On the morning of January 23, 1870, troops of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry attacked a Piegan Indian village on the Marias River in Montana Territory, killing many more than the army’s count of 173, most of them women, children, and old men. The village was afflicted with smallpox. Worse, it was the wrong encampment. Intended as a retaliation against Mountain Chief’s renegade band, the massacre sparked public outrage when news sources revealed that the battalion had attacked Heavy Runner’s innocent village—and that guides had told its inebriated commander, Major Eugene Baker, he was on the wrong trail, but he struck anyway. Remembered as one of the most heinous incidents of the Indian Wars, the Baker Massacre has often been overshadowed by the better-known Battle of the Little Bighorn and has never received full treatment until now. Author Paul R. Wylie plumbs the history of Euro-American involvement with the Piegans, who were members of the Blackfeet Confederacy. His research shows the tribe was trading furs for whiskey with the Hudson’s Bay Company before Meriwether Lewis encountered them in 1806. As American fur traders and trappers moved into the region, the U.S. government soon followed, making treaties it did not honor. When the gold rush started in the 1860s and the U.S. Army arrived, pressure from Montana citizens to control the Piegans and make the territory safe led Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan to send Baker and the 2nd Cavalry, with tragic consequences. Although these generals sought to dictate press coverage thereafter, news of the cruelty of the killings appeared in the New York Times, which called the massacre “a more shocking affair than the sacking of Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita” two years earlier. While other scholars have written about the Baker Massacre in related contexts, Blood on the Marias gives this infamous event the definitive treatment it deserves. Baker’s inept command lit the spark of violence, but decades of tension between Piegans and whites set the stage for a brutal and too-often-forgotten incident.
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About the Author
Paul R. Wylie, a retired attorney and now an independent researcher and writer, is author of The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.
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Blood on the Marias
The Baker Massacre
By Paul R. Wylie
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Paul R. Wylie
All rights reserved.
Lewis and Clark Meet the Piegan Indians
I should resist to the last extremity preferring death to that of being deprived of my papers instruments and gun.
MERIWETHER LEWIS, DIARY ENTRY FOR JULY 25, 1806
Captain Meriwether Lewis, a strong man over six feet tall and in superb condition, was terrified on July 25, 1806. He was contemplating a fight to the death. Lewis was on the banks far up the Marias River, in Piegan Indian country had he known it, in the most northern region of the unexplored Louisiana Purchase. With him were only three others from his command. Two of them were brothers, the sharpshooters Joseph and Reuben Fields. The other was a skilled hunter and linguist, George Drouillard (written "Drewyer" by Lewis), part French and part Indian, who had been hired by the expedition as an interpreter. He interpreted through sign language, and perhaps a few common words, because he did not know the languages of the tribes in the region.
Lewis's sole purpose in this remote location was to complete a key assignment given to him by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 when the Corps of Discovery left to go up the Missouri River on the expedition. They were to "ascertain whether any branch of that river lies as far north as latd. 50," which would extend the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase to that point. They had gone up Cut Bank Creek, the northern branch of the Marias. Time and again Lewis had tried to get a reading of latitude with his sextant, but the overcast and cloudy weather had frustrated him. The few days that he had allotted for the task were at an end. The small group was now returning to the Missouri River, to rejoin the three others of Lewis's command who were to meet them there. The plan was that they would then together navigate far downstream to meet Captain William Clark at the mouth of the Yellowstone.
Lewis had jotted in his diary the day before that their resolve was to leave their northern camp on Cut Bank Creek: he "had the horses caught and we set out biding a lasting adieu to this place which I now call camp disappointment." A frustrated Lewis was humbled by his failure to get the reading, but he took heart in knowing that they were getting nearer to the end of their long expedition, which had taken them up the Missouri, over the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to its mouth as it reached the Pacific Ocean. Passing the long winter there, they set out in the spring to come back up the Columbia and over the Rocky Mountains. By summer they had reached a place they called Travelers' Rest. Lewis wrote that on July 1, 1806, he and Clark had devised a plan that he would go "with a small party by the most direct rout to the falls of the Missouri." From there they would head out for the headwaters of the Marias. The volunteers for the expedition had been selected from the healthiest, strongest, and most skilled men available when Lewis and Clark set out on their transcontinental odyssey. Now from among these Lewis "called for the volunteers to accompany me on this rout, many turned out, from whom I selected Drewyer" and the "Feildses."
