Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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1883 History of
Franklin and Cerro Gordo Counties, Iowa

by M. P. Rosecrans

The first white men known to have been at Clear Lake, were a man named BILLINGS and Rufus CLARK, who were here in the spring of 1849, hunting young buffalo and elk calves; while here they captured a young buffalo and marked it and then let it go. BILLINGS and CLARK were compelled to leave on account of the hostility of the Indians. Two years later, this same buffalo was killed by Joseph HEWITT and James DICKIRSON. The latter named gentlemen were the first settlers of the county. They came here from Clayton Co., Iowa, in the spring of 1851, making claims and putting up log cabins on section 24, in township 96, range 22. They staid here two years alone, no other settlers coming until two years later, 1853, when David and Edward WRIGHT came and took claims on Lime creek, about ten miles away. Robert and James SIRRINE came in the fall of 1853 and made claims. In the spring of 1854, Mr. Senior came with his family and made a claim, where he still lives. That being the year of the Indian troubles, no more families came that year, but two families of Winnebago Indians came in the winter of 1853-4, and camped near HEWITT'S cabin.

HEWITT had been a government trader with the Winnebagoes, and was well acquainted with the leaders of that tribe, and also with their language; this was the cause of the Winnebagoes camping near him. The Sioux and Winnebagoes were mortal enemies, and the former being the more powerful and warlike, the latter were in great fear, and depended in a great measure on the whites for protection. In the month of June, 1854, seven Sioux Indians came to HEWITT'S and staid (sic) over night. They first came to the camp of the Winnebagoes, but professed to be greatly afraid of them, so they desired Hewett to keep them. They acted quite friendly towards the Winnebagoes, smoked with them and made them presents of tobacco and pipes. These Indians went away the following day, and the second day after their visit, two others of the same tribe came and stopped over night; they also seemed friendly, but the Winnebagoes were in great fear of them and dare not visit their camp. The main body of the Sioux were then encamped on Lime creek, about twelve miles from the lake, numbering about 500.

HEWITT locked the two Sioux in his house that night in order to quiet the fears of the Winnebagoes. After breakfast the next morning they went to the Winnebagoes, and bid them farewell in a kind, friendly manner, pretending they were about to leave their camp; instead of doing so, however, they moved to the lake shore and sat down, where they remained about two hours. They then arose and went to the house of R. O. SIRRINE, about half a mile up the lake shore, and there ground their knives and loaded their guns, remaining in that locality until the middle of the afternoon. During this time the Winnebagoes had sent a boy, of about sixteen years of age, to the prairie to look for their horses. The boy, on his way, passed by Mr. SIRRINE'S house, and as soon as he had passed, the two Indians ran east with their guns, and were lost 'o view. The boy on returning with the horses passed by SIRRINE'S house, but had proceeded but a short distance further, when the report of a gun was heard, and the boy fell from his horse.

Mrs. SIRRINE remarked that she was certain that the Sioux had shot him, which proved to be the fact; they being concealed in the brush near the road. The horses ran home immediately; one of them covered with blood.

HEWITT and one of the Winnebagoes, the other being absent at the time, ran up the road, in the direction from which the horses came, until they came to the boy lying in the road; they found the Sioux had cut off his head and carried it off with them. The boy was a fine shrewd Indian, could speak English and was quite intelligent.

The alarm was given and the headless body was buried immediately.

At that time there were three families at that place, where Mason City now stands, but they soon left after the murder of this boy.

The only settlers at the Lake were HEWITT and DICKIRSON, together with the two SIRRINES. CALLONAN had not moved his family out, but was breaking prairie on his claim.

HEWITT and DICKIRSON each had a hired man; these, with the two WRIGHTS, before referred to, were all the white men in the county at that time, June, 1854.

After burying the boy, HEWITT and DICKIRSON put the two families of Winnebagoes into HEWITT'S wagon, DICKIRSON'S man and team having gone to Dyersville, a distance of 150 miles, for provisions. They then put on the cover, and fastened it down, and sent them away under the charge of HEWITT'S hired man, who took them to the place where Marble Rock now stands, a distance of thirty-five miles.

