GENERAL GEORGE CROOK WAS a man of narrow focus; it was his nature to brood about only one thing at a time, and it was rescuing his reputation, not the troublesome Oglala Crazy Horse, that was on his mind in the forenoon of the last day of August 1877. With his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant John Bourke, Crook left the three-story brick headquarters of the Department of the Platte in Omaha to catch the Western Express—the daily Union Pacific Railroad passenger train bound for San Francisco. Crook’s destination was Green River, Wyoming, about 840 miles west. There, under orders from General Sheridan in Chicago, Crook planned to disembark and proceed north overland by stage to Camp Brown in the Wind River country, where Shoshone scouts were waiting to join him on a mad dash another hundred-some miles north to cut off a fleeing band of Nez Percé Indians.
The job of rounding up the Nez Percé had been given initially to General O. O. Howard, an earnest, one-armed, Bible-quoting gentler of Indians for whom Crook felt mainly pity and contempt. After his much-criticized campaigns against Crazy Horse a year earlier Crook was hungry for a success, and he quite looked forward to cleaning up Howard’s botch. But Crook’s mission was somehow both trivial and desperate at the same time. The Nez Percé were running away to Canada under their chief, who was known as Joseph, and in any event were too few to do much harm along their path. But at this moment the standing army of the United States, cut and cut again since the end of the Civil War, was stretched to the breaking point. A rapidly spreading strike by railway workers in the East was about half contained by the Army, and more soldiers were begged daily by state governors trying to keep the trains running. Sheridan feared that Joseph’s defiance of the Army might stir war fever in other restive tribes confined to reservations where there was little to eat and nothing to do. In Sheridan’s view it would be impossible for the Army to fight a new Indian war and keep the trains running at the same time. In the days before Crook left Omaha, rumors had spread that Sitting Bull was preparing to cross back into the United States to resume his war. Military officers at Camp Robinson feared that Crazy Horse would join him, and the warnings of rival chiefs at the agencies encouraged that fear.
Crook departed Omaha about noon with his mind fixed on the Nez Percé, but the complications of the moment pursued him down the Union Pacific tracks. At the first stop along his route, in Fremont, Nebraska, the telegraph officer met the train with an urgent cable. In the hour or two the general had been gone a message had arrived in Omaha from Colonel Bradley at Camp Robinson reporting a refusal by Crazy Horse to help in the campaign against the Nez Percé. Worse, the chief and his friend Touch the Clouds said they were going north with their people. “Crazy Horse is behaving badly,” said Bradley. “Every influence that kindness could suggest has been exhausted on him.” He urged Crook to break his journey for a stop at the Red Cloud Agency. “If anyone can influence the Indian,” said Bradley of the general, “he can.”
Breaking his trip was not what Crook wanted to do. When the general’s train halted during the night at Grand Island, Nebraska, he responded with a cable to Bradley declaring flatly, “I cannot come to Robinson.”
But the general had been thinking hard over the previous hours. He was a meticulous planner. He had crafted a strategy while his train rattled its way up the Platte River valley at thirty miles an hour. In his years fighting the Apache in Arizona, Crook had learned one thing above others: the chiefs were the problem. He told Bradley to round up Crazy Horse and his band while Captain Daniel Burke did the same with Touch the Clouds at Spotted Tail. Additional troops already on their way from Fort Laramie would be plenty for the task. “You should so arrange matters,” Crook told the colonel, “that they shall arrive during the night and make the round up early in the morning.” The great danger was a stampede—a sudden panic and scattering by Indians fearing massacre. “Use the greatest precaution in this matter,” said Crook. The colonel should say nothing until the last moment, then ask the head chiefs—Red Cloud and Spotted Tail—to pick their own men to make the arrests. And move quickly, Crook counseled. “Delay is very dangerous in this business.”
But Sheridan did not trust Bradley to handle the matter. He had seen the colonel’s original telegram and worried that catching Joseph and the Nez Percé was “but a small matter compared with what might happen.” He cabled Washington to say he was pulling Crook from the westbound train. “I very much fear that Crazy Horse has been treated too well,” Sheridan explained. Waiting for Crook when his train steamed into Sidney, Nebraska, at nine a.m. on the first day of September were new orders he could not ignore. “I think your presence more necessary at Red Cloud Agency,” Sheridan wrote, “and wish you to get off at Sidney and go there.”
