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On a warm evening in August 1869, a group of five Piegan Indians turned up unannounced at the home of fur trader turned rancher Malcolm Clarke, 25 miles north of Helena in Montana Territory. The visit was a surprise, but the Piegans—members of one of three tribes that made up the Blackfeet nation—were greeted warmly. One of them, a young man named Owl Child, was related to Clarke by marriage.

By the time they left, however, Clarke was dead, the coup de grâce a blow to the head from Owl Child’s tomahawk.

Clarke’s murder triggered an extraordinary chain of events. First, the U.S. Army massacred 173 innocent Indians in a tragic case of mistaken identity. That in turn created an improbable alliance of U.S. Army commanders, the leading men of Montana Territory, and a young soldier who dreamed of becoming America’s greatest explorer. Together, they paved the way for exploration of a land where geysers spewed boiling water and the ground trembled with a sound like artillery fire. Within a few short years of Malcolm Clarke’s death, that strange land would become America’s first national park: Yellowstone.

The animosity between the Blackfeet and whites can be traced to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Despite warnings by the friendly Nez Perce, who had helped the Corps of Discovery recross the forbidding Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana in 1806, Lewis had broken off from the main party and led three other men into the dangerous territory of the Piegans. His mandate from President Thomas Jefferson was to see if American control of the lucrative fur trade could be pushed well into the north. “They are a vicious lawless and reather [sic] abandoned set of wretches,” Lewis wrote of the Piegans in his journal. “I wish to avoid an interview with them if possible.” He did not succeed. On July 26, 1806, on a tributary of the Marias River in central Montana, Lewis’s little party ran into a group of eight young warriors. By the next morning, two of the Indians were dead, one of them (a boy of about 12, according to later Blackfeet accounts) shot by Lewis. It was the only significant violence in the two-year epic of the Corps of Discovery.

The Piegans sensed that the incident foretold dramatic change. The tribe embraced the trading posts run by men like Malcolm Clarke, which brought Piegans material comfort their ancestors had never known. They now had more horses, and more horses meant they could hunt as far south as the volcanic plateau of the upper Yellowstone River, which they called “the land of many smokes.”

But the clash, along with fur envy, ushered in an era of aggressive competition from trappers, the “Big Knives,” in the prime beaver territory around the sources of the Missouri River in Montana. The tribe’s attitude was put succinctly to the Indian agent John Sanford: “If you will send traders into our country we will protect them and treat them well; but for trappers—never.”

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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Nonetheless, said famed frontiersman Kit Carson, “We determined to trap wherever we pleased, even if we had to fight for the right.” And they did, particularly near the upper Yellowstone, with sometimes tragic results. A Blackfeet war party dismembered the body of Lewis and Clark explorer John Potts in 1808 and flung his heart, lungs, and entrails in the face of John Colter, a fellow veteran of the expedition and the first white man to see the Yellowstone caldera. In 1832, trader William Henry Vanderburgh had his skull cleaved open by a hatchet, after which his arms were chopped off, his body defleshed, and the remains dumped in the Jefferson River. The most celebrated of all the mountain men, Jim Bridger, carried a Blackfeet arrowhead in his back for almost three years.

The region developed a reputation for natural wonders as well as danger. Fleeing a Piegan raiding party in 1829 and lost in the wilderness, the trapper Joe Meek ascended a mountain to orient himself. The country spread out before him seemed to be burning, with countless craters spouting steam and throwing off (at least in Meek’s hyperactive imagination) blue flames and molten brimstone. “He thought himself reminded of the city of Pittsburgh as he had seen it on a winter morning a couple of years before,” wrote a 19th-century author.

The trappers’ tales of Yellowstone, especially those of Bridger, riveted the settlers who poured into Montana after the discovery of gold in 1862. Most were secessionists, draft dodgers, and assorted lowlifes, but the few who came to dominate the territory’s political and economic life were educated Easterners who saw Montana gold as an opportunity to get rich—and help the cash-strapped Union war effort. Nathaniel Pitt Langford arrived at the end of 1864, when he followed the gold strikes to Last Chance Gulch, later known as Helena. Businessman, government official, aspiring politician, prominent Mason, vigilante leader, and would-be explorer, Langford quickly made two important friendships. The first was with Cornelius Hedges, a mild-mannered Massachusetts native and Bible-reading graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School who had walked all the way to Montana from Independence, Iowa, despite his physical frailty, hypochondria, and morbid fear of attack by Indians. Langford’s other friend was the rancher Malcolm Clarke, who engaged Hedges as his lawyer.

