Soldiers got the right tribe but the wrong band in 1870 when they attacked a Blackfeet camp on the Marias River in an atrocity largely forgotten today.
In the bitterly cold dawn of January 23, 1870, a Piegan Blackfeet youth named Bear Head rose early and set out in search of his horses in the timber above his camp. He was returning with them in tow when he suddenly found himself surrounded by soldiers. Concerned the boy would sound a warning, the soldiers, under the command of 2nd U.S. Cavalry Major Eugene Baker, took him captive and led him to bluffs along the Marias River, a tributary of the Missouri River in northwestern Montana Territory. There, overlooking his village, the frightened youth beheld dozens of soldiers, all armed. It quickly became clear the soldiers were about to attack his camp.
The Piegan village to which Bear Head belonged was under the headship of Heavy Runner, who believed his band to be under the protection of the U.S. government and was certainly not expecting any trouble. Heavy Runner had tried to cooperate with the white men, and his band had been largely peaceful. Some young hotheads in camp had been known to cause mischief, but by and large this was a peaceful bunch. As many of the men were out on a hunting expedition, the camp population that morning largely comprised women, children and old men. When Heavy Runner got word of the soldiers’ approach, he doubtless believed there was no cause for alarm. He would simply show them the paper given him by Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully that proclaimed him to be friendly and not one of the hostile Piegan leaders whose warriors had raided stock and killed several settlers the previous year.
Unfortunately, Heavy Runner never got the chance. As the headman emerged from his tepee, paper in hand, a single shot from the bluffs dropped him, followed quickly by repeated volleys from the rest the command. As bullets rained down on their camp, the stunned villagers fled into the frigid morning air. What followed was shocking carnage, even for the Indian wars. On November 27, 1868, cavalry troopers had mounted another winter attack on an Indian village—Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyenne camp on the Washita River in what would become Oklahoma. The officer in command then was Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, whose resulting victory came to be called the Battle of Washita. Better known is the November 29, 1864, attack on another village under Black Kettle’s leadership, this one in Colorado Territory. That bloody affair came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre or Chivington Massacre, after commanding officer Colonel John M. Chivington, though some historians refer to it as the Battle of Sand Creek, as 24 soldiers died and more than 50 were wounded. The attack on Heavy Runner’s camp is usually referred to as the Marias Massacre or Baker Massacre. Either name is fitting, for it would be an extreme stretch for anyone to call the butchery that January morning a battle. Baker reported just one soldier dead. The exact number of Indian dead on the Marias remains a matter of debate, but arguably the attack was an even greater slaughter than the infamous one on Sand Creek.
The early Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsítapi, or “Original People”) comprised the Piegans (Piikáni), the Bloods (Káínawa) and the Blackfeet proper (Siksi- káwa). The Atsina, or Gros Ventres (“Big Bellies”), were briefly part of the Confederacy but left it in 1861. Six years later the Blackfeet defeated them in battle. The Piegans, who were further divided into northern and southern branches, were the largest group and the wealthiest—that is, they had the most horses. By the early 19th century the Blackfeet proper and the Bloods mostly lived in Canada (present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan), while the Piegans claimed the area of future north-central Montana south of the Marias River. All were nomadic people who hunted buffalo and raided for horses.
The Blackfeet were already trading partners with Canada-based British merchants in July 1806 when they encountered Captain Meriwether Lewis and a small party from the Corps of Discovery. When the Blackfeet tried to steal guns and horses from the white men, Lewis and corps member Reubin Field each killed a warrior in what was likely the first clash between these Indians and U.S. representatives. After that American mountain men generally faced hostility whenever they crossed paths with the Blackfeet. Regardless, by 1830 whites had developed peaceful trade with the Blackfeet, although contact with Americans remained limited, and for the most part the Blackfeet managed to keep out of the American Indian wars. By 1850 Americans had begun moving into extreme western Montana (then part of Washington Territory) in significant numbers, having discovered the region’s potential for raising cattle and horses. In 1855 the southern Piegans moved onto a reservation in what would become northern Montana in exchange for goods and services and fixed hunting grounds.
The 1870 Marias Massacre had its genesis in an incident that occurred two years earlier on Malcolm Clark’s ranch in the Little Prickly Pear Valley, about 25 miles north of Helena, a gold boomtown that would not become the capital of Montana Territory until 1875.