Lewis had started out apprehensive on his trip to the Marias. As he noted in his diary on July 3, 1806: "I took leave of my worthy friend and companion Capt. Clark and the party that accompanied him. I could not avoid feeling much concern on this occasion although I hoped this separation was only momentary." Much of his worry came from the refusal of the friendly Indians that the corps had camped with at Travelers' Rest to serve as guides on the trail to the Marias. The Indians had said that "as the road was a well beaten track we could not now miss our way, and as they were afraid of meeting with their enemies the 'Minnetares,' they could not think of continuing with us any longer." So Lewis and his men were alone in Indian country on their unsuccessful journey.
When the party members admitted failure and left Camp Disappointment, their ride toward the Missouri brought even more anxiety. They discovered "some Indian lodges which appeared to have been inhabited last winter" among the undergrowth of "rose honeysuckle and redberry bushes" in the cottonwood timbered bottomland of the Marias where the Two Medicine River joined. It was not long until they had their first encounter with the Piegans.
Lewis had brought his "spye glass" to his eye to scan the horizon and located some dark spots on the hills, which he soon made out to be "an assemblage of about 30 horses." He saw the Indians on an elevation above them and could not hold back the fear that swept over him. As the Indians drew near Lewis and his three men, the precariousness of their condition was apparent. They were the better part of 100 miles away from the other three men of Lewis's detail, who were on the Missouri and headed for a rendezvous with them at the mouth of the Marias. The other men of the corps were with Captain Clark, who had headed down the Yellowstone River, planning to reunite with Lewis at its confluence with the Missouri — hundreds of miles away in the vast high plains country.
To the relief of all, it turned out that the Indians that Lewis had spotted were indeed a small party, far fewer than indicated by the number of horses, and were not hostile. Sergeant John Ordway, one of Lewis's men who had been left to come down the Missouri to the mouth of the Marias, reported that Drouillard told him later that the Indians "were armed with bows & arrows and 2 guns" and "at first appeared afraid but after a little rode up and shook hands with Cap Lewis & party and appeared friendly & they desired Cap' Lewis to go with them to their Nation which they said was ... about 2 days march."
Meriwether Lewis remained uneasy and "still supposed that there were others concealed as there were several other horses saddled." He had not determined the Indians' tribal identity and told the men with him: "I apprehended that these were the Minnetares of Fort de Prarie and from their known character I expected that we were to have some difficulty with them; that if they thought themselves sufficiently strong I was convinced they would attempt to rob us." If so, Lewis was prepared to "resist to the last extremity preferring death to that of being deprived of my papers instruments and gun."
Lewis was wrong only in naming the tribe. As it would turn out, these Indians were in fact the Piegans of the Blackfeet confederation and not the "Minnetares" as he had imprecisely if not mistakenly noted. He was right in his assessment of what might happen. What Lewis seemed to appreciate was that in the Plains Indian culture, and particularly in the Piegan culture, horse stealing was not a crime but a way of existence taught to the young men as a skill in their quest for survival. In Lewis's emotional seesaw struggle, he took comfort when he found that "the Indians were only eight in number" and concluded that "we could manage that number should they attempt any hostile measures." With his mind eased by this thought, Lewis wrote that "as it was growing late in the evening I proposed that we should remove to the nearest part of the river and camp together, I told them that I was glad to see them and had a great deal to say to them." The Indians responded and "formed a large semicircular camp of dressed buffalo skins and invited us to partake of their shelter which Dreweyer and myself accepted and the Fieldses lay near the fire in front of the shelter."