For a quarter century, Clarke bestrode the Piegan country of northern Montana like no other white man. The son of a military officer, he attended West Point, where he was a classmate and friend of William Tecumseh Sherman. But Clarke was court-martialed and expelled for beating a fellow cadet with a rawhide whip after some slight to his honor. It was typical of the man. Contemporaries called him eloquent, honorable, and loyal, but also quick tempered and arrogant.

The lives of those few settlers who crossed ethnic lines were inevitably complicated, but Clarke’s was more tangled than most. In 1844, he had married a 17-year-old Piegan, Cutting Off Head Woman. Her people regarded the trader with a mixture of awe, fear, and respect; after he killed four grizzlies on a single day before breakfast, they gave him the name Four Bears. No white man had ever been so fully embraced by the Blackfeet, or perhaps by any Native Americans.

During the Civil War, Clarke turned down a generalship in the Union army and accepted an appointment as special emissary to the Northern Plains tribes. He was charged with keeping peace with the Indians, who, aware that the War Between the States was occupying men of military age, were bound to try to attack and rob vulnerable settlers. Clarke had managed to prevent open hostilities until the war was over.

Clarke, Hedges, and Langford could not have been more dissimilar. A hardened frontiersman, Clarke had spent two decades immersed in the often violent world of the Piegans and was an outspoken defender of their rights. “When the whites come in and try to take the Indians’ land,” he told his son Horace, “stand by your mother’s people.” Langford and Hedges, on the other hand, did not look so kindly on the Indians. “They can no more live with civilized white men, than can the buffalo, or elk, or bear,” Langford wrote. It is one of the great paradoxes of the western frontier that men like Clarke, who had experienced the realities of tribal life, were the most tolerant. Men like Hedges and Langford, meanwhile, were cultured types who might have been writing editorials in the eastern newspapers denouncing the abuse of the red man had they stayed at home. Transplanted to the West, they often became the most militant, fearful of the lurid stories they heard of the alien Other, whom they rarely encountered in the flesh. “I hope the last Indians will be killed this season,” Hedges wrote to his mother in 1865.

Many people dismissed Bridger’s tales of the upper Yellowstone as Münchhausen fantasies, but Langford respected the old mountain man as a fellow professional and a skilled though unlettered mapmaker. He was particularly struck by Bridger’s description of “a column of water, as large as my body, spout as high as the [Virginia City] liberty pole (about 70 ft.).” Old Faithful, perhaps? “I was…inclined…to believe that such a wonder really did exist,” Langford wrote. “Determined to visit it.” But the ferocious Blackfeet stood in the way.

A new treaty with the Blackfeet in 1865—never ratified by Congress—failed for the same reasons so many others did: a mixture of naiveté, disingenuousness, and bad faith on the part of the government and the pretense that lines drawn on a map, timetables of the future, and talk of hoes and ploughshares had any real meaning to the Blackfeet chiefs who scrawled their X’s.

In 1866, a new wave of prospectors poured into the Piegan treaty lands in response to rumors of new gold strikes, and reprisals were inevitable. Settlers were robbed and murdered. Indian scalps became legal tender in the bars of Fort Benton on the Missouri, the territory’s main fur-trading center. The celebrated Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, who had championed the interests of the Blackfeet for 25 years, closed his mission. “Often wronged, insulted, and outraged beyond measure by the whites,” he wrote in anguish, the Indians would now “dig up the warhatchet and utter the cry of vengeance against the pale-faces.”

At least three times during this period, Langford and other leaders of the gold camps discussed exploration of the upper Yellowstone. The men made all sorts of excuses for holding out— business commitments, jury service—but they really just feared for their safety. An expedition finally materialized in September 1869, but it dwindled from 20 men—“a score of the brightest luminaries in the firmament of Montana,” Langford called them— to just three by the time they set out. While they saw the Black Canyon and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the upper and lower falls, and the geysers on the Firehole River, their reports garnered little attention. Eastern newspapers refused to publish the stories, treating them as modern editors might treat tales of alien abduction.

And they were drowned out in the clamor that followed the killing of Malcolm Clarke, just two weeks before their departure.