The young man in charge there met DICKIRSON'S team, which turned back and took them to Clarksville , eight miles further on, where a man was engaged to take them to Cedar Falls, and from there to Davenport where they took passage on a boat going up the river, and finally reached their own county on the Wisconsin side.

DICKIRSON had, at this time, removed to the prairie about one mile from the lake shore and two miles from HEWITT'S, and about the same from SIRRINES; CALLONAN'S claim was about one mile from HEWITT'S in an opposite direction. All except DICKIRSON lived in the timber, and their dwellings could be easily approached by the savages without fear of discovery. To guard against a contingency of this kind, and that they might unite their strength the few families gathered at DICKIRSON'S on the prairie, his house commanding quite a view of the surrounding country without an intervening object.

They were all much excited, being alone as they were in the wilderness, far removed from friends and civilization, with no hope of succor and in the neighborhood of a band of hostile Indians, numbering 500, who had already tasted blood enough to excite their hellish passions, and with this the settler might well be alarmed.

Here were mothers with small children, weak, harmless and inoffensive, that were liable to have their brains dashed out by the merciless blows of the Indian tomahawk, while the fathers' and their few white friends without families, stood ready to sell their lives if need be in defence of all they held near and dear to them. Such was the condition of the few settlers who were assembled at the cabin of James DICKIRSON, at Clear Lake, in the month of June, 1854.

The Indians still hung around, but were not visible for some four days, but scouts reported every morning that they had discovered fresh tracks of their ponies made in the night previous, as they had been hovering around the settlement for mischief or plunder.

On the fourth day after the murder of the boy, about thirty Indians made their appearance eighty rods northeast of DICKIRSON'S house. They were mounted and rode back and forth brandishing their guns over their heads in a most threatening manner; their guns were scoured up very brightly and glittered in the sunlight. They kept this up for nearly half a day.

HEWITT at this time had gone to his claim to take care of his stock. When he returned, he watched their motions a while with much fear, being so well acquainted with their customs. After noting their actions he told the rest to stay where they were, and he would go alone to them and see what they wanted; he being able to talk the Winnebago language, and most of that spoke by the Sioux too. He told his friends that if he was killed they must defend themselves as best they could, and that it was uncertain whether he returned to them alive.

Thus this brave man set forth, as all feared, to meet death at the hands of those relentless savages; but the maxim that fortune favors the brave was realized in this case. After leaving the cabin he walked boldly toward them, they awaiting his coming, sullenly and silently. When he came up to them he boldly asked them what they wanted, and what they were hanging about there for?

They answered that the whites had the Winnebagoes concealed; that they were after them; that they were bound to have them dead or alive, and demanded of him that they be given up. This HEWITT denied - he told them the Winnebagoes had left within an hour after the boy was murdered. This they would not believe.

He then told them that if they would stack their guns upon the prairie, they might come to the house and search for them until they were satisfied. This they agreed to do, provided the whites would leave their guns at the house and come out and meet them half way. To this Mr. HEWITT agreed.

They then stacked their guns, came about half way and stopped. Hewitt returned to the house and told his friends the agreement he had made, in compliance with which they stacked their guns and went out to meet the Indians. They then came up to the house together and made search until they were convinced that the Winnebagoes were not there. They then laughed and made sport of the whites, and showed them how nicely they had fooled them and how they had them at their mercy. They raised their blankets and each Indian showed a six-shooter loaded and ready for an engagement; and after tormenting them a while, they went away apparently well satisfied, saying they wanted nothing of the whites, still the whites did not place much reliance on their pretended friendship, and felt far from secure, as they were quite at their mercy, and knew well the savage nature of the Sioux Indians.

