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
other scholars have
written about the Baker Massacre in related contexts, Blood on the
Marias gives this infamous event the definitive treatment it
Baker’s inept command lit the spark of violence, but decades of
between Piegans and whites set the stage for a brutal and