Since the Civil War, the army had resisted the settlers’ call for military action against the Blackfeet. There was good reason to hold back. Compared to hostilities on the Southern Plains, the violence in Montana was trivial. And the generals had no intention of being gulled by ambitious, glory-seeking politicians or frontier communities who wanted troops as free labor to build roads and string telegraph lines. But finally four companies of the 2nd Cavalry were dispatched to the newly constructed Fort Ellis, just outside Bozeman. They arrived on July 1, 1869, six weeks before Malcolm Clarke was killed.

Montana’s hysterical press depicted the murder as the prelude to a Piegan war of extermination against whites. It was in fact purely a family affair, unrelated to the larger conflict. Clarke’s young relative Owl Child was a disturbed young man with a history of violence, a pariah unwelcome in any Piegan camp. The murder was the outcome of a longstanding quarrel over stolen horses. All this was duly reported by Nathaniel Langford, who read the funeral service over his friend’s grave. But the political dynamic had changed. Even though he knew the truth of the Clarke affair, Langford added his influential voice to the warnings of a Blackfeet invasion, of hills aswarm with “red devils.” He chaired an angry meeting of Helena citizens who petitioned the aristocratic, French-born commander of the District of Montana, Major General Philippe Régis de Trobriand, to deploy 200 cavalrymen to hunt down the killers and punish the band led by Mountain Chief, to which Owl Child belonged.

De Trobriand’s investigation confirmed that Clarke’s murder had nothing to do with broader hostilities, and he told the men of Helena that he saw no reason to send in the cavalry. The recent depredations, he said, were the work of “a handful of roaming thieves and murderous red vagabonds.” De Trobriand, however, was only one player in a larger strategic game. A peace commission headed by General Sherman had foun – dered during the brutal war against the Cheyenne in Kansas in 1867–1868, a war waged by his old comrade-in-arms, General Phil Sheridan. In March 1869, the third member of this Civil War triumvirate, General Ulysses S. Grant, had assumed the presidency and announced his new peace policy. By summertime it was already fraying. And Sheridan, now dispatched to Chicago to command the 11,000 troops scattered like pepper grindings across the Northern Plains, had his own conception of peace, forged in the crucible of the 1864 Shenandoah campaign.

The doctrine of total war that these three generals formulated in the Civil War’s Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864 cast the civilian population as a strategic target. For Sheridan, perversely, this was a humanitarian act. “As war is a punishment,” he wrote, “if we can, by reducing its advocates to poverty, end it quicker, we are on the side of humanity.” Add Sheridan’s racial animus to this mix—although the idea “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” often attributed to him was likely first put into words by a Montana contemporary—and there was little doubt about how the largely phony Blackfeet crisis would be resolved.

Sheridan had become an advocate of waging war in winter, when hostile Indians were hunkered down in camps. This had been Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s tactic when he annihilated Black Kettle’s Cheyennes on the Washita River in November 1868. [See “Hard War on the Southern Plains,” Summer 2011.] Now, Sheridan told Sherman, “Let me find out exactly where these Indians are going to spend the winter, and about the time of a good heavy snow I will send out a party and try and strike them.” By them, he stressed, he meant the Blackfeet led by Mountain Chief. Under no circumstances should the army attack the camp of Chief Heavy Runner, who was a friend to the whites and carried a safe-conduct pass from General Alfred Sully, Montana’s superintendent of Indian affairs.

The commander of the operation would be Colonel Eugene M. Baker, who had served under Sheridan in the Shenandoah campaign. The Civil War hardened Baker, as it did many, and by the time he took command of Fort Ellis in December 1869, he had acquired a reputation as a brutal disciplinarian and a raging alcoholic. By January 12, 1870, de Trobriand had learned that Mountain Chief was encamped on the Big Bend of the Marias River, some 110 miles north of Helena, and barely 30 miles east of the spot where Meriwether Lewis had clashed with the Piegans. Three days later, Sheridan tele graphed his orders: “Tell Baker to strike them hard.” On the morning of January 19, 10 officers and 337 men set out for the Marias. The temperature was 44 below zero.

Three of the companies of cavalry from Fort Ellis were led by men with impressive credentials: a rising star from West Point, a 25-year veteran, and a hero of Gettysburg. The fourth company was headed by Baker’s favorite officer, a lowly second lieutenant named Gustavus Cheyney Doane, to whom he would entrust the leading role in the attack. Doane nurtured the ambition to be recognized as America’s greatest explorer. He could find a trail, hitch a mule, and pitch a tent better than any man on the Plains. “The best field soldier I ever knew,” said Hugh Lenox Scott, who served with Doane in the 2nd Cavalry and went on to become U.S. Army chief of staff.

