Remembering the Marias Massacre

For the Blackfeet, the importance of observing the tragic slaughter of American Indians by U.S. troops has not diminished with the passage of 150 years

By Tristan Scott
Illustration by Dwayne Harris | Flathead Beacon

For more than two decades, John Murray always knew where he’d be on the morning of Jan. 23, pressing himself against a wind-swept foothill or a snow-marbled bluff overlooking the Marias River, contemplating a history he’d rather forget — or, at least, one he’d rather not have to remember.

Some years he’d posthole alone through waist-deep snowdrifts to visit the historic site; other years, Murray brought company, retelling the story of the Marias Massacre as the day dawned blue and bright over the river, which at sunrise on Jan. 23, 1870, literally ran red with the blood of his ancestors.

“The weather was different every year I visited the site,” Murray said. “In ’82, we got stuck in a blizzard and spent hours shoveling our way out. It was a pain. But at the time in 1870, when the Marias Massacre happened, it was 30 below zero. Can you imagine that?”

More than most people, Murray understands the cultural significance of imagining that.

As the Blackfeet Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, he recognizes that by observing historical episodes and injustices — particularly those meted out by a nation whose textured contours command moments of celebration, but also solemn reflection in an effort to atone for the past — a culture grows stronger, just as it grows stronger by preserving ancient traditions.

Despite the inherent power of time to depreciate history, its constant passage has not undermined the importance the Blackfeet Nation ascribes to the role of historians like Murray, and his mission of preservation.

Still, the historic record is riddled with inaccuracies, omissions and revisions, and bearing that in mind he and other members of the sovereign Blackfeet Nation have for a century and a half taken care to remember the events of Jan. 23, 1870, through a lens all their own, preserving and adding to a narrative recounted through oral traditions, retold by one generation to the next, and painted on war robes and buffalo hides.

This month, the Blackfeet will observe the 150th anniversary of the Marias Massacre, alternately known as the Baker Massacre and the Bear River Massacre, in which an estimated 200 Piegan (Blackfeet) Indians were killed in what one company commander, Lt. Gus Doane, described as “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops.”

For Murray, who stopped visiting the site years ago after finding “my own version of closure,” the anniversary is an opportunity to shed light on a tragedy that in many ways captures the injustice of long-standing U.S. governmental policies to remove American Indians during the colonization of the West.

“It is important to observe and commemorate these events, through ceremony and education, because when you look back at it historically this massacre had all the symptoms of the scorched-earth policy this country adopted wholesale,” Murray said. “For years we tried to raise awareness among younger generations about the Marias Massacre, and we weren’t really succeeding.

There were a lot of years when I visited the site alone. But the younger generation today is very engaged in the events of the past and in traditional Blackfeet culture. Our children are really embracing it.”

On Jan. 22-23, tribal members and others from a cultural cross-section spanning generations will gather to observe the anniversary with a slate of events at the Blackfeet Community College, designed to educate the public about the Marias Massacre, as well as embark on a planned visit to the site.

As the name implies, the Marias Massacre was not a battle, but an attack on a sleeping band of peaceful Blackfeet camped along the Marias River southeast of Shelby, on what is now the Hi-Line. A staggering 173 Piegan women, children and elderly men were slaughtered in what was later determined to be an attack on the wrong group of Blackfeet. Dozens of others died of exposure and small pox following the attack.

As recounted by Rodger C. Henderson, an associate professor of history emeritus at Penn State University, and a recipient of the Montana Historical Society’s James H. Bradley Fellowship to research the Marias Massacre, the sequence of events leading up to the massacre was touched off by the murder of a white trader who was killed near Helena by a young warrior named Little Owl.

Determined to exact revenge, a U.S. Army regiment under Major Eugene Baker initiated a pursuit of Little Owl’s Piegan band, which had joined with another group under Mountain Chief, who Baker believed to be camped along the Marias River.

Led by Baker, 217 soldiers and officers, augmented by 55 mounted infantrymen and a company of regular U.S. Thirteenth Infantry (83 soldiers), departed Fort Ellis near Bozeman on Jan. 6, 1870 and stopped at Fort Shaw near Great Falls to intercept two additional companies, including scouts Joe Kipp and Joseph Cobell, who were employed to distinguish between the various Piegan bands due to their familiarity with the Blackfeet.

