The Marias Massacre (also known as the Baker Massacre or the Piegan Massacre) was a massacre of a friendly band of Piegan Blackfeet Indians on January 23, 1870 by the United States Army in Montana Territory during the Indian Wars. About 200 Indians were killed, mostly women and children, and elderly men. The Army mistakenly attacked a band led by Heavy Runner, a chief who had been promised protection by the United States government. Following public outrage, the long-term result, was a shift in the policy of the Federal Government toward a "peace policy" as advocated by President Ulysses S. Grant, keeping the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, and appointing numerous Quakers as Indian agents.
Relations between the Blackfoot Confederacy (comprising the Blackfeet, Blood, and Piegan tribes) and whites in Montana Territory had been largely hostile for years, as European Americans encroached on their territory and resources and were raided by Blackfeet. Paul Andrew Hutton writes that it was "caused by lawless elements prevalent among both races" rather than a widespread, organized conflict similar to Red Cloud's War. The Blackfeet had largely retreated north of the Marias River in the territory.
Amid this tension, the event which touched off the massacre was the murder on August 17, 1869, of Malcolm Clarke, a respected white trader and rancher who had lived in Montana for decades, by Owl Child, a young Piegan warrior and his comrades, after they had been to dinner at the Clarke ranch. They also shot and severely wounded Clarke's oldest son Horace, who survived. Another son Nathan, the two daughters and Clarke's wife Coth-co-co-na, a Blackfeet women, had taken shelter in the house and were unharmed.
This was Owl Child's revenge. Two years earlier in 1867, Owl Child stole some horses from Clarke as payment for his own horses, whose loss he blamed on the trader. Clarke and his son Horace had tracked Owl Child down and beat him in front of a group of Blackfeet. Native accounts had said that Malcolm Clarke had earlier raped Owl Child's wife, who was a cousin of Malcolm Clarke's wife, Coth-co-co-na, also a Blackfeet woman. Other Blackfeet oral history accounts state Owl Child's wife gave birth to a mixed-race child from the rape, who was either stillborn or killed by elders in the tribe.
The killing of Clarke at his home outraged settlers in the region, who demanded the government protect them and suppress the outlaw Blackfeet. 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 in the north. Mountain Chief's Piegan band was noted for its hostility toward white settlers, but they were not conducting organized raids. When the two-week deadline had passed, General Philip Sheridan sent a squadron of cavalry from the Second Cavalry 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. (It was a strategy he had employed before, directing George Custer to attack Black Kettle's band of Cheyenne in the Battle of Washita River).
Baker's command left Fort Ellis on January 6, 1870, pausing at Fort Shaw to pick up two more companies and a pair of scouts (Joe Kipp and Joseph Cobell) said to be familiar with the Piegan bands. Since Baker's orders directed him to avoid attacking friendly bands, the scouts were considered essential to distinguish the bands. Baker needed to wait until Sheridan's division inspector general (Colonel James A. Hardie, who had arrived at Fort Shaw on January 7) completed his review of the situation and reported back to Sheridan. Based on Hardie's report (sent on January 13), Sheridan issued the "strike them hard" order. Baker's command, consisting now of two companies of cavalry, one company of mounted infantry, and one of regular infantry, moved north from Fort Shaw on January 19, looking for the village of Mountain Chief's band, which was reported to be located in the Marias River country.
Baker's command came across a small Piegan camp (five lodges) on January 22 and captured the occupants. These prisoners informed Baker that the camps of Big Horn and Red Horn, two Piegan leaders considered hostile, could be found a few miles downstream. Ordering a forced march at night in severe cold, Baker moved his mixed infantry and cavalry force through rough country and located a camp of 32 lodges in the low ground along the Marias River. Baker positioned his men in the high ground near the camp in a "natural firing range" and prepared to attack.