The next morning about 10 o'clock, there came 100 mounted men to their relief, coming from a distance of about 100 miles, having heard the alarm from the two Winnebagoes and their escort. When they came in sight of the cabin and saw the guard, they thought them to be Indians and that the cabins were in their possession. The people in the cabin, not expecting relief, supposed them to be Indians. But the settlers soon sent out a scout who found them out and they stayed until the next afternoon, doing nothing. They brought with them no provisions and HEWITT and DICKIRSON fed them until their supply of food was exhausted.

DICKIRSON then proposed to them that they load up their families and move toward the settlements, which plan was carried out. The captain of the company, desiring to appear very brave, said he did not believe there was an Indian within 500 miles, and that the scare was all unfounded.

DICKIRSON told him that he could show all the Indians he desired to see within an hour. The Captain repeated that if he could he would soon clear them out, so effectually, that the whites would have no more troubles from them.

As soon as the team had started, DICKIRSON, to gratify the ambition of the brave Captain, took him along the trail about eight miles to a point on Lime creek and pointed out to them a camp of over 500 Indians. The Captain approached to within three- quarters of a mile of their camp, stopped and viewed them with wonder and surprise - observing small clouds in the sky, he remarked that it looked like rain, and as it would be late before they could reach the camp, they had better take up their line of march for another place.

In vain DICKIRSON desired him to pass on into the Indians camp and have a talk with the savages. He replied that, much as he would like to do so that he had no time then, and that they must be returning, which they did in all haste, and did not stop until they had reached the teams at or near where Mason City is now located, where they passed the night.

The next day they all went to Marble Rock, when DICKIRSON and HEWITT decided to go no further. Their brave defenders left them there never to meet again. After a time they returned with their families to the Lake.

The wives of the pioneers - Mrs. JAMES and Robert SIRRINE, DICKIRSON, and CALLANAN - are sleeping quietly in the cemetery which is located on the land taken up by DICKIRSON.

DICKIRSON saw no more Indians about Clear Lake until 1856, when eleven Sioux came to his house and were impudent and saucy. They commenced chasing and throwing at his fowls. He asked them to desist, but they paid but little attention to what he said. He picked up a stone, and when they saw he intended to throw at them they paused and looked at him for a time, his wife telling him not to throw at them. They then came to the house and seated themselves on the wood pile.

There was a small grindstone on a bench outside the house; one of the Indians picked up the stone and started off with it, trying to break it. DICKIRSON told him not to break it, when he picked it up and started off with it. DICKIRSON followed him and told him to bring it back. The Indian paid no heed to what he said, but walked on.

DICKIRSON then picked up a stone of four or five pounds weight, following him several rods from the house. His wife begged him to throw down the stone and return, lest the Indian might kill him. He finally threw down the stone and caught hold of the grindstone and jerked it away from the Indian; but in doing so he threw the Indian down. He then walked toward the house with his grindstone.

The rest of the Indians were sitting on the wood pile with their guns in their hands. The Indian who had taken the stone was armed with a big walking stick, and as DICKIRSON walked toward the house, he arose and followed after him, and struck at him just touching his hat. DICKIRSON turned quickly around struck him with the grindstone, over the head, knocking him down. He then walked on toward the house, which was about ten rods away.

As the Indian did not get up, a portion of the tribe by the wood pile went to him and assisted him to rise, leading him toward the house covered with blood. They then went to DICKIRSON and wanted him to pay the Indian something. They finally demanded $100, or a good horse (they prized all kinds of horses at that sum). DICKIRSON refused to give them anything. They then formed a circle around him, cocked their guns, and told him if he did not pay him they would kill him; he still refused, and called to his hired man to bring him his double-barreled rifle; his wife all the time begging him to pay them and thus save their lives. She would not let them have his gun, but having five or six dollars she came out and gave it to them. After finding they could not scare him, they went off.

Marcus TUTTLE who had then moved there, returned soon after, and they both went to Mason City , rallied about twenty men, and followed the Indians to their camp. They were then encamped at a point across Lime creek, at a place called Brush Point. They numbered about fifty; they had just came in from a morning hunt, bringing in an elk and two deer. The whites took from them their game, some dried meat, and the money given them by Mrs. DICKIRSON. This so frightened the Indians that they packed up and left the country, never returning.

