On this dayJan 23, 1870

U.S. Army Massacres Over 150 Indigenous People in Montana Territory

Bear River Massacre Memorial Dance (Harry Palmer)

On January 23, 1870, over 150 Blackfeet—most of whom were women, children, the elderly, and those suffering from disease—were massacred by U.S. soldiers led by Major Eugene Baker near the Marias River (referred to as the Bear River by the Blackfeet) in the Montana Territory.

At dawn, Maj. Baker and his men came upon a Blackfeet camp led by a man named Heavy Runner. The majority of the Blackfeet men had gone out to hunt, while the rest of the band lay sleeping. Maj. Baker was told by a subordinate that the people in the camp were not engaged in a military conflict with the U.S. government. Heavy Runner, after being awoken, presented papers to the U.S. soldiers attesting to friendly relations with U.S. authorities.

In spite of this, Heavy Runner was promptly shot, and Baker ordered his soldiers to attack the rest of the camp. The U.S. soldiers shot indiscriminately into lodges. They also shot at the tops of dwellings so the structures would collapse upon the central fires and burn those inside.

According to a survivor, who was taken prisoner during the massacre, U.S. soldiers killed 90 women, 50 children, and 15 men in Heavy Runner’s band and destroyed 44 buildings. Other accounts put the number of Blackfeet murdered at over 200. A single member of the U.S. Army died. Neither Maj. Baker nor any of his men received disciplinary action for this atrocity.

Maj. Baker’s soldiers also stole over a hundred horses and burned clothing and provisions, making it difficult for the surviving Blackfeet to endure the 30-degree-below-zero temperature. Many subsequently froze to death.

The Bear River Massacre (also known as the Marias Massacre or the Baker Massacre) was the largest massacre of Indigenous people in present-day Montana and one episode in the bloody campaign by the U.S. Army to dispossess the Blackfeet and other Indigenous groups of the territory. Whereas in the early 1800s the Blackfeet had a population of 20,000, by the end of the century, violence, disease, and starvation brought the number down to just 5,000.

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