It was brutally cold in January 1870, when Maj. Eugene Baker left Fort Ellis, just outside Bozeman, leading four companies of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry hundreds of miles north to Fort Shaw, near Great Falls. His assignment was to carry out the War Department’s plan to punish hostile Blackfeet Indians.

Baker was picked for the job by Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan, military commander for the plains, based in Chicago. Sheridan was known for his scorched-earth tactics in the Civil War and his famous saying, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

Sheridan had sent special orders to Fort Shaw: “If the lives and property of the citizens of Montana can best be protected by striking Mountain Chief’s band, I want them struck. Tell Baker to strike them hard.”

That set the stage for the worst Indian massacre in Montana history. At least 173 women, children and old men camped on the Marias River were murdered. Weakened by small pox, they were undefended, as the able-bodied men had gone out to hunt buffalo.

While Baker attacked the wrong Piegan village, Mountain Chief’s hostile band escaped to Canada.

It came to be known as the Baker Massacre. In 1870, the attack was celebrated as a great military victory by the Army and by residents of Bozeman and Helena. When newspapers back East reported the high numbers of women and children killed, it created a scandal, which was quickly extinguished by a cover-up in Washington.

And then, for many years, it was largely forgotten.

Carol Murray grew up on the Blackfeet reservation, but never heard of the massacre until she went away to college. Murray, now past president of the Blackfeet Community College and a tribal historian, recalled interviewing one elderly woman in 1970, who was still afraid a century after the event that talking about it could land her in jail.

“That history was really silenced almost 100 years,” Murray said.

On Monday, the 142nd anniversary of the massacre, Blackfeet Community College will host its 20th memorial ceremony on the Marias River.

With prayers, drums and flags, they will honor those killed in the snows on Jan. 23, 1870, who lie in an unmarked mass grave. They will celebrate the resilience and survival of the Blackfeet people.

The massacre

The spark that triggered the Army’s action was the killing of pioneer Malcolm Clarke, north of Helena on what is now the Sieben Ranch, by Pete Owl Child, his brother-in-law, a member of Mountain Chief’s Piegan band.

Montana territory was already “filled with news and fear of attacks, murders and thefts of horses by the Indians,” Paul Wylie wrote in 2009. A retired Bozeman attorney and author of “The Irish General,” Wylie has been working for four years on a book on the Baker Massacre, traveling from California to Washington, D.C., to dig up musty documents and sift facts from rumor and speculation.

Sheridan responded with a plan to strike the Piegans at “the time of a good heavy snow.” The plan had to be approved, Wylie wrote, by William Tecumseh Sherman, general-in-chief of the Army, who once declared Indians “the enemies of our race and civilization.”

“The Blackfeet version is they were taking our land,” Murray said. Treaties had promised the tribe food and supplies, but Congress never ratified them. “Our people were starving. There were multiple injustices to the Blackfeet people.”

Baker, 33, left Fort Shaw with six companies, perhaps 200 soldiers, in temperatures 43 degrees below zero. Marching at night and resting during the day, the soldiers surprised the Indians.

Why Baker attacked the wrong village may never be known for certain. Baker may have been drunk, as Horace Clarke, teenage son of the murdered settler, and other witnesses later testified.

Baker “liked to pull a cork,” said John Russell, director of the Gallatin Historical Society’s Pioneer Museum.

One story tells that Joseph Kipp, the Army’s half-Mandan, half-white guide, warned Baker he was heading to the wrong camp, but Baker didn’t trust Kipp and threatened to shoot him. A contested story claims Baker may have been deceived by another guide, who was either trying to protect Mountain Chief or steal Heavy Runner’s horses.

Others have speculated that Baker felt the Army had come this far in the freezing cold to fight Indians, and nothing was going to stop them.

What is undisputed is that at first light, Baker’s soldiers surrounded the sleeping camp.

Four decades later, Kipp gave sworn testimony to the Indian Claims Commission:

“When the soldiers reached the camp of Heavy Runner, this chief went toward them as if to tell them who he was and explain his mission there, but they opened fire … (T)hose who were killed were the Chief and such Indians as could not hunt, being the old men, women and children. … Only one shot was fired by any of the Indians. …

“After the firing was over, the soldiers gathered up the bedding, clothing and subsistence, and piled them up with a lot of wood and set fire to the pile and burned everything up. … I myself counted 217 bodies.”

A few Indians escaped, but they left everything behind, and some died from their wounds while others froze to death.

Baker left Lt. Gustavus Doane in charge of captives and burning Heavy Runner’s camp, then marched 16 miles to Mountain Chief’s camp. Baker burned the hastily abandoned lodges, but the Indians had all escaped.

Kim Allen Scott, author of “Yellowstone Denied,” said Doane years later wrote a self-serving report. “He dressed it up to seem like an actual battle where resistance was offered.”

Years later Doane described it as “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops.”

Baker, in his first official report filed weeks after the massacre, reported killing 173 Indians, capturing more than 100 women and children and 300 horses.

Sheridan reported the attack’s “complete success” to Sherman. Only one soldier had been killed. The 100 captives had been “turned loose.”

Darrell Kipp, 67, said his grandfather, Last Gun, then 7 or 8 years old, was one of three children of Heavy Runner who escaped the massacre. Survivors trekked about 90 miles through the bitter cold and snow to Fort Benton.

The three children were later taken in, in what he considers “in an act of contrition,” by guide Joseph Kipp.

“It’s a miracle we survived,” Darrell Kipp said. It “has to be attributed to the tenacity of our people.”

Celebration and cover-up

Montana settlements heartily approved of Baker’s action. The Bozeman Pick and Plow newspaper reported on Feb. 10, 1870, on a mass meeting, which passed several resolutions:

“That our thanks are due, and are hereby gratefully tendered, to Col. Baker and his men, for their toilsome march in an inclement season to chastise our savage robber foes, and for the deserved though terrible punishment inflicted upon them….

