Marias Massacre,

Shelby, Montana
January 23, 1870

Agencies: Unspecified

Cause of death: Shooting

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Last updated: almost 6 years ago


Terrorism and genocide around the world is in the news daily and Americans react with horror at how any government or group could commit atrocities against some minority. Americans feel smug that our country is far superior in the world scene of human rights. This country was founded with rights and freedoms guaranteed to it’s citizens and the rest of the world should look to America as an example to follow for human rights. But a close look at our history shows many incidents of terrorism and slaughter of innocents with the blessing of the government. Many of these massacres and government-sanctioned terrorism have been well documented and memorialized for future generations to remember and learn from. The Marias Massacre is not one of them. The Marias incident is remembered by few and no sign marks it’s location and no book has been written exclusively on the event. The Marias Massacre must be remembered, both to honor those that died, and to remind America of it’s own bloody past.

Montana in the 1860’s was a clash of cultures involving two peoples that did not understand or trust each other. America was expanding westward and uprooting the people who wanted to keep what was their ancestral home. There were good men on each side who tried to live in peace and there were bad men on each side who had no respect for each other or (even their own) and were quick to shed blood. And there were people on each side who were reluctant to condemn their own people even though they condemned their actions. In this mix were men and women who intermarried from each group and started families that often, rather than bring them together, created new animosities.

Malcolm Clarke married She Cuts Her Head Off, a Blackfoot, and they had two sons and one daughter. (Blackfeet genealogy) He was a brutal man who was expelled from West Point for horse-whipping a fellow cadet (Hoines, 2001) and moved to Montana and started a ranch near Helena. The Blackfeet knew him as a two-faced man; although he had a Blackfoot wife, he had little respect for her people.

Owl Child was a hot-tempered young man from Mountain Chief’s band and was a relative of She Cuts Her Head Off. After some dispute with Clarke, Owl Child stole some horses from him. Clarke tracked Owl Child down and whipped him viciously in front of everyone. In revenge, on August 19, 1869, Owl Child came back and killed Clarke and wounded his wife and son, Horace, who was about fifteen (Gibson, Hayne).

In Blackfoot society, blood feuds were normal, one side or the other attempts to humiliate the other, but not to wipe each other out. The Whites however, were ignorant of these ways, and growing tired of raids, called for all out war with the Blackfeet. The local people were outraged by one more attack on one of their own, and insisted that the army hunt down Owl Child and any others who were responsible for Clarke’s murder.

General Sheridan ordered Major Eugene Baker to find Mountain Chief’s band (he felt that since Owl Child was from this band, all in the band must be responsible) and gave him instructions to use his own discretion to find Owl Child and punish any other Blackfeet he thought might be guilty. What this amounted to was permission to make a preemptive strike on any Indian he found, guilty or not. Eugene Baker was also known as a hard drinking man and often was drunk on duty and he was no sympathizer of Indians. He took along young Horace and Nathan Clarke so that they could help identify Owl Child and exact vengeance on their father’s murderer.

On January 23, 1870, Major Baker’s expedition encountered a Blackfoot village on the Marias River. It was forty below zero and Baker and several of his officers had been drinking. He thought that this was Mountain Chief’s camp (his camp was about fifteen miles further down the river) and ordered the troops to surround it. A man came out to meet them holding a piece of paper up. He was Heavy Runner and this was his camp (Heavy Runner had met earlier with General Sully, the Indian Superintendent, to make known his willingness to keep peace with the Whites and Sully had given him a paper that identified him as peaceful). One of the guides, Joe Kipp, recognized Heavy Runner and tried to let the soldiers know they were at the wrong camp, but it was too late; the soldiers came to kill Indians and they didn’t care who they killed.

Heavy Runner was killed first and the troops continued firing until no one moved. Not one Indian had fired a shot. One hundred and seventy-three Blackfeet were dead; mainly the sick, elderly, women and children. Afterwards, Private Walton McKay went through the camp killing anyone wounded and was fatally shot by a dying man trying to defend himself after McKay went inside his tent; he was the only soldier killed that day.

After the carnage, Baker left part of his command to guard the captives and wounded and took the remainder to look for Mountain Chief’s camp. They found his abandoned camp a few miles down the Marias then returned. Several captive men tried to escape and the infuriated soldiers executed eight of them with an ax after bringing them back. It was later reported that the eight were killed while trying to escape. All of the horses (at least 300) were taken and all lodges and possessions were the destroyed and the bodies buried in a mass grave. The remaining survivors were then released to go to their relatives, but in their weakened condition, many more died in the sub-zero weather.

News of the massacre reached the Blackfoot Indian Agent, Lieutenant W.B. Pease and Superintendent of Montana Indians, General Alfred Sully. They protested the actions of Major Baker and demanded a public inquiry. Major Baker said in his report:

“We succeeded, about 8 o'clock, in surprising the camp of Bear Chief and Big Horn [hostiles]. We killed one hundred and seventy-three Indians, captured over one hundred women and children, and over three hundred horses. ...Too much credit cannot be given to the officers and men of the command for their conduct during the whole expedition.” (Gibson and Hayne)

Congress and the East were outraged at the reports coming out of Montana, but General Sherman, General of the Army, issued a press release silencing them. He stated that he “preferred to believe” Baker’s report:

“The majority of those killed in Mountain Chief's camp were warriors, that the firing ceased the moment resistance was at an end, that quarter was given to all who asked for it; and that a hundred women and children were allowed to go free to join the other bands of the same tribe camped nearby, rather than the absurd report that there were only thirteen warriors killed and that all the balance were women and children, more or less afflicted with smallpox" (Gibson and Hayne).

The investigation of the massacre never went any further. Baker, his officers and the civilian guides that participated in the slaughter, were never brought to trial. The survivors were never given compensation. The mass grave has never been located to even place a marker memorializing the victims and the government has made no effort to help.

Blackfoot author, James Welsh must be given credit however, as he included the account in his book “Fools Crow” (1986) in which he includes stories passed down from his family’s memories of the massacre. His book has inspired Stan Gibson and Jack Hayne to research military archives and eyewitness accounts to document the event. And cowboy poet Rory Duce wrote the following poem, Remember Marias (2006) to memorialize this tragedy:

Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee
Are well described in history
Washita and Sand Creek too
The Cheyenne and also Sioux
Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse
Left the nation in remorse
Old Black Kettle suffered twice
With his life he paid the price
A thousand books, a hundred songs
Have been written about these wrongs
And well we should remember these
For truly they were tragedies
Massacres of innocents
The White Man’s accomplishments

But another story is oft ignored
In history books and by school boards
In the bitter cold of a winter morn
The Peigan felt the White Man’s scorn
Heavy Runner was friendly to the whites
But even he fell under the rifle sights
Two hundred lives were lost that day
As Major Baker had his way
Nits make lice he shouted to his men
Kill them all, women and children
The body count of that January day
Were piled high and then torched away
No graves or National Park remain
To tell us of the Marias campaign

The American people must remember their own history of blood before they condemn any other government. All peoples must learn to understand the other cultures and quit judging them by their own standards. The Marias Massacre must and will be remembered.

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