It was a brutally cold winter 150 years ago when one of the most tragic events in Montana history took place, a tragedy linked to Bozeman.

Maj. Eugene Baker led U.S. Army troops from Bozeman’s Fort Ellis hundreds of miles north and on Jan. 23, 1870, attacked a Blackfeet Indian village.

The soldiers opened fire at dawn and slaughtered some 200 defenseless women, children and old men, while the able-bodied men were off hunting.

The Army attacked the wrong camp — not that of Mountain Chief, whose warriors were blamed for killing a white rancher, the hostile band Baker was supposed to punish.

It was the village of Heavy Runner, gunned down while waving a paper attesting to his friendly cooperation. About 100 survivors, some suffering smallpox, were then released by the Army in the below-zero cold.

It was hailed as a great battle and military victory by the Army and white settlers and newspapers of Bozeman and Helena. Yet when newspapers back East found out most of those killed were women and children, it created a scandal, which was quickly covered up in Washington.

Then for many years, the Baker Massacre was largely forgotten. Elderly Blackfeet people were often afraid to speak of it.

This week, Blackfeet Community College and descendants of survivors will gather on the Marias River to hold their 26th Bear River Commemoration. They will mark the 150th anniversary with speeches, a veterans’ gun salute and a round dance. Students will speak on resilience and the miracle of survivors.

Walter Fleming, head of Native American studies at Montana State University and a member of the Kickapoo tribe of Kansas, called the Baker Massacre “one of the most tragic events in American Western history.”

“It would be the My Lai of its day,” Fleming said Tuesday, referring to the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese villagers by U.S. troops.

The largest Indian massacre in Montana history, together with the starvation winter of 1883, were the straws that broke the back of Blackfeet resistance, Fleming said. To secure statehood, Montana territory had to solve its “Indian problem,” he said, either by eliminating the native people or forcing them onto reservations.

Civil War veteran Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan had sent orders to the Army in Montana, saying, “Tell Baker to strike them hard.”

Fleming said he believes the Army officers knew they had the wrong camp, but “somebody had to be punished.” A whole community of innocent people had to be punished for the life of one prominent rancher, he said.

Baker, widely believed to be drunk at the time, waved off warnings it was the wrong camp. Lt. Gustavus Doane wrote a report describing it as an actual battle, and later described it as “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S troops.”

Fleming recounted a line from an 1885 history of Montana, in which Michael Leeson wrote of the massacre, “In this manner the war against the Piegans was closed, and the first great lesson in good manners was taught the savages of this territory.”

Fleming credits novelist James Welch with bringing the massacre back into public awareness. At the end of “Fools Crow,” Welch wrote a scene describing the massacre, which his own grandmother survived as a girl, though wounded in the leg.

It’s common today for American Indians to focus on the survival aspect of their history, Fleming said.

“We survived and we celebrate that survival,” he said. “We still continue as a culture and a people.”

Paul Wylie, a retired Bozeman attorney, spent six years researching the massacre for his 2016 book, “Blood on the Marias.” He was traveling to attend the Blackfeet tribe’s commemorations this week. For many years, he said, the event “haunted” the Blackfeet people.

“It’s part of Bozeman history,” Wylie said. “This was the biggest thing that happened at Fort Ellis and it should be remembered.”

Loren BirdRattler, who holds the Katz endowed chair in Native American studies at MSU and is agricultural project manager for the Blackfeet Tribe, said the Baker Massacre is one of the events seldom taught in Montana schools that are important for people to know.

“It gives people more opportunity to understand events they won’t necessarily find in history books,” BirdRattler said. “The more we can include native history in Montana history, it benefits all of us.”

Derek Strahn, Bozeman High School history teacher, said prior to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, where an estimated 250 to 300 Lakota Indians were killed, the Baker Massacre was “considered the most violent episode” in the killing of Indian women and children.

“It was one of the incredibly violent and shameful encounters,” Strahn said. "It's consequential in the numbers of people killed, and the impact on the Blackfeet people. It's the price paid so we can enjoy living in western Montana."

Crystal Alegria, director of the Extreme History Project in Bozeman, said it’s important to commemorate this anniversary, “making sure people know this horrific event happened” so that “we can move forward with a better understanding of how events from the past still influence indigenous people today.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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