This Date in Native History: On January 23, 1870, U.S. Major Eugene Baker declared he didn’t care that he was attacking the wrong camp of Blackfeet Indians and gave his men orders to strike a peaceful village on the banks of the Marias River in northern Montana.
The incident, known as Baker’s Massacre or the Marias Massacre, was the worst in Montana history. It resulted in the deaths of at least173 people—mostly women, children and elderly men. Only 15 of those killed were men of fighting age, said Walter Fleming, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas and head of the Native American Studies Department at Montana State University.
Baker reported that he defeated 120 “vigorous warriors,” Fleming said. “The initial report was that it was a military battle, when in fact it wasn’t. Initially, he was thought to be heroic in his actions.” In reality, however, Baker attacked the wrong camp and slaughtered a village full of people who had been officially recognized as friendly toward white settlers.
Tensions between the Blackfeet Confederacy and white settlers had existed for more than 15 years before the massacre, Fleming said. Settlers wanted more access to the land during the gold rush of 1864. They also brought smallpox in 1869, which devastated Native populations.
In August of 1869, a Blackfeet man named Pete Owl Child stole some horses from Malcolm Clarke, an influential rancher and citizen. Clarke, with the help of his son, tracked down Owl Child and beat him in front of his people. In retaliation, Owl Child and some of his allies hunted down Clarke and killed him, then fled north to join a band of rebellious Blackfeet under the leadership of Mountain Chief.
On January 1, 1870, the Army issued warrants for Owl Child’s arrest and demanded that the Blackfeet Agency produce the murderer within two weeks. When the agency failed to do so, Baker was commissioned to go after Owl Child.
When Mountain Chief learned of the pursuit, he abandoned his winter camp. A friendly Blackfeet chief, Heavy Runner, moved in and immediately sent the young men to hunt for buffalo, Fleming said. Without the men, however, Heavy Runner’s camp was left defenseless.
Baker, an alcoholic, discovered Heavy Runner’s camp on January 22. Although a Blackfeet scout warned him that he was about to attack the wrong people, Baker ordered his men to continue.
“He instructed his men to go ahead and open fire,” Fleming said of Baker. “He knew, in fact, that it was the wrong village. He went ahead and engaged anyway.”
At daybreak on January 23, Baker’s men fired into the village, set buildings on fire and burned some of the people alive before torching their winter supplies, leaving the survivors without food or shelter in temperatures 43 degrees below zero.
When the first bullets were fired, Heavy Runner ran from his lodge waving papers that certified he was “of good character and friendly to the whites,” Fleming said. He ran toward the soldiers, pleading for them to cease fire and save the women and children.
Heavy Runner’s papers included documents and treaties from the federal government “showing that he was and his people were in harmony with the United States government,” Joe Upham, a descendant of Heavy Runner, said in an oral history recorded by the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.
Heavy Runner was shot and killed as Baker’s men moved in, Upham said.
“The people were still in bed,” he said. “Some were sick with smallpox. There were just women and old men and kids in the camp. The young men were hunting and (the people) were helpless to do anything.”
Bear Head, a child survivor of the massacre, later wrote that 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 the lodges, shot down as they ran.”
Fleming called the massacre “the proverbial straw that broke the Blackfeet.”
“They were decimated by smallpox and unable to mount much of a defense,” he said. “After this the reservation system was pretty much instituted. That changed everything.”
Newspapers congratulated Baker for his “toilsome march in an inclement season to chastise our savage robber foes.” News accounts said the Blackfeet were “possessed of every attribute of beastly depravity and ferocity.”
When the public learned the truth of the massacre, the Army and the federal government launched a campaign to cover it up. However, the incident helped change Indian policy forever. After the massacre, President Ulysses S. Grant put Indian reservations under the control of the Interior Department, ending the Army’s jurisdiction over Natives. Instead of Army officers, clergymen were to act as Indian agents.
Baker was court-martialed for drunken behavior, but never faced charges for the massacre. He died at age 48, most likely of liver cirrhosis.