I knew this village by the horses.

IN THE FALL OF 1875, the chiefs and the white soldiers sitting under the shade of the tent canvas near the lone tree on Little White Clay Creek had been watched as they talked day after day by the twelve-year-old Oglala boy known as Black Elk, son and grandson of men of the same name. The boy asked his father what the talk was about, and the elder Black Elk told him the whites wanted the Black Hills for themselves. The father was partially crippled; his leg had been crushed by a falling horse in the Fetterman fight nine years earlier and he never walked right afterward. He said that Red Dog, the chief who spoke for Red Cloud at the council, warned the Indians that “if they did not lease the Black Hills to the grandfather at Washington, the Black Hills would be just like snow held in the hand and melting away. In other words, they were going to take the Black Hills away from us anyway.”

After the talking was over and the commissioners went away, Black Elk’s family and some others packed up their new lodges made of canvas duck and left the Red Cloud Agency for the north. “We wanted to join Crazy Horse’s band on the Tongue River,” Black Elk recalled later. Crazy Horse was much talked about and closely observed. On the way north Black Elk’s band found that the buffalo were plenty along the Powder River and camped for ten days with a group of Wagluhe from the agency. But when this group of Wagluhe learned that the others were going north to join the war chief they broke away and hurried back south, fearing trouble.

The elder Black Elk called the father of Crazy Horse cousin, so the boy naturally called the chief cousin as well and was anxious to see him. Two years earlier, when Black Elk was ten, he had helped the well-known medicine man Horn Chips build a sweat lodge in the Black Hills, where the band had gone to cut lodgepoles. Black Elk believed that it was Horn Chips who gave Crazy Horse his power in battle, and that the transaction perhaps took place right there, that summer, in that sweat lodge. But when the band finally reached the big Oglala camp along the Tongue River after a journey of several weeks the boy was disappointed to learn that Crazy Horse was not there. “He must have been on a warpath against the Crow,” he concluded. Black Elk’s mother, White Cow Sees, pitched their lodge on the upper reaches of the Tongue near the lodge of an uncle, Iron Crow. The camp was just downstream of the mouth of a stream coming in from the east called Hanging Woman Creek.1

The Tongue River was in the heart of what had once been the Crow country. The Sioux had pushed them west, but the Crow resisted, and the big camps of Sioux along the Tongue and Powder were always half expecting a raid by Crow horse thieves. Fighting between the Sioux and the Crow at this time was constant, and about the time Black Elk’s family moved close to Iron Crow, a war party set out from the camp for the winter villages of the Crow further west. The eight men who left on this raid, as it happened, were all Wagluhe from the Red Cloud Agency who had come north with their chief, Blue Horse, to camp with the Oglala for a time. Not long after the war party set out under its leader, Young Iron (Maza Cinkala), some Oglala scouts came into camp with a warning that Crow were in the area. By this time winter had set in; it was late January. Camp was rarely moved and the horses were thin. Everyone was urged to keep a close eye on their horses. That night guards were posted about the camp. The best horses were tethered close to lodges. Others were closed into corrals made of thick brush. With dark the camp gradually settled down and the boy Black Elk was soon asleep, but others remained awake.

After the excitement was all over young Black Elk learned what happened, but at the fatal moment he was asleep. Not asleep was a man named Crow Nose or Crow Head (Kangi Pa), whose lodge was on one side of the gate of a large corral filled with horses, not far from Black Elk’s lodge. On the other side of the gate was the lodge of the son-in-law of Crow Nose, a man named Yellow Shirt. Staying with Crow Nose this night was the Wagluhe chief Blue Horse, who went to sleep leaving Crow Nose to peep occasionally at the corral through a small flap in the tipi wall. Crow Nose had an uneasy feeling the enemy were coming for his horses, but hours passed without incident.

Finally he told his wife to keep watch while he went to sleep. Soon, peeping through the flap, Crow Nose’s wife saw a figure in the corral among the horses, leading one toward the gate. “Old Man, you’d better get up,” she said, “I see a man there among the horses.”

Taking his gun Crow Nose slipped out of the lodge and crept close to the corral where the horse thief was quietly lowering the bars of the gate. The horse hopped over the last bar, and the thief jumped up onto his back, and just at that moment Crow Nose shot him point-blank.

