Marias Massacre

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Marias Massacre
DateJanuary 23, 1870
Result 173-217 killed;
Ulysses S. Grant's "Peace Policy"
 United States Piegan Blackfeet
Commanders and leaders
Major Eugene M. Baker Chief Heavy Runner, civilian camp
~150 soldiers
3 scouts
Casualties and losses
1 killed, 1 wounded 173-217 killed; 140 women and children and 300 Horses captured[1]

The Marias Massacre (also known as the Baker Massacre or the Piegan Massacre) was a massacre of Piegan Blackfeet Indians carried out by the United States Army as part of the Indian Wars. The massacre took place on January 23, 1870 in Montana Territory. Approximately 200 Indians were killed, most of whom were women, children and elderly men.

As part of a campaign to suppress Mountain Chief's band of Piegan Blackfeet, the U.S. Army attacked a different band led by Chief Heavy Runner, to whom the United States government had previously promised their protection. This resulted in public outrage and a long-term shift towards a "Peace Policy" by the Federal Government, as advocated by President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant kept the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a division of the Department of the Interior although the War Department was trying to regain control. He then appointed men recommended by various religious clergy—including Quakers and Methodists—as Indian agents, in hopes that they would be free of the corruption he had previously found in the department.


Relations between the Niitsitapi Confederacy (composed of Blackfeet, Blood, and Piegan tribes, although frequently referred to simply as Blackfeet) and white settlers in Montana Territory had been largely hostile for years, as European Americans encroached on Native American territory and resources. In turn, some Blackfeet stole horses and raided white settlements. Rather than a widespread, organized conflict, such as Red Cloud's War,[2] the relations between the groups were marked by a series of unrelated clashes. By 1870, the Blackfeet had largely retreated north of the Marias River in the territory.

Malcolm Clarke[edit]

Malcolm Clarke was a rancher and fur trader who worked in association with the American Fur Company (AFC). Prior to his life in the West, Malcolm Clarke had attended West Point until he was expelled for fighting.[3]  During his time there, he became friends with classmate William Sherman, although they lost touch after he left school. Clarke found success trading with Blackfeet tribes, and eventually married a Native woman named Coth-co-co-na and had four children—Helen, Horace, Nathan, and Isabel. This marriage served as an alliance between Malcolm and the Blackfoot tribe, prolonging his fur trade with the tribe.

Throughout his trading career, Clarke frequently argued with prominent AFC member Owen McKenzie. This interpersonal conflict ultimately led to Clarke murdering McKenzie. After the murder, Clarke left the fur trading business out of fear of retribution from other traders, as well as the decline of the fur trade during the 1860s due to the dwindling population of bison. Clarke then moved his family to the Rocky Mountains and undertook ranching with his second wife, a mixed-race Blackfoot woman named Good Singing. They established the Clarke Horse and Cattle Ranch in 1864.[4]

Murder of Malcolm Clarke[edit]

The inciting incident of the Marias Massacre was the murder of Malcolm Clarke on August 17, 1869. He was killed by Owl Child—a young Piegan warrior—and his comrades at the Clarke Ranch. Two years prior in 1867, Owl Child had stolen horses from Clarke as payback for the loss his own horses, which he blamed on the trader.[5] Consequently, Clarke and his son, Horace, beat and humiliated Owl Child in front of a group of Blackfeet.  There were accounts from Blackfeet claiming Clarke had also raped Owl Child's wife, who was a cousin of Coth-co-co-na.[6] Other Blackfeet oral histories state that Owl Child's wife became pregnant from the assault, and birth a child who was either stillborn or killed by tribal elders.[3][7] The Piegan warriors first shot and severely wounded Horace, who survived. They then proceeded to the house where they shot Clarke in the chest before Owl Child ultimately killed him with an ax. Clarke's other children and his wife took shelter in the house and were unharmed.[5]

Clarke's murder created a climate of unrest in the region, as outraged white settlers demanded that the government protect them and suppress the outlaw Blackfeet.. In response, the U.S. Army demanded that the Blackfoot Confederacy execute Owl Child, and deliver his body to them in two weeks. Owl Child fled North and joined Mountain Chief's Piegan band,[8] which—although known for their hostility toward white settlers--, did not conduct raids on the settlements.[2]

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,[9][10] to track down and punish the offending party. Sheridan 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.[11]

Sheridan intended that the squadron conduct a dawn attack on the Piegan village; it had snowed heavily and most of the Blackfeet would be sleeping or staying inside to keep warm. This was a strategy he had used before, as he had directed George Custer to attack Black Kettle's band of Cheyenne in the Battle of Washita River.[12] Following their father's death, Nathan and Horace Clarke intercepted the Second cavalry as they passed through the Prickly Pear Valley and received permission from Colonel Philippe Regis de Trobraind to join the expedition. The two sought revenge for their father, and made their expedition known to the press.[13]

