Another IAGenWeb Project





WE LEFT Fort Dodge March twenty-fourth, but owing to our commissary being hindered in procuring transportation, we were obliged to camp at Badger Creek, not more than four or five miles north. We now began to realize that we were soldiers. Cold, wet and hungry, we built up large campfires, provided a hasty meal, dried our clothes as well as we could, and without tents lay down and slept soundly.


"On the morning of the twenty-fifth we resumed our march, crossing the east branch of the Des Moines without difficulty, and camped at Dakota City. The twenty-sixth the road became more and more difficult. In some places the snow was so deep that it was necessary to break a road before our teams could pass through. In other places it had drifted in the ravines to the depth of eight or ten feet. The only way to proceed was to wade through, stack arms, return and unhitch the teams, attach ropes to them and draw them through; then perform a similar operation with the wagons. This performance took place every mile or two, and by such progress we were two days in reaching McKnight's Point on the east bank of the west branch of the Des Moines River, twelve miles from Dakota City. On the twenty-seventh we camped at McKnight's Point.


"On the night of the twenty-sixth the command camped out on the prairie, but a detail under Captain Duncombe had gone ahead to look out the road to the Point. Duncombe had been ill during the clay, and he became so exhausted that he had to be carried into camp, running a very close risk of losing his life.


"Resuming our march on the twenty-eighth, we camped that night at Shippey's, on Cylinder Creek. Sunday, the twenty-ninth, we reached the Irish Colony, Emmet County, and were all cared for by the inhabitants who had assembled for protection in case of an attack, but were greatly relieved when we dame in sight. The morning of the thirtieth found the command greatly refreshed, having butchered, a cow that had been wintered on prairie hay. The beef was not exactly porterhouse steak, but it was food for hungry men. We left our teams, which were nearly exhausted, and impressed fresh ones. We camped that night near Big Island Grove. At this place the Indians had kept a lookout. in a big cedar tree that grew on an island in the middle of the lake, and their campfires were still burning. A platform had been built in this tree, forty feet from the ground, from which one could easily see twenty miles. The place had probably been deserted several days but the fire was still burning. One Indian doubtless kept watch here alone, leaving in a northwesterly direction when he abandoned the place.


"The morning of the thirty-first the command moved out early. Ten men were sent forward as scouts. When about eight miles out we met the Springfield refugees, the Churches, Thomases, Carver and others. We went into camp, and our surgeon dressed the wounds of the fleeing party. On the morning of April first Major Williams sent an escort with the Springfield people back to the Irish Colony, and proceeded northwest, with an advance guard ahead. We camped that night at Granger's Point, near the Minnesota line. Here we learned that the United States troops from Fort Ridgley were camped at the head of Spirit Lake and that the Indians had fled to Owl Lake, some eighteen miles away. As we were on foot and the Indians supposed to be mounted, there would not be any chance of overtaking them.


"A council was held and it was decided to return the main part of the command to the Irish Colony and wait for the rest to come in. Twenty-six men were selected, including those having friends at the lake, to cross the river, proceed to that point to bury the dead, reconnoiter, and see if there were any who had escaped the Indians. I was one of the party. On the morning .of the second of April, under Capt. J. C. Johnson, we crossed the Des Moines River and took a south and west direction. The traveling was much better than it had been since we left Fort Dodge. It was warm and clear. About two o'clock we struck East Okoboji Lake on the southeast shore. The first cabin we came to was that of Mr. Thatcher. Here we found the yard and prairie covered with feathers. Two dead men were lying at the rear of the house, both bodies being numerously shot in the breast. They evidently had been unarmed and everything indicated that they had been surprised. The rest of the family had been killed in the house or taken prisoners, and everything indicated that there had been no defense. From here we went to Mr. Howe's, where we found seven dead bodies. There were one old and one middle aged woman, one man and four children—all brutally murdered. It seemed that the man had been killed by placing the muzzle of a gun against his nose and blowing his head to pieces. The other adult had been simply shot. The children had been knocked in the head.


