My Lai on the Marias
ome people say that blame for the eventual downfall of the great Indian nations of the Northwest should be laid at the feet of the Corps of Discovery. Or that the ruin of the Blackfeet Nation in particular is entirely traceable to Meriwether Lewis's reaction to the eight Piegans who tried to steal his guns and horses on the morning of July 27, 1806. Or that Lewis had turned them against all Americans the night before when he told the eight that his own nation's traders would supply guns and other goods to their enemies, the Nez Perce, the Shoshonis, and the rest. But scapegoating is too simple an answer.
This story is far too complicated to be told fully in a few hundred words, and besides, the factual details are still cloudy. Many foul deeds on both sides, over a span of 64 years, led up to the terrible events of a bitterly cold January morning in 1870, at the extreme upper end of present Lake Elwell, 20 miles northeast of Conrad, Montana. But the greatest guilt clearly fell on the side of the U.S. Cavalry. According to one of the officers involved, it was "the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops." Once again, the victims were Piegans.
While only a few Blackfeet chiefs were openly hostile toward Americans, a number of young Piegan and Blood men, angry over broken promises, diminished buffalo herds, and loss of land, had been carrying on a guerrilla war for some years. The most prominent among them was one named Mountain Chief.
Some settlers repeatedly demanded that the government do something about their "problem." Ultimately, the senior military officer for the territory, General Philip Sheridan, responded with a fateful decision from his office in Chicago: "If the lives and property of citizens of Montana can best be protected by striking Mountain Chief's band, I want them struck. Tell Baker to strike them hard." "Baker" was Brevet Colonel Eugene Baker of the Second Cavalry.
At 8:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, January 23, 1870, within easy range of the 32 skin lodges clustered near the Marias River beneath the bluffs, 200 soldiers opened fire with their fifty-caliber rifles. By 11:00 a.m. 120 men and 53 women and children had been slaughtered and the camp totally destroyed. There were 140 survivors, but when their captors suspected evidence of smallpox among them, they were all released to fend for themselves; many froze to death before they could find shelter. The cavalry suffered one fatality.
Before the first shot was fired an Army scout named Joe Kipp tried to warn Colonel Baker that the camp the guns were trained on was not Mountain Chief's. It was indeed the village of the peaceable Heavy Runner, who was the first to be shot as he emerged from his lodge waving his safe-conduct paper.
In many ways, the "Baker Massacre" is roughly analagous to the My Lai (pronounced MEE-lie) Massacre led by Lieutenant William Calley in Viet Nam, in March of 1968.
Arlen J. Large, "Riled-up Blackfeet: Did Meriwether Lewis Do It?" We Proceeded On, Vol. 22, No. 4 (November, 1996), 4-11.
Robert J. Ege, "Strike Them Hard!" Bellevue, Nebraska: The Old Army Press, 1970.
Stan Gibson, "An Uncelebrated Anniversary," http://www.dickshovel.com/parts.html
The story of the massacre is told in Chapter 35 of the novel Fool's Crow (1986), by James Welch (1940-1003), himself the offspring of a Blackfeet father and a Gros Ventre mother.
Joseph Mussulman; edited by Vernon Carroll