Too late, scout Joe Kipp recognized the camp as belonging to Heavy Runner. He was considered peaceful and was not to be attacked, per orders from Colonel Philippe Régis de Trobriand (commander of Fort Shaw and the Military District of Montana). Kipp shouted to try to prevent the attack, and Baker placed him under arrest (Kipp later asserted that Baker "was drunk at the time"). The shouts alerted the Piegan camp and brought out chief Heavy Runner. Leaving his lodge, Heavy Runner ran toward the soldiers, "shouting and waving a piece of paper - a safe conduct from the Indian Bureau." He was killed by a single shot fired from the bluffs. Joseph Cobell, the other scout, later took credit for shooting Heavy Runner. Married to Mountain Chief's sister, Cobell had wanted to divert attention from his father-in-law's camp, which he knew was about ten miles downstream. After Cobell's first shot, the rest of the command opened fire.
As many of the men of the camp were out hunting, the raid was a massacre of mostly women and children, and elderly men, later found to be suffering widely from smallpox. Many survivors hid in the freezing waters of the Marias River. Mountain Chief's band learned of the attack and escaped over the border into Canada. Piegan oral history recounts that every Native American man who was killed was thrown into a fire; one of the men was cut in half with a bayonet. A hasty count by Baker's men showed 173 dead, with 140 women and children captured. Only one cavalryman died, after falling off his horse and breaking his leg. This count is disputed by Joe Kipp, who later said the total dead was 217.
Baker did not file a report for two months; it stated that of the 173 dead, 53 were women and children. But a letter by Vincent Colyer, the secretary to the Board of Indian Commissioners and a noted humanitarian, said that only 15 warriors had been killed. According to Colyer, the rest were women and children, and he noted that 50 of those killed were children under the age of 12.
Many blamed (and still blame) Major Eugene M. Baker, a known alcoholic, for the massacre and failure to capture Mountain Chief's men, and for failing to accurately report the scale of the massacre. The Army's discovery that many in the camp had been weakened by smallpox added to the outrage about their attack on non-combatants. In the subsequent controversy, General Sheridan expressed his confidence in Baker's leadership, as he struggled to protect the Army politically, and he succeeded in preventing an official investigation into the incident. Conflict between the settlers and the Blackfeet declined after the massacre. The Blackfeet Nation, already badly weakened by smallpox, did not have the numbers to respond and feared a people that could be so brutal.
From a historical perspective, one of the major outcomes of the Marias Massacre and its aftermath was President Ulysses S. Grant choosing a "Peace Policy" and the end of any plan to give control of Indian affairs to the Army. At the time, the Army had been seeking to take Indian Affairs into its jurisdiction, concerned about corruption of Indian agents and the annuity programs. Grant appointed numerous Quakers and other persons representing religious groups as Indian agents.
- For many years, students and faculty from Blackfeet Community College, 65 miles away, have held an annual memorial on January 23 at the site . One year they placed 217 stones at the site to commemorate the victims counted by Joe Kipp.
- In 2010, the Baker Massacre Memorial was erected at the site.
Representation in other media
- Fools Crow, a novel written by James Welch, 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
- Hutton, Paul Andrew (1985). "Forming Military Indian Policy: 'The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian'". Phil Sheridan and His Army. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 181–200. ISBN 0-8032-2329-3.
- Welch 2007, pp. 28-29
- Welch 2007, pg. 27
- A descendant of Heavy Runner, accessed February 6, 2011
- Andrew R. Graybill, The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013
- 2011, CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv
- Welch 2007, pg. 30
- Quoted in Welch 2007, pg. 30
- Welch 2007, pg. 29
- accessed Feb. 5, 2011 CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv, Blackfoot Digital Library
- Graybill (2013), Red and White
- Black, George (2012). "The View from Mount Washburn". Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 3, 429. ISBN 9780312383190.
- Graybill (2013), Red and White
- Utley, Robert M. (1973). "Grant's Peace Policy, 1869-74". Frontier Regulars the United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 191–192. ISBN 0-8032-9551-0.
- 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.
- Article, Bozeman Chronicle (MT) newspaper, 1/25/2012
- Article on the 2010 Baker Massacre Memorial, Missoulian's (MT) Buffalo Post
- An Uncelebrated Anniversary, DickShovel website
- Witness to Carnage: The 1870 Marias Massacre in Montana, DickShovel website
- Native American Legends: The Marias Massacre, Legends of America