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'Blood on the Marias' Recounts 1870 Massacre Of Blackfeet Village

'Blood on the Marias' Recounts 1870 Massacre Of Blackfeet Village
'Blood on the Marias' Recounts 1870 Massacre Of Blackfeet Village

For as long as there have been people on earth, we have been killing each other — for lots of reasons: lust, land, money ... In his new book, "Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre", Bozeman author Paul Wylie associates the escalation of murder in Montana with the discovery of gold.

Paul Wylie: The settlers came, basically, for gold. And the gold camps were fairly well protected — Virginia City, Diamond City, Helena — all with thousands of gold miners there. And they could protect themselves from the Indians. What couldn’t be protected were the trade routes between the gold camps.

Chérie Newman:  The escalation in conflicts between settlers and Indians eventually brought the U.S. Army into Montana Territory, to carry out policies we’d rather not think about today.

PW: Extermination, if not a primary goal, was certainly high on the list of alternatives as a way to handle the Indians. And I think that’s present throughout the book, in different places, that the Indians will eventually simply be obliterated and then won’t be a problem. And, unfortunately, that came from some of the highest levels.

CN: In January of 1870, Army officer Major Eugene Baker, under orders from General William Sherman, led the 2nd Cavalry from Fort Ellis, near Bozeman, to the Marias River in Northcentral Montana. His mission was to punish the Piegan men who had killed Malcolm Clarke, a white trader and rancher. Those men were from Mountain Chief’s band. But Baker’s soldiers attacked the camp of Chief Heavy Runner, a friendly chief, killing him and most of his people.

PW: The best Blackfeet version was given, I think, by Joe Kipp. And I believe he counted 213 killed. That’s substantially more than the Army’s official version of 173 killed. Mostly women and children. 

CN: Baker was reportedly drunk. And his three guides — Horace Clarke, Joe Kipp, and Joe Cobell — had their own agendas.

"Blood on the Marias" author Paul Wylie.
Credit Courtesy Paul Wylie
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"Blood on the Marias" author Paul Wylie.

PW: Horace Clarke definitely had an agenda. The whole uproar started in Montana in August when Malcolm Clarke, Horace’s father, was lured out of his cabin and murdered by Pete Owl Child, a son of Mountain Chief. So Horace had revenge in his heart.

Joe Kipp was hired for his knowledge of the Piegan Indians and where their winter camps might be. There is a question, though, as to whether or not he was totally objective in trying to find Mountain Chief’s camp. He may have known it was Heavy Runner’s camp. At the last moment, it was clear that he did know it was Heavy Runner’s camp they were going to attack. And he tried to persuade Major Baker not to attack, but Baker wouldn’t listen to him.

The other seemingly duplicity in the whole thing is the hiring of Joe Cobell. Cobell was married to a daughter of Mountain Chief, and Heavy Runner, apparently, had taken some livestock from Cobell’s ranch. And when I say Heavy Runner I don’t mean himself, I mean members of his band. And as the book will tell us, Joe Cobell probably fired the shot that killed Heavy Runner himself.

CN: As with every story, this one has multiple viewpoints. The soldiers in the 2nd Cavalry were miserable. They had traveled 200 miles in sub-zero temperatures. They had spent the last 3 days sleeping on frozen ground — without fires, in order to assure a surprise attack. Their commander was a drunk and their guides were duplicitous. By the time they arrived at Heavy Runner’s camp, they probably didn’t care who was there. They just wanted to get the battle over with and go back to their fort.

PW: The soldiers certainly could have done something to help the survivors, but they basically did nothing.

CN: Paul Wylie’s meticulously-researched book, "Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre", is a story about murder in Montana. But it’s also a story about misguided government policies, ignorance, bigotry, and maybe some opportunities to learn from our mistakes.

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