Considered the army's greatest Indian fighter, General George Crook earned that reputation by developing a respect for his enemy that carried over into his relationships with Native Americans off the battlefield as well.
Born in 1828 into an Ohio farming family, Crook graduated from West Point in 1852 near the bottom of his class. He spent the first part of his military career in Northern California and Oregon fighting several Indian peoples and learning how to operate under frontier conditions that left his troops short of supplies but well-provisioned with hair-trigger, often hare-brained local volunteers. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 brought him back east, where he served in guerilla actions in West Virginia and at the battles of Second Bull Run and Chickamauga.
After the war, Crook returned to the Pacific Northwest, waging a two-year campaign against the Paiute. His success led to President Ulysses S. Grant personally placing Crook in charge of the Arizona Territory, where beginning in 1871 he waged a successful campaign to force the Apache onto reservations. The hallmarks of this campaign, as of his broader general career, were his extensive use of Indian scouts, his relentless pursuit of Indians on their own territory and his readiness to negotiate rather than force conflict.
Having accomplished his mission in Arizona, Crook was transferred to the northern Plains in 1875, where he was first given the impossible task of removing a rapidly growing hoard of gold miners from the Black Hills. By 1876, he was part of a coordinated attack designed to drive the defiant Lakota bands gathered around Sitting Bull back onto their reservations. In this campaign his troops were forced to retreat from Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse in a battle at Rosebud Creek, a defeat that denied reinforcements to George Armstrong Custer and may have contributed to his devastating loss at the Little Bighorn.
In 1882 Crook again returned to Arizona, where the Apache had fled their reservation and resumed their guerrilla war under the Chiricahua leader, Geronimo. Over the next four years, Crook repeatedly forced his adversary to surrender, only to see him retreat into the mountains. Finally, in 1886, Crook was relieved of command and saw his long-time rival, General Nelson A. Miles, bring an end to the long Apache war by exiling Geronimo and his band to Florida.
The campaign against Geronimo was the last in Crook's military career. He remained a senior officer, but during his last years campaigned vigorously on his lifelong enemy's behalf, speaking out against white encroachments on Indian land and attempting to persuade the Lakota to accept allotment of their reservation, which Crook (like many others) believed would speed their entry into the American mainstream. According to the Lakota chief Red Cloud, a one-time adversary, Crook "never lied to us. His words gave the people hope." Crook died on March 2, 1890.