American Horse (1840-1876) was a Sioux leader in Red Cloud's War in the 1860s and 1870s which was fought for control of the Bozeman Trail. His capture and death was one in a series of defeats for the Sioux after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and foreshadowed the Sioux surrender in 1877.
American Horse was one of the Lakota leaders during the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. He is perhaps best remembered for his death at Slim Buttes, in revenge for the defeat of George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at Little Big Horn. He was known among his people as Iron Shield, but also was thought to be called Iron Plume according to newspaper-men who reported on the Indian wars. He was often confused with the younger American Horse ["Wasechuntashunka"], the son of Sitting Bear. The younger American Horse was active in the Ghost Dance Movement of 1889, well after the elder American Horse died, and was a member of the True Oglala, also called the Bear People. Although some writers speculated that the younger American Horse was either a son or nephew to the elder man, George Hyde in Red Cloud's Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians, documented from interviews with He-Dog that the younger man was no relation to the elder American Horse.
It is not known when the elder American Horse was born. Historians have speculated that he was born as early as 1801 or as late as 1840. He was the son of Old Smoke, the leader of the Smoke People, who also were referred to as the Bad Faces ["Iteschicha"]. Chief Old Smoke's sister was Walks-As-She-Thinks, who was the mother of the famous Chief Red Cloud. Although not much is known about American Horse's early life, sources indicate his cousin Red Cloud and fellow Lakota Crazy Horse were life-long friends. During the 1830s and 1840s, the Oglala people split into two factions, the Smoke People and the Bear People, over a dispute about the leadership of the tribe. The latter group followed Chief Bull Bear, while the Smoke People were led by Chief Smoke. After the dispute, the Smoke People moved north of Fort Laramie, toward the Black Hills of the Dakotas. They used the Powder River country for buffalo hunting and fought frequently with the Crow Indians over that territory. Some of the Smoke people remained at Fort Laramie. Chief Smoke, who was described as fat and jovial, reportedly took up farming there just before he died in 1864.
American Horse was one of a select group of "shirtwearers," who assisted the Oglala chiefs with their duties. Billy Garnett, a white trader, watched the ceremony at which American Horse, Crazy Horse, Young-Man-Afraid and Sword were made "shirt-wearers" in 1865. Steven Ambrose in Crazy Horse and Custer described the ceremony. After a feast, one of the wise and knowledgeable elders would describe the duties of a "shirt-wearer." Such warriors were duty-bound to lead warriors in peace and in war, keeping the peace and respecting the rights of the weak. "They must be wise and kind and firm in all things, counseling, advising, and then commanding. If their words were not heard, they could use blows to enforce their orders; in extreme cases, they even had the right to kill. But they must never take up arms against their own people without thought and counsel and must always act with caution and justice."
Following the speeches, each of the warriors was presented with a shirt made from the hides of two bighorn sheep and decorated with scalps they had won in battle, feathers and quill work. After receiving the shirts more speeches were made where the warriors were told to care for the poor, widows, orphans and those who had little power. The four men were chosen, Ambrose said, "because they were greathearted, generous, strong, and brave, and … would do their duty gladly and with good heart." Although they were not considered chiefs by their people, the shirt-wearers were looked upon as leaders.
With the California Gold Rush in 1849, settlers began moving west of the Mississippi in greater numbers. In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which provided western emigrants one-hundred and sixty acres of public land in the plains territory for ten dollars, if they promised to live there and farm the land for at least five years. During the next three years, some three hundred thousand settlers crossed the plains. While Indians periodically attacked settlers, stole livestock and raided newly-built towns, there was no organized warfare because the army was needed for the Civil War.
At about the same time, gold was discovered in Montana. Government treaties with the Indians in the 1850s had set aside the northern Wyoming area for Lakota hunting grounds. Ignoring those treaties, John M. Bozeman blazed a shorter trail to the Montana gold fields through the Lakota territory near the Powder River and Big Horn Mountains in 1862. In 1863 and 1864, he led settlers and miners across the same trail despite attacks from Indians who were protecting their land. In 1865, the Civil War ended and many projects to expand westward settlement began, including a transcontinental railroad, and forts built along the trails travelled by the settlers. Two of those forts were planned for the Bozeman Trail.