“That the Indian of poetry and romance is not the Indian of fact: The former is said to be noble, magnanimous, faithful and brave; the latter we know to be possessed of every attribute of beastly depravity and ferocity.”

However, Gen. Alfred Sully, Montana superintendent of Indian affairs for the Interior Department, soon raised questions about the number of warriors killed. Lt. William Pease, the Blackfeet agent, reported that of 33 Indian men killed, only 15 were of fighting age, and the dead included 18 old men, 90 women and 55 children and babies. The “sickening details” of Pease’s report were leaked from the Commissioner of Indians Affairs in Washington.

“Then all hell broke loose,” Wylie said. “It became known they’d hit the wrong band and these people were innocent.”

In March, one New York newspaper wrote, “We must express our absolute horror at the cold blooded massacre of women and children.” The Chicago Tribune wrote that officials viewed it as “the most disgraceful butchery in the annals of our dealings with the Indian.”

Sheridan wrote a graphic defense: “Since 1862, at least eight hundred men, women and children have been murdered within the limits of my present command, in the most fiendish manner, the men usually scalped and mutilated, their (privates) cut off and placed in the mouths; women ravished sometimes fifty and sixty times in succession…”

Sherman told Sheridan not to worry: “There are two classes of people, one demanding the utter extinction of the Indians, and the other full of love for their conversion to civilization and Christianity. Unfortunately the army stands between and get the cuffs from both sides.”

The Helena Daily Herald wrote in support of Baker: “General Sheridan ordered men to hunt them down, just as we hunt down wolves. When caught in camp they were slaughtered, very much as we slaughter other wild beasts, when we get the chance.”

In late March, Baker wrote his second official report, quadrupling the number of Indian men killed, and claiming “every effort” had been made to save women and children, whose deaths were accidental.

“I prefer to believe,” Sherman wrote, “that the majority of those killed at Mountain Chief’s camp were warriors; that the firing ceased the moment resistance was at an end; that quarter was given to all that asked for it; and that a hundred women and children were allowed to go free … rather than the absurd report that there were only thirteen warriors killed, and that the balance were women and children, more or less afflicted with small pox.”

Despite the official cover-up, the scandal had a serious impact, Scott said. “It changed the Indian policy of the United States.”

The War Department had been arguing the Army should administer Indian reservations, Scott said. But after the massacre, President Grant’s administration put reservations under the Interior Department. And instead of Army officers, clergymen were to act as Indian agents.

“No one was ever tried for it,” Scott said. “Nobody faced charges. There was a lot of smoke, but no fire.”

There is a “dearth of documents” in Baker’s Army files about the massacre, Wylie said. “I believe they were picked clean.”

After the massacre, Baker would face court-martial for drunken behavior, take long sick leaves and die at age 48, probably of cirrhosis of the liver.

To Wylie, the massacre was a legacy of the Civil War. From Baker to Sherman, all were battle veterans.

“I don’t think these people had a killing mentality, I think they had a war mentality,” Wylie said. “The lesson is war is hell.”

Ronald Rockwell of Virginia City, author of “The U.S. Army in Frontier Montana,” said today people tend to judge Baker by 21st century standards, seeing him as a drunkard and villain. Rockwell said he views Baker as a military man who successfully carried out his orders, which probably wouldn’t have been possible if he were impaired.

“It happened,” Rockwell said of the massacre, “because we wanted it to happen.” Baker “was carrying out the policy of the nation at the time.”

In 1870, white settlers feared the Indians, Rockwell said. “When people fear someone, they don’t have a lot of sympathy.”

Survivors

It wasn’t until James Welch wrote “Fools Crow” in 1986 that many Montana students had ever heard of the Baker Massacre, said Walter Fleming, Native American studies department chair at Montana State University.

Welch ended the novel with the Baker Massacre, inspired by the story of his own grandmother, who survived the attack as a young girl, though wounded in the leg.

The massacre was one of the great blows to the Blackfeet nation, said Darrell Kipp, a Browning High graduate who went on to Harvard and founded the Piegan Institute.

The first terrible blow was in 1837, when three-fifths of the tribe perished in a small pox epidemic, brought on by contaminated trade goods.

“The massacre probably was the ultimate crushing blow,” Kipp said. “It was something they never really recovered from. Previously, they would have fought back. They were unable to. They had to accept the massacre. The massacre was an extremely violent blow to the spirit of the people.”

The final great blow came in 1884, when the buffalo were totally gone from the plains, leaving the Blackfeet “destitute,” Kipp said. Some 3,000 were rounded up in that “starvation winter.”

“It came close to genocide,” Murray said.

Today the Blackfeet are again a large tribe, with nearly 17,000 registered tribal members, Kipp said, and close to 30,000 descendants.

Kipp said massacre survivors, like his grandfather, were “heroic, very strong people. We really owe them a huge debt … of gratitude and respect and honor. They managed to survive horrific events.”

Lea Whitford, Blackfeet studies department chair at Blackfeet Community College, said the only physical sign of the massacre today is a historical sign on Highway 2, erected by the Montana Department of Transportation in 1970, some distance from the river.

There has been discussion of seeking national recognition for the actual massacre site, Whitford said. But that might encourage looting, or open to the public what is for the Blackfeet “hallowed ground.”

The first time she went to the massacre memorial ceremony, Whitford said, she felt “a sense of sadness and responsibility.”

Now, Whitford said, “having been there year after year, I get just an energy charge. We’re visiting our homeland, and we’re recognizing the resilience of our people.

“I’m just amazed at the Blackfeet people’s ability to survive such a tragic event as that.”

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

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