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The Marias Massacre occurred in the context of massive European-American westward expansion. Relations between the Blackfoot Confederacy (comprising the Blackfoot, Blood, and Piegan tribes) and whites had been largely hostile for years. Amid this tension, the event which touched off the massacre involved a young Piegan Blackfoot, Owl Child, who in 1867 stole some horses from Malcolm Clarke, a white trader, as payment for his own horses, whose loss he blamed on Clarke. Clarke and his son tracked Owl Child down and beat him in front of a group of Blackfeet. In response, on August 17, 1869, Owl Child and a group of other Piegan warriors shot and killed Clarke, and seriously wounded his son. Native accounts also state that Malcolm Clarke raped a Blackfoot woman, the relative of his wife who was also a Blackfoot woman. Clarke's rape victim was Owl Child's wife. She gave birth to a child as a result of the rape.
The killing of Clarke inflamed Anglos in the region, and there were widespread calls for revenge. The United States Army demanded of the Blackfoot Confederacy that Owl Child be killed and his body delivered within two weeks; Owl Child, meanwhile, had fled and joined the band of Mountain Chief, the head chief of the Piegans. When the two week deadline had passed, General Philip Sheridan sent out a squadron of cavalry from the Second US Regiment, led by Major Eugene Baker, to track down and punish the offending party. He ordered:
If the lives and property of the citizens of Montana can best be protected by striking Mountain Chief's band, I want them struck. Tell Baker to strike them hard.
Sheridan's plan was a dawn attack on a village in heavy snow, when most of the Indians would be sleeping or huddling inside to keep warm (a strategy he had employed before, when George Custer attacked Black Kettle's band of Cheyennes in the Battle of Washita River).
On January 23, 1870, Baker's party received a scouting report that the group of Piegans, led by Mountain Chief, was camped along the Marias River. They attacked the site at Willow Rounds, but Mountain Chief had been warned and left the area, so Baker's men instead ended up attacking the camp of Chief Heavy Runner, who had enjoyed friendly relations with the white men. Although some of Baker's scouts had reportedly warned him that he was about to attack the wrong camp, he attacked anyway. As the men of the camp were mostly out hunting, the raid was a massacre of mostly women and children. A hasty count by Baker's men showed 173 dead (the majority women and children) with 140 women and children captured, while only one cavalryman died, after falling off his horse and breaking his leg. This count is disputed by another account, which gives the total as 217.
Heavy Runner himself was killed as he left his lodge with an American flag given to him as a promise for his camp's safety. Many survivors hid in the freezing waters of the Marias River. Mountain Chief's band escaped to Canada. Descendants of the victims retell the event through oral histories, stating that every Native American man who was killed was thrown into a fire; one of the men was cut in half with a bayonet.
Many blamed (and still blame) Major Eugene M. Baker, a known alcoholic, for the massacre and failure to capture Mountain Chief's men, and, of course, for the massacre that he failed to report on paper. However, in the subsequent controversy, General Sheridan expressed his confidence in Baker's leadership, and managed to prevent an official investigation into the incident. Conflict between the settlers and the Blackfeet declined after this incident. The Blackfeet Nation, already badly weakened by smallpox, did not have the numbers to respond. From a historical perspective one of the major outcomes of the Marias Massacre and its aftermath was the rise of President Grant's "Peace Policy" and the removal of control of Indian affairs from the Army.
- Indian massacres
- Fools Crow, a novel written by James Welch, which culminates with the Massacre on the Marias
- Fair Land, Fair Land, a novel written by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., which also culminates with the Massacre on the Marias
- Welch 2007, pg. 27
- Welch 2007, pp. 28-29
- A descendant of Heavy Runner telaccessed February 6, 2011
- http://blackfootdigitallibrary.org/ 2011, CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv
- Welch 2007, pg. 30
- Quoted in Welch 2007, pg. 30
- Welch 2007, pg. 29
- accessed Feb. 5, 2011 CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv
- Welch, James with Paul Stekler (2007 ). Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: Norton Paperback (W. W. Norton & Company). ISBN 978-0-393-32939-1.