Communication had been established. Lewis was able to note in his diary: "I had much conversation with these people in the course of the evening," but of course he meant through the assistance of Drouillard's sign language. Lewis "learned from them that they were a part of a large band which lay encamped at present near the foot of the rocky mountains on the main branch of Maria's river" and that they were only "one 1/2 days march" away from their current camp. Lewis showed no hint of surprise when he recorded in his journal that the Indians had told him that "there was a whiteman with their band." Of course, Lewis's men knew little at that time about the existence of the fur trade in the area. A few white trappers and fur traders had been making lonely incursions into the region since the mid-1700s as they came down from the Hudson's Bay Company's and North West Fur Company's rival outposts, far to the north.
As the evening wore on, the Indians told Lewis, Drouillard, and the Fields brothers much about Piegan life on the plains. They learned that another large band of their nation was hunting buffalo near the "broken mountains" and, like Lewis and his party, was on its way to the mouth of the Marias River. It would probably arrive in the course of just a few days. The Indians then intended to continue on "to the establishment where they trade on the Suskasawan river," which was "only 6 days easy march, or such as they usually travel with their women and children, which may be estimated at about 150 m." Lewis also learned "from these traders" that the Indians would "obtain arm[s], ammunition, speritous liquor, blankets &c, in exchange for wolves and some beaver skins." What had just been described to Lewis was the model of the basic Indian fur trading commerce on the upper Missouri river and to the north in the British possessions. The key participants were Indian hunters and white traders. One of the key items of the trade was alcohol.
When it became Lewis's turn to speak that evening, the reasons that he gave the Indians for his being there were not entirely factual. Lewis said that he "had come in search of them in order to prevail on them to be at peace with their neighbors particularly those on the Westside of the mountains and to engage them to come and trade with me when the establishment is made at the entrance of this river." He reported that "they readily gave their assent and declared it to be their wish to be at peace with the Tushepahs whom they said had killed a number of their relations lately and pointed to several of those present who had cut their hair" as a sign of mourning. In reality Lewis would have preferred not to see the Indians at all and certainly had not "come in search of them."
Later in the evening Lewis found the Indians "extremely fond of smoking and plied them with the pipe until late at night." He became curious about the white man who was with the main body of their tribe and toward the end of the evening asked some of the young Indians to go to their band "with an invitation to their chiefs and warriors to bring the white man with them and come down and council." But Lewis was not about to delay his return any longer and was "anxious now to meet my men," having been gone for some time. He promised the Indians that if they would go with him "I would give them 10 horses and some tobacco," but "to this proposition they made no reply."
Soon the Indians "were all asleep." Lewis, who had taken the first watch, wrote that he "roused up Fields and laid down myself." He told Joseph Fields to watch the Indians and to awaken them if any Indians left the camp "as I apprehended they would attempt to steal our horses." He then "fell into a profound sleep and did not wake until the noise of the men and Indians awoke" him "a little after light in the morning."
Dawn found the peaceful evening gone, and the hostilities started. Trouble might have been avoided if Joseph Fields had not "carelessly laid his gun down behind him near where his brother was sleeping." Seizing the opportunity, one of the Piegans simply "slipped behind him and took his gun and that of his brother." Lewis said that at that "same instant two others advanced and seized the guns of Drewyer and myself." When Joseph turned to look for his gun, he saw it in the hands of an Indian, who was "running off with her [the gun] and his brother's." Joseph called to his brother Reuben, who "instantly jumped up and pursued the Indians with him whom they overtook at the distance of 50 or 60 paces from the camp." Reuben Fields, no doubt panicked by the thought that they would either die at the hands of the Indians or be abandoned on the prairie without guns or horses, drew his knife. He ran after the Indian. As he later told Sergeant John Ordway, he "overhauled him ... caught hold of the 2 guns had his knife drawn & as he snatched away the guns pierced his knife into the Indian's heart he drew out one breath the wind of his breath followed the knife & he fell dead." The Fields brothers "took one of the Indians' guns and all their bows & arrows and their shields which they were on their backs at war" and ran back to camp.
