At the confluence of the Two Medicine and Cut Bank Rivers is where the Marias River begins and flows east for approximately 60 miles to Lake Elwell, then on for another 80 miles where it meets the Missouri River near Loma, Montana. Somewhere along this stretch of river (possibly here), there lies an ancient American Indian site where Major Eugene Baker of the U.S. Army took his mixed detachment from the 2nd US Cavalry and the 13th Infantry to surround an encampment of Piegan Indians on 22 January 1870. What happened next is clear, but why is not so clear.

A Tragic, Familiar Story

The area had seen an altercation between two hotheads, one white, Malcolm Clarke, and one Indian, Owl Child. Clarke beat Owl Child, who he claimed had stolen his horses. Owl Child retaliated by killing Clarke. As so happened in those days, this caused cries for the army to make sure another white was not killed by another Indian, so Major Baker was sent to teach the Indians a lesson. Baker’s detachment left Fort Shaw on 15 January 1870 and rode north to find a group of Indians known as the Piegans. Baker found an encampment at a big bend on the Marias River and surrounded it in the winter’s night of 22/23 January 1870. There is some debate as to whether Baker knew it was the camp he was looking for or another one.

The Marias River Massacre

On the morning of the incident, also known as the Baker Massacre and the Piegan Massacre, Chief Heavy Runner tried to stop the attack by showing papers that he claimed gave him and his people clear passage in the area. Regardless, Baker issued the order to fire on the camp and many women, children and elderly were killed, the camp was burned and the survivors set afoot in the Montana winter without provisions.

Some said Baker knew that it as the wrong encampment. Some said he didn’t care. Some said he was a drunken commander and didn’t know what was happening. None of the PR options were good and the Army made it worse by ignoring, at the least, but probably covering up the massacre. As so often happened in these cases in the U.S. Army, a young soldier steps up where his superiors have fallen down and tells the truth. Lieutenant William Pease, acting as a Blackfoot agent, reported the massacre to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely Samuel Parker. Parker, a Civil War veteran, confidante to U.S. Grant and an Iroquois Indian whose Indian name was Donehogawa, demanded a investigation, but the outcome was prevarication as the U.S. Army closed ranks with General William Tecumseh Sherman saying he would prefer to believe his soldiers.

In the end, no official recognition of the Marias River Massacre was forthcoming and only time has brought a gradual acceptance of the fact of this massacre. Author Dee Brown, in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, puts the casualties at 33 men, 90 women and 50 children. Stan Gibson has investigated the topic deeply. He and Jack Hayne are working on a book on the topic.

If you are teaching this topic to 7-12th grade students, there is a good looking lesson plan that uses the Montana: Stories of the Land textbook by Holmes, Krys, Susan C. Dailey, and David Walter. Helena, Mont: Montana Historical Society Press, 2008. You can find the relevant chapter 7 online.

Marias River Massacre Motorcycle Ride

This is a long ride starting and ending at Browning, Montana at the Museum of the Plains Indians. The ride passes through the origin of the Marias River and also runs about 5 miles north and parallel to the Marias for a good while on the beautiful U.S. Highway 2. This is a good description of the things to see along this route, including a Cold War missile Silo. As always, good Battlefield Biking requires the courtesy to ask for permission to travel on private roads. Be polite and ensure the rest of us can enjoy the ride too.