"We divided into parties to bury the dead, camping for the night near the residence of the Howe family. Old Mr. Howe was found on the third of April, some distance from the house on the ice, shot through the head. We buried him on a bluff southwest of the place, some eighty rods from the house. The next place was Mr. Mattock's. Here we found eleven dead bodies and buried them all in one grave, men, women and children. The ground was frozen and we could only make the grave about eighteen inches deep. It was a ghastly sight. The adults had been shot, but the children's brains had been knocked out, apparently by striking them across their foreheads with heavy clubs or sticks of wood. The brains of one boy about ten years of age, had been completely let out of his head, and lay upon the ground. Every one else shrank from touching them. I was in command and feeling that I would not ask another to do a thing from which myself revolted, I gathered up the poor scattered fragments upon the spade and placed them all together in the grave. About forty head of cattle had been shot at this place, the carcasses split open on the backs and tenderloins removed—all that the Indians cared to carry off. The house had been burned with one dead body in it at the time. At this place it seems to me that the only man who fought the Indians was Doctor Harriott, who had formerly lived at Waterloo. He made heroic defense, probably killing and wounding two or three Indians. He was falling hack toward Granger's, evidently defending the women and children, when he was finally shot himself. He still grasped his Sharp's rifle, which was empty and broken off at the breech, showing that he had fallen in a hand to hand fight. I have little idea that any other man about the lakes fired a gun at the Indians. It was sumply a surprise and butchery.


"From here we went, to the Grangers', and found the dead body of one of the brothers of that name. He had been first shot and his head had been split open with a broad axe. Ho and his brother had kept a small store, and the Indians had taken everything away excepting some dozen bottles of strychnine. We buried him near his own house. The next house was Gardner's. Here were the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Gardner, one grown-up daughter, .and two small children in the yard, and a baby in the house. We buried this family all in one grave, about two rods from the house. Tired and hungry we went into camp in a small grove at the rear of the house, with nothing to eat but potatoes.


"Some of our party had visited the lake in the fall and had seen Mr. Gardner bury two bushels of potatoes in a box under his stove. These we found and roasted in the campfire. They lasted two days. On the morning of the fourth, we completed our sad task, and without any food, turned our faces homeward, taking a southeast course, hoping to reach the Irish Colony the same day. In the forenoon it was quite warm, melting the snow, and consequently traveling was very difficult. We were obliged to wade sloughs waist deep or go miles around .and run the risk of losing the course. We were wet to the shoulders and while in this fearful condition the wind changed. About four o'clock a blizzard was upon us. In a short time our clothes were frozen stiff. Many of us cut holes in our boots to let the water out, and several pulled their boots off and were unable to get them on again. Up to this time the detachment had kept together. About sundown we came to a township corner placed there the year before. Laughlin and I wanted to be governed by the pit. While we were talking, part of the detachment came up and passed us some distance to the right. Those who happened to be with Laughlin and me stopped on a piece of dry ground close to township corner, determined to remain near it all night, lest in the night we should lose our course as shown by the corner. We marched back and forth all night long. When a comrade would fall others would help him to his feet, encourage and force him to keep moving as the only hope, for no living being could survive an hour in such a storm without hard exercise. Captain Johnson's party, led by a trapper, became a little separated from us by a slough, where they found a dry place and commenced pacing back and forth as we were doing. They were within speaking distance of us. They stayed there all night, but in the morning took a southeast direction, while we went east. They seemed to have perfect confidence in the old trapper's knowledge of the country.


"During the night some of our men begged to lie down, claiming that it was useless to try to keep up any longer as the ice on their clothes gave them fearful annoyance. But the more hopeful would not consent to anyone giving up. In this distressed condition we traveled up and down that path all night.


"One man by the name of Henry Carse from Princeton, Illinois, had taken his boots off in the evening and wrapped his feet in pieces of blanket. He succeeded in getting along as well as the rest during the night, but in the morning when we went on the ice to break a road, his feet got wet, and the wraps wore out. I staid with hint until within three or four miles of the Des Moines River, when I became satisfied he could not get there, as his mind had failed. Every time I would bring him up he would turn away in any direction. Finally, Henry Dailey came along and succeeded in getting him to the river. The river was three miles from the Irish Colony. We had no matches, but some of the party knew how to strike a fire by saturating a cramp wad with powder and shooting it into the weeds. In this way we succeeded in striking a fire. Henry Carse was now unconscious and the blood was running from his mouth! We cut the rags from his feet and the skin came off the soles of his feet with the rags.