This ended the Indian troubles at Clear Lake, save a few bad scares, one or which was as follows:

In the fall of 1857, about fifty Indians encamped on the public square, at Clear Lake, and engaged in a war dance, and it was rumored that this detachment were going to Shell Rock river, and were there to be joined by others, and on their return having thus cut off the retreat of the whites, were to murder and scalp them all. DICKIRSON soon quelled their fears and no more was heard of them.

The two WRIGHT families, before referred to, left the county and never returned. Mr. HEWITT lived to a good old age and was finally buried on the spot where he first made his claim. For many years he was employed by the government as a mail carrier. This was when the county was new, roads poor, streams unbridged, prairies to cross, often for many miles without a house to be seen, yet he braved all these difficulties. He was always on the line of duty and gave complete satisfaction to the United States Government and people. He was a strictly honest man, kind hearted and of very strong friendship. He would rob himself to help others. Having lived on the frontier most of his life, he ignored fashions and reserve, and received you fearlessly, frankly and kindly. he was a man of sterling common sense, and a worthy representative of Iowa's early pioneers.

Mr. HEWITT'S companion, Mr. DICKIRSON, who passed through the thrilling scenes we have narrated, now lives at Britt, in Hancock county, an honest and intelligent man. Although somewhat in years, time has dealt kindly with him and he still walks erect and boldly and possesses the spirit of independence that would not let the savages rob him of his property.

Michael CALLANAN and James SIRRINE still occupy the homes first made by them in what was a dreary wilderness; they too are fast growing old, but still remember well the first time they ever saw this beautiful sheet of water.

James DICKIRSON was born in Missouri, April 29, 1820, and lived there until a man grown, when he removed to Galena, Ill., and engaged in lead mining. In 1834 he came to Jackson Co., Iowa, and shortly after removed to Clayton county, but still later his choice of frontier life caused him, in company with Capt. HEWITT, to locate in Cerro Gordo county, which at that date was with Floyd county.

The two families, DICKIRSON'S and HEWITT'S, first pitched their tents on the shores of Clear Lake, July 14, 1851, and commenced making for themselves homes. At that time there was not a single white man west of the Cedar river , and north of the present line of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Mr. DICKIRSON still lives in this section of Iowa - residing at Britt, but owning property at Clear Lake. He looks out over a land of wealth and improvement, with all the advantages of civilization and comfort. What a vast change! He points out places where he killed buffalo and elk but a short time ago, where now stand waving wheat fields, and fine bearing orchards, and the sound of the church bell, together with the merry laugh of hundreds of school children, bespeak of a more advanced civilization.

From the earliest history of this county the Sioux and Winnebago Indians were at war and deadly enemies, murdering each other wherever found, and each tribe claiming this country as their hunting grounds. Many years ago the government sought to stop their wars, and drew an imaginary line from the mouth of the Wisconsin river directly west across the territory of Iowa, and prohibited the Sioux from coming within twenty miles of it from the north, or the Winnebagoes from the south, thus making a strip of territory forty miles wide of neutral ground between them, and Clear Lake in the center.

Before coming to Clear Lake, Capt. HEWITT had for many years been a prominent Indian trader, and was well known among them. Speaking their language, and being well acquainted with their habits, he was a great favorite among them. Learning of his location at Clear Lake , several families of the Winnebagoes followed him to the lake in the winter of 1853-4. The Sioux, who lived farther north in Minnesota, learning that some Winnebagoes had come upon the neutral grounds, determined to exterminate them. About 500 of them came down during the summer of 1854, and for some time feigned to be very friendly with the whites and Winnebagoes, eating and smoking the peace-pipe with them. A prominent Winnebago brave named To-shan-e-ga (Otter in their language) suspicioned their intentions, and wanted the white settlers to use their influence with the Sioux to protect them.

SOURCE: History of Franklin and Cerro Gordo Counties, Iowa. Pp. 618-23. Union Publishing Co. Springfield IL. 1883.

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, February of 2011



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