Crook and Bourke left the train as they were bid, obtained an Army ambulance from the post commander at the Sidney Barracks, and set out in the freshness of the morning for the journey to Camp Robinson 120 miles to the north. The country they passed over was mainly level, with an occasional descent into a long gentle swale ten miles or more from the near end to the rise at the other. Silence was Crook’s natural state. The day- and nightlong jolting ride over the open plains provided him with plenty of time to brood and plan.1
It had been the Nez Percé whom Sheridan and Crook were worrying about in the latter days of August. Sheridan gave Crook authority to enlist an additional thirty Oglala and Brulé scouts for an expedition up into the Yellowstone country, and a day or two later Lieutenant Clark sent word by Indian courier to Touch the Clouds, Red Bear, and High Bear that he wanted them to attend a meeting at the Red Cloud Agency. The telegraph line had not yet reached Camp Sheridan so communications with Camp Robinson were slow; the forty-three-mile trip routinely took Indian couriers six hours or more. Touch the Clouds told Lieutenant Jesse Lee about the summons, and the next day Lee and Captain Burke received official word that the Army wanted to enlist a new company of scouts “to go northwest and fight the Nez Perce.” There was no air of urgency bordering on crisis in these developments, but the request was not quite routine, either. Touch the Clouds and the other chiefs left in good time for the meeting, which was held in Clark’s office on the morning of Friday, August 31.2
While Crook had been preparing to leave Omaha that Friday morning, Billy Garnett on a routine errand was heading down to Camp Robinson along the mile-and-a-half, winding road that connected the post to the Red Cloud Agency buildings. No threat of trouble hung in the air. As he neared the post, Garnett saw Frank Grouard riding up toward him, obviously agitated. “Billy,” said Grouard, “go back to Lieutenant Clark’s office. It is too hot for me.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Garnett.
“Crazy Horse is up there with his people,” answered Grouard.
When Garnett reached Clark’s quarters at the western end of officers’ row he found the big front room filled with twenty or more northern Indians, including Crazy Horse and Touch the Clouds. As an interpreter, Garnett often arrived or left in the middle of a conversation without any idea what was being sought or objected to. But on this Friday morning he grasped immediately that the company was thoroughly stirred up. He was pulled into the thick of it with Clark’s direction “to ask Crazy Horse if he would not go out with the scouts … that the Nez Perces were out and off in the country where he used to roam.”
“No,” said Crazy Horse. It is likely Clark understood the word “no” on his own. “I told him,” Crazy Horse told Garnett, “what I wanted to do. We are going to move. We are going out there to hunt.”
Clark objected. “You can’t go out there.”
Garnett saw that Crazy Horse “was not right”—he was agitated and angry. “If you want to fight Nez Perces, go out and fight them,” Crazy Horse said, speaking directly to the lieutenant now. “We don’t want to fight. We are going out to hunt.”
“You cannot go out there, I tell you,” Clark repeated.
Now Crazy Horse turned to his own people. “These people can’t fight,” he said. “What do they want to go out there for? Let’s go home. This is enough of this.”3
With that, Crazy Horse and his people emptied the room and departed the post—Crazy Horse for his camp six miles down the White River, Touch the Clouds and his friends for the forty-three-mile ride back to the Spotted Tail Agency, where they arrived the following day, the 1st of September. Billy Garnett was left to put together what the argument had been about as best he could.
Clark immediately proceeded to Bradley’s quarters to report the fact that mattered most: Crazy Horse and Touch the Clouds had told him “that they are going out with their bands.” Bradley, in turn, telegraphed the troubling news to the adjutant general in Omaha, while Clark rounded up Frank Grouard and gave him a written message for Captain Burke at Camp Sheridan. In this message, delivered by Grouard at about the same time Touch the Clouds reached Camp Sheridan the following day, Clark worded the statement of the chiefs more starkly, stating flatly what he had only implied to Bradley: Crazy Horse and Touch the Clouds “were going north on the warpath.” Clark went on to ask Burke for help in rounding up the Crazy Horse band so horses and guns could be seized. Burke showed the letter to Jesse Lee. If Clark went ahead with the proposed roundup, Burke said, “Hell would be popping, surely.”4
Lee was baffled. He liked and respected Clark personally, but something was badly wrong—Clark’s note and Grouard’s version of events both claimed that Touch the Clouds “had made use of very threatening and hostile language.” But to Lee, Touch the Clouds himself, who had arrived at Camp Sheridan at roughly the same moment with Grouard, seemed in no warlike mood. “His manner was so friendly and so entirely unchanged from his accustomed conduct,” Lee felt, “that I could hardly believe he had a hostile intent.”
