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

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, children, and elderly men.

During a campaign to suppress Mountain Chief's band of Piegan Blackfeet, (who harbored a man named Owl Child, said to have murdered a white trader and rancher, Malcolm Clarke), the U.S. Army instead 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. He kept the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, at a time when the War Department was trying to regain control, and he appointed men who were recommended by various religious clergy, including Quakers and Methodists, as Indian agents, hoping they would be free of the corruption he had found in the department.


Relations between the Niitsitapi Confederacy (as usually as inaccurately called "Blackfoot" and comprising the Blackfeet, Blood, and Piegan tribes) and whites 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. A general air of lawlessness prevailed among both races rather than a widespread, organized conflict, such as Red Cloud's War.[1] By 1870, the Blackfeet had largely retreated north of the Marias River in the territory.

Malcolm Clarke[edit]

Prior to his life in the West, Malcolm Clarke attended West Point where he was disciplined for numerous fights until he was forced out of the school.[2]  During his time there he had been classmates and friends with William Sherman, however they lost touch after he left school. In the West, Clarke made a living as a fur trader and worked in association with the American Fur Company (AFC). He found success trading with Blackfeet tribes. He married a native woman Coth-co-co-na and had four children, Helen, Horace, Nathan, and Isabel. This marriage served as an alliance between Malcolm and the Blackfeet tribe which gained him their trust and facilitated his fur trade with the tribe.

During his time as a trader, Malcolm had multiple quarrels with prominent member of the AFC Owen McKenzie. These quarrels climaxed when Clarke murdered McKenzie as he attempted to board a boat. After this event Malcolm was forced to leave the fur trade business from fear of retribution from other traders. Also at this time (1864) there had been an economic decline in the trade due to a dwindling population of bison herds.  Malcolm moved with his family and took up ranching with his second wife who was mixed blooded woman was named Good Singing. The Clarke horse and cattle ranch began in 1864 in the Rockies. [3]

Murder of Malcolm Clarke[edit]

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. He was killed by Owl Child, (a young Piegan warrior), and his comrades after they had been to dinner at the Clarke ranch.They first shot and severely wounded Clarke's oldest son, Horace in the face, who survived. They then proceeded to the house where they shot Malcolm in the chest before Owl Child cleaved Clarke’s forehead with an ax. Another son, Nathan, the two daughters, and Clarke's wife, Coth-co-co-na, a Blackfeet woman, had taken shelter in the house and were unharmed.[4]

This attack 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.[5] Clarke and his son, Horace, had tracked Owl Child down and beaten him in front of a group of Blackfeet, humiliating him. Native accounts had said that Malcolm Clarke had earlier raped Owl Child's wife, who was a cousin of Clarke's wife, Coth-co-co-na.[6] Other Blackfeet oral history accounts state that 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.[2][7]

The killing of Clarke at home outraged settlers in the region, who demanded the government protect them, and suppress the outlaw Blackfeet. The death of Clarke and other whites in the region at this time had led to growing unrest and fear in the settlers who demanded action. In response the United States Army demanded of leaders of the Blackfoot Confederacy that Owl Child be killed, and his body delivered within two weeks. Owl Child fled and joined the band of Mountain Chief in the north.[8] Mountain Chief's Piegan band was noted for its hostility toward white settlers, but they were not conducting organized raids against them.[1]

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. 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.[9]

Sheridan intended the squadron to conduct a dawn attack on the village; snow had been heavy and most of the Blackfeet would be sleeping or staying inside to keep warm. (It was a strategy he had used before, directing George Custer to attack Black Kettle's band of Cheyenne in the Battle of Washita River).[10] 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. Horace despite his wound to the face, desired revenge for himself and his father and accompanied the cavalry, making their expedition known to the press. [11]

The massacre[edit]

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. Baker had been ordered to avoid attacking friendly bands, and the scouts were critical to distinguish among 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.[1] 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 the village of Mountain Chief's band, which was reported to be located in the Marias River country.[1]

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 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.[1]

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). When told that the camp belonged to Heavy Runner, Baker responded to Kipp “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.[12] Kipp shouted to try to prevent the attack, and Baker placed him under arrest. (Kipp later said 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."[1] He was killed by a single shot fired from the bluffs. 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.[1]