The Massacre[edit]

A command led by Major Eugene M. Baker left Fort Ellis on January 6, 1870 and stopped at Fort Shaw to pick up two more companies, including scouts Joe Kipp and Joseph Cobell who were familiar with the Piegan bands. These scouts were critical to distinguishing between the unfriendly and friendly Piegan bands, as Baker was to refrain from attacking the friendly bands. Baker needed to wait until Sheridan's division inspector general Colonel James A. Hardie completed his review of the situation and reported back to him.

Based on Hardie's January 13 report, Sheridan issued an order to "strike them hard".[2] Baker's command, consisting of four companies of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, and 55 mounted men of the 13th U.S. Infantry, moved North from Fort Shaw on January 19, looking for Mountain Chief's band, which was purportedly located in the Marias River country.[2]

Baker's command came across a small Piegan camp 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. Baker ordered a forced march that night and moved his mixed infantry and cavalry forces through rough country, locating a camp of 32 lodges in the low ground along the Marias River just South of present-day Dunkirk, Montana. Baker positioned his men in the high ground above the camp in a "natural firing range" and prepared to attack.[2]

Although scout Joe Kipp recognized that the camp belonged to Heavy Runner, who was considered peaceful and was not to be attacked per orders from Fort Shaw commander Colonel Philippe Régis de Trobriand. When told that the camp belonged to Heavy Runner, Baker responded “That makes no difference, one band or another of them; they are all Piegans [Blackfeet] and we will attack them.” Baker then ordered a sergeant to shoot Kipp if he tried to warn the sleeping camp of Blackfeet and gave the command to attack.[14] Kipp shouted to try to prevent the attack, and Baker placed him under arrest.

The noise alerted the Piegan camp and Chief Heavy Runner. Heavy Runner ran toward the soldiers, "shouting and waving a piece of paper - a safe conduct from the Indian Bureau."[2] He was immediately shot and killed. Scout Joseph Cobell later took credit for shooting Heavy Runner. Cobell was married to the sister of Mountain Chief, and wanted to divert attention from his brother-in-law's camp, which he knew was about 10 miles (16 km) downstream. After Cobell's first shot, the rest of Baker's command opened fire.[2]

As many of the men of the camp were out hunting, the U.S. Army raid was a massacre of mostly women, children, and elderly men, many of whom were found to be suffering from smallpox. Some survived by hiding in the freezing waters of the Marias River. Learning of the raid, Mountain Chief's band escaped over the border into Canada. Piegan oral history recounts that the U.S. Army threw every dead Native American man into a fire.[15] A rough count by Baker's men showed 173 dead, 54 of which were women and children, along with an additional 140 women and children captured. Only one cavalryman, Private McKay, was killed, and another soldier was injured after falling off his horse and breaking his leg.[16] This count is disputed by scout Joe Kipp, who later said the total Blackfeet dead numbered 217.[15][17]

Colonel Regis de Trobriand reported to his superior officers on the success of the expedition, informing them that the "murderers, and marauders of last summer” had been killed. Sheridan received de Trobriand's initial report on January 29 which was then forwarded to Sherman with the promise that that "this will end Indian troubles in Montana.” Sheridan also praised Baker's command: "The lieutenant-general cannot commend too highly the spirit and conduct of the troops and their commander and as one of the results of this severe but necessary and well-merited punishment of these Indians, he congratulates the citizens of Montana upon the prospect of future security."[18][19]

Baker filed a report on the incident two months later, which stated that of the 173 dead, 53 were women and children. However, 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, 50 of which were children under the age of 12.[2]


Sixth from left Eugene M. Baker and group of army officers at Fort Ellis, Montana Territory 1871.

Conflict between the settlers and the Blackfeet declined after the massacre. The Blackfoot Nation—who had been weakened by smallpox—did not have the numbers to retaliate, and feared the Americans as a brutal people.[17] Many blamed Major Baker for the massacre, for the failure to capture Mountain Chief's band, and the failure to accurately report the scale of the massacre.[20] The U.S. Army's discovery that many in the camp had been suffering of smallpox added to the outrage about their attack on non-combatants. Despite the subsequent controversy, General Sheridan expressed his confidence in Baker's leadership while struggling to protect the U.S. Army politically. He succeeded in preventing an official investigation into the incident. Following the Marias Massacre, Baker was widely viewed as a strong military commander and was selected to command Fort Ellis by General Sheridan. At Fort Ellis, Baker was in command of surveying expeditions into Yellowstone in 1871 and 1872, which culminated in a skirmish between his forces and Indian warriors led by Sitting Bull at Pryor's Creek on August 14, 1872.[21] Baker was later arrested by General Hancock for drunkenness in October 1872. He was never charged but was relegated to purchasing horses for the army.[21] Baker died age 47 on December 19, 1884 at Fort Walla Walla, Washington;[18] a January 1885 obituary admitted that listed his cause of death is given as "general debility".