Lee knew Touch the Clouds, had talked with him many times over the summer, trusted the chief to speak the truth, and did not believe he could have threatened to go back to war. Only a few days earlier, Touch the Clouds had sent some of his own men out to talk in the remnants of Lame Deer’s band, the very last of the “hostiles.” None of this squared with the threatening words reported by Clark and Grouard. “There must be some mistake about this matter,” Lee told Burke. “Touch Cloud is honest and he could not be up to anything like that. Get all of the head men among the Indians in your house and we will talk it over.”5
The crowd which gathered that night in the captain’s house to council with Burke and Lee was a tightly knit company of Indians and mixed-bloods who had known each other most of their lives and were related by blood, marriage, and band allegiance. Among them was the whole company of available interpreters, not only the visiting Grouard but also the Army’s chief interpreter at Camp Sheridan, Louis Bordeaux, and his brother-in-law Charles Tackett, who was married to Bordeaux’s sister, Susan; and the Mexican Joe Merrivale. Also present were Spotted Tail and the chief who had been closest to him for twenty years, Swift Bear, brother of Bordeaux’s mother and uncle of Tackett’s wife. Two other leading men of the Brulé were also present, Two Strike and White Thunder. Completing the group were the man suspected by Lieutenant Clark of plotting war, Touch the Clouds and his friends Red Bear and High Bear, who had all gone to the meeting with Clark that morning. In this crowded room there was only one outsider—Crook’s favorite scout, Frank Grouard.
The gathering that night constituted a kind of ad hoc court of inquiry; its purpose was to establish what had been said at the meeting with Clark. In doubt was the veracity of Clark’s claims in his letter. Clark had written, and Grouard at Camp Sheridan had confirmed, that Touch the Clouds and Crazy Horse had refused to go after the Nez Percé, but insisted they were going back north to hunt. As Clark read the mood of the chiefs, Touch the Clouds had talked Crazy Horse around to his position and they were itching for a fight. Once begun, the chiefs threatened, fighting would continue until the last man was killed. As Grouard interpreted it, their meaning was unmistakable. “We will go north and fight,” Touch the Clouds had said (according to Grouard), “until there is not a white man left.”6
It was the raw hostility of this threat which struck Lee as all wrong. Both chiefs had been at the meeting with Clark, but in keeping with his custom Crazy Horse had let his friend do most of the talking. Crazy Horse only signaled his assent—“Hau! Hau!”—after Touch the Clouds made the long speech. To settle the matter Lee wanted Touch the Clouds to repeat everything he had said to Clark.
Chief interpreter at the meeting in Burke’s house was Louis Bordeaux, paid a hundred dollars a month for his work at Camp Sheridan. Bordeaux was a son of the well-known trader James Bordeaux and of the full-blood Brulé woman Huntkalutawin (Red Cormorant Woman), sister of Swift Bear. Not yet thirty years old, Bordeaux was a handsome man in photographs, on the short side but slender in youth, and “a man of very dark complexion.” On his upper lip was a sparse mustache. The Teton Lakota dialect of the western Sioux had been his first language. He had grown up in his father’s trading posts along the North Platte River. The companions of his youth had been mixed-bloods and Indians. He was married to a Brulé full-blood. For two years he had been a principal interpreter at the big councils between Indians and whites. He had been to Washington with Spotted Tail in 1875, and the chief insisted he come again on the new trip planned by Lieutenant Clark. It was Bordeaux who now put into Lakota the request of the officers to Touch the Clouds—“to repeat what he had said at the council at Red Cloud.”7
“Why, they had interpreters over there,” said a surprised Touch the Clouds. “What do they say?”
