The Blackfeet Indians, or Piegan Blackfeet, are one of four closely related, Algonquin-speaking, North American aboriginal groups. The other three tribes are the Blackfoot or Siksika nation, the Northern Piegan, and the Kanai. Algonquin is a North American aboriginal language that was spoken by groups that lived in Canada, New England, the Great Lakes region, and the Rocky Mountains. It has been theorized that the Blackfeet Indians originated in the eastern United States and, at some point, migrated west. They now reside in Montana, while the other three groups are now located in Alberta, Canada. All four tribes make up the Blackfoot Confederacy.
When they were first encountered by European explorers in the 1650s, the Blackfeet Indians were nomadic hunters who also did some farming. They may have been pushed west during the colonial era because the settlers, who were encroaching on their territory, had horses and guns. The horse was probably introduced and incorporated into the aboriginal group in the early 18th century. The Blackfoot groups were known for their military prowess on the North American plains, and often entered into conflicts with Europeans by blocking the trapping and trading efforts of colonists.
Aboriginal groups in North America had to contend not only with the guns carried by the settlers, but also diseases that were new to them — like smallpox. Virgin soil epidemics are epidemics that sweep through populations that have never had any prior exposure, or immunity, to a particular virus or bacteria. The new diseases that the European settlers brought with them threatened all aboriginal groups in North America.
In 1837, the Blackfeet Indians suffered a severe smallpox epidemic that killed 6,000 people — which was half of the tribe at the time. The first people fell ill ten days after visiting Fort McKenzie in Montana, which is the approximate incubation time, or the period between exposure and initial symptoms the disease. Their population then fluctuated during the 19th century, from 20,000 to 2,000 members, mostly due to the high mortality rates of such European diseases.
Beginning in 1855, with the Lame Bull Treaty, the Blackfeet Indians lost much of their land and were forced onto a reservation in Montana, where they currently reside. The reservation is about 2,500 square miles (about 4,023 square km) in size. The Blackfeet, after Lame Bull was signed, did not want to give up hunting in favor of farming for food because they felt that it was inconceivable for the American buffalo — their main source of food — to disappear.
When the buffalo neared extermination in the 1880s, the Blackfeet Indians faced starvation. Their last buffalo hunt occurred in 1884. About 600 Blackfeet starved to death during the winter of 1883-1884, and the tribe was forced to accept rations from the U.S. government.