The boy Black Elk woke instantly at the sound of the gun. In a moment there was more shooting followed by shouts and cries and the sound of people running. The remainder of the night was all excitement as the whole village, Black Elk too, gathered to look at the Crow, killed just as he thought he was getting away. The killing of any enemy justifies four coups—one for the killer, the others for those who strike the body. Crow Nose had called for his son-in-law to count first coup on the Crow, and others followed. Soon the whole village was striking the dead man’s body with sticks and leaving them in a pile on the ground. A fire was built; people began a kill dance right there and kept it up for the rest of the night. When morning came the village crier walked around loudly calling that it was time to move, the new site would be on Kills Himself Creek to the south. In the bustle of striking the lodges and packing horses Crow Nose, still exulting, painted his face black, put on his war clothes and his necklace of bear claws, mounted the horse the Crow had tried to steal, and rode about the camp. The black paint made the women shout in joy and Crow Nose sang in triumph of his great deed:

Yellow Shirt, come forth, I have got him.

All you have to do is coup him.

But this triumph over the horse thief almost immediately soured. The crier was back again a day or two later, calling out, “Yeah-hey! The Loafers who went to the war party, it has been reported that they have been slain.” The women in the village all “sent up the tremolo,” said Black Elk, referring to the high-pitched, ululating cry of grief and dismay. The news had been brought by Young Iron after two days’ hard journey through the snow.

The first to see Young Iron, coming wrapped against the cold in his blanket with his gun, was He Dog’s brother Short Bull, out looking for horses in the morning chill. It was not the custom of the Sioux to blurt out important news. Short Bull invited Young Iron to smoke, and they did. Then he told Short Bull what had happened. The group had camped. Young Iron said that early one morning he had gone out to scout, staying away all day. When he returned he gave a wolf howl to alert the others but heard no sound in response. This worried him. He crept close. All he saw was a lifeless arm in the snow, still in its coat. At that he departed for home, resting only one night along the way.

Later a party went back and found the seven dead men lying in the snow with blood in several places nearby suggesting some of the Crow, too, had been killed or wounded. It seemed clear what had happened—the party of Crow horse stealers, fleeing the Oglala camp after one of them had been killed by Crow Nose, stumbled on the young Wagluhe in their camp. Surprise and numbers overwhelmed the Sioux. The nephew of Short Bull known as Amos Bad Heart Bull later drew a picture of the discovery. In a small circle were six bodies piled almost on top of each other; a seventh lay a little way off. A water bag was still hanging from its tripod. None of the dead was missing an arm; probably one of the bodies had been partially covered in snow with only an arm exposed. That was the story as Young Iron told it, but not all of the Oglala believed him. Young Iron had been the leader; he was supposed to protect his men or die with them. Some said that Young Iron, sensing trouble, must have run, leaving the others. But He Dog and Short Bull accepted his story, and nothing was ever proved against the survivor.

The killing of the seven Wagluhe found its way into the winter counts, with all the other killings large and small that punctuated the life of the Oglala. The killing of the Crow horse thief was the big subject of talk in the Sioux camps that winter, not the expeditions being mounted against them by the white soldiers to the south. It is not clear if any of the northern Indians knew in late January that they were facing an ultimatum—return to the agencies in the next week or two or face war. It is certain the twelve-year-old Black Elk didn’t know it. What made the biggest impression on him was what he saw when he ran toward the excitement the night Crow Nose killed the horse thief.

When the boy got to the scene he was jolted with horror—people in their frenzy of anger and triumph had already been at work on the horse thief’s body with knives and hatchets. The Crow’s arms and legs had been hacked off; his skull was bloody and wet where the scalp had been torn away. By the light of the fire the people sang and danced. Black Elk watched as the dead man’s torso was propped up. Men ran up with bows and arrows and with guns, filling the body with arrows, shooting the dead man to pieces. Before the camp broke next day the dismembered limbs of the Crow were tied to bushes and trees in triumph and in warning.2