"As soon as the fire was well going, Laughlin and I, being the least frozen, determined to try and cross the river and reach the settlement for help. We walked to the middle of the river, laid poles over the weak ice and crawled over. We reached the Irish Colony and sent back help to the rest of the party. I went to sleep soon after entering a warm room and did not awaken until the next day, when I took some nourishment and started on to overtake the command under Major Williams which had been detained at Cylinder Creek. In the morning C. C. Carpenter tried to get a guide to go and help search for Johnson and his friend Burkholder, but failed. As we left the Colony I looked back and saw Carpenter going down the river to see if they had struck the river below. At Cylinder Creek the party broke up into squads, each reaching his home as best he could, and all of us more or less demoralized. Laughlin and I came by the way of Fort Dodge, while Frank Mason and some of the others came across north of here. Most of us had our ears and feet frozen, but we only lamented the loss of the slain settlers, and our comrades Johnson and Burkholder, whose precious lives had been given for the relief of the helpless. But it was always a wonder to me that we did not leave the bones of more of our comrades to bleach with these on those wild and trackless prairies."


Concluding portion of Governor C. C. Carpenter's address on the same occasion:


"The third day after commencing our return march, we left Medium Lake, in a hazy, cloudy .atmosphere, and a drizzling rain. By the time we had reached Cylinder Creek, beneath the descending rain overhead and the melting snow beneath our feet, the prairies were a flood of water. On arriving at Cylinder Creek we found the channel not only full, but the water covering the entire bottom bordering the creek to a depth of from three to four feet. 1W/hen we found that it would be impossible to cross .at a point where the road intersected the creek, we resolved to send a party up the stream to see if a better crossing could not be found. But in less time than I have occupied in telling this story the wind began blowing from the north, the rain turned to snow and every thread of clothing on the entire command was saturated with water and our clothing began to freeze to our limbs. I had still not given up the hope of either crossing the stream or finding a more comfortable place to camp, and await the result of the now freezing and blinding storm. So with one or two others I followed down the creek a mile or more, until we came to the bluffs overlooking the bottoms bordering the Des Moines. I had hoped we might discover some elevated ridge through the bottom, over which we could pass and reach the timber that fringed the river. But on reaching the bluffs and looking out over the bottom land which fell back from the river from one to two miles on either side to their base, it was a wide waste of water. So we concluded our only hope was to remain right where we were until the storm abated.


"On getting back to the road we found our comrades improvising a cover by taking the wagon sheet and one or two tents which we had along, and stretching them over the wagon wheels and staking them down as best they could to the frozen ground, leaving a small opening on the south side for a doorway. This done, we moved the animals to the south side of our tent, on ground sloping to the south, in order to afford them, all the protection possible. Then we put all our blankets together, made a common bed upon the ground, and all crawled into it without removing our clothes, every thread of which was wet, and most of which was frozen as stiff as boards. There we lay through that long Saturday night. The air outside was full of fine snow. At different times during the night three or four of us crept out of our nests and went around our tents, banking it with snow on the north, east and west sides. And when the fierce winds would blow the banking away so as to open a new air hole we would repeat the operation. To, add to the horrors of the situation during this more than thirty-six hours of absolute imprisonment, we were without food.


"By daylight, on Monday morning, we were on the move, and to our joy found the ice, which had formed on Cylinder Creek the day before, would bear us up. The severity of the weather cannot be better attested than by stating the fact that all the men, our wagon, loaded with the little baggage of the camp, and the few horses belonging to the command, were crossed upon this bridge of ice with perfect ease and safety. Since that experience upon Cylinder Creek, I have marched with armies engaged in actual war. During three and a half years' service, the army with which I was connected marched from Cairo to Chattanooga, from Chattanooga to Atlanta, from Atlanta to the sea, from the sea through the Carolinas to Richmond. These campaigns were made under southern suns and in the cold rains and not infrequent snow storms of southern winters. They were sometimes continued without intermission three or four days and nights in succession, with only an occasional halt to give weary, foot-sore soldiers a chance to boil a cup of coffee. But I never in those weary years experienced a conflict with the elements that could be compared with the two nights and one day on the bank of Cylinder Creek.


