Iowa History Project


Making of Iowa

Chapter XXIX

Iowa's Indian Massacre

The settlement of Iowa was marked by singular and most gratifying freedom from trouble with the Indians.  From 1830, the date when at Dubuque the whites formed the first settlement, until the present, there has been only one bloody spot to stain the relations that have existed between settlers and Indians within Iowa's borders.

Even before 1830 the assaults on Fort Madison furnish the only record of avowed hostility by the Indians against the whites of what is now Iowa.

It is true that during the many years a number of whites - for the most part hunters, trappers and the like - were killed by Indians, and Indians were killed by whites, but these tragedies were merely what might be expected in any Territory.

March 8, 1857, nearly eleven years after Iowa had become a State, brings that dreadful scene in Northwestern Iowa, when the Sioux surprised the isolated settlers and before withdrawing, killed thirty-two persons, slaughtered cattle, and in the light from a blazing cabin danced in all their old time glee, yelling and boasting.

The leader of the Sioux was Ink-pa-du-tah, or Scarlet Point, a tall, fierce Indian, sullen and treacherous.  His face was deeply marked by smallpox.  He was the brother of Si-dom-i-na-do-tah, the chief who was brutally murdered in January, 1854, by Henry Lott, a dissolute trader.  Ink-pa-du-tah sought revenge.  For three years he had been brooding over the death of his brother.  Now he had determined that time was ripe.

It was not alone the murder of Si-dom-i-na-do-tah that impelled the Sioux to action.  Although in 1851 Sioux chiefs had signed a treaty giving up their claims to any land in the State, robber bands of these Indians continued to rove about in Northwestern Iowa.  They asserted that they did not take part in the treaty, and that the land was theirs.  They resented the progress of settlement, entered cabins, insulted women, broke furniture, and extorted from defenseless families food and clothing.  These Sioux were not recognized as belonging to the main nation.

It is now the close of the winter of 1856-57, the most severe winter in the history of Iowa, and particularly hard on the settlers who were called upon to face it.  In spite of the attitude of the Sioux, the settlers have been pushing on and on, until Dickinson, Palo Alto, and Emmet Counties contain a number of cabins.

The line of settlement has been extended to the Minnesota boundary.  Here, around the beautiful lakes, hardy men and women have located.  Claims have been taken up on the shores of Minnewaukon, or Spirit Lake; Minnetonka, or West Okoboji; and East Okoboji.  To-day these lakes are well-known summer resorts.

The terrible, long winter has cut off the settlers from communication with the outside world, and even with one another.  The families have suffered greatly.  But March has begun, and a slight thaw has set in.  Settlers are stirring out, seizing on the opportunity to make needful excursions.  The snow is soft enough for the children to mold snowballs.

Ink-pa-du-tah and his band have spent the winter in the vicinity of the lakes.  Near Spirit Lake are their empty tepees.  At High Lake, southeast of the present town of Estherville, Ish-ta-ha-bah, or Sleepy-Eye, and his minor band have wintered, while just over the Minnesota line, at Springfield, now Jackson, fifteen miles from Spirit Lake, are twenty more Sioux huts.

The Indians were thus distributed in readiness for the massacre.

On the south shore of West Okoboji is the cabin of Rowland Gardner.  Beside himself and his wife, in the family are Abigal (a thirteen-year-old daughter) and a little son; a married daughter (Mrs. Luce) her husband, and two children are for the present living with the Gardners.

The morning of the 8th of March has arrived.  In the Gardner cabin breakfast is spread.  Abigal has been helping her mother, in order to hasten the meal, so that the father may go to Fort Dodge while the weather permits.  Fort Dodge is the nearest pint where supplies may be obtained.

Suddenly, almost without warning, a Sioux lifts the larch of the door, and stands before the two families.  In a few gutteral words he signifies that he wants food.  He is given a place at the table.  In a moment fourteen other braves, with their squaws and pappooses, appear at the threshold and crowd inside.  They compose Ink-pa-du-tah's band, and Ink-pa-du-tah, with pitted face and surly eye, is with them.

They are in bad temper.  Not content with the food liberally laid before them, they wax insolent.  They demand ammunition.  One snatches at a box of gun caps; another attempts to take from the wall a horn of powder, and when Luce, the son-in-law, interferes, the Indian points a gun at him.

Matters look ugly when Dr. Isaac H. Harriott and Bertell A. Snyder visit the Gardner cabin with a letter for Gardner to carry to the postoffice at Fort Dodge.  Gardner says:

"I am not going to Fort Dodge to-day, or anywhere else.  The Indians mean mischief, and I dare not leave my family."

Harriott and Snyder laugh at him, chat with the Indians, and after doing a little trading return to their own cabin on the peninsular between East and West Okoboji.  The Sioux remain near the Gardner cabin until noon.  Then they go towards the point where, on the peninsular, stands the cabin of James H. Mattock.

