The Marias Massacre of Montana

Marias Massacre, Montana

Marias Massacre, Montana

“The greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. Troops.”  – Lieutenant Gus Doane, commander of F Company

The Marias Massacre is a little-known one-sided incident that took place in Montana on January 23, 1870. Though receiving little attention in history, the massacre, which killed some 200 Piegan Indians, mostly women and children, was described by one company commander as “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops.”

Before this event, relations between the Blackfoot Confederacy comprised the Blackfoot, Blood, and Piegan tribes, and the white settlers had been hostile for several years. Amidst low-level hostilities in 1869, a young warrior named Owl Child stole several horses from Malcolm Clarke, a white trader. Afterward, Clarke tracked down Owl Child and beat him in front of his camp for the offense. Humiliated, Owl Child, with a band of rogue Piegans, sought revenge and killed Clarke.

Cavalry and Indians

Cavalry and Indians

The killing inflamed the public, which caused General Philip Sheridan to send out a band of cavalry led by Major Eugene Baker to track down and punish the offending party.

On January 23, 1870, the cavalry received a scouting report that the Piegan, led by Mountain Chief, was camped along the Marias River. At first light, 200 dismounted U.S. cavalrymen lay spread out in an ambush position along the snowy bluffs overlooking the Marias River. As they awaited the command to fire, the chief of the camp came out of his lodge, walking toward the bluffs waving a safe-conduct paper. It was not Mountain Chief, who had been forewarned and had already left the area. Rather, it was Piegan leader Heavy Runner, who had enjoyed friendly relations with the white men. When an Army scout by the name of Joe Kipp shouted that this was the wrong camp, he was threatened into silence. Another scout, Joe Cobell, then fired the first shot, killing Heavy Runner and the massacre ensued.

Site of the Marias Massacre, photo by Dean Hellinger

The site of the Marias Massacre, photo by Dean Hellinger

In those early morning hours, the Indian camp was unprotected as most men were out hunting. Bullets riddled the lodges, collapsing some into smoking fire pits and suffocating the half-awake victims. When the carnage was over, 173 lay dead – mostly women, children, and the elderly. 140 others were captured, later to be turned loose without horses, adequate food, and clothing. As the refugees made their way to Fort Benton, some 90 miles away, many of them froze to death.

In the meantime, Major Eugene Baker led his troops downstream to find the real target designated clearly in his orders. However, by the time they arrived, Mountain Chief and his band had fled to safety in nearby Canadian territory.

Only one cavalryman died in the massacre after falling off his horse and breaking his leg. Lieutenant Gus Doane, commander of F Company, described the massacre as “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops.”

Afterward, there was a brief storm of outraged protest in Congress and in the eastern press. However, General William Sherman deflected a public inquiry by silencing the protests of General Alfred Sully, the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent of Montana Indians, and Lieutenant William Pease, the Piegan Indian Agent who had reported the damning body-count. Sherman responded by issuing a press release denying any military guilt and insisting that most of the dead Piegans were warriors in Mountain Chief’s camp.

Many blamed Major Baker, a known alcoholic, for the massacre and failure to capture Mountain Chief’s men. However, in the subsequent controversy, General Sheridan expressed his confidence in Baker’s leadership. Between Sheridan and Sherman’s statements, an official investigation into the incident never occurred.

Piegan Indians and horses, by Edward S. Curtis, 1910

Piegan Indians and horses, by Edward S. Curtis, 1910

Though the incident was every bit as significant as many others, such as the Bear River, Sand Creek, and Washita Massacres, history has overlooked this incident, with little mention of the event in the books and journals of the past. No sign or monument marks the site of the mass grave of the Piegan victims.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2021.

Also See:

The Blackfoot Indians – “Real” People of  Montana

Myths & Legends of the Blackfoot

Native American Photo Galleries

Piegan Tribe


8 thoughts on “The Marias Massacre of Montana”

    1. Can you point to something specific in the article that is in dispute? Are you indicating it never happened, or the number killed, etc? We’d be happy to find additional sources. We are not biased one way or the other when it comes to our material, as history speaks for itself, so any corrections that need to be made we’d be happy to make them with appropriate sources.

      1. A little more background on the Army scout Joe Cobell would be appreciated. I have read that he was married to a member of Mountain Chief’s band, but I have had trouble finding that verified. Also I have read accounts that vary greatly. One example is how Heavy Runner died. I have read that Heavy Runner actually met face to face with Baker handing him the papers directly, and then other times, such as here, that Heavy Runner was shot as he was bringing the papers out. Given how little has been written about this event, and the conflicting nature of the various accounts out there, this is definitely an event worthy of trying to gather as many prime sources as possible and try and make sense of what really happened and why.

        Also I have seen the Doane quote multiple times, but never the original source. Is that from a diary/journal/memoir? I ask not accusatory, but rather if he does have a diary/journal/memoir that would be at least one primary source for me to check.

  1. The historical reporting has become so biased, so one sided in favor of the Indians, that I cannot believe anything I read on the subject.

    1. Belief, what you wish, but It is not that historical reporting has become biased in favor of Native Americans, it as investigations continue, we get a clearer picture of what actually happened.

      1. I am studying this for school and I read from our textbooks that only 173 people were killed not 200. Well also I guess I shouldn’t use the word “only”

          1. The “some 200” refers to others who died after. From the article “When the carnage was over 173 lay dead – mostly women, children and the elderly. 140 others were captured, later to be turned loose without horses, adequate food, and clothing. As the refugees made their way to Fort Benton, some ninety miles away, many of them froze to death.”

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