For two weeks in March 1876, Crook’s column, nine hundred men strong, marched north through fair weather and foul, roughly following the course of the abandoned Bozeman Road. On the very first night some Sioux came boldly into the camp, shot a beef herder, and then stampeded the forty-five cattle intended to feed Crook’s men. Chase gained nothing. When the Indians realized a detachment of cavalry was following fast behind they cut loose from the cattle and disappeared. Nor did Crook get his cattle back; the cavalry couldn’t turn them and abandoned the herd to disappear into the prairie. The wounded beef herder, shot through the lung, was placed in a wagon, where he suffered but eventually recovered. The column kept up its steady pace of twenty or more miles a day. Afternoons when the sun was out could be mild, in the low fifties. Nights were often bitter, falling to ten or more degrees below zero. On really cold nights the mercury was said to congeal in the thermometer; officers and men speculated that it had dropped to twenty, thirty, even forty below.

Crook wanted Indians and there was sign of them everywhere. Along the way the scouts often crossed Indian trails—the broad scuffings left by travois poles and the unshod ponies of the Indians, plus a few shod horses stolen from whites. The trails of large camps were always littered with debris—bits of clothing, discarded hides, worn-out moccasins, kettles with a hole in the bottom, broken knives. Once two Indians on horseback were sighted a long way off—“young bucks,” Bourke wrote, although they rode away when the column was still a thousand yards away. A day later a white trail of smoke rose from a high hill ahead of the column, a “signal smoke,” in the opinion of the scouts. The flashing of mirrors was occasionally seen. On the fourth night out another group of Indians was discovered trying to enter the camp; a lively skirmish broke out in the dark. One soldier was shot through the cheek. All reflected next day how badly things might have gone if the Indians had succeeded in stampeding the horses and mules, sending them every which way through the camp.

Crook let all these incidents go by; in his view harebrained chasing after Indians would only break down the horses. What he wanted was one clear shot at a camp of Indians who weren’t expecting him. The general believed he had been watched from the moment the column crossed the North Platte River near Fetterman; he assumed Indian scouts were carrying word north of his approach, but he pressed the column hard, still hoping for surprise.3

The principal drag on the column was the wagon train, loaded down with a hundred tons of forage and grain for the cavalry horses. While camped on Crazy Woman Creek on the evening of March 6, Crook met first with his officers and then with his scouts. To speed his progress he had decided to divide the column. The wagons with the great bulk of supplies would stay behind on the site of old Fort Reno, abandoned in 1868. The rest of the men with rations for fifteen days would be free to travel with a fast-moving packtrain of mules. The idea was to cut directly across the Badlands separating Crazy Woman from the Clear Fork of the Powder River to the north, leaving the Indians to wonder where he had gone. What Crook wanted to know from the scouts was whether it could be done. Frank Grouard says that on this occasion he had “about the first talk I had with General Crook after he hired me.” A number of the scouts in Crook’s expedition had been through the Powder River country—Louis Richard; the Shangreau brothers, John and Louis; the Bats, Big and Little; Speed Stagner; and others. But Grouard never hesitated to put himself at the center of the story:

There were none of the scouts able to take him through. He wanted to make the trip after night had set in. He asked me if I could take him through. I told him that I could. He asked me what the distance was, but I could not tell him the distance because I didn’t know anything about miles. I told him I could tell him what time he could get there—that if he would start after dark, he could get there at daylight on a good fast walk.

Arrangements were completed in camp during the following day while Bourke wrote copiously in his diary. At dark around seven o’clock they set out, helped by level ground at first, a brilliantly clear night, and a three-quarters moon. Grouard may not have known how many miles they had to travel—thirty-five, as it happened—but he was right about how long it would take. After ten hours of steady going, with the ground about midway growing increasingly rough and mountainous, they came abruptly upon the banks of Clear Creek. Grouard said much of the trip was made in the dark in a heavy snow. At daylight, when “you could not see fifty yards ahead of you on account of the snow,” Crook rode up to ask Grouard how far it remained to the creek. “Not more than two or three hundred yards,” Grouard said he answered. He knew by the lay of the land. And in a moment they were there.

