George Crook - The Forgotten General
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All images courtesy: 1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer

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Those who study the history of the Dakota Territory and the upper Midwest often find themselves focusing only on the well-known characters such as George Armstrong Custer, Captain Jack Crawford, Wild Bill Hickok, Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill, .and others.

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But there is another, very prominent person, whose history in the Dakota Territory runs deep.  He is Major General George Crook.  Born in Ohio in 1830, General Crook had a long and honorable career during the Civil War, engaging the Rebel Army in at least fourteen battles including Atietam and Chickamauga.

After the Civil War, Crook took command of the U.S. Army in several areas including Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, Arizona, Missouri and Dakota Territory.

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As a matter of fact, Crook’s most traumatic military experience took place in the Slim Buttes of Dakota Territory, and in the town of Custer City in the Black Hills. It was in Custer that he and his army numbering nearly 3,000, recovered from nearly starving to death after the “Battle of the Slim Buttes” in what is now Harding County,

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This incident became known throughout the military as “The Horsemeat March.”  Following the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana in June 1876, General Crook led his command out of Montana, heading toward the “Little Missouri River” in what is now Harding County, South Dakota.  It was on that river that he established a camp while pursuing Sioux Chief American Horse.  Today, the small community is known as Camp Crook, about 20 miles west of Buffalo, South Dakota.

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Following General Custer’s tragic defeat at “Little Big Horn” the army units divided up and pursued Native Americans who scattered across the upper Midwest including Montana, Dakota, and Canada.  General Crook led his command to the Dakotas in pursuit of American Horse and his tribe.

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American Horse and his warriors and their families hid out in the Slim Buttes, located about 25 miles east of the town of Buffalo.  General Crook’s Army soon surrounded the Natives and forced the chief to surrender.  American Horse was wounded during the battle and died shortly afterwards.

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It was after that battle the General Crooks serious problems began.  They ran out of food.  For the next several weeks soldiers had to slaughter and eat their horses in order to survive.  The nearly 3,000 soldiers and others in the command were not successful in hunting enough game to feed the starving troops. 

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Never the less, the entire command headed for the southern Black Hills and the newly formed town of Custer City where they sought shelter in the Gordon Stockade, a fort built in 1874 after General Custer’s Black Hills Expedition.  There, General Crook’s army found ample wild game, hunting deer, antelope, and buffalo. The Crook Command spent the next several weeks recuperating from their desperate battle against starvation and related illnesses.

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Meanwhile, word reached Fort Laramie of the victory in the “Battle of Slim Buttes” and the capture of American Horse and most of his warriors.  Because  General Crook and his soldiers spared the lives of most of the civilian Indians, Crook’s Army received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their contribution toward winning the Indian Wars in Dakota Territory.

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Today there are no statues of Major General Crook in South Dakota.  But one does exist on the grounds of the Crook Family Home in Taylorsville, Ohio, birthplace of one of the American Generals who brought the Great Indian Wars to a close.

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