Born in Indiana in 1817, Malcolm Clarke grew up in Minnesota and Ohio. He was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at age 17 but only spent two years there before heading west. After several years in the army of the Republic of Texas, he headed north as an employee of the American Fur Co. in what would become Montana Territory. In the years that followed Clarke developed a good rapport with the Piegans and eventually married a Piegan, Cutting-Off-Head Woman, who bore him four children—Helen, born in 1848; Horace in ’49; Nathan in ’52; and Isabel in ’61. The mixed-blood family generally enjoyed friendly relations with the Indians.
In 1867, however, hard feelings arose when a Piegan cousin of Clarke’s wife named Ne-tus-che-o (known to whites as Pete Owl Child) visited the Clarke ranch, during which time rustlers stole both Clarke’s and Owl Child’s horses. Several of Clarke’s horses made their way back to the ranch, but Owl Child’s stock vanished, and he held a grudge. Owl Child later snuck onto the ranch one night and took some horses and a spyglass belonging to Malcolm, later calling it payment for what the Indians had lost, although to what he was referring is unclear. In any event, Malcolm and teen son Horace took off in pursuit of the horse thieves. Entering the Piegan camp, Horace spotted Owl Child riding a favorite horse. The teenager struck Owl Child with a whip, called him a dog and reclaimed the animal. That at least was the Clarkes’ side of the incident. The Piegans claimed Owl Child had stolen the horses in retribution after Malcolm had entered the Piegan camp and raped Owl Child’s wife while the men were out hunting. Although the incident ended without further trouble, Owl Child seemingly brooded and plotted revenge.
On August 17, 1869, a band of roving Piegans—the number is not clear, but perhaps as many as 35 or 40—descended on the Clarke ranch. Most stayed out of sight, but Owl Child and four others approached the house, and Malcolm invited them to enter. Among the party was a son of the prominent leader Mountain Chief, whose band had been the most lawless of the Piegans. Owl Child said he had come to return horses stolen by another band and to convince Malcolm to open up trade with the Piegans. Whatever hard feelings might have existed from the 1867 incident appeared a thing of the past. Save for Mountain Chief’s son, who seemed nervous, the visit seemed most convivial.
The picture changed in a hurry. Around midnight Horace, accompanied by Mountain Chief’s son, set out to bring in the stolen horses from a nearby pasture. Evidently Horace expected trouble, because he searched for his revolver, until his father and sister convinced him he was with friends, and he set off without it. En route Mountain Chief’s son shot Horace in the face, knocking him from the saddle. As the teenager fell, he became tangled in his lariat, and his horse dragged him some distance before his foot slipped free. Barely conscious, Horace lay bleeding as two Piegans from the larger party came out of hiding, rifled his pockets and left him for dead.
Meanwhile, back at the house, Malcolm, unaware of his son’s predicament, had just stepped outside with Owl Child when he was shot from ambush. The slug hit him in the chest and might have proved fatal by itself, but Owl Child made certain to finish him off by splitting his forehead with an ax. Inside the house screams and anguished cries from the Clarke women had replaced the friendly chatter. The badly wounded Horace managed to crawl back home, and the women helped him in and treated his wounds. After bringing Malcolm’s body inside, the surviving Clarkes barricaded themselves in a back bedroom. Before leaving, the Piegans ransacked the main room, stole flour, sugar and other foodstuffs, and drove off the late Malcolm Clarke’s cattle. Horace, though at death’s door, eventually recovered and lived another 61 years.
The murder of Malcolm Clarke and wounding of Horace might have been gratifying to the Piegans involved, but it would have dire consequences for their people. Retaliation was an inevitable fact of the Indian wars. By year’s end Colonel Philippe Régis de Trobriand, a former French aristocrat, lawyer, novelist and distinguished Civil War veteran who was then commanding the military District of Montana out of Fort Shaw, was mapping plans for a campaign against the Piegans.
Meanwhile, General Sully, superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana, arranged a visit to the new Blackfeet Agency on the Teton River, 35 miles northwest of Fort Shaw. Arriving at the agency on New Year’s Day 1870, he spent the next two days in council with a handful of chiefs, including Heavy Runner. Although encouraged by the meeting, Sully had expected a better turnout. The discussion was candid. Sully stipulated that all stolen stock must be returned, and, perhaps more important, that those Indians who had participated in the attack on the Clarke ranch must be surrendered and tried for their crimes. If the Piegans failed to heed the demands, Sully warned, the Army would hound them, even across the border into Canada—an exaggeration, of course, but meant to intimidate. Sully, however, was enough of a realist to realize some form of chastisement would be necessary, as certain young men were beyond the control of their chiefs. On January 13 Sully, on the advice of Colonel de Trobriand, ordered the seizure of Mountain Chief, whose band had proven the most troublesome.