Here we encounter the Grouard known as slippery with the truth, inflating his success as scout. Crook in his memoir said it didn’t begin to snow until they had made camp at daylight and rolled into their blankets and buffalo robes. Bourke, who recorded the night march at the time, described the brilliant moonlit landscape they traversed under “Cynthia’s silvery beams,” then the cold awakening on the Clear Fork after three hours’ sleep with plunging temperatures and a “bitter, pelting storm of snow.”4 As a witness Grouard is a tricky customer, but the reader should not jump to conclusions.

The column now continued cross-country to the Tongue. Crook sent all the scouts ahead down the Tongue to the Yellowstone, looking for trace of Indians.

The command [Grouard says] was to go as far as Otter Creek and wait there until our return. General Crook asked me how he would know the creek when he got to it. I told him there were three pine trees in a row right in the forks, all by themselves … He asked me if I knew every rock and tree in the country, and I told him I came pretty near it. He was surprised at my knowledge of the country. The other scouts could travel along the road, but after they got a little distance from the highway, they didn’t know a thing about the country.

But no Indians. The scouts found evidence of many camps down along the Tongue, all abandoned. They ranged west as far as the Rosebud, but found nothing there. Crook with the main column continued more slowly on down the Tongue, living on hardtack, coffee, and frozen bacon with the occasional tough and stringy bit of meat from an old buffalo bull, brought in by the scouts. Crook in the advance fired on one old bull and badly wounded him in the shoulder, but he escaped. At another point in the march Crook did better when a covey of pin-tailed grouse suddenly broke across his path. The general killed six with seven shots. According to his Boswell, “all but one were shot in the neck or head.”

But no Indians. The officers began to fear a failure; rations were running low and they would soon have to turn back. And yet signs of Indians were everywhere. In one abandoned camp of sixty lodges the scouts found a dead puppy tied to a tree; it had been strangled—the right way to kill dog for a stew—but left behind. Bourke speculated that the Indians must have learned of Crook’s advance and pulled out in a hurry. On the morning of March 13 near the point where Hanging Woman Creek joined the Tongue, the scouts came in with a stray mule, a sure sign, they said, of Indians nearby. The column passed several burial trees with wrapped bodies tied into the branches. There were many places where lodges had been pitched. Bourke noted the forked-stick frames used by Indian women for drying meat, still standing. Huge stacks of firewood were piled here and there. Big cottonwood trees had been felled so the ponies might browse on the upper branches. In the little villages strung out along the river, Bourke noticed the brush corrals for enclosing horses at night, some big enough for scores, even hundreds of animals. In another camp discovered on March 14, Bourke examined some Indian drawings. “On the soft inner bark of the cottonwood trees,” he wrote in pencil—this time his bottle of ink had not only frozen but burst the previous night—“rude, obscene pictures have been scrawled by the young Indians in a number of places. In execution they are as feeble as in design they are disgusting.” That day, Bourke recorded, the scouts brought in something unique:

A human arm, belonging to an Indian, and still in a fair state of preservation, was picked up in the abandoned Indian village today. It has been amputated at the elbow-joint, two of the fingers had been shot off and five buckshot wounds were in it.

Grouard and the other scouts had been returning from one of their scourings of the countryside. Unlike Bourke, Grouard understood what he was seeing:

We found where they had killed a Crow Indian, quartered him, and hung him up. It was on Tongue River, just below the mouth of Hanging Woman. His arms, legs, head and everything were hung up in different places where the village had been, and it had occurred before the command started. I heard the Indians had killed a man there in camp. He was stealing horses. It must have been done a month before. There is nothing left of a horsethief after the Indians catch him.