But the officers pressed their request, and Touch the Clouds did as he was asked, explaining how the meeting with Clark came about, and what was said. There had been talk of sending the Indian scouts out to fight the Nez Percé but the Sioux did not want to go. Clark called a meeting to press his case, and Touch the Clouds, speaking for himself and the others, told Clark at length why they said no:
We washed the blood from our faces and came in and surrendered and wanted peace. My heart is on the ground but now there is dust in the air and trouble is threatening. You ask us to put blood on our faces again, but I do not want to do this, neither does Crazy Horse. You enlisted us for peace. Then you gave up the buffalo hunt, to our disappointment, and you put a bit in our mouth and turned us around and proposed to go to Washington, but we did not want to go. This latest plan of yours is hard medicine, but we will go north and the soldiers must go with us. We will surround the Nez Perces and whip them and there will be peace all around.8
These were the words put into English by Louis Bordeaux. They had a very different meaning from the words reported by Clark and Grouard. After listening with growing agitation for several moments, Grouard interrupted Bordeaux and “called [him] down, saying he was not correctly interpreting Touch the Clouds.”
“Louis, you do not understand the dialect of those Northern Indians,” Grouard said.
Bordeaux was furious. He thought Grouard “a very ignorant man in the use of English,” and his command of Lakota was worse—“very broken,” Bordeaux called it. “Frank,” he said, “you cannot teach me my mother tongue.”
Now followed “quite a wordy dispute as to the interpretation of what Touch the Clouds said.” Touch the Clouds grew angry. “You lie!” he said to Grouard. “You lie! You are the cause of all this trouble.”
Touch the Clouds “told Grouard he had misinterpreted him.” Grouard protested that Touch the Clouds was saying something different now; he had changed his words. At this point Burke interrupted, saying all the English-Lakota speakers at the agency trusted Bordeaux; all thought him a “brave interpreter”—he reported what a man said, not what others wanted to hear. “Bordeaux could not be impeached,” said Burke.9
At that Grouard backed off. He would not admit that Bordeaux was right, but when asked if he thought Touch the Clouds planned to go north to fight the whites now, Grouard replied, “I don’t believe he intends doing so now.”10
By this time Burke and Lee were satisfied that Touch the Clouds was telling the truth; the chief was angry and disappointed but he had no intention of going to war, and he insisted that Crazy Horse felt the same way. Knowing that additional companies of troops from Fort Laramie were already on their way to Red Cloud, and convinced that a roundup of Crazy Horse’s band could result in a needless killing, Lee told Burke he would go to Camp Robinson to convince Clark and Bradley that a terrible mistake was about to be made. With his wife Lucy and ten-year-old daughter Maude, Lee set out from Camp Sheridan in an Army ambulance early the following morning, the second day of September.
The Oglala He Dog had been a lifelong friend of Crazy Horse, born in the same year and the same season of the year. They had played together as children, courted the girls together, and went to war together as young men. He Dog’s half brother Short Bull said the men in their band “did so much fooling around with girls” that the other bands had begun to call them the Ite Sica—the Bad Faces. He Dog was a nephew of Red Cloud, and the older man was instrumental in having He Dog appointed a chief, one of the Shirt Wearers of the Ite Sica. The Ongloge On—the Shirt Wearers—were called the “owners of the tribe”; they made important decisions collectively. He Dog and Crazy Horse were both Shirt Wearers when they turned thirty in 1868, the year the Fort Laramie treaty was signed, but they did not touch the pen. Both remained in the north when Red Cloud, American Horse, and other chiefs led their bands to the agencies. Over the following years, He Dog and Crazy Horse remained war comrades in the north and fought beside each other in the big battles, and in May 1877 they rode south together to surrender at the Red Cloud Agency. A week later both men enlisted as scouts. It was the soldier known as White Hat, Lieutenant Clark, who showed He Dog where to make his mark. In return, He Dog was given a military tunic and a revolver.11
He Dog had hated whites since his brother Only Man had been killed ten years earlier during the Bozeman War, and like Crazy Horse he had never stayed at an agency. But at the moment of He Dog’s signing it appears that Lieutenant Clark opened a continuing conversation with him. This was a remarkable achievement. Clark worked men with words, listening to what they said, patiently explaining his own views. The Oglala were proud men; Clark seems to have won their allegiance by taking them seriously. The change in He Dog was unmistakable by mid-August, when Clark wrote General Crook to say that he had managed to separate Crazy Horse from some of the leading men who had surrendered with him in May. “There is no trouble,” he wrote, “with Little Big Man, Jumping Shield [also known as Iron Crow] and Big Road.” Clark added, “He Dog, also a strong man, has joined Red Cloud.” Over the next two weeks Clark managed to widen this gap, leaving Crazy Horse increasingly isolated as he rejected the urging of the other chiefs to do as White Hat wished and go to Washington.12
The stream of visitors to Crazy Horse’s lodge was constant. They would come, sit, perhaps smoke a pipe, and tell the chief all the reasons why he should do as White Hat wished and go to Washington. “After awhile,” He Dog said, “Crazy Horse became so he did not want to go anywhere or talk to anyone.” Clark recruited many others to press his case, but did not go himself. “One day,” He Dog said later, “I was called in to see White Hat and asked to bring Crazy Horse in for a talk because I was such a friend of his.”
