Trail Dust - September 9
On this day in 1876, Lakota Chief American Horse the Elder was killed in the Battle of Slim Buttes by members of General George Crook’s 7th Cavalry.
American Horse the Elder was born in 1830, a son of the important Old Smoke people, friend and ally of Chief Crazy Horse during Red Cloud’s War (Red Cloud was his brother) and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He was a signatory to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteeing the Lakota ownership of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The treaty nominally survived only until 1874, when General George Custer’s Black Hills Expedition turned up gold in the region. It sparked a gold rush that in turn sparked the Great Sioux War that led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The Slim Buttes event was the first of the U.S. military’s punitive actions against Native Americans on the Great Plains. While most of the other Army commanders had left the field, General Crook continued to pursue Big Horn combatants believing they would scatter to their respective hunting camps and reservations. Leaving the Powder River on August 26, 1876 with 1,500 cavalry and 250 infantry members, 240 native scouts and 44 civilian scouts and packers with a scant 15-day supply of rations.
Dubbed Crook’s Horsemeat March, the grueling trek received blow-by-blow coverage from four war correspondents embedded with Crook’s men.
Prophetically, just 15 days into their 15-day supplies, Crook’s men endured a 20-mile forced march to the American Horse camp, consisting of 37 lodges and mostly women and children. The assault sent the chief, some 25 women and children, and three warriors retreating to a nearby ravine, taking shelter in a number of shallow caves.
After overpowering the encampment, a search of the lodges found a winter store of dried meat and wild fruit, furs, and staple, much of which was devoured by Crook’s hungry troops.
Frustrated with the American Horse resistance, Crook’s men lobbed hundreds of bullets into their position in the caves. In an effort to spare the lives of his three remaining warriors and the women and children, American Horse asked that their lives be spared in exchange for his surrender. When he emerged from hiding, it was evident he had been mortally wounded, shot in the abdomen. Crook’s soldiers reportedly chanted “no quarter” in response to the chief’ plea but none had sufficient temerity to kill the Lakota leader.
The ubiquitous Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy was on hand to minister to the dying chief. He would be at Fort Robinson, Nebraska almost a year to the day later to attend Crazy Horse in his final hours.
American Horse the Elder was only 36 at the time of his death, not actually elderly. History made the designation necessary when a son of Sitting Bear fell upon the opportunity to assume the American Horse name upon the Elder’s death. American Horse the Younger was no relation to the elder and in fact opposed Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and the Old Smoke Lakota. He died in 1908.
After endless pursuit of legions of Native Americans, General Crook spent his last years advocating for his former adversaries. He died in 1890 while in command of the District of Missouri. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dr. McGillycuddy was perhaps the oldest survivor of the Horsemeat March. He later served at dean of the South Dakota School of Mines, was the mayor of Rapid City and delegate to South Dakota’s Constitutional Convention. In 1918 he traveled to Alaska to treat influenza. Upon his death in 1939 in San Francisco at age 90, flags were flown on the at half mast on the Pine Ridge. His ashes were eventually buried at Harney Peak in the Black Hills. As small plaque at the site declares, Valentine McGillycuddy, Wasicu Wakan (Holy White Man).