Things also were not going well at the camp. Lewis had been jolted awake by the commotion. He said that he "then drew a pistol from my holster and turning myself about saw the Indian making off with my gun, I ran at him with my pistol and bid him lay down my gun which he was in the act of doing." Just then "the Fieldses returned and drew up their guns to shoot him which I forbid as he did not appear to be about to make any resistance or commit any offensive act." The Indian had "dropped the gun and walked slowly off" when Drouillard asked Lewis "if he might not kill the fellow," but Lewis stopped him, "as the Indian did not appear to wish to kill us." Then the Indians began to drive off all the horses. Lewis yelled to the men "to fire on them" as they pursued the main party, who were driving the horses up the river.
Lewis pursued the man who had taken his gun, "who with another was driving off a part of the horses which were to the left of the camp." Exhaustion was starting to overcome him: "Being nearly out of breath I could pursue no further, I called to them as I had done several times before that I would shoot them if they did not give me my horse and raised my gun." One of the Indians "jumped behind a rock and spoke to the other who turned around and stopped at the distance of 30 steps from me and I shot him through the belly." When the man "fell to his knees and on his right elbow" Lewis saw him partly raise himself and fire at him. Turning himself about, Lewis crawled behind a rock that was a few feet from him. It was an overshot but barely. Lewis wrote that "being bearheaded I felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly."
The four men of Lewis's small detachment then prepared for a hasty departure toward the mouth of the Marias. They knew that they would have to ride far and fast to outdistance any pursuing Indians, so they left one of their own horses "and took four of the best of those of the Indian's." Drouillard loaded the horses with the "four shields and two bows and quivers of arrows which had been left on the fire, with sundry other articles." Lewis had previously bestowed a flag and a medal on the Indians. Now he and his men also "retook the flagg but left the medal about the neck of the dead man that they might be informed who we were." They also "took some of their buffaloe meat and set out ascending the bluffs by the same rout we had descended last evening leaving the balance of nine of their horses which we did not want."
Concern that they might not be able to make it back to the Missouri now motivated Lewis; "no time was therefore to be lost and we pushed our horses as hard as they would bear ... we passed a large branch ... which I called battle river," finally traveling by moonlight. They passed "immense herds of buffaloe all night as we had done in the latter part of the day." Lewis said: "[M]y Indian horse carried me very well in short much better than my own would have done and leaves me with but little reason to complain of the robbery."
The next day, July 28, 1806, Lewis awoke "so soar from my ride yesterday that I could scarcely stand, and the men complained of being in a similar situation." They had ridden over eighty miles the day before. He still needed to impress upon his men the seriousness of their situation and recorded that he "encouraged them by telling them that our own lives as well as those of our friends and fellow travelers depended on our exertions at this moment." He also vowed to fight to the death if another attack occurred. "I now told them that it was my determination that if we were attacked in the plains on our way to the point that the bridles of the horses should be tied together and we would stand and defend them, or sell our lives as dear as we could." The cloud of anxiety is almost visible in Lewis's writings, but it was lifted at the sound of shots nearby: "being then within five miles of the grog spring we heard the report of several rifles very distinctly on the river to our right, we quickly repaired to this joyful sound." Just as they arrived on the bank of the Missouri, they "had the unspeakable satisfaction to see our canoes coming down," being paddled by the other three men in Lewis's command. Soon afterward the party was safely aboard the canoes and headed downriver on the broad Missouri, away from the Piegan threat.
Excerpted from Blood on the Marias by Paul R. Wylie. Copyright © 2016 Paul R. Wylie. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
1 Lewis and Clark Meet the Piegan Indians 5
2 Protection for the Traders, Death to the Trappers 23
3 The Government Comes with the Treaties 49
4 Montana's First Indian War: General Sherman vs. General Meagher 70
5 Trouble Back East: The War Department vs. the Interior Department 98
6 Making a Case against the Piegans 124
7 Tell Baker to Strike Them Hard 145
8 Massacre 181
9 The Aftermath 202
10 A General Dictates the History and a False Priest Brokers the Peace 220
11 The Spoils of War 230
12 Drunk Again 236