The cabins of the settlers in the community are so scattered that the Gardners decide warning should be sent out, to the effect that the Indians mean trouble.  Luce and another man start to make the rounds, so far as possible, and deliver the caution.

The messengers leave at two o'clock.  In an hour the Gardners hear the reports of rifles from the direction of the Mattock cabin.  Gardner slips the heavy bar into place across the door and tries to cheer up the frightened women.  All anxiously wait.  Mrs. Luce cries softly, thinking something has happened to her husband.  The air is full of foreboding.

Five o'clock comes and the Gardner cabin has been unmolested.  Gardner finally unbars the door and steps out to look around.  The sun is setting like a crimson globe.  The atmosphere is cold and crisp, and the snow and frozen lake sparkle.  The reeds and trees cast long shadows.  Not far away Gardner sees a group of dusky figures approaching.

"The Indians are coming!"  he announces, hastily re-entering the cabin.

He is certain that all in the cabin will be killed, but he wants to bar the door and fight to the last.  The women implore him not to resist the savages, but to meet them in a friendly manner, so as not to provoke them.  Gardner allows the women to prevail, and the door is not locked.

Nine Sioux, rifles in hand, file up to the cabin, push their way roughly through the doorway, and scowl at the whites.  A brave calls for meal.  Eager to please, Gardner turns to the bin.  In a second he falls dead, shot through the back.

The women are driven out of doors and their skulls smashed with gun-butts.  Abigal Gardner is sitting in a chair, the three little children clinging to her.  The savages drag the children, one by one, from her and kill them with sticks of stove wood.  Abigal is made prisoner.

In the cabins on the peninsular are similar scenes of barbarity and slaughter.  Night falls, and the Mattock cabin is burning, while circling around it the Sioux indulge in a hideous dance of triumph.  Not all the persons in the cabin are unconscious, and shricks of agony can be heard.  During the next few days the Indians seek out other cabins, and kill right and left.  Then, having stripped the bark from a tree, on the white truck they picture the deeds, and leaving this monument as a trophy, flee, taking with them Abigal Gardner, Mrs. J. M. Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret Marble and Mrs.Lydia Noble.

Mr. Thatcher, husband of one of the prisoners, had been absent.  Mr. Noble and Mr. Marble had been killed by the savages.

Such was the Spirit Lake massacre, as it is termed.  March 10, Morris Markham, who had been staying at the Thatcher cabin, but who had been away for a few days, returned to the vicinity.  He reached the lakes in the night, and was surprised to see no light from any house.  Silence brooded over all.  When he reached the first cabin, even in the darkness he knew what had happened.  Retreating, horror stricken, he stumbled into a group of Sioux tepees, but was not discovered.  He made all speed to Springfield, Minnesota, to give the alarm there.

At this village the settlers barely had time to gather in a double log cabin.  Several persons were overtaken and killed.  A little boy, shot through the head, tumbled on the threshold of the cabin, and during the fighting which followed lay there moaning in pain.  Inside were his mother, powerless to help him, and the father, badly wounded.  Among the women in the cabin was Mrs. W. L. Church, whose husband was absent from the settlement.  Mrs. Church used a gun with such good effect that she riddled a Sioux who peered out from behind a tree.

The Indians, baffled, gave up the contest, and withdrew.  The settlers harnessed oxen to a wagon and set out southward for the nearest village.

Fort Dodge was at this time the frontier town of Northwestern Iowa.  Into it rode two men, who had been asked by Markham to bear the news of what he had seen.  They told a story hardly credited  by the people until, on the evening of March 21, O. C. Howe, R. U. Wheelock and B. F. Parmenter came with blanched faces to confirm the tidings.  They owned land in the lakes region.  Three nights previous they had arrived there to settle on their claims, and had seen what Markham saw.

Fort Dodge was aroused.  The next day was Sunday, but nevertheless a meeting was held in the brick school house.  Volunteers to go against the Sioux were called   for.  Nearly one hundred men enrolled, and were divided into two companies, A. and B.  From Webster City and vicinity another company, C, was gathered.

On March 24, the troops started from Fort Dodge, with teams loaded with what clothing and supplies could be obtained on such short notice, and with shot guns, muskets and rifles as arms.

The commander was Major William Williams, sixty-two years of age.  Major Williams had been connected with old Fort Clarke, and was now the most prominent resident in the town.  Through all the severe march he exhibited the greatest fortitude and courage.

The snow was three feet deep, and in ravines was twelve and fifteen feet.  The distance to be traversed was over seventy miles, across the desolate, windswept prairies.  It was a perilous proceeding.  The first day out only six or seven miles were covered.

The second day ten miles.  The volunteers were obliged to precