by Stan Gibson
[See also Witnesses to Carnage.]
Today, January 23rd, fell on a Sunday back in 1870. At first light, in numbing cold, 200 dismounted U.S. cavalrymen lay spread out in ambush positions along snowy bluffs overlooking the Marias River in Montana and the large winter campsite of the Piegan leader Heavy Runner. The camp was surrounded, its warriors were away hunting, and the edgy troopers awaited the command to fire. Then the old chief came out of his lodge and walked toward the bluffs, waving a safe-conduct paper. An Army scout, Joe Kipp, shouted that this was the wrong camp; he was threatened into silence. Another scout, Joe Cobell, fired the first shot, dropping Heavy Runner in his tracks. What followed, according to Lt. Gus Doane who commanded F Company in the attack, was "the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops."
Some 200 Piegans, most of them either elderly or women and children, were killed by the relentless firing of the Army's Springfield rifles. The .50-70 shells, half an inch thick, riddled the lodges, collapsing some
onto smoking firepits and suffocating the half-awake, terrified victims. Some of the big bullets killed children under the protecting bodies of mothers and grandmothers. Those who ran to the sheltering cutbanks of the river were rounded up later; a total of 140 captives was turned loose without adequate food and clothing - some of them froze to death trying to walk to Fort Benton, ninety miles away. Around eleven o'clock, the befuddled commander, Major Eugene Baker, headed downstream with all but one of his companies to find the real target, a hostile camp designated clearly in his orders. Gus Doane's F Company was left behind to count the corpses, dispose of them on a huge pyre made by torching everything in the camp, and round up the band's hundreds of mustang ponies. The small camp of hostiles downstream, led by Mountain Chief, wasn't attacked until the next morning, but by then it had been abandoned and the band was well on its way to safety on nearby Canadian territory.
This event was almost certainly a pre-emptive act of military terrorism against the troublesome Blackfoot Confederacy of Blood, Piegan, and Blackfoot tribes. General Phil Sheridan, the architect of the Washita Massacre, did indeed specify the camp of Mountain Chief as the Baker target -- but Baker's local superiors urged him to use his own discretion and "punish" the Piegans who might be guilty in the past or future. Whether Baker was drunk at the time of the attack (a civilian who was with the troops, Horace Clarke, swore that this was the case), is almost irrelevant.
There was a brief storm of outraged protest in Congress and in the big Eastern papers, but General of the Army William Sherman deflected a public inquiry by silencing the protests of General Alfred Sully (the BIA superintendent of Montana Indians) and Lieutenant William Pease, the Piegan Indian Agent (who had reported the damning body-count). Sherman blandly issued a press release denying any military guilt, based on the fact that he "preferred to believe" what he was told by his officers, viz., most of the dead Piegans were warriors in Mountain Chief's camp, that "firing ceased the moment resistance was at an end ... quarter was given to all who asked for it ... a hundred women and children were allowed to go free." This was the same Sherman who, before the Washita butchery, reassured Phil Sheridan: "I will say nothing and do nothing to restrain our troops from doing what they deem proper on the spot.... You may now go ahead in your own way and I will back you with my whole authority, and stand between you and any efforts that may be attempted in your rear to restrain your purpose or check your troops."
Make no mistake: the Marias "incident" wasn't an insignificant skirmish. It matched Bear River, Sand Creek, the Washita, the Nez Perce, and the Wounded Knee disasters in scale and weighty consequences. Custer's debacle at the Little Big Horn, at midpoint in the sequence of massacres, has been chronicled so microscopically that there is even a biography of Capt. Myles Keogh's HORSE, "Comanche." Yet today, over a century and a quarter later, there isn't a single book in print about the Baker Massacre, and - aside from a decorous chapter here and there in a half-dozen Western histories, and a couple of journal articles - most historians have totally ignored the event, even when their stated topic has been the "Indian Wars."
Finally, there isn't even a wooden signboard on a distant highway to mark the location of the "lost" mass grave of the Piegan victims. In the 1960s two researchers found many of the verifiable Springfield cartridge casings left behind on the ambush bluffs, and published their findings in 1970, only to be ignored. In fact, five years later an official state document declared the site "destroyed" and noted that Baker may have hit the wrong camp but "At any rate, it worked."
Even the burial place of Private Walton McKay, the only soldier killed in the Marias strike, is hard to find. It's as though many stewards of the past wish the whole affair would just go away. At any rate, my own experience with many (not quite all) apparatchiks in the historic preservation bureaucracy leads me to feel that justice will, once again, be delayed as long as possible. Nevertheless I hope that many of you who read this will agree with some recent words of James Horsley (whose trenchant book Washita: Genocide on the Great Plains reveals many similarities to the Marias Massacre): "History is only the past when we choose to do nothing about it."
Stan Gibson first came across the Marias/Baker Massacre when he was teaching James Welch's novel _Fools Crow_ at the University of Calgary in Alberta several years ago. His interest in Native history began when he and his family spent three years on the Blood Indian Reserve in southern Alberta in the 1950s, and it was resurrected when he taught Native American Prose Fiction in the U. of C. English Department and served for ten years as a volunteer "adjunct instructor" to Native students. When he retired three years ago (with a prized Eagle Feather Award from the First Nations Student Association), he began searching libraries, old newspaper files, the National Archives in Washington, and searching out first-hand accounts of the massacre in interviews and by correspondence. His article, "Missing Parts: Notes on a Massacre," is being revised in hopes of publication. It deals mainly with hitherto-unchronicled aspects of the context and circumstances of this consequential happening, the reasons for its obscurity, and the "loss" of the massacre site. He lives in a small town, Okotoks, in southern Alberta, visits Montana frequently, and he submitted a Marias nomination proposal to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places which has languished since 1994. He is non-Native.
Washita - Chapter Two
Washita - Chapter Two
Washita - Chapter Three
Washita - Conclusion
Cumulative First Nations Site Index
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