"After crossing the creek on Monday morning we went to the Shippey house, some two miles south, where we cooked our breakfast. From this time forward no order of march was observed, but each man found his way home to suit himself. I followed down the river, in company with several comrades, to McKnight's Point, where we got our dinner. After dinner Lieutenant Stratton, Smith E. Stevens and myself determined we would go on to Dakota, in Humboldt County, that afternoon and evening, .and accordingly started. We had gone but a short distance when George W. Brizee came on after us. We tried as delicately as possible to dissuade him from attempting to go further that evening. But go he would; and so we pushed on. Night found us on the wide prairie some eight or ten miles southeast of McKnight's Point and, at least eight miles from Dakota.


"It became very dark, so that it was difficult to follow the track. Soon Brizee began to complain, declaring he could go no further and would have to take his chances on the prairie. As I had been over the road several times, Stratton and Stevens suggested that they would depend upon me to guide them through; so I kept ahead, looking and feeling out, the path. I could hear them encouraging Brizee, while he persistently declared his inability to go any further. Stevens finally took his blanket and carried it for him, and soon after Stratton was carrying his gun. I now told them that Henry Cramer and Judge Hutchinson lived about .a mile south of our road, and some three miles west of Dakota, and that we would go in there and spend the night. Brizee thought he could pull through that far. At last I thought we had arrived at a point nearly opposite of Cramer's, and we left the road and struck across the prairie. We had scarcely started before Brizee began to aver we were lost; that I, like a fool, was leading them a wild-goose chase, and that we would all have to lie on the prairie. I kept on, however, fixing my course as well as possible, and shouting back to `come on, that we were all right.' Finally we were greeted by the barking of a dog, and in a few moments were in Mr. Cramer's house. After Cramer and his wife had gotten out of bed and made us a bunk on the floor, and Cramer had pulled off Brizee’s boots, Brizee began to repeat in various forms the adventures of the evening, emphasizing the persistency and pluck it had required in us to pull through; and the hearty manner in which he commended my skill as a guide, over a trackless prairie, was hardly consistent with the upbraiding whilst we were plodding along in the darkness. The next morning Mrs. Cramer prepared the best breakfast I ever ate. My mouth waters today in memory of the biscuits which were piled up on that breakfast table. I have often thought since that there could have been but little left for the family dinner. That evening found us in Fort Dodge and our connection with the expedition had ended.


"I have frequently thought in later years of the good discipline preserved in a command where there was absolutely no legal power to enforce authority. This fact is really the highest compliment that could be paid the officers. Had they not possessed the characteristics which secured and maintained the respect of these men no shadow of discipline could have been enforced. On, the contrary, during those trying days, on the march and in the bivouac, there was complete order. Of the three captains, two are living—Messrs. Richards and buncombe. Their subsequent careers in civil life have been but a fulfillment of the prophecy of the men who followed them through the snow banks of northwestern Iowa in 1857. With Captain Johnson I was but little acquainted, but I watched him with interest and with admiration during the few days of our march. He was a man of fine physique, was deliberate, quiet almost to reticence, with a handsome face and manly eye. In short, from what I saw of him, I may say that the marble and brass, which we have come here today to unveil in commemoration of him and his company's virtues and heroism are not of a more solid and enduring character than were the noble and generous traits of his nature. His cruel death and that of his noble and promising comrade, William E. Burkholder was the one circumstance which veiled the results of the expedition in a lasting sorrow.





"The First Lieutenant of Company A, Franklin E. Stratton, was perhaps more fully endowed with all the qualities which constitute a soldier than any other man in the company, or perhaps of the command. He was quiet, prompt, uncomplaining, methodical, and in the line of his duty exacting. Remembering my comradeship with him on the Spirit Lake Expedition when he went in the War of the Rebellion, I prophesied for him a successful career. He rose to be the Colonel of his regiment, and died a few years ago a Captain of the regular army.


