One of the wittiest and shrewdest of the Sioux chiefs was American
Horse, who succeeded to the name and position of an uncle, killed
in the battle of Slim Buttes in 1876. The younger American Horse
was born a little before the encroachments of the whites upon the
Sioux country became serious and their methods aggressive, and his
early manhood brought him into that most trying and critical period
of our history. He had been tutored by his uncle, since his own
father was killed in battle while he was still very young. The
American Horse band was closely attached to a trading post, and its
members in consequence were inclined to be friendly with the
whites, a policy closely adhered to by their leader.
When he was born, his old grandfather said: "Put him out in
the sun! Let him ask his great-grandfather, the Sun, for the warm
blood of a warrior!" And he had warm blood. He was a genial man,
liking notoriety and excitement. He always seized an opportunity
to leap into the center of the arena.
In early life he was a clownish sort of boy among the boys --
an expert mimic and impersonator. This talent made him popular and
in his way a leader. He was a natural actor, and early showed
marked ability as a speaker.
American Horse was about ten years old when he was attacked by
three Crow warriors, while driving a herd of ponies to water. Here
he displayed native cunning and initiative. It seemed he had
scarcely a chance to escape, for the enemy was near. He yelled
frantically at the ponies to start them toward home, while he
dropped off into a thicket of willows and hid there. A part of the
herd was caught in sight of the camp and there was a counter chase,
but the Crows got away with the ponies. Of course his mother was
frantic, believing her boy had been killed or captured; but after
the excitement was over, he appeared in camp unhurt. When
questioned about his escape, he remarked: "I knew they would not
take the time to hunt for small game when there was so much bigger
When he was quite a big boy, he joined in a buffalo hunt, and
on the way back with the rest of the hunters his mule became
unmanageable. American Horse had insisted on riding him in
addition to a heavy load of meat and skins, and the animal
evidently resented this, for he suddenly began to run and kick,
scattering fresh meat along the road, to the merriment of the
crowd. But the boy turned actor, and made it appear that it was at
his wish the mule had given this diverting performance. He clung
to the back of his plunging and braying mount like a circus rider,
singing a Brave Heart song, and finally brought up amid the
laughter and cheers of his companions. Far from admitting defeat,
he boasted of his horsemanship and declared that his "brother"
donkey would put any enemy to flight, and that they should be
called upon to lead a charge.
It was several years later that he went to sleep early one
night and slept soundly, having been scouting for two nights
previous. It happened that there was a raid by the Crows, and when
he awoke in the midst of the yelling and confusion, he sprang up
and attempted to join in the fighting. Everybody knew his voice in
all the din, so when he fired his gun and announced a coup, as was
the custom, others rushed to the spot, to find that he had shot a
hobbled pony belonging to their own camp. The laugh was on him,
and he never recovered from his chagrin at this mistake. In fact,
although he was undoubtedly fearless and tried hard to distinguish
himself in warfare, he did not succeed.
It is told of him that he once went with a war party of young
men to the Wind River country against the Shoshones. At last they
discovered a large camp, but there were only a dozen or so of the
Sioux, therefore they hid themselves and watched for their
opportunity to attack an isolated party of hunters. While waiting
thus, they ran short of food. One day a small party of Shoshones
was seen near at hand, and in the midst of the excitement and
preparations for the attack, young American Horse caught sight of
a fat black-tail deer close by. Unable to resist the temptation,
he pulled an arrow from his quiver and sent it through the deer's
heart, then with several of his half-starved companions sprang upon
the yet quivering body of the animal to cut out the liver, which
was sometimes eaten raw. One of the men was knocked down, it is
said, by the last kick of the dying buck, but having swallowed a
few mouthfuls the warriors rushed upon and routed their enemies.
It is still told of American Horse how he killed game and feasted
between the ambush and the attack.
At another time he was drying his sacred war bonnet and other
gear over a small fire. These articles were held in great
veneration by the Indians and handled accordingly. Suddenly the
fire blazed up, and our hero so far forgot himself as to begin
energetically beating out the flames with the war bonnet, breaking
off one of the sacred buffalo horns in the act. One could almost
fill a book with his mishaps and exploits. I will give one of them
in his own words as well as I can remember them.
"We were as promising a party of young warriors as our tribe
ever sent against any of its ancestral enemies. It was midsummer,
and after going two days' journey from home we began to send two
scouts ahead daily while the main body kept a half day behind. The
scouts set out every evening and traveled all night. One night the
great war pipe was held out to me and to Young-Man-Afraid-of-
His-Horses. At daybreak, having met no one, we hid our horses and
climbed to the top of the nearest butte to take an observation. It
was a very hot day. We lay flat on our blankets, facing the west
where the cliff fell off in a sheer descent, and with our backs
toward the more gradual slope dotted with scrub pines and cedars.
We stuck some tall grass on our heads and proceeded to study the
landscape spread before us for any sign of man.
"The sweeping valleys were dotted with herds, both large and
small, of buffalo and elk, and now and then we caught a glimpse of
a coyote slinking into the gulches, returning from night hunting to
sleep. While intently watching some moving body at a distance, we
could not yet tell whether of men or animals, I heard a faint noise
behind me and slowly turned my head. Behold! a grizzly bear
sneaking up on all fours and almost ready to spring!