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, of whom many 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; one of the men was cut in half with a bayonet.[13] A hasty count by Baker's men showed 173 dead, of which 54 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.[14] This count is disputed by scout Joe Kipp, who later said the total Blackfeet dead numbered 217.[13][15]

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 an endorsement 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."[16]

Baker did not file a report for two months; it said 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 were children under the age of 12.[1] Colyer was provided this information from Lieutenant William Pease, the Blackfoot agent headquartered at Fort Benton, and Lieutenant Colonel Sully. Both of whom had grievances against Sheridan and Colonel de Trobraind for his treatment of them. [17]


Many blamed (and still blame) Major Eugene M. Baker, a known alcoholic,[18] for the massacre and failure to capture Mountain Chief's band, and for failing to accurately report the scale of the massacre. The U.S. Army's discovery that many in the camp were dying of smallpox added to the outrage about their attack on non-combatants. In 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. Despite praises from other military officials, Baker continued drinking throughout his military career. Following the Marias Massacre, he was viewed as a strong competent military commander and was selected to command Fort Ellis by General Sheridan. From Fort Ellis, Baker was in command of Surveying Expeditions into Yellowstone from 1871-1872 which climaxed at Pryor’s Creek on August 14, 1872 when Baker’s force was surrounded by an Indian force under Sitting Bull and a brief skirmish ensued.[19] Baker Continued to drink heavily and was arrested by General Hancock for this in October of 1872. Following this Baker was never charged but was relegated to purchasing horses for the army. [19]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 retaliate; they also feared the Americans as a brutal people.[15]

Impact on the Clarke Family[edit]

The Clarke family are portrayed in Graybill's work The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West. As a mixed family they struggled to find their place in either white or 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. For his role in it the campaign would be haunted by visions of Indians while traveling in Canada. As while traveling Horace fell ill and saw a Piegan man named Fog Eater who had been shot in the face during the massacre. This vision told him “You fool. Go back home.” Following his recovery Horace returned to Montana. Much of his life spent repressing memories of the slaughter and attempting to forget the details of that day.[20] Horace who was half Indian, would be 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 the prominence of his own economic ventures and standing in the community.

Nathan Clarke would die two years later on September 16, 1872 when he was stabled to death by James Swan, another man of mixed blood. Clarke had wanted to court Swan’s daughter but Swan was determined she marry a white man instead, in the drunken brawl that ensued, Nathan Clarke was murdered, ultimately for being of mixed blood.[20]

Historical Significance[edit]

Sheridan had been attempting to replace Indian agents with military personnel arguing that they could control the Indians and the problem better. Sheridan reported to congress that he could save the government 3.5 mil in transportation costs alone in a year. The army appropriation bill in 1870 gave Sheridan the opportunity to take over Indian affairs but the actions of Sheridan and his men in the field ended these attempts.[16] Following the Massacre President Ulysses S. Grant began to adopt a "Peace Policy." He ended discussions about returning control of Indian affairs to the U.S. Army.[21] At the time, military leaders were concerned about corruption of civilian Indian agents, and operations of the annuity programs. 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. ^ 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.
  2. ^ a b Andrew R. Graybill, The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013. Page 57.
  3. ^ Graybill, Andrew (2013). The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West. New York: Liveright Publishing. p. 92.
  4. ^ Welch 2007, pp. 28-29
  5. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 27
  6. ^ A descendant of Heavy Runner, accessed February 6, 2011
  7. ^ 2011, CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv
  8. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 30
  9. ^ Quoted in Welch 2007, pg. 30
  10. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 29
  11. ^ Wilson, Wesley (Winter 1965). "The U.S. Army and the Piegans: The Baker Massacre on the Marias, 1870". North Dakota History. 32: 40–59.
  12. ^ "Soldiers Massacre the Wrong Camp of Indians". November 16, 2006.
  13. ^ a b accessed Feb. 5, 2011 CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv, Blackfoot Digital Library
  14. ^ Witness to Carnage
  15. ^ a b Graybill (2013), Red and White
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Ede, R. J. (1970). Tell Baker to strike them hard: Incident on the Marias, 23 Jan. 1870,. Bellevue: Old Army Press. p. 50.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ a b Graybill, Andrew (2013). The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West. New York: Liveright. pp. 143–161.
  21. ^ 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]