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 None, 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.

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, married a Blackfeet woman, and had mixed-race children. He was killed 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 woman, had taken shelter in the house and were unharmed.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5][6]

The killing of Clarke at home outraged settlers in the region, who demanded the government protect them, and suppress the outlaw Blackfeet. 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.[7] 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.[8]

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).[9]

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. 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). 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.[10] A hasty count by Baker's men showed 173 dead, with 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.[11] This count is disputed by scout Joe Kipp, who later said the total Blackfeet dead numbered 217.[10][12]

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]


Many blamed (and still blame) Major Eugene M. Baker, a known alcoholic,[13] 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. 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.[12]

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." He ended discussions about returning control of Indian affairs to the U.S. Army.[14] At the time, the U.S. Army had been seeking to take Indian Affairs into its jurisdiction, as 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. ^ Welch 2007, pp. 28-29
  3. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 27
  4. ^ A descendant of Heavy Runner, accessed February 6, 2011
  5. ^ Andrew R. Graybill, The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013
  6. ^ 2011, CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv
  7. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 30
  8. ^ Quoted in Welch 2007, pg. 30
  9. ^ Welch 2007, pg. 29
  10. ^ a b accessed Feb. 5, 2011 CarolMurrayTellsBakerMassacre1.flv, Blackfoot Digital Library
  11. ^ Witness to Carnage
  12. ^ a b Graybill (2013), Red and White
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.

External links[edit]