"But time fails me to name, all who deserve honorable mention. I cannot close, however, without paying a few words of tribute to Major William Williams, who commanded the expedition. Having been the sutler of the battalion of regulars which was stationed at Fort Dodge, he knew something of the movements, and sustenance of troops. He had the ability to make that knowledge available. There was a quiet, confident air in his deportment that commanded respect, and he moved those undisciplined men as quietly and as orderly as would have been possible by an experienced soldier. I have never thought that full justice had been done to the man who led this expedition, and who in many ways proved his interest and faith in the pioneers of northwestern Iowa. So I have turned aside, here and now, to speak a tardy word in recognition of his many noble qualities. He was born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, December 5, 1796, and died at Fort Dodge, February 26, 1874, and at the date of these events was in the sixty-second year of his age. He was reared a banker, and for years was cashier of the branch of the Exchange Bank of Pittsburg, located at Holidaysburg. But he had been an open-handed, generous giver; had no innate love of gain; so he lost money instead of making accumulations, and sought the great West to rebuild his broken fortunes. Now he was a man well advanced in years. It was not easy for younger men to complain of hardships of the march when, day by day, they saw him resolutely pushing forward.


"The action of Hamilton County ill thus inscribing his name upon an enduring tablet is a silent protest against the neglect and oversight of his own county, and the town which was the idol of his affection. Emerson has said that `they who forget the battles of their country will have to fight them over again.' So they who forget the unselfish deeds of their countrymen will themselves be unworthy of a place in history. Next to a hero is the man who can appreciate a hero. All honor then to the citizens of a county that in these `piping times of peace' can pause for a day and step out of the busy channel of commerce to gather some of the names of a generation of self-sacrificing pioneers into history's golden urn."


A few extracts from Mr. Laughlin's account written for the same occasion as the others will make some points a little plainer, especially as to how the party came to divide up and how they got together again after crossing the river.


The Major's parting injunction was, "Boys, keep together, whatever happens." But this advice was easier given than followed. The first division was at the Gardner cabin when the party of seven refused to venture across the prairie over a route which none of the party knew anything about, and insisted on returning by the same route they went up, which was to strike the river at Emmet, cross there and go down on the east side. The second division was when the party reached Mud Creek, and is told by Mr. Laughlin as follows:


"About noon we came to a large stream and had to follow up and down some time before finding a crossing. Two of our men, Robert McCormick and Owen Spencer, went far above and crossed and separated from us, but finally succeeded in getting through to the colony in safety. * * * Late in the afternoon we came to some small lakes with some scattering trees on the opposite side. By this time the wind changed suddenly and it began to grow colder. * * * The lake was apparently between us and the course we ought to take and we followed close around the shore. Off to the west side lay a large marsh covered with tall grass. Those in advance passed between marsh and lake and succeeded in getting around, when we discovered that Captain Johnson, Burkholder, Addington, George Smith and one other (Jonas Murray), five men in all, had dropped off in our rear and were going around the marsh. We expected they would return to us when they got around, but as it was growing dark and we could still see them on high ground beyond, we thought best to try and go to them, as Major Williams' parting advice was `stick together, boys,' but they soon passed out of our sight into the darkness. We then retraced our steps, passed the south end of the lake, and traveled directly east. * * * W traveled until about nine o'clock, when we halted, (fading we were making but little headway, having to meander ponds and wade streams that were fast freezing, and decided to go no further until morning. Soon the most of us were tumbled down in a promiscuous heap, lying close to keep one another warm, on the naked, burned prairie. Our pants were a sheet of ice. Some had blankets, but many only their wet clothes.





