“One of the finest books yet written about the American West” —Larry McMurtry
He was the greatest Indian warrior of the nineteenth century. His victory over General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 was the worst defeat inflicted on the frontier Army. And the death of Crazy Horse in federal custody has remained a controversy for more than a century.
The Killing of Crazy Horse pieces together the many sources of fear and misunderstanding that resulted in an official killing hard to distinguish from a crime. A rich cast of characters, whites and Indians alike, passes through this story, including Red Cloud, the chief who dominated Oglala history for fifty years but saw in Crazy Horse a dangerous rival; No Water and Woman Dress, both of whom hated Crazy Horse and schemed against him; the young interpreter Billy Garnett, son of a fifteen-year-old Oglala woman and a Confederate general killed at Gettysburg; General George Crook, who bitterly resented newspaper reports that he had been whipped by Crazy Horse in battle; Little Big Man, who betrayed Crazy Horse; Lieutenant William Philo Clark, the smart West Point graduate who thought he could “work” Indians to do the Army’s bidding; and Fast Thunder, who called Crazy Horse cousin, held him the moment he was stabbed, and then told his grandson thirty years later, “They tricked me! They tricked me!”
At the center of the story is Crazy Horse himself, the warrior of few words whom the Crow said they knew best among the Sioux, because he always came closest to them in battle. No photograph of him exists today.
The death of Crazy Horse was a traumatic event not only in Sioux but also in American history. With the Great Sioux War as background and context, drawing on many new materials as well as documents in libraries and archives, Thomas Powers recounts the final months and days of Crazy Horse’s life not to lay blame but to establish what happened.
Thomas Powers is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and writer best known for his books on the history of intelligence organizations. Among them are Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to al-Qaeda; Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb; and The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA. For most of the last decade Powers kept a 1984 Volvo at a nephew’s house in Colorado, which he drove on frequent trips to the northern Plains. He lives in Vermont with his wife, Candace.
From our Q&A with the author
Q: What is the most important difference between The Killing of Crazy Horse and previous accounts that have been written about his life?
A: The Killing of Crazy Horse differs from previous books in its focus on the event—the killing itself—not a formal biography of the chief. Many different people played a role on the fatal day—the brooding General George Crook who was determined to get Crazy Horse out of the way; the great Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud, who was the only American Indian ever to win a war against the government of the United States; the young West Point graduate, Lieutenant William Philo Clark, who thought he could “work” Indians to do the bidding of the Army; the mixed-blood scouts William Garnett (half Oglala) and Frank Grouard (half South Sea Islander); the war comrades of Crazy Horse, He Dog and Little Big Man. Crazy Horse stirred all these men to action, some to defend him, some to get him out of the way. The question at the heart of the book is why was he killed? I found the answer in what a dozen different men thought, felt, intended and did. Seeing the event whole, from all sides, is a good way—in my view, perhaps the best way—to understand what the Sioux and other Plains tribes suffered when they were confined to reservations.
Q: You are perhaps best known for your work on the CIA (although you have written about a wide variety of topics). What made you want to tell the story of Crazy Horse?
A: My writing life has been spent largely trying to uncover things that were hidden, not writing about the CIA as a professional intelligence service. What the CIA was like—its operational style, the tensions between analysts and case officers, the personal histories of the agency’s early leaders—wasn’t classified and it wasn’t even secret in the usual sense when I began, but it was hidden, and it required a lot of patient asking of questions to coax up to the surface.
The first thing that caught my attention about Crazy Horse was the sorrow of his killing. Everybody involved understood almost immediately that it had been a tragic blunder. That sorrow made me wonder why historians had mainly treated the killing as a kind of afterthought. It made a deep and abiding impression on the Sioux, and over time it came to haunt the country as a whole—a painful but perfect example of the way the United States treated its native population. I wanted to know what happened and why it happened. Bringing the whole episode back to life after more than a century seemed almost impossible, but I thought that perhaps it could be done.