The government, well aware that its plans for westward expansion could be thwarted by an Indian war, directed that a peace treaty be signed with the Lakota. In October 1865, Major General S. R. Curtis and Newton Edmunds managed to get the some of the southern Lakotas to sign a treaty that listed all the Lakota bands, including those northern bands hostile to the invading whites. When attacks along the Bozeman Trail continued, the military realized that many of the Indians under such leaders as American Horse, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse had not agreed to the peace.
In January 1866, Colonel Henry E. Maynadier, commander at Fort Laramie, was ordered to do everything possible to get hostile groups to sign the treaty. When only a few of the bands came in to sign, E. B. Taylor of the Indian Office joined Maynadier in June 1866. He sent word to the Oglalas that they would receive guns and ammunition if they signed the treaty. It was enough to entice Red Cloud and some of his followers to Fort Laramie. However, Taylor attempted to deceive the group and did not tell them about the planned army forts. At the same time the talks were proceeding at Fort Laramie, Colonel Henry B. Carrington and seven hundred soldiers were making their way to the Powder River to build the first of the forts. When word reached the chiefs at Fort Laramie, they walked out of the negotiations in a rage.
In August, 1866, Carrington reached Piney Creek, which was about half way between the Powder and Bighorn Rivers, where he began building Fort Phil Kearny. Two infantry companies were sent further north on the Bozeman Trail to begin work on Fort C. F. Smith leaving Carrington three hundred and fifty soldiers. Fort Phil Kearny was one of the strongest forts ever built during the war for the Plains and provided a clear view all around to prevent any sneak attacks. However, not knowing anything about Indian warfare, Carrington built the fort about five miles away from his supply of wood.
Red Cloud set up his camp with some one thousand followers along the Powder River, close enough to the fort to harass the soldiers daily. As one of Red Cloud's chief lieutenants and a shirt-wearer, American Horse certainly was part of that group, although most historians do not mention him specifically. Charles King, in "Custer's Last Battle," noted that in the 1870s, one of the reservations established in the Black Hills "was the bailiwick of the hero of the Phil Kearny massacre, old Red Cloud, and here were gathered most of his tribe … and many of his chiefs; some "good," like Old-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses and his worthy son, but most of them crafty, cunning, treacherous, and savage, like Red Dog, Little-Big-Man, American Horse, and a swarm of various kinds of Bulls and Bears and Wolves."
The Lakota coordinated their efforts to harass the soldiers at the fort, particularly when they ventured out to get wood for fuel and construction. Throughout the summer, the Indians attacked vulnerable soldiers, killing one or two during each attack. By September, the number of attacks increased. Martin F. Schmitt and Dee Brown in Fighting Indians of the West said that when the Indians were not attacking the soldiers they "raided wagon trains, stampeding or capturing horses and mules. They heaped hay on Carrington's beloved mowing machines and set them afire, stole most of his beef herd, shot up the herders, sent pursuing soldiers limping and crawling back to the fort with arrows driven into their bodies."
By December 1866, the number of Indians in Red Cloud's camp had increased to about two thousand. Following Red Cloud's orders, the shirt-wearers planned to use decoys to lure as many of the soldiers into the open as possible for an ambush. In late December after two failed ambushes, the decoys again attacked a group going for wood. Carrington sent Captain William J. Fetterman and eighty soldiers to the rescue, but ordered him not to pursue the Indians past Lodge Trail Ridge. Convinced that he could destroy the entire Lakota nation with only a few men, Fetterman disobeyed orders. The shirt-wearers led by Crazy Horse took charge of the decoys on December 21 and led Fetterman's troops past Lodge Trail Ridge and into Peno Valley where the rest of Red Cloud's forces waited. After about twenty minutes of fighting, Fetterman's entire detachment was killed. A relief column was able to retrieve about half of the bodies while a messenger was sent to Fort Laramie for reinforcements. The next day, Carrington himself led a detachment to retrieve the rest of the bodies. When the reinforcements arrived, Carrington was recalled and Captain H. W. Wessells took over command.
