The Legend of Crazy Woman Creek
Johnson County Wyoming
name, Crazy Woman Creek, is unique enough that the first time visitor
to Wyoming will almost always ask about its origin suspecting there
is an interesting story behind it. The stream has its headwaters
in the Hazelton Peak area of the Big Horn Mountains and is a tributary
of the Powder river. Flow is northeastward and eventually joins
the Yellowstone River in Montana.
There are actually several "legends"
or "myths" that explain the name. In these legends, the
"crazy" woman is either white or Indian. According to
one Indian woman version, a squaw who was left completely alone
after her village had been attacked, lost her mind and lived in
the area in a dirty, squalid manner until her death. Another story
involves a white family named Morgan, traveling by covered wagon,
who was attacked by Sioux warriors. They tomahawked and scalped
the husband and three children. Mrs. Morgan was not killed but was
driven out of her mind from witnessing the terrible fate of her
family. However, she had seized an ax and killed four of the attacking
Indians who then left her alone. Supposedly, a mountain man named
Johnson chanced upon the scene shortly thereafter, buried the dead
family members, but could not persuade the woman to leave the gravesides.
As a warning to the Indians not to bother her, he decapitated the
dean warriors and placed their heads upon stakes near the graves.
Johnson then built the woman a small cabin and stopped by occasionally
to bring her supplies. Because of her presence on the stream it
came to be known as Crazy Woman Creek. Johnson eventually found
her frozen body, apparently dead from starvation.
Yet another legend, also said to be due to the
Sioux, has the stream as haunted by an old, insane squaw who could
be seen on moonlit nights shooting the stream's rapids in her canoe
and leaping from village to village like a spirit. Since she had
be "touched" by the Great Spirit, she was believed to
be good medicine and her sightings were welcomed by the Indian Villagers.
A "lost in translation" story tells
that one Indian word equivalent for "prostitute" is "fool
woman." It has been suggested that the stream was known as
"prostitute or fool woman creek" to the Indians and that
the whites lost the meaning in their own translation of the term.
The most persistent and credible explanation
for the creek's name has to do with a trader and his wife. According
to Crow stories, in the mid-1840's a half-breed and his white wife
built a small trading post on the stream and were carrying on a
successful business with the Indians. For some reasons, the trader
began to give liquor to one of the older chiefs, a dignified man,
who would then act strangely after his visits with the trader. The
Crows soon figured out what was going on and the trader was compelled
to provide all of the men in the village with plenty of "fire
water." Once they had formed a dependency on the liquid, he
began charging them more and more for drinks. Finally, he claimed
to be out of liquor and said he would leave to obtain more. Since
the trader had virtually all of the village goods by that time they
didn't believe him. Rather, they suspected that he would now go
to trade with their enemies, the Sioux. They killed and then scalped
him in front of his wife and she was struck in the head with a tomahawk
and left for dead but not scalped. After the warriors had departed
a Crow woman said that she was not dead and secretly nursed her
back to health. Thereafter, the trader's wife lived in the area
but was deathly afraid of the Crow warriors and would hide at their
approach. Some of the Crow women continued to feed her for a time
but eventually she was never seen again and presumed dead from starvation
or animal attack. The Crow annually returned to the area of the
trader's post and with time the stream became known as the Crazy
Woman's Fork and then later Creek.
The preceding story has been attributed to a
George P. Belden, a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Cavalry, who was
stationed at Fort Phil Kearny in 1867-68 and had lived with the
Crow Indians in the years prior to his military service. It has
also been said to be due to a Frenchman named LaFrombe who had lived
with the Crow many years and had visited the site on the stream
with them. The former source seems the most credible but the questions
remains as to which is the true one.
There is a "Crazy Woman Crossing" where
the Bozeman Trail crosses the stream. The site provided particularly
good camping, grazing and water for the Trail's travelers and thus
was much used. It was also where the Sioux and Cheyenne would frequently
attack the encamped travelers. The most significant such encounter
occurred on July 20, 1866, when a band of Sioux attacked a small
detachment of soldiers headed for Fort Phil Kearny. While the battle
was going on, a column of cavalry from the Fort led by Captain David
Jordan and guided by Jim Bridger arrived in time to rescue the group
but not before two of its members, a Lieutenant Daniels and a Sergeant
Terrel, were killed.
There is a gravel road that parallels Crazy Woman
Creek from near its source in the Big Horn Mountains through its
deep gorge and out onto the prairie flats to the east. Take U.S.
Highway 16 west from Buffalo, Wyoming about 22 miles into the Big
Horn Mountains. Then make a left turn (east) onto gravel Forest
Route 33/County Road 14, which is Crazy Woman Canyon Road. The trip
through the gorge is spectacular with sections of sheer, rock walls
nearby on both sides of the road. Vehicles larger than a SUV or
pickup are not permitted. It is a truly beautiful drive.