At dawn on January 23, with his men drawn up in battle formation on the dark, cindery bluffs above the Marias, Baker gave the order to attack. Even as he did, a panicked scout rushed up to warn of a dreadful mistake: Mountain Chief had moved his camp; the tepees spread out below were those of the friendly chief Heavy Runner. Baker had guards seize the scout and threatened to have him shot if he uttered another word. Later the young man would testify that the colonel was drunk and had no idea what he was doing.

As Doane charged the village at the head of Company F, Heavy Runner emerged from his lodge, waving the credential he had been given by General Sully. It did him no good. A single shot rang out, hitting the chief in the chest. The troops on the bluffs took this as the signal to open fire, while Doane’s men burned the tents, with their occupants still inside, and chased those trying to flee, dispatching them with revolvers. When the slaughter was over, Doane counted 173 dead, most of them women and children; only 15 were men of fighting age. Army casualties amounted to one dead and one broken leg.

Worse for the 2nd Cavalry, it had attacked not only the wrong camp but one ravaged by smallpox. And there was no sign of Owl Child, the target of the operation. Clarke’s murderer had fled across the Canadian line. When some friendly—or terrified—Piegans were later sent to capture him, they found that he too had nearly succumbed to the “white scabs.” De Trobriand wrote in his memoirs: “To bring him in alive was troublesome, and finding his death too lingering, they hastened the end by cutting off his head which was brought in a bag to prove the sincerity of their desire for peace.”

While Eastern politicians and editorial writers railed against the massacre, Helena celebrated. Cornelius Hedges, the self-effacing Massachusetts lawyer, delivered a statement to the Chicago Tribune on behalf of the citizenry, praising the army for “mak[ing] the American flag a terror to evil-doers” and saying that Baker and his officers “deserve the commendation and gratitude of the whole country, as they already have of every good citizen of Montana.”

The routes to the upper Yellowstone now lay open for the first time, safe from menacing encounters with the Blackfeet. Phil Sheridan threw his support behind an expedition. He had left Chicago in May 1870 for a tour of his western forts and to pay tribute to the Marias heroes. In Helena, he was greeted like a Roman conqueror; Hedges put on a reception in his honor.

On his way to Montana, Sheridan had spent the night at a ramshackle stage-stop where an old mountain man had regaled him with stories of mud pots and hot springs and other exotic phenomena in a remote area of the upper Yellowstone. The general quizzed the leading men of Helena: What did they know of this mysterious place? When they told him that they planned to explore it that very summer, he authorized an escort of troops from Fort Ellis.

Driven by his burning ambition as an explorer, and with disregard for protocol, Lieutenant Doane went straight to the titular head of the expedition, former Major General Henry Dana Washburn, another Shenandoah veteran and now surveyor general of Montana, to press his case. He urged Washburn to telegraph departmental headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota; once permission was granted, Doane said, Colonel Baker would surely give him command of the Yellowstone escort.

So, on August 22, 1870, a party of 19 men departed Fort Ellis, with Washburn as their nominal leader; Langford as their organizer and promoter; Doane as their pathfinder; and the modest, hypochondriacal Hedges as the unlikeliest explorer of them all. With the exception of the “mysterious mounds” of Mammoth Hot Springs, which they did not find, they mapped virtually the entire future national park and even saw Old Faithful erupt. Doane compiled the official report, which is compelling reading even today. Doane’s actions on the Marias and his description of Yellowstone brought him a starburst of fame. He was praised by the great General Sherman, and his report was hailed by the country’s most famous scientist-explorer, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who wrote that, “for graphic description and thrilling interest, it has not been surpassed by any official report made to our government since the times of Lewis and Clark.”

Eighteen months later, on March 1, 1872, President Grant signed the bill creating the world’s first national park. And the three veterans of the tragically misguided campaign to avenge the murder of Malcolm Clarke were at the center of the enterprise. Cornelius Hedges, despite his modesty, claimed “the honor of having first proposed constituting this region of wonders into a National Park.” Nathaniel Pitt Langford—his first two initials were fortuitous, he often joked—was appointed as Yellowstone’s first superintendent. And Lieutenant Doane, though the rest of his career was a litany of frustration and failure, would be remembered to the end of his days not only as the favorite officer of “Piegan Baker” on the Marias but “as the man who invented Wonderland.”

George Black, executive editor of OnEarth magazine, is the author of three books on natural America. Empire of Shadows, from which this story is drawn, was recently named as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.  

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly.