American Horse is generally believed to have been born before 1840, the son of Old Smoke. Old Smoke's sister was Walks-As-She-Thinks, the mother of Chief Red Cloud. I have seen a few sources that list his birth in the 1820's and even one that listed his birth in the 1800s which is even less likely. American Horse can also be researched under the name Iron Shield or Iron Plume. He is often confused with a younger American Horse, the son of Sitting Bear, by Whites. American Horse was a cousin of Chief Red Cloud, and close friend of Crazy Horse. Some believe the two men named American Horse were distantly related but He-Dog declared they were not.
A dispute about the leadership of the tribe split his people into two factions in the 1830s and 1840s. The Bear People faction was led by Chief Bull Bear and the Smoke People faction were led by Chief Old Smoke. The Smoke People moved north of Fort Laramie, in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. They fought frequently with the Crows, who were previously in possession of the land. In 1865 American Horse, Crazy Horse, Young-Man-Afraid, and Sword were made shirt-wearers. A White trader, Billy Garnett, is rumored to have watched the ceremony. Shirt-wearers were expected to lead Warriors in peace, in war, keeping the peace within the camp, and respecting the rights of the weak. Shirt-wearers were not chiefs of their people, they were looked upon as leaders however. Shirt-wearers received this honor because they had proved themselves to be strong, brave, and generous.
As Whites began pouring through the Indian held territory, in search of gold and homesteads, conflict was sure to follow. Initially the Indians held the upper hand because much of the US Army was busy fighting the secessionist Confederate States of America in the US Civil War. The Bozeman Trail, the transcontinental railroad, and forts built along the trails to house the post war Union Troops brought the tensions to a head. An October 1865 treaty signed by some Lakota bands didnt resolve the conflicts. The US Army finally realized that many of the Indians under such leaders as American Horse, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse had not signed the treaty. A June 1866 treaty attempt, promising guns and ammunition, lured Chief Red Cloud and the others in to Fort Laramie. Indian Office employee E. B. Taylor deceived the group and did not tell them that Troops were headed up the Powder River to construct new forts. When the Indian leaders found out, they rightfully walked out. This deception would cost many lives, Red and White. American Horse participated in the annihilation of the US Army Soldiers during the Fetterman Fight in December 1866, part of Red Clouds War.
For nearly two more years American Horse and others kept the pressure up on the US Army. Chief Red Cloud won his war and the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in April, 1868. A clause in the treaty required Fort Phil Kearny to be burned to the ground. The treaty also stated that the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho nations could travel the buffalo grounds of the upper Missouri as long as the buffalo herds survived. The treaty also required the Indian children to attend Christian missionary schools.
In the summer of 1870, American Horse joined other Lakota leaders on a trip to Washington, D.C. The Indian leaders were shocked at the sight of the American cities. They were amazed not only at the size and scope of the Whites cities, but at the sheer numbers of Whites in them. Based on seeing the White Mans cities and power, many of the Indian leaders, including Red Cloud, agreed to move to a reservation. American Horse, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall decided to try to remain free to pursue their way of life. American Horse was observed at the Spotted Tail Agency and the Red Cloud Agency during the early 1870s but was visiting, not living there.
A reconnaissance and survey party, led by General George Armstrong Custer, discovered gold in the Black Hills and greedy Whites once again poured into Indian territory. The Black Hills had been deemed sacred lands by the Indians and they were resolute in their desire not to lose them to the Whites. In 1875 American Horse and others sought to make the United States Government live up to its treaty and led attacks when trespassing miners began to overrun Sioux land.
In a bitter December 1875 winter, the US Government ordered all Sioux to report to the Dakota reservations by January 31, 1876 or be considered hostile. Calendar dates were almost totally useless to Indians who did not use the White Mans calendar. Not surprisingly many Indians didnt show up. Instead they began to band together into a large fighting force, defeating the US Army at The Battle Of The Rosebud and winning their most famous victory at The Battle Of The Little Big Horn. There is some minor dispute if American Horse fought at Little Big Horn. I believe, like most, that he did. He was a Warrior and leader and the Indians knew Troops were coming to round them up. A man of his stature would have certainly fought for his homeland.