Even as General Sully was laying his demands before the Piegan chiefs, Major Baker was marching out of Fort Ellis, near Bozeman, with four companies of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Baker’s destination was Fort Shaw, from which he would be well situated to move against the Blackfeet should they fail to respond to Sully’s ultimatum.
An 1859 graduate of West Point, 32-year-old Baker had served with distinction during the Civil War, leading a cavalry regiment in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s 1864 campaign. Although regarded as an able officer, Baker’s fondness for the bottle was well known in Army circles. His instructions, spelled out in Special Orders No. 62, followed the chain of command from Sheridan, commanding the broader Military Division of the Missouri, down through de Trobriand to Baker. The gloves were to come off. “If the lives and property of citizens of Montana can best be protected by striking Mountain Chief’s band of Piegans, I want them struck,” telegraphed Sheridan. “Tell Baker to strike them hard.”
Though Colonel de Trobriand hoped to avoid alerting the Indians to the brewing campaign, young Horace Clarke spilled the beans to the local newspaper. The news, however, broke late and seemed not to have alarmed the Piegans. On January 19, two days before the newspaper published the account, Baker took the field with nearly 400 men of the 2nd Cavalry and 13th Infantry. Joining the expedition were Horace and his younger brother, Nathan, seeking atonement for their father’s murder. A huge supply train trailed the column.
In carrying out Sheridan’s dictum, Baker was to rely on his own judgment, save for one caveat: He was not to molest the camps of Heavy Runner or other “friendly” chiefs who had counseled with Sully. Baker’s objective was the camp of Mountain Chief, whose men had attacked the Clarke family and were suspected of having committed other depredations.
In the brutal cold—the mercury registering 30 below zero —the expedition forded the icy Sun River and moved northeasterly along the Teton River. It was Baker’s intent to surprise the Piegan camp, so to ensure that outcome he ordered the column to march only at night and remain encamped during daylight hours.
At dawn on January 22 Baker’s force reached the Dry Fork of the Marias River and bivouacked for the day. As dusk gathered, the expedition resumed its march. After covering 11 miles, scouts located a small Piegan camp near the main branch of the Marias. These Piegans, it turned out, were some of the friendlies under Gray Wolf that Baker had been instructed not to disturb. But from them he gleaned valuable intelligence: The much larger camp of Mountain Chief— swelled by the bands of two other mistrusted Piegan leaders, Big Horn and Red Horn—lay just a few miles downstream at the Big Bend of the Marias.
In the predawn darkness of January 23 Baker made his final preparations. He detached the supply train and left behind a squad of infantry to protect it and also keep an eye on Gray Wolf’s small band while Baker and the main body headed downriver apace to strike at dawn. Based on what he had learned from Gray Wolf’s people, Baker was still operating under the assumption it was Mountain Chief’s band that lay ahead. But as they came within sight of the Piegan camp, Baker’s scout, a mixed-blood named Joe Kipp, quickly determined it was not Mountain Chief’s camp but that of Heavy Runner, whom Baker had specifically been ordered not to molest. Frantically, Kipp shouted an alert to Baker. Dismissing the warning, the major instead berated the scout for his outburst, placed him under guard and prepared to attack.
Meanwhile, below in the camp on this blue cold morning, with smoke rising listlessly from the tepees, Heavy Runner attempted to calm those who brought him news of the soldiers, reminding them of his recent council with General Sully. At that meeting Sully in fact had given Heavy Runner a document of safe passage. Perhaps hearing Kipp’s shouted warning to Baker, Heavy Runner emerged from his tepee, moving toward the soldiers while waving Sully’s safe passage overhead. Black Kettle reportedly did something similar at Sand Creek, flying an American flag over his tepee. But Black Kettle survived his 1864 encounter. Heavy Runner was not nearly as fortunate. Almost immediately a shot rang out, and he fell to the ground with a mortal wound. Another of Baker’s scouts, Joe Cobell, later claimed to have fired the killing round.
