23 January 1870. Another date that has gone forgotten from what has been called "a century of dishonor" (much more than a century...).
At daybreak, in the bitter cold of the northern Montana winter, 200 armed cavalry soldiers attacked and killed up to 200 Piegan Indians made up mostly of the elderly and woman and children (many probably suffering from smallpox) who were camped on the Marias River. Only one soldier died (reportedly the only gunshot fired by the Indians) and another broke his leg due to a fall from a horse. It was called the Marias Massacre (sometimes the Baker Massacre after the Major who commanded the troops).
The Indian wars had begun and it was a time when tensions were high in the West and on the Great Plains. There had already been some problems between the people of the area, the army, and the Blackfoot Confederacy (Blackfoot or Siksika, Blood or Kainah, and Piegan or Pikuni bands). The Blackfoot had never had particularly good relations with the white people and were often hostile (possibly, at least in part, due to that first contact when one of their people was killed in a raid for horses on the Lewis and Clark expedition).
The precipitating incident was the murder of a trader by some renegade Piegans. General Philip Sheridan sent out cavalry to track down and punish the offending party. On the other hand, his directive was much less specific in that he also gave the commanding officer "discretion" to punish any who "might be guilty in the past or future."
Hand-picked by Sheridan to lead the "expedition" was Major Eugene Baker, whose career, despite having ranked 12th in his class at West Point and a having good record in the Civil War, had already been in decline largely due to his alcoholism (he'd die fifteen years later of cirrhosis at age 48). Soldiers partaking in the massacre swore that he was drunk at the timewhether that had much effect on the what happened is debatable. In a battle a few years later, his drunkenness almost caused the massacre of his own troops by several hundred Siouxpossibly Lakota. He had a record of " sick leaves" during his Civil War days (again most likely due to drinking) and was almost dishonorably discharged until his "angel" General William Tecumseh Sherman (more later) lessened the charge. He was also known to be quite tolerant of his men overindulging in alcohol.
More succinctly, in the words of Horace Clarke (the son of the man who had been murderedhe had gone along for "revenge," but found the actions of the day reprehensible): "It is an undeniable fact that Col. Baker [sic] was drunk and did not know what he was doing."
The scouting report said that the camp of the renegades (led by a certain Mountain Chief) was on the Marias River. The soldiers moved through the subzero cold and snow (some estimating that it was 30°-40° F below zero, 34.4°-40° C below zero) on their way to the site. Instead of surrounding the intended camp, it surrounded the camp of Chief Heavy Runner, a peaceful Piegan who made no trouble for the whites (Mountain Chief had been warned and moved his camp several miles away). Again, Horace Clarke: "Heavy Runner was a wealthy and good man. He was a friend of the whites."
The soldiers lined up on the bluffs above the camp and prepared for ambush. At the time, the warriors were out hunting, leaving women, children, and the elderly behindsomething Baker thoroughly denied, claiming there to be 120 men among the dead. Testimony from one of his men notes of his fondness for the phrase "nits make lice," referring to the policy of not allowing survivors, including women and childrena phrase that was also dear to Colonel John Chivington of Sand Creek Massacre "fame"showing he had no problem with the deaths of non-warriors (though he claimed that "every effort was made...to save the noncombatants, and that such women and children were killed were killed accidentally").
A Lieutenant Pease (the Piegan Indian Agent) interviewed the Piegans a week following the massacre and was told that only fifteen were of fighting age. His report outraged many (especially those out East) and angered Baker to no end, calling it "maliciously false."
General Sherman came to his defense with a press release stating that preferred to believe
that the majority of those killed in Mountain Chief's Camp [sic] 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.
Statements from Baker's own men (not dissimilar to the contradictory claims of Colonel Chivington versus several of his own men as part of the inquiry into Sand Creek) suggest otherwise.
As the men readied for the attack, Chief Heavy Runner came out to let the soldiers know who they were. He waved his good conduct papers and medals given him. At that point, it was realized by the scout that they were at the wrong village. He was ignored (possibly told to be silent). Heavy Runner was shot dead. Shortly after the massacre began.
It lasted a few hours, leaving between 173 (Baker's official count) and 200 dead. The remaining survivors (women and children) numbered about 140. They were later released. Unfortunately for them, the soldiers burned all of the lodges, took whatever ponies they could (estimates range from hundreds up to 3000ones not claimed by whites as stolen were sold at auction), and also burned whatever personal effects and supplies they foundincluding what was thought to be several thousand buffalo robes. So the Piegans, once released, were left to walk without food or the protection of the heavy robes through the subzero weather some 90 miles (144.8 km) to Fort Benton. Some froze to death on the way.
There is another story, corroborated by a few of the soldiers (one who supposedly took part in the murders), that eight warriors had been taken captive. After a few escapes, the officer in charge ordered that they be killed. But instead of shooting them, he had the men get axes so they could kill them one at a time. It was reported the next morning that they had died escaping. The report was not questioned, though it was an open secret as to what really happened.
After the massacre, the soldiers set out after the intended camp (leaving behind a "disposal" unit to count bodies and burn them on a huge pyre). When they arrived, it was found that Mountain Chief and his band had left (they escaped to Canada and were never punished for the murder).
In the words of the Indian Agent Pease, "all the officers of this command ask at the hands of the authorities is a full and complete investigation of the campaign, and less than this cannot, in justice, be conceded." Even though the Chicago Tribune reported that, at the time, government officials felt the massacre to be "the most disgraceful butchery in the annals of our dealings with the Indian," there was never an investigation, even an impotent one à la Sand Creekno doubt partly due to the weight of Sherman's "endorsement" of the conduct as being what he "preferred to believe."
Despite it being an embarrassment to the army (even forgetting the atrocity aspect and viewing it as soldiers who simply couldn't attack the right village), it served its purpose by eliminating any future threat from the Blackfoot Confederacy.
A forgotten incidentunlike Big Horn, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and othersno one even bothered to remember the location of the massacre. Some researchers in the 1960s and 1970s were able to find a site that matched and was replete with the same kind of cartridge casings used in the soldiers' guns. A report on it was ignored and the Bureau of Reclamation (which owns the site), the Montana Historic Preservation Office, and others have " stonewalled" against researchers and archaeologists (supported by the Piegan people) from taking the kind of equipment there that could verify it as the site of the massacre. Descendants of the victims and survivors meet there every year on 23 January to commemorate the incident. All knowing that somewhere under the earth is the mass grave of their murdered people.
(Sources: www.dickshovel.com, all quotes but the Tribune one come from the extensive material here, including additional testimony by Piegan survivors and their relatives which I referenced but chose not to use to avoid a possible bias; www.imdiversity.com/villages/native/Article_Detail.asp?Article_ID=1536)