For the next two years, Red Cloud, American Horse and other Lakotas harassed the soldiers at both Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C. F. Smith. In April, 1868, a new peace treaty was drawn up that required Fort Phil Kearny to be burned to the ground. The Lakota returned to the Powder River after the treaty was signed to hunt. In the summer of 1870, American Horse joined Red Cloud and a group of other Lakota leaders on a trip to Washington, where the 1868 treaty was explained in more detail. On the way, the Lakota leaders saw the number of white people inhabiting the country and, although they spoke in anger to the government officials they met, many of the leaders agreed to move to a reservation on the Missouri River. While Red Cloud moved to a reservation, American Horse, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Moon, Gall and Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse, chose to remain free to follow the buffalo. There are some references to American Horse at the Spotted Tail Agency and the Red Cloud Agency during the early 1870s, but he apparently only was visiting and did not live at either Agency for any length of time.
In 1874, George Custer made a discovery during a reconnaissance mission in the Black Hills that eventually led to his death. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills and drew a new wave of miners and speculators to Indian lands. Although the government broke its treaty with the Indians by allowing whites into the Black Hills, it was decided to send a new delegation to the Lakota to negotiate the purchase of the sacred land. Some seven thousand Lakota came to the council with the government in September 1875. Because the Black Hills were (and are today) important to the Lakota religion, the Indians were in no mood to sell. Red Cloud said he would not take less than seventy million dollars as well as beef herds to last seven generations. Others just called for war. No agreement was reached and the miners continued to swarm into the Black Hills. By the New Year, "there were eleven thousand whites in Custer City alone," according to Schmitt and Brown.
In December, 1875, the Lakota were told to move to one of the agencies immediately. Because it was winter, when no one moved about on the northern plains, the Indians remained where they were. Unfamiliar with the area and the tribal customs, the Interior Department ordered the military to force the Indians to the reservations. General George Crook, known to the Indians as Three Stars, was transferred to the region. On March 17, 1865, a detachment of his soldiers surprised a small Lakota camp under the leader He-Dog and destroyed all the tepees and winter stores of food. He-Dog moved his people to Crazy Horse's village. The following month Sitting Bull held a council to talk of war. At the same time General Crook attempted to recruit scouts at the Red Cloud Agency. Several of the older chiefs prevented the young warriors from going with Crook, who finally hired Crow scouts to lead him through the Black Hills. Crook led his troops east in search of more Indians while General Terry made his way to the Big Horn. Terry ordered Custer and the Seventh Calvary to find the Indians' trail and follow it until he found them or Terry himself. As the Indians under Sitting Bull prepared for war and hunted meat, many of the reservation Indians joined them. There were several minor skirmishes between soldiers and Lakotas before summer that year. By June, the Indians made camp at the Little Horn in the Big Horn Mountains.
Depending upon who tells the story, either Custer surprised Sitting Bull's camp or Sitting Bull cleverly ambushed the Seventh Calvary. Whichever version actually occurred, one-hundred and eighty-nine enlisted soldiers, thirteen officers and four civilians died on June 25, 1876 at the Little Big Horn, according to official military records. Others have indicated two hundred sixty-six soldiers were killed with another fifty-four wounded. Historians do not specifically mention American Horse at the battle with Custer, but evidence discovered a few months later indicates he and his band of Lakota probably were participants in the massacre.
After the celebration of their victory, the Lakota broke up into smaller bands and began their usual summer hunting for buffalo. In the fall, many started moving toward the Agencies. American Horse and his band travelled with the Miniconjous leader Roman Nose. In all, there were some two hundred warriors in their camp along with many women and children. They had good conduct certificates identifying them as part of the Spotted Tail Agency and planned to go there for the winter.