"Lieutenant Maxwell and myself did not lie down during that terrible night, but kept tramping around and occasionally rousing the sleepers and making them stir around to keep from freezing. I expected we would all be frozen before morning. I had taken my socks off the day before and wrung them out and carried them in my pocket and as soon as we halted I pulled off my boots, replaced my socks and put on my boots again. I thus saved my feet and I got through without freezing any part. The following morning the sun was clear and we were in sight of timber directly east, eight or ten miles away. I was among the last to leave our camping ground. I remember picking up one empty provision sack and following on. I soon overtook Mr. Carse, the oldest and best clad man in our party, having double mackinaw blankets and a fur overcoat. He was on the sunny side of a gopher hill trying to put on his boots which he had pulled off at night. I passed him without a thought that they were frozen so that he could not get them on. The ponds and also the streams where there was not much current were frozen, so they bore our weight. Most of the men made a bee line, wading streams, running slush ice, but I was more fortunate, being long and light; by seeking places that were iced over and crawling at full length I got over without getting wet. Elias Kellogg and myself were first getting to the timber. I immediately went about starting a fire. I had no matches and neither had the others. My gun was empty and my powder dry, so I put a charge of powder in my gun and loaded with some cotton from out of my vest lining. I discharged it into some rotten wood, which caught, and by pouring on more powder and with vigorous blowing I succeeded in starting a fire.


"Lieutenant Maxwell was among the first to get to the timber, and by the time we got our fire well to going most of the boys had straggled in. Mr. Carse came in last, led by Henry Dally, a mere boy poorly clad, whom Mr. Carse had befriended by taking him under his double blankets that night. Carse had his boots in his hands and was ill and delirious. The soles of his feet were worn out walking on the frozen ground. Kellogg was the next object of attention. He had seated himself by a tree and was almost helpless and unconscious of his misery. We had to .arouse him and cut his frozen overalls away. Had he been left alone he would probably have never risen from his condition. With a good fire we were soon warmed. * * * The river had to be crossed. It was high and full of floating ice, but we got some long poles and with this help crossed from one cake of ice to another, and reached the other side. * * * No sooner was the advance party over than the others all followed, and when we gained the open ground on the other side, we could see the colony as conjectured, and footsore and weary as we were, we soon made the distance. We found Major Williams and a part of the men there waiting for us, with much anxiety. Major Williams had made preparations for us. Fresh beef from the poor settlers' poorer oxen was cooked and ready. * * * The next morning Smith, Addington and Murray came. They had been to another cabin further on, and finding some provision, had stayed all night. They stated that they had separated from Captain Johnson and Burkholder early the previous morning; that they had taken their boots off at night .and they were frozen so they could not get them on, and while they were cutting up their blankets and getting them on their feet they had disagreed as to the course to be taken. Pulling off their boots was a fatal mistake. To reach the place where their bones were found eleven years afterwards, they must have traveled all that day and part of the next night, and have lain down together in the sleep that knows no awakening."


From the foregoing extract it will be noticed that the way in which the party broke up and the members became separated was about as follows : First, Spencer and McCormick left the main body when they reached Mud Creek in Lloyd township, they going up the creek to find a better crossing. Where they crossed or how they crossed the Des Moines is not now known, but they were the first to reach the settlement. The next break was late in the afternoon, when on reaching a large marsh the main body passed it on the east, while Johnson, Burkholder, Smith, Addington and Murray passed to the west of it. They did not come together again that night, but were within hailing distance of each other. Murray was a trapper, had visited the lakes the year before and claimed to know something of the country, but proved a poor guide. Johnson and Burkholder, separated from the other three sometime in the forenoon of the second day, going southeast, about parallel with the Des Moines River. How Smith, Addington and Murray got in has already been told, also the main body under Maxwell and Laughlin. The great wonder is that any of them lived through that terrible experience.


The October number of Annals of Iowa for 1898 contains several accounts of this trip written by different members of the expedition. Ex-Governor C. C. Carpenter, Hon. J. F. Duncombe, Captain C. B. Richards, Lieutenant J. N. Maxwell, W. K. Laughlin, Michael Sweeney and Frank Mason are each represented in that publication. Harris Hoover also wrote an account which appeared in the Hamilton Freeman during the summer of 1857. He afterwards revised it and it was published in The Annals. These several accounts agree in all of the main incidents, and yet each one notices something that is overlooked by the rest. Taking them collectively they give a full and intelligent summary of the facts of this the most remarkable expedition connected with the history of Iowa.