[See also...An uncelebrated anniversary, Witnesses to Carnage and Postscript to the Massacre...]
"The best we can do with catastrophes ... is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts." Norman Maclean, 1992.
On January 23rd, 1870, near today's town of Shelby, Montana, Major Eugene Baker commanded six companies of U.S. soldiers who killed most of the defenseless women, children, and old people in the winter village of Heavy Runner, a friendly Piegan chief.
Afterwards, Baker and Sheridan proclaimed the attack "a complete success," and they were backed up by General of the U.S. Army William Tecumseh Sherman in Washington. Sherman, in a press release, blandly stated that he "preferred to believe" Baker and Sheridan rather than Indian Superintendent General Alfred Sully and the Montana Indian agent, Lieutenant William Pease, both of whom had reported that Heavy Runner's camp had been undefended -- the warriors were away on a hunt -- and probably afflicted with smallpox. The cover-up worked: there has never been a public investigation of the massacre.
One soldier, Private Walton McKay, a 24-year-old Canadian, was shot from his horse by a young Piegan during the mop-up. The only other military casualty was a soldier who broke a leg when his horse went down. About 140 women and children were "released unharmed," but without adequate clothing or food. Some of them froze to death trying to walk ninety or so miles in blue-norther weather to Fort Benton. According to one western writer, eight male captives may have been executed by soldiers as the troops made their way back to Fort Shaw and Fort Ellis.
Ironically, it was a successful catastrophe: the Piegans and related tribes in the Blackfoot Confederacy never again posed a serious threat to those encroaching on their traditional hunting grounds.
In a nutshell, that's what happened a hundred and twenty-nine years ago, according to military and other records in the National Archives in Washington, out-of-print books, old journals, newspaper morgues, and word-of-mouth accounts by relatives of the participants.
Astoundingly, there isn't a single book in print today about this major historical tragedy. The handful of chapters in various histories of the West, a couple of journal articles, and occasional pieces of journalism about the "Marias Massacre" are thin gruel indeed compared, say, to the copious and ongoing accounts of Sand Creek, the Washita, Bear River, the Nez Perce, and the original Wounded Knee, all in the same bloody era -- to say nothing of the never-ending flow of books, movies, and television specials about Custer and the Little Big Horn. There is even a biography of the horse, Comanche, which survived its rider, Captain Myles Keogh, after Custer's downfall at the Greasy Grass battle in 1876.
On the other hand, there are scores of volumes about the so-called Indian Wars which have no mention whatsoever of the Baker/Marias Massacre. Also, the National Archives records are an incomplete hodge-podge of unsequenced reports, official letters, and the like. A frustrating instance: Major Baker's service record ignores both his role in the engagement named after him, and his near-disaster a couple of years later (1872) when his troops were almost overrun beside the Yellowstone River by a thousand Sioux - Baker was too drunk to command. (Baker died at the age of 48, of liver cirrhosis.)
But even more baffling -- and shameful -- is the persisting reluctance of bureaucrats to establish, and respect, the still unrecovered site of the massacre.
A century after the event, in 1970, two researchers found scores of verifiable U.S. Army Springfield/Sharps .50-70 shell casings on Marias River bluffs where Baker's troopers had fired into Heavy Runner's camp. Their published findings have been ignored; the experienced field investigator who unearthed the cartridges, using a metal detector, is well known and has been cooperative when approached by a National Parks representative and by an archaeologist hired by the Blackfeet Tribal Council -- but his help has not once been enlisted by Bureau of Reclamation officials (who own the site), the Montana Historic Preservation Office, or by any other responsible official.
Our own efforts to establish the exact location of the massacre, subject to archaeological verification, have been rebuffed during the past four years and more by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Montana Historic Preservation Office, the Preservation Officer of the Department of the Interior, and the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C. The technology, including underground radar, exists to discover the many metal artifacts in that massive pyre ignited in 1870 by Gus Doane's men. But, despite some encouragement from Montana's congressmen, the stonewalling continues.
A small group of Piegans, many of them descendants of the massacre victims, is currently trying to publicize and commemorate the event and its aftermath. Meanwhile, every January 23rd, a scattering of tribal members gather at a spot in the remote Marias breaks, to remember and respect, rather than try to forget and obliterate, what happened -- so long ago to most, but like yesterday to some.
As you read this, the unmarked mass grave of some two hundred or more Americans still lies somewhere under the black silt of the Marias River flats.
Stan Gibson, a retired teacher, lives at 10 Alcock Street, Okotoks, Alberta T0L 1T2.
Jack Hayne is a rancher near Dupuyer, Montana 59432; he is also a
local historian, and a director of the Montana Historical Society.
Bonney: Battle Drums & Geysers, Chicago, 1970.
Chicago Tribune: Mar. 5, 1870.
Maclean: Young Men and Fire, Chicago, 1992.
Marquis: Custer, Cavalry, and Crows, Bellevue, Neb., 1975.
Montana Historical Society Archives: H. Clarke; M. Marmont; M. Plassmann.
National Archives: 376 ACP 1886 (E. M. Baker Service Record).
U.S. House Exec. Doc. No. 269, 41st Congress, 2nd Session, N.A.R.A., Washington, D.C.
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