Wednesday, January 23, 2008

January 23


In the early morning light of 23 January 1870, calvalrymen from the 2nd US Regiment attacked an encampment of South Piegan Indians along the Marias River in northern Montana. The Blackfoot Confederacy -- which included two tribes of Piegan in Canada and Montana -- had been ensnared in a low-intensity confict with the United States for a number of years, although not all bands were regarded as hostile to the US. Indeed, one of the "friendly" bands was led by Running Horse, whose people were massacred 138 years ago today.

Led by Major Eugene Baker, the American troops acted that day on orders from General Philip Sheridan, who encouraged Baker to use his own discretion in punishing the Piegan for the murder of a white trader and his family several months prior to the attack. Although it was known that "hostiles" were located downstream under the leadership of Mountain Chief, Baker was also given to understand that the ambush should be considered a preemptive strike, since -- so the logic went -- anyone killed would have posed a threat to white interests anyway. With temperatures dropping to a staggering 40 degrees below zero, Baker and his officers allegedly steeled themselves with strong drink during the night before the attack, to the point that by morning Baker was too drunk to issue orders, as several witnesses later attested.

Drunk or not, the cavalrymen of F Company descended upon the Piegan encampment and tore it to shreds. With most of the Piegan men away on a hunt, the camp was occupied almost entirely by women, children and the elderly, nearly 200 of whom perished in the unprovoked attack. Half-inch Springfield rifle shells killed many as they fled the confusion; others suffocated in their own tents, which caught fire and collapsed. A Piegan named Spear Woman -- Heavy Runner's daughter -- offered her account in the Billings Gazette in 1932:
[Just at dawn] we were aroused by barking dogs. Then someone came with word for my father, Heavy Runner, that the soldiers were coming. All was excitement and fright in the camp. But Heavy Runner told everyone to be quiet, that there was nothing to fear. He said he would show the whites his name paper.'

He walked quietly toward the soldiers with his hands uplifted. In one of them was the paper which he had been told was a pledge of safety, held where it could be seen. A shot pierced his heart and he fell, clutching the paper to his breast.

The soldiers then began firing at everyone. Everywhere was confusion, everyone looked for cover. All the warriors and able-bodied men had left some days before on a hunt; only some old and sick men were there.,

I rushed into another tent where there were some sick and dying people. I hid under a back rest on one of the beds. While there, I saw a knife cut a hole in the teepee and then a soldier thrust himself through the opening. He fired at every moving body. When he figured no one was alive, he left. I was small and quiet, so he didn't notice me.
In the end, the US Army counted 173 dead and 300 Piegan horses stolen; F Company lost a single unfortunate soldier. More than a hundred other Piegan were captured and released with no food, supplies or horses -- all of which were pilfered or burnt by Baker's men. Many of the survivors died during a frigid, 90-mile walk to Ft. Benton.

Although Major Baker did not report the encounter until nearly two weeks had passed, his ruthless attack on a defenseless camp posed no more than a temporary inconvenience to his career. General Sheridan -- who himself oversaw similar atrocities in the Red River, Black Hills and Ute Wars -- blocked any investigation of the Baker Massacre, noting that he "preferred to believe" his officers' highly dubious accounts.

A ferocious alcoholic, Major Eugene Baker expired from cirrhosis of the liver in 1885.

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