After the Little Big Horn victory the Indians knew the US Army would be hot on their heels, bloodthirsty for revenge. After a victory celebration the Indians split into smaller groups and dispersed. Many began their summer buffalo hunt. As fall approached, many started moving toward the Indian Agencies. Many others stayed out due to fear of the US Army and a desire to keep their old ways. American Horse led his people toward the Cheyenne River Agency. American Horses group contained approximately forty lodges and about two hundred Warriors, including Roman Nose and Red Horse.
General George Crook had been out looking for Indians to bring in for several months. His US Army Soldiers were running very low on supplies and subsisting on horse meat. On September 7th, General Crook sent Captain Anson Mills, known to the Indians as Bear Coat, with one hundred and fifty men to Deadwood, Dakota Territory to replenish their supplies. Late in the afternoon US Army Scout Frank Grouard found very fresh signs of Indian activity at a stream near Slim Buttes, South Dakota.
Captain Anson Mills, later to be General Mills, decided to plan an attack once the camp had been sighted. On the morning of September 9th Captain Mills stampeded the Indian's horses through their camp, catching the sleeping Indians by surprise. Many of the Indians fled to the surrounding hills and began their defense. As the Soldiers tore through the camp, Private W. J. McClinton spotted General George Custer's 7th Cavalry guidon hanging on a teepee. The teepee belonged to American Horse. After the battle some of the Lakota said American Horse had not taken part in the US Army defeat at Little Bighorn and that these things had been brought into his camp by other Indians. In addition to General Custers Guidon, many other articles of soldiers uniforms, gloves belonging to Captain Myles Keogh, about one hundred and seventy-five horses bearing a 7th Cavalry brand, cavalry saddles, and a letter addressed to a private in the 7th Cavalry.
As the battle raged, Captain Mills was fearful that American Horses close friend Crazy Horse would hear the gunfire and respond to help the Indian cause. Fearing another Little Big Horn, Captain Mills sent a message to General Crook requesting his assistance. The battle continued, the Indians in a nearby gulch and the Troopers still occupying the Indian camp. General Crook and two thousand Troopers arrived at about 11:00 a.m. The battle continued for about two more hours after their arrival. During this period Sitting Bull came to the aid of his allies. After exchanging gunfire Sitting Bull realized he was vastly outnumbered and retreated.
General Crook had his Soldiers stop firing in an attempt to get the Indians to surrender. Thirteen women and children came out. Some of the women had been firing weapons in defense of their camp. General Crook persuaded the women to return to the gulch to tell the remaining combatants they would be treated well if they surrendered. The women went to American Horse who had held up in a cave with four other Warriors and fifteen women. A young Warrior came out first, he then returned to the cave in an effort to get the others to come out.
The young Warrior assisted American Horse out of the cave and gulch. American Horse had been shot in the lower abdomen and was literally holding his intestines inside his body as he walked. To ease his pain, American Horse bit down on a piece of wood. In an incredible act of fortitude, the mortally wounded Warrior walked up to General Crook and handed him is rifle before sitting down next to a fire. An Army surgeon came to his aid but was refused by American Horse, whose wife attempted to stem the flow of his blood with her shawl to no avail. American Horse died of his wound later that evening, the result of trying to defend his people and homeland.
Some writers and historians have stated American Horse cried out "It is always the friendly ones who are struck." before leaving this world. Others say he said no words before dying. Some sources say the Soldiers scalped him after he died but I do not believe this to be true, as American Horse was placed on scaffolding poles near the battle site in the custom of his people. A total of ten Indians, half of them women or children, died in the battle. Three Soldiers were killed and about twenty were wounded. In 1888 the US Army gathered the Indian remains and exhumed the buried Soldiers. A memorial monument was erected at the site of the Slim Buttes Battlefield.
The Slim Buttes Battlefield Memorial, South Dakota.