The military wanted vengeance for those who had died at the Little Big Horn. When military reinforcements arrived, General Crook began moving down the Rosebud while Terry moved toward Yellowstone in hopes of finding some of the escaping Indians. Crook travelled light with as few provisions as possible so that he could move faster. By September, his supplies were depleted and his troops were slaughtering horses for food. On September 7, he sent Captain Anson Mills, known to the Indians as Bear Coat, and a detachment of one hundred and fifty men to Deadwood to replenish supplies. Late in the afternoon, scout Frank Grouard found fresh signs of Indians at a stream near Slim Buttes and reported it to Mills. The general had accidently come across American Horse's camp of some thirty-five to thirty-seven lodges. He decided to attack it. On the morning of September 9, Mills surprised the sleeping Indians by stampeding the tribe's horses through the camp. Many of the Indians escaped into the surrounding bluffs and started firing back. Believing that Crazy Horse had heard the first shots and come to the rescue, Mills sent a message back to Crook asking for help.
Mills was able to hold the camp until Crook arrived. While herding the horses through the Indian camp that morning, Private W. J. McClinton spotted Custer's Seventh Cavalry guidon hanging on American Horse's tepee. He turned it over to Mills, who later was given American Horses' tepee as a reward. The soldiers also found articles of soldiers' clothing, gloves labeled with the name of Colonel Keogh of the Seventh Cavalry who was with Custer, a large number of guns and ammunition, about one hundred and seventy-five ponies many of which were branded with "U.S." or "7 C," cavalry saddles, a letter addressed to a private in the Seventh Cavalry as well as several tons of meat and other supplies. It was considered more than sufficient proof that American Horse had taken part in the massacre in June. But, according to news reporters at the scene, some of the Indians later said American Horse had not taken part in that battle and that other Indians had brought these things to their camp.
When Crook arrived about eleven o'clock that morning with his two thousand troops, there was still a small group of Indians in a gulch a few yards away from the lodges. They had managed to kill some of Mills' pack mules and harassed the soldiers taking over their camp. When talking failed to get the Indians to come out, Crook ordered Lieutenant William P. Clarke to assault the gulch, but reporters traveling with the army hampered the operation. After some two hours of exchanging shots, Crook heard the squaws' death-chants and ordered the shooting stopped. John G. Bourke in On the Border with Crook described the scene around him."The women and papooses [sic], covered with dirt and blood, were screaming in an agony of terror; behind and above us were the oaths and yells of the surging soldiers; back of the women lay what seemed, as near as we could make out, to be four dead bodies still weltering in their gore." During the afternoon, Sitting Bull, who was camped nearby, came to rescue the Lakota at Slim Buttes. After exchanging fire with the soldiers he withdrew, realizing he was badly outnumbered.
Further discussions with the hidden Indians resulted in thirteen women and children surrendering. Cyrus Townsend Brady in The Sioux Indian Wars from the Powder River to the Little Big Horn said that later it was learned that "even the women had used guns, and had displayed all the bravery and courage of the Sioux." Crook asked the women to return to the gulch to tell the remaining holdouts that they would be treated well if they surrendered. A young warrior came out and received the same assurances, so he went back and helped American Horse out of the gulch along with about nine more women and children. The dead left behind in the gulch included two warriors, one woman and a child. American Horse had been shot in his gut and he was trying to hold his intestines in while he moved toward Crook. He also was biting down on a piece of wood to keep from crying out. He handed Crook his gun and sat down by one of the fires. He refused help from Crook's surgeon, but his wife apparently tried to stem the flow of blood with her shawl.
American Horse died that night. Mari Sandoz in Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, reported American Horse said, "It is always the friendly ones who are struck," before he died. Other writers indicate American Horse said nothing before he died. Some sources reported soldiers scalped him after he died. A total of ten Indians, at least half of them women or children, died in the battle at Slim Buttes, while three soldiers were killed and another twenty were wounded. It was the first of many defeats for the Lakota.
Edwards, Ruthe M., American Indians of Yesteryear, Naylor, 1948.