Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877.  It may have partially been prompted by his wife’s illness.  McGillycuddy successfully treated Black Shawl Woman, (right) some sources say of tuberculosis.   Others speculate it was  cholera, which killed her three-year-old daughter.  Whatever her ailment, it forged a close bond between Crazy Horse and the doctor. 

Six months later Crazy Horse was dead, stirring a controversy that has yet to be resolved.   McGillycuddy spent the last hour’s of the wounded man’s life at his bedside.    Varying accounts were provided by eye witnesses.  Army Private William Gentles, an Irish immigrant soldier with a sketchy military career is a candidate for the killing of Crazy Horse, stabbing him with a bayonet, according to some witnesses. 

In the Army’s retelling, however, Crazy Horse challenged the guards with two concealed knives and in the struggle that followed, fell on his own weapon.  This fanciful version was attributed to Charging Bear, (left) the real life “Little Big Man,” made famous by the movie by the same name.

He is alternately depicted as a Crazy Horse lieutenant and “Shirt Wearer,” or a jealous rival who sought to curry favor with his Army captors.  A number of Lakota genealogists lean heavily toward the latter explanation, describing him as duplicitous and manipulative.

The doctor certified  the death of his friend, Crazy Horse, having died near midnight on September 5, 1877.  Whatever the circumstances, McGillycuddy called his killing “absolutely inexcusable.”

But Little Big Man was just part of the skullduggery.  Crazy Horse was surrounded by a number of shadowy characters.  French and Lakota translator, William Garnett, there at the scene, believed that Little Big Man was, in fact, responsible for the death.   More than a dozen witnesses claim an Army guard,  probably Gentles, stabbed Crazy Horse.  The military record of Garnett’s account varies significantly from the original and several sources labeled Garnett a spy.

Garnett apparently had no connection to Red Cloud, but another mysterious figure in the mix did.  A woman named Nellie Larabee, (right) known as Chi Chi,  had been sent to the Crazy Horse, household by Red Cloud, himself.   Ostensibly  there to help care for the ailing  Black Shawl Woman, some accounts say Crazy Horse married the 18-year-old Larabee. 

The older chief was clearly not a fan of Crazy Horse, believing his stubborn resistance to U.S. forces was detrimental to the Lakota cause and was perhaps tinged with jealousy over all the attention lavished on the youthful leader. 

The tribal politics were even more complicated.  Red Cloud and Chief Spotted Tail, (left) a relative of Black Shawl Woman, had joined forces against attempts to seize tribal lands.  Spotted Tail had approved the Fort Laramie Treaty but continued to fight for sovereignty.  But like Red Cloud, he believed it was a fool’s errand to oppose the government on the battlefield.

Relatives of Crazy Horse and Garnett deeply mistrusted Larabee, Garnett calling her an “evil woman,” helping to lead Crazy Horse into a “domestic trap” that eventually caused his downfall.

Mcgillicuddy (left) was named the Indian Agent on the Pine Ridge after Crazy Horse died.  Red Cloud, again using his Saville playbook, saw to McGillycuddy’s downfall, also accusing him of mismanagement and malfeasance.  A number of investigations were launched into the claims.  A

mid a flurry of charges, including “tyranny,” and fraud, the doctor established a reservation police force and a boarding school.  The breaking point came when he was ordered to fire an otherwise blameless clerk.  He resigned his position in October of 1882 and moved with his wife the former Frances, “Fanny” Hoyt, to Rapid City. 

It was the end of an era.  McGillycuddy served as Dean of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and became South Dakota’s first State Surgeon.  He was elected Rapid City mayor in 1897 but when Fanny died, he moved to California.  Some years later he married Julia Blanchard. (Left)   Enlisting in the Army at the start of WWI, he served Alaska and the western states during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

 Red Cloud outlived almost all of them.  The last and one of the best known Lakota leaders, he died on the Pine Ridge, South Dakota Reservation, December 10, 1909 at 87 having converted to Christianity.  The government had made many promises, the old chief claimed and kept but one. “They promised to take our land … and they took it.” 

There are 128 known photographs of Red Cloud, none of Crazy Horse, (right) save a latter-day image found in a derelict photo studio in Chadron, Nebraska.  It is still unverified.

Black Shawl died in 1927, presumably of influenza.  Helen “Nellie” Larabee is believed to have died in about 1880.   One source lists her burial in Charles Mix County near the present day Lake Andes, South Dakota.  

Valentine McGillycuddy died on June 6, 1939 at the age of 90.  His ashes were interred on Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills, the mountain formerly known as Harney Peak  that he had scaled as a young surveyor with the Newton- Jenney expedition.   A simple stone monument reads “Valentine T. McGillycuddy, Wasicu Wakan, (Holy White Man) 1849-1939.”

Valentine McGillycuddy’s grave site, Custer State Park, South Dakota,  is accessible by a number of popular trails.  Most often used, Trail No. 9, from the Sylvan Lake Day Use Area.  The three mile hike through the ponderosa pine leads to the former fire tower atop what is now Black Elk Peak.  In addition to the McGillycuddy monument, it offers spectacular views of the surrounding area.  

Custer State Park contains 71,000 acres of forest, grasslands and wildlife.  The parks annual buffalo roundup attracts visitors from around the country.  Accommodations range from the stately Game Lodge, the 1927 summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge to numerous camping options.  In addition to  hiking, bike and horse trails, activities include hunting, fishing, horseback riding during summer months. 

For more information President Calvin Coolidge.  For more information go to State Park, e-mail, call 605.255.4515 or write Custer State Park, 13329 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730

© Text Only – 2021 – 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.