"'Run!' I yelled into the ear of my companion, and we both
leaped to our feet in a second. 'Separate! separate!' he shouted,
and as we did so, the bear chose me for his meat. I ran downhill
as fast as I could, but he was gaining. 'Dodge around a tree!'
screamed Young-Man-Afraid. I took a deep breath and made a last
spurt, desperately circling the first tree I came to. As the
ground was steep just there, I turned a somersault one way and the
bear the other. I picked myself up in time to climb the tree, and
was fairly out of reach when he gathered himself together and came
at me more furiously than ever, holding in one paw the shreds of my
breechcloth, for in the fall he had just scratched my back and cut
my belt in two, and carried off my only garment for a trophy!
"My friend was well up another tree and laughing heartily at
my predicament, and when the bear saw that he could not get at
either of us he reluctantly departed, after I had politely
addressed him and promised to make an offering to his spirit on my
safe return. I don't think I ever had a narrower escape," he concluded.
During the troublous times from 1865 to 1877, American Horse
advocated yielding to the government at any cost, being no doubt
convinced of the uselessness of resistance. He was not a
recognized leader until 1876, when he took the name and place of
his uncle. Up to this time he bore the nickname of Manishnee (Can
not walk, or Played out.)
When the greater part of the Ogallalas, to which band he
belonged, came into the reservation, he at once allied himself with
the peace element at the Red Cloud agency, near Fort Robinson,
Nebraska, and took no small part in keeping the young braves quiet.
Since the older and better-known chiefs, with the exception of
Spotted Tail, were believed to be hostile at heart, the military
made much use of him. Many of his young men enlisted as scouts by
his advice, and even he himself entered the service.
In the early part of the year 1876, there was a rumor that
certain bands were in danger of breaking away. Their leader was
one Sioux Jim, so nicknamed by the soldiers. American Horse went
to him as peacemaker, but was told he was a woman and no brave. He
returned to his own camp and told his men that Sioux Jim meant
mischief, and in order to prevent another calamity to the tribe, he
must be chastised. He again approached the warlike Jim with
several warriors at his back. The recalcitrant came out, gun in
hand, but the wily chief was too quick for him. He shot and wounded
the rebel, whereupon one of his men came forward and killed him.
This quelled the people for the time being and up to the
killing of Crazy Horse. In the crisis precipitated by this event,
American Horse was again influential and energetic in the cause of
the government. From this time on he became an active participant
in the affairs of the Teton Sioux. He was noted for his eloquence,
which was nearly always conciliatory, yet he could say very sharp
things of the duplicity of the whites. He had much ease of manner
and was a master of repartee. I recall his saying that if you have
got to wear golden slippers to enter the white man's heaven no
Indian will ever get there, as the whites have got the Black Hills
and with them all the gold.
It was during the last struggle of his people, at the time of
the Messiah craze in 1890-1891 that he demonstrated as never before
the real greatness of the man. While many of his friends were
carried away by the new thought, he held aloof from it and
cautioned his band to do the same. When it developed into an
extensive upheaval among the nations he took his positive stand
Presently all Indians who did not dance the Ghost Dance were
ordered to come into camp at Pine Ridge agency. American Horse was
the first to bring in his people. I was there at the time and
talked with him daily. When Little was arrested, it had been
agreed among the disaffected to have him resist, which meant that
he would be roughly handled. This was to be their excuse to attack
the Indian police, which would probably lead to a general massacre
or outbreak. I know that this desperate move was opposed from the
beginning by American Horse, and it was believed that his life was
On the day of the "Big Issue", when thousands of Indians were
gathered at the agency, this man Little, who had been in hiding,
walked boldly among them. Of course the police would arrest him at
sight, and he was led toward the guardhouse. He struggled with
them, but was overpowered. A crowd of warriors rushed to his
rescue, and there was confusion and a general shout of "Hurry up
with them! Kill them all!" I saw American Horse walk out of the
agent's office and calmly face the excited mob.
"What are you going to do?" he asked. "Stop, men, stop and
think before you act! Will you murder your children, your women,
yes, destroy your nation to-day?" He stood before them like a
statue and the men who held the two policemen helpless paused for
an instant. He went on: "You are brave to-day because you
outnumber the white men, but what will you do to-morrow? There are
railroads on all sides of you. The soldiers will pour in from
every direction by thousands and surround you. You have little
food or ammunition. It will be the end of your people. Stop, I
say, stop now!"
Jack Red Cloud, son of the old chief rushed up to him and
thrust a revolver almost in his face. "It is you and men like
you," he shouted, "who have reduced our race to slavery and
starvation!" American Horse did not flinch but deliberately
reentered the office, followed by Jack still flourishing the
pistol. But his timely appearance and eloquence had saved the day.
Others of the police force had time to reach the spot, and with a
large crowd of friendly Indians had taken command of the situation.
When I went into the office I found him alone but apparently
quite calm. "Where are the agent and the clerks?" I asked. "They
fled by the back door," he replied, smiling. "I think they are
the cellar. These fools outside had almost caught us asleep, but
I think it is over now."
American Horse was one of the earliest advocates of education
for the Indian, and his son Samuel and nephew Robert were among the
first students at Carlisle. I think one or two of his daughters
were the handsomest Indian girls of full blood that I ever saw.
His record as a councilor of his people and his policy in the new
situation that confronted them was manly and consistent.
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Heroes And Great Chieftains