Book Review: “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre”

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(I just read the new book “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre” and reviewed it on Amazon. It’s a tragic story, but I’m sharing my review here because, even at this late date, I think it’s important people know what happened on January 23, 1870)

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It’s hard to fathom. But there was a time when the U.S. government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing.

And U.S. military and political leaders actually pondered the idea of genocide… on American soil.

American Indian history isn’t taught much in schools today. And it’s easy to understand why. Our treatment of the aboriginals of this country is a dark stain which may never be erased. And one of the most appalling chapters in this sad saga is the story of the Piegan Blackfeet of northwestern Montana. “Blood on the Marias” deals with that chapter.

Most Americans have heard of Little Bighorn, even if they don’t know the details. Colorful cavalryman George A. Custer had his last stand here. But few Americans know about Sand Creek, Washita, Ash Hollow, Bear River, and Wounded Knee, where innocent Cheyenne, Sioux, and Shoshone women and children were slaughtered in the name of Manifest Destiny. And only a precious few historians know of the Marias Massacre, also known as the Baker Massacre. There’s a reason why this abomination has been kept secret: as shocking as the above episodes are, the bloody encounter on the Marias River in 1870 is perhaps the most shocking of all.

Author Paul Wylie came upon this story by accident, while researching for a previous book. But he’s produced the first comprehensive analysis of the Baker Massacre, and his scholarly treatment is long overdue. It evidently took him years to pry details of this massacre from the iron vaults of the National Archives, and from army correspondence papers, personal letters, and obscure newspaper accounts. He frames his examination of the massacre – in truth, a “mass murder” – with a solid history of the Piegan Blackfeet, including their fascinating and fortuitous 1806 encounter with explorer Meriwether Lewis.

We also get the all-too-familiar perfect storm scenario that led to the attack: the inevitable broken treaties, murders (on both sides), settler and newspaper hysterics, and heinous practice of whiskey trading by unscrupulous frontier lowlifes. This all dovetailed with a U.S. Army run by commanders who were hardened by the Civil War, who had a penchant for glory-seeking, and whose brutality was informed by racism at best, and sociopathic tendencies at worst (Sheridan and Sherman receive full treatment here).

Without giving away too much, the Baker Massacre had several things which separated it from similar atrocities against Native Americans: first, the Piegan village that was attacked was, at the time, being ravaged by smallpox; second, most of the Piegan braves had gone hunting, leaving primarily women, children, and elderly; third, the attack occurred at dawn, in sub-zero temperatures, with minimal resistance from the villagers (only one soldier was killed, with a minimum 173 Indians killed, although probably many more); fourth, the commander and many of the troops were drunk; and fifth… it was the wrong village.

Wylie, a retired attorney, must have really struggled to restrain his emotions while writing this book. He slips into subjectivity only once, in his Preface, when he describes what happened to those villagers as being one of the saddest things he’s ever encountered. The rest of the book is entirely objective and buttressed by credible footnotes.

The Baker Massacre is, indeed, incredibly sad. It’s also one of the most shameful incidents in this nation’s history. It’s been kept under wraps because the army wanted it kept under wraps. If you’re a history teacher, please devote class time to the history of Plains Indians and the Baker Massacre. If you’re not a history teacher, but enjoy reading about history… strike a blow for truth and get a copy of this book.

Blackfoot_tipis

Blackfeet tipis, circa 1910.  Photograph by Arthur Rafton-Canning