Grouard was convinced the Indians would be found on the Powder River, not the Tongue, as the trails all seemed to be going east. It was now that he felt he made an enduring enemy of some of the other scouts, especially Louis Richard, who argued that the Indians had moved west over to the Little Bighorn. But Crook had come around to Grouard’s side by now; he trusted him, and about midnight on the night of March 15–16 he sent the scout east up the valley of Hanging Woman Creek in the direction of the headwaters of Otter Creek, which marked the divide between the valleys of the Tongue and the Powder.5 Dismounting near a high overlook early next morning, Grouard spotted two Indians far up the creek, apparently tracking an animal. For several hours he watched the Indians closely with a telescope as they went slowly about their business until suddenly they appeared to be looking at him. Grouard was sure he was hidden, but through his glass they seemed to be staring directly at him. Looking back he saw what was holding their attention—to his rear the rest of Crook’s scouts were coming over the hills. Recruiting several of them, Grouard went after the Indians, who had turned tail. He wanted to be sure they hadn’t seen the command. When Crook and the main column came up late in the day Grouard told him they had found Indians at last. All that remained was to track the two hunters back to their camp, which Grouard expected to find just where he had said it would be—on the Powder. Crook divided his command one more time, detailing Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds of the 3rd Cavalry to go on ahead with about three hundred men and attack any Indians to which Grouard might lead him. With the soldiers went Lieutenant Bourke and Robert Strahorn, a reporter whose dispatches appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and other newspapers.

If there was to be any hope of surprising the Indians at dawn, a night march was necessary, but the going was brutal—bitter cold, icy rocks, a constant wind with frequent snow squalls that made even the ground almost invisible. Grouard dismounted and followed the trail of the two hunters on foot. Frequent ravines had to be crossed carefully, lest horses break a leg or fall and crush a rider. At one point they passed an eerie scene, heavy black smoke issuing directly from a crevice in the ground, exhaust from a burning coal seam deep below. Grouard typically suggests that he was the man of the hour, doing all the hard trailing with just a companion or two to keep him company, but Strahorn, riding at the head of the column with Bourke, confirms that the feat was impressive:

I had, during the night, an excellent opportunity of witnessing the truly remarkable achievement of Frank Grouard, our principal guide and trailer. His knowledge of the country had been noteworthy ever since the opening of the campaign, but the duty he was now called upon to perform was of just the nature that would have bewildered almost anyone in broad daylight … Over rugged bluffs and narrow valleys, through gloomy defiles and down breakneck declivities, plunged the indomitable Frank; now down on his hands and knees in the deep snow, scrutinizing the faint footprints, then losing the trail for an instant, darting to and fro until it was found, and again following it up with the keenness of a hound.6

The other scouts—“his valuable assistants,” in Strahorn’s phrase—did their part, but it was Grouard who led the way, pushing on so rapidly that the trailing column of troops frequently sent word up the line, begging the scouts to halt, so the column stringing out along the trail might be closed up.

The snow stopped in the small hours of the morning; the temperature plunged as the night sky cleared. While the command halted, struggled to remain awake, and battled frostbite, Grouard went on ahead. Then, in the very first light of dawn, Grouard saw before him rising in a long roll a dense fog coming up from the waters of the Powder River. Grouard could hear the bells on Indian ponies, faint in the morning quiet. He sent his companion, Buckskin Jack Russell, back to alert Colonel Reynolds to bring up the command. Grouard made his way forward, came within a mile of the village below, and eventually got close enough to hear the camp crier calling out that scouts sent out by the chiefs had found no soldiers. “I could hear it as plain as could be.”

Now, surely, Grouard steps over the bounds of possibility. He says he pointed out the village to Reynolds when he arrived, and the colonel responded, “What am I going to do?”

“Fight them Indians,” said Grouard.

“How will I place my command?”

It seems hard to credit: Grouard says first he found the Indians, and then he told Reynolds how to plan his attack. But this amazing claim is half confirmed by Reynolds, who wrote in an official report, “After getting an imperfect view of the village and questioning Frank Grouard as to the best mode of approaching it, I immediately made disposition for attack.”7

Before the attack began, Grouard says, he went down the mountain to the flat by the river where the horses were grazing. He walked across the flat through the horses. They did not spook, but let him pass quietly. He recognized some of these horses; he had seen them when he was living in He Dog’s lodge with the Hunkpatila Oglala. “I knew this village by the horses. Knew every horse there was there.”

The sun was well up now; the cavalry was poised to come sweeping down on the village. Troops in a ravine nearby were waiting for the shooting to begin.

When I got within twenty yards of the camp, I yelled to Crazy Horse. I recalled what he had told me during my endeavors to secure the Black Hills Treaty—that he would rather fight than make a treaty—and told him that now was the time to come out and get all the fighting he wanted, as the troops were all around his camp!8

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