by Robert A. Waters
The United States government’s war machine was not content to just invade the Confederate States of America. Soon after decimating the Confederacy, Union generals such as Phillip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman led blood-thirsty raids into Indian Territory to exterminate the natives who had roamed these lands for centuries.
Sheridan manifested his contempt for Native Americans when he quipped, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” After professional hunters slaughtered millions of buffalo (a major source of the Indian diet), Sheridan said: “Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo is exterminated.” General Sherman, whose atrocities in the Civil War were condemned even by northern newspapers, held a hatred for Native Americans (and African-Americans) that bordered on the pathological.
The Marias Massacre was typical of war crimes committed by the heroes of the Union army. On January 23, 1870, in northern Montana, the Second U. S. Regiment came upon a sleeping village of peaceful Piegan Blackfoot Indians and murdered 173 women, children, and old men. When Americans learned that many of the executed Indians were already dying of smallpox, the public was incensed. But even outrage couldn’t stop the war machine that the late President Abraham Lincoln had created.
The genesis for the Marias Massacre began over a minor incident.
In the fall of 1869, Montana rancher Malcolm Clarke accused a Blackfoot warrior named Owl Child of stealing horses. Clarke and his cattlemen administered a public beating to Owl Child, humiliating him in front of other Indians. In revenge, Owl Child led a group of warriors to Clarke’s home and murdered him and his son. Owl Child then fled, joining Mountain Chief, a Blackfoot chieftain who was rebelling against the continued encroachments of white settlers.
Enter Major Eugene Baker, another Union veteran. General Sherman ordered Baker, who was stationed at Fort Ellis near Bozeman, to lead his cavalry of 400 men out into the minus-thirty-degree weather to hunt down Owl Child and Mountain Chief. Baker, a drunkard of the worst sort, imbibed almost continually from the time he left the fort until he reached the Marias River. On the morning of January 23, 1870, Baker’s army stumbled onto a small village containing mostly women and children (all the able-bodied males were out hunting).
The leader of this band of Piegan Blackfoot Indians was Heavy Runner, known to be friendly to white settlers. Baker’s Indian scouts recognized the paintings on the teepees as belonging to this peaceful group and informed Major Baker. But the major, in a drunken stupor, ordered his men to kill any scout who attempted to alert the village of their presence. Then the cavalry charged into the camp.
As the army began shooting into the undefended teepees, Heavy Runner raced outside waving government-issued papers and medals showing that his band was peaceful. He was quickly riddled with bullets and killed.
Of the approximately three hundred inhabitants of the village, only 15 were warriors. These were quickly slain. Then cavalrymen rode up to the teepees and pumped round after round into the flimsy skins, killing scores of women, children, and old men. The surviving villagers suffered a worse fate when soldiers burned the teepees down. Natives still inside smoke-filled tents suffocated or burned to death.
When the massacre was over, bodies littered the ground around still-smoldering teepees, and charred corpses lay smoking in the ashes.
In addition to the dead, Baker’s army captured about 140 women and children. But as he began herding them to Fort Ellis, Baker learned that many were sick with smallpox. He quickly decided to abandon them, and, with his 400 soldiers, simply rode away. Without food or shelter, few of the women and children survived in the sub-zero weather.
When word of Major Baker’s atrocities reached the media, many Americans were dismayed. One soldier reported that during the massacre, Baker “had been too long in conference with John Barleycorn.” Others stated that all the officers were “in the spirits.” While newspapers published editorials condemning the raid, General Sherman stonewalled the affair until it was eventually forgotten. In the end, no one was ever held accountable.
In 1873, three years after the Marias Massacre, Major Baker almost got his cavalry wiped out near Pryor’s Creek when they were attacked by Sioux warriors. As usual, Baker had been too drunk to effectively command his troops, but he suffered few consequences. Later, he was court-martialed for arresting an officer while he (Baker) was drunk. Scheduled to be dishonorably discharged, General Sherman again intervened, merely suspending the beleaguered major for six months at half-pay.
At 48 years of age, Baker died drunk and penniless. The cause of death, not surprisingly, was said to be cirrhosis of the liver.