Impact on the Clarke Family[edit]

As an interracial family, the Clarkes struggled to find their place in both white and Native communities. In the latter years of his life, Horace Clarke would say the two central events of his life were the murder of his father and the military campaign that followed. As a result of his role in the campaign, he would be haunted by visions of Indians while traveling in Canada. Much of his life was spent repressing memories of the slaughter and attempting to forget the details of that day.[22] Horace—who was half-Indian—was ultimately pardoned for his role in the massacre by the Native community, who viewed his participation as justified by a desire to avenge his father and because of his social and economic standing in the community.

Nathan Clarke would die two years later on September 16, 1872, when he was stabbed to death by James Swan. Clarke had wanted to court Swan's daughter but Swan insisted that she marry a white man instead. Nathan Clarke was murdered in a drunken brawl between the two, ultimately for being of mixed blood.[22]

Historical significance[edit]

Sheridan had been attempting to replace Indian agents with military personnel, as he believed that they could better control the Indians. Sheridan reported to congress that he could save the government $3.5 million in annual transportation costs alone. Although the Army Appropriation bill[disambiguation needed] in 1870 gave Sheridan the opportunity to take over Indian affairs, his involvement in the massacre prevented him from advancing.[19] Following the massacre, President Ulysses S. Grant adopted a "Peace Policy." and ended discussions about returning control of Indian affairs to the U.S. Army.[23] In an attempt to raise the quality of appointees, Grant appointed as Indian agents numerous Quakers and other persons affiliated with religious groups.

Order of battle[edit]

United States Army, Major Eugene M. Baker, commanding.

2nd United States Cavalry Regiment

13th United States Infantry Regiment

  • Mounted Detachment, 55 men.

Native Americans, Heavy Runner.

Piegan Blackfeet

  • About 230, Mostly unarmed women and children.


  • For many years, students and faculty from Blackfeet Community College have held an annual memorial on January 23 at the site. One year they placed 217 stones at the site to commemorate the victims as counted by Joe Kipp.
  • In 2010, the Baker Massacre Memorial was erected at the site.

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Annual reunion .p.62
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h 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.
  3. ^ a b Andrew R. Graybill, The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013. Page 57.
  4. ^ Graybill, Andrew (2013). The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West. New York: Liveright Publishing. p. 92.
  5. ^ a b Welch 2007, pg. 27
  6. ^ A descendant of Heavy Runner, accessed February 6, 2011
  7. ^ 2011, CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv
  8. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 30
  9. ^ Annual reuion His Civil War Rank was Brevet Lt. Col of Volunteers and Assistant Adj General/Inspector
  10. ^ Cullum register
  11. ^ Quoted in Welch 2007, pg. 30
  12. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 29
  13. ^ Wilson, Wesley (Winter 1965). "The U.S. Army and the Piegans: The Baker Massacre on the Marias, 1870". North Dakota History. 32: 40–59.
  14. ^ "Soldiers Massacre the Wrong Camp of Indians". November 16, 2006.
  15. ^ a b accessed Feb. 5, 2011 CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv, Blackfoot Digital Library
  16. ^ Witness to Carnage
  17. ^ a b Graybill (2013), Red and White
  18. ^ a b USMA Annual reunion 1885
  19. ^ a b Hutton, Paul (Spring 1982). "Phil Sheridan's Pyrrhic Victory: The Piegan Massacre, Army Politics, and the Transfer Debate". The Magazine of Western History. 32: 32–43 – via JSTOR.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ a b Lubetkin, John (Summer 2006). "'No Fighting Is to Be Apprehended': Major Eugene Baker, Sitting Bull, the Northern Pacific Railroad's 1872 Western Yellowstone Surveying Expedition". The Magazine of Western History. 56: 28–41 – via JSTOR.
  22. ^ a b Graybill, Andrew (2013). The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West. New York: Liveright. pp. 143–161.
  23. ^ 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 [1994]). 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.
  • For more information on the military actions see R.J. Ede's Tell Baker to strike them hard: Incident on the Marias.

External links[edit]