When the troops came upon a camp of 44 lodges along the Marias, they waited until sunrise before surrounding it and commenced firing over the objections of Kipp, who realized they were attacking a peaceful group of Blackfeet led by Chief Heavy Runner, who had earned good-conduct papers from the government indicating his band was to be left alone.

According to Henderson’s research, Heavy Runner was killed while greeting the soldiers with his papers, and of the 172 others, some 50 children under the age of 12 were either shot or killed with a bayonet. The soldiers claimed about 100 prisoners, but when they realized many had small pox they abandoned them in frigid temperatures with no clothing, food or shelter, causing many to freeze to death. Only later did the soldiers learn Mountain Chief was camped miles downstream.

In a faulty report to his superiors a month later, Baker “entangled himself in writing and rewriting the story of the massacre by omitting crucial details and including deceptive ones,” Henderson wrote. As accounts of the killing of noncombatants emerged, the Army revised its narrative and lied about the number of women and children killed.

With all of the competing narratives, the massacre became one of the least known and studied military operations of the Indian Wars, even as Blackfeet elders based their accounts on stories told by survivors like Spear Woman, Bear Head, Good Bear Woman, Buffalo Trail Woman, Mary Middle Calf, and others.

Darrell Norman, the owner of the Lodge Pole Gallery in Browning, said he’s devoured the various histories recounting the Marias Massacre in an effort to parse out the truth. As a tribal member with mixed ancestry, Norman says it wasn’t until he was a young man striving to reconnect with his Blackfeet heritage that he learned the circumstances surrounding the massacre.

“Nobody ever really brought that up, and we’re talking about cultural genocide,” Norman said. “I want to make a point regarding the importance of not forgetting what happened 150 years ago. It is our obligation to remember those that fell and those that had the strength and resilience to survive to tell the story. It’s a history that most Americans don’t realize because they don’t know. But this was symptomatic of the government’s policies at the time, which was to deal with ‘the Indian problem.’ And the only way to deal with ‘the Indian problem’ was to kill all of them.”

“This is something to be remembered,” Norman continued. “Just as Pearl Harbor is something to be remembered in this country, so is the Marias Massacre. It is significant because we don’t want to return there. Nobody wants to see those kinds of genocidal policies ever carried forth again.”

Jack Gladstone, a Blackfeet musician and co-founder of the Native American Speaks lecture program in Glacier National Park, said memorializing the events of the Marias Massacre was like taking stock of “a moral inventory,” and that forgetting would be tantamount to moral bankruptcy.

But Gladstone takes issue with the notion that U.S. troops were mistaken only in their choice of target.

“Everybody wants to say how it was the wrong band, that Baker’s men went after the wrong band of Blackfeet, but there is no right band,” Gladstone said. “You don’t slaughter women and children. We should not have been massacring any tribe of human beings at rest near a river on a landscape that we occupied for 13,000 years.”

One of the speakers at the upcoming anniversary event, Dan Smith, learned about the Marias Massacre in recent years by reading Paul R. Wylie’s historical account in the book “Blood on the Marias,” and was astounded that he was unfamiliar with the event. Growing up in Bozeman not far from Fort Ellis, Smith, who now lives in Washington, D.C., said he was struck by the sheer scope of the U.S. efforts to mount an attack on the Blackfeet.

“I couldn’t believe that I was so ignorant of something so significant,” Smith said. “Growing up near Fort Ellis, which participated in many campaigns during the Indian Wars, it just seems wrong that this history has been swept under the rug for so long.”

To connect with the history, Smith and some friends retraced the route from Fort Ellis to Fort Shaw and up to the site of the Marias Massacre, crossing the same mountain passes that the troops crossed and “imagined what it would be like to do this with over 200 men and mules and wagons, and to do it for this purpose.”

“Since then, I’ve just been trying to raise awareness,” Smith, who was invited to speak about his experience at the Blackfeet Community College, said. “I see [the anniversary] as an opportunity for education and conversation and hopefully for atonement and apologies.”

As a non-Indian, Smith said he’s sensitive about representing himself as an ambassador of historic inequities, but he believes the wider the message is spread beyond the Blackfeet Nation, the better.

“It shouldn’t be the burden of the victims to keep reminding others about tragedies they inherited,” Smith said. “We should be able to share these injustices among the non-Indian population. The reality is that our history has some dark sides. It’s complex and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. That doesn’t mean we are vilifying everything about the perpetrators, but there were some really horrible deeds that were done and they should be aired.”