He Dog went to see his friend in his lodge, then on Little Cottonwood Creek. He delivered White Hat’s invitation, but it was no use. “He would not come,” said He Dog. “This made me feel bad, so I moved my people from where Crazy Horse was camping and camped over near the Red Cloud band.”
“There was no quarrel,” He Dog added. “We just separated.”
This is not quite convincing. To feel bad, to have a bad heart, was to admit deep disaffection, and to move his people was a big thing. The people were He Dog’s immediate tiyospaye, a kind of extended family including his many brothers and a few others, nine separate lodges of fifty or more people. Someone in the group had once owned a gray horse famous for its fast running and endurance. Indians never named horses in the sense that whites do; they called them by some identifying characteristic, referring to the Sorrell, or the Horse with the White Stockings. When the fast gray developed a kidney sore or saddle gall they called it Cankahuhan (Soreback), and eventually He Dog’s immediate band was called by that name, too—Cankahuhan, the Sorebacks. Everyone in He Dog’s band was related to Red Cloud, and He Dog was his nephew; to move close to Red Cloud might be called a natural thing, but all knew it signaled a break with Crazy Horse. From that moment He Dog was on the side of Red Cloud, on the side of White Hat, on the side of General Crook.13
The night after the meeting between Crazy Horse and White Hat, while Crook was heading west on the Union Pacific Railroad, Red Cloud and some of the other chiefs went to the agency for a talk with the agent, James Irwin, who had asked them to come. Irwin was thoroughly stirred up by the talk of the camps; in a letter to Washington he described Crazy Horse’s mood as “silent, sullen, lordly and dictatorial,” called him “impudent and defiant,” said he objected to everything, and warned the commissioner of Indian affairs that the chief’s intransigence “had disturbed and excited the Indians.”
In his office Irwin told the chiefs he had “heard some bad talk” and wanted to know if he could help. The chiefs appointed American Horse to respond. He said the leading men had all been meeting daily for more than a week and had “done all we could to quiet Crazy Horse and bring him into a better state of feeling.” But Crazy Horse refused to meet with the other chiefs. “We can do nothing with him,” American Horse said. The chiefs present—Red Cloud, Little Wound, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, and American Horse—then collectively made Irwin an oddly worded promise “that they would see that Crazy Horse did nothing about the agency that would hurt my feelings.”14
What did Irwin mean—the Indians would see that Crazy Horse did not hurt his feelings? What did Irwin think that the chiefs were promising to do?
In Irwin’s two, back-to-back letters to Washington, written on the last day of August and the first day of September, it is clear only that Irwin, like Clark, had now turned decisively against Crazy Horse. Where things were headed can be glimpsed in two remarks made by an officer at Crook’s headquarters in Omaha. One was uttered in an interview with a reporter for the Omaha Herald, and a second was scribbled onto Bradley’s telegram of August 31 before it was filed—the telegram reporting Crazy Horse’s threat to go north. General Robert Williams, Crook’s adjutant general, often briefed the newspapers on what to expect in the Department of the Platte. On the day of Bradley’s telegram he told the Herald’s reporter that Crazy Horse had taken on the role of “a sort of general ‘objector’ … it was feared he would make them trouble yet … he had been moody and ill-natured since his return to Red Cloud, and showed that he was not to be trusted.”
That same day Williams penciled a note onto Bradley’s telegram. He had not been to Red Cloud himself. What he scribbled must have been the gist of what he had been told by someone else. “Crazy Horse is … objecting to everything,” he recorded. “General Crook alone can influence him. It is doubtful if Crazy Horse will go to Washington.”
But Williams was satisfied that the rest of the chiefs at Red Cloud could be trusted. If Crazy Horse tried to break away to join Sitting Bull and resume the war, he wrote, “the present indications are that other chiefs would endeavor to kill him.”15