Whether fired by Cobell or someone else, the shot was the flash point that triggered the full-blown attack. From their positions on the high ground, the troops unleashed a murderous volume of fire. Their deadly fusillade rent the tepees asunder and drove the inhabitants to seek cover wherever they could find it. In almost an hour of unabated shooting, the troops took virtually no return fire. It was quite possibly the most one-sided attack in the history of the Indian wars. The captive Bear Head later recalled the horror of that morning as he watched helplessly from the bluffs:
At once all of the seizers [soldiers] began shooting.…Inside the lodges men were yelling, terribly frightened women and children screaming—screaming from wounds, from pain as they died. I saw a few men and women escaping from their lodges shot down as they ran. Most terrible to hear of all was the crying of little babies at their mothers’ breasts.…[The soldiers] shot at the tops of the lodges, cut the binding of the poles so the whole lodge would collapse upon the fire and begin to burn—burn and smother those within.
Finally Baker sent his troopers charging into the village, wielding sabers and firing revolvers. The infantry followed close behind, tearing apart tepees to dispatch those within. Although the soldiers swept through the village with deadly effect, they did gather nearly 150 prisoners. Baker sent one detachment of troops to round up the 300 Indian ponies, along with those Piegans who had somehow managed to survive the onslaught. By noon it was all over. According to the official tally 173 Piegans died in the attack, 120 of whom were classified as able-bodied men, the remainder women and children. (Kipp later claimed to have counted 217 Piegan casualties.) Baker lost one man, shot through the forehead when peering into a tepee.
Only in the bloody aftermath did Baker learn that Mountain Chief—his true objective—had moved his camp farther downriver. Directing Lieutenant Gustavus Doane and a company of the 2nd Cavalry to take charge of Heavy Runner’s shattered camp, Baker headed off in pursuit. But by the time his troopers reached the vicinity of Mountain Chief’s camp, the Piegan leader and his band had fled north into Canada. Baker bivouacked that night, and the next day his men burned what remained of the abandoned camp.
The fight on the Marias, if indeed it can be called that, was mercifully over. But there remained one more heinous incident. That evening, after several Piegan prisoners tried to escape the scene of slaughter, an angry Lieutenant Doane reportedly ordered his men to kill the captives—with axes. When Baker returned early on the 24th, Doane simply reported the Piegans had been killed while attempting to escape, an explanation that seemed to satisfy Baker. Doane also reported that Heavy Runner’s camp had been infested with smallpox. The troops had been vaccinated, so Baker and his men had little to fear. But it would not do to bring the prisoners into contact with other whites who may not have been inoculated, so Baker ordered all 140 Piegans cut loose, leaving them a few cases of bacon and hardtack. With their lodges destroyed and horses confiscated, the hapless Piegans were forced to make their way on foot to shelter at Fort Benton, some 75 miles downriver, in the brutally cold weather.
Baker’s command, meanwhile, returned to Fort Shaw on January 29. Word of the fight had preceded them, and Colonel de Trobriand gave the troops a warm welcome. Baker was the hero of the moment; after all, his arduous expedition had covered some 600 miles in harsh weather and had pulled off a spectacular victory—or so it seemed.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Piegan camp, Eugene Baker may well have imagined his career secure, his future bright. Just as in the wake of Sand Creek, area newspapers praised Baker’s actions, some suggesting in the strongest terms that extermination was the only answer to the Indian problem. While General of the Army William T. Sherman reacted to the early newspaper hyperbole with caution and reserve, General Sheridan greeted the news with pride and praise. But euphoria over the victory on the Marias River was short lived. Before the month was out reports of a different sort began to filter through the upper echelons of government. Humanitarians such as Vincent Colyer, Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison began to speak out on behalf of the Indians. Baker, although lionized by Montanans, drifted along in his Army career between various routine assignments. In the end alcoholism dragged him down, and he died in 1884 at Fort Walla Walla, Wash. He was 47 years old.
In 1926 Horace Clarke, then age 77, related the story of the attack that claimed the life of his father. Three years earlier Horace, in the company of several others, had traveled to the site of the old Clarke ranch, where a shabby wooden fence ringed Malcolm’s grave. A year later the state of Montana had arranged for an iron fence to replace the wooden one. Some years after that a group of students from Blackfeet Community College arranged to visit the site of the Marias Massacre and erect a circle of stones as a memorial to those who lost their lives on that bitterly cold day so very long ago.
Colorado author Jerry Keenan first wrote for Wild West 26 years ago. An entry about the massacre appears in Keenan’s Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, 1492–1890. Suggested for further reading: “Tell Baker to Strike Them Hard”: Incident on the Marias, 23 January, 1870, by Robert J. Ege, and The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West, by Andrew R. Graybill (review and author interview in the October 2014 Wild West).
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.