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Across the Fence: Massacre on the Marias River


A dozen, dozen years ago in the Moon When the Snow Drifts into the Tepees (January) of 1870 on the 23rd day of that month it was 40 degrees below zero in northwestern Montana Territory. On that bitterly cold morning, the Piegan chief, Heavy Runner, and his band of Blackfeet families were in winter camp on the banks of the Marias River, about sixty miles due north of Fort Shaw.

Earlier in that month Major Eugene Baker had left Fort Ellis, near Bozeman, and began a march of nearly 150 miles to reach Fort Shaw. Baker commanded four companies of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and marched under orders of Lieutenant General Phillip Sheridan to track down and punish Mountain Chief's band of Blackfeet Indians. History has noted General Sheridan for his ruthless scorched-earth campaigns of the Civil War and for infamously declaring that "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

Hostilities between whites and the Native American tribes had been ongoing since the late 1850s. Part of the U.S. Army's strategy to insure westward expansion was to starve the Indians into submission and terrorize them in their camps. The goal was to exterminate them if possible or confine them to restrictive reservations if extermination failed. One terror tactic was to mount early morning surprise attacks on winter camps. Although devastatingly fatal to old men, women and children, these attacks generally served to enrage the warriors among the tribes, who redoubled their efforts of counter attacks and revenge. And of course the victims of these counter attacks were defenseless white men, women and children.

Attacks on winter camps were intended to terrorize the Indians into submission by indiscriminate killings and brutal assaults of native women and children. Food stores, lodges, clothing and blankets were burned and horses captured or killed, leaving any survivors to the mercy of the elements.

January 29, 1863 the Bear River massacre in Idaho left 246 Shoshone dead. November 29, 1864 the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne Indians, then under the official protection of the U.S. Army, killed 160. Custer's attack on November 27, 1868 of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped on the Washita River of Oklahoma Territory left more than 150 dead. In each of these attacks more than half of those killed were women and children. History would be repeated January 23, 1870 on the Marias River.

In early fall of 1869, Owl Child, a rebellious and troublesome warrior of the Blackfeet band under Mountain Chief, killed a prominent Montana rancher named Malcolm Clarke, who was married to a Piegan Blackfeet woman and Owl Child's sister.

There are two stories surrounding Clarke's murder. One purports that Owl Child stole horses belonging to Clarke and that Clarke severely beat Owl Child as punishment. Revenge for the humility of being whipped came when Owl Child and several of his fellow warriors killed Clarke and his son. Another version claims that at a family gathering of Piegan relatives, Clarke sexually assaulted a member of the family and Owl Child avenged her dishonor by killing Clarke.

Whatever the reason behind Clarke's death, Montana citizens called for justice and punishment of Owl Child. Judge G.G. Symes of the Third Judicial District of the Territory of Montana issued a warrant for the arrest of Owl Child and four other Piegan men. The outcry reverberated all the way to Chicago where General Sheridan responded, "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 to strike them." Sheridan then commanded Baker and his troops to Fort Shaw where orders would be sent. The orders from General Sheridan stated, "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."

Sheridan's orders said nothing about arresting Owl Child and the others. Sheridan ordered an attack on the entire village.

Word of Judge Symes warrant, Sheridan's orders and Baker's advancing troops somehow reached Mountain Chief and he moved his camp some twenty miles further up the Marias River. Mountain Chief's move left the Piegan Blackfeet chief Heavy Runner's camp in the path of Major Baker's troops as they marched from Fort Shaw to the Marias River.

Heavy Runner and his band of Piegans were friends of the whites and had received documentation from the U.S. Government that they were "friendlies" and were granted protection. When Baker's troops approached Heavy Runner's camp on the banks of the Marias, Army Scout Joe Kipp, who had relatives in the camp, rushed to Major Baker shouting that this was not Mountain Chief's camp. "...makes no difference," Major Baker replied, "one band or another of them; they are all Piegans and we will attack..." Baker ordered Kipp to be placed under arrest and to be shot if he tried to warn Heavy Runner's camp and then ordered the attack.

Bear Head, a small boy at the time of the attack and a survivor later recalled, "...all of the seizers (soldiers) began shooting into the lodges. Chief Heavy Runner ran from his lodge toward the seizers on the bank. He was shouting to them and waving a paper ... a writing saying that he was a good a peaceful man, a friend of the whites. He had run but a few steps when he fell, his body pierced with bullets. 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. I sat before the ruin of my lodge and felt sick. I wished the seizers had killed me, too."

Baker's troops shot into the lodges killing or wounding those inside and shot the bindings from the top so that the lodges fell in, trapping those still inside, then set them afire. Many of Heavy Runner's people were burned alive.

When the massacre had ended, 33 men, 90 women, 50 children and babies lay dead. Baker ordered all of the lodges, food, clothing and everything in the camp to be piled together and burned. The 46 survivors were held captive until it was realized that many of them had smallpox and so they were released to fend for themselves. Forty-six old men, women and children left to fend for themselves in minus 40-degree weather without food, or adequate clothing walked nearly 90 miles to Fort Benton. Three of Heavy Runner's children escaped the massacre and were taken in and raised by Army scout Joe Kipp.

Baker and his troops left the smoldering remains of Heavy Runner's camp and advanced upriver to Mountain Chief's camp. When they arrived the camp was deserted and Major Baker ordered it to be burned also. Mountain Chief and his people, including Owl Child, escaped to Canada.

When news of the massacre reached the east there was a wave of public sentiment against Major Baker's actions. However, Sheridan, the Army and the Indian Commissioner supported Baker and quickly smothered the voices of those who protested.

General Sherman told Sheridan not to be concerned. "There are two classes of people," Sherman proclaimed, "one demanding the utter extinction of the Indians and the other full of love for their conversion to civilization and Christianity. Unfortunately the army stands between and get the cuffs from both sides."

The Daily Herald of Helena defended Baker, stating that, "General Sheridan ordered men to hunt them down, just as we hunt wolves. When caught in camp they were slaughtered, very much as we slaughter other wild beasts, when we get the chance."

Sheridan's report to General Sherman boasted complete success with only one soldier killed, 173 Indians dead and, more than 100 women and children turned loose.

Two months later, Major Baker submitted a second official report that quadrupled the previous number of fighting men killed and stated that every effort had been made to save the women and children and that any deaths of noncombatants was accidental.

General Sherman wrote his final words on the matter saying, "I prefer to believe that the majority of those killed at Mountain Chief's camp were warriors; that the firing ceased the moment resistance was at an end; that quarter was given to all that asked for it; and that a hundred women and children were allowed to go free... rather than the absurd report that there were only thirteen warriors killed and that the balance were women and children, more or less afflicted with small pox."

Did he forget that it was Heavy Runner's camp that was attacked, not Mountain Chief's?

Blame points its ugly fingers in many directions, like the spokes of a wagon wheel pointing away from the hub. But they all end at the wheels rim, locked together in a circle that comes around on itself. Blame never unified anyone, but the circle of life binds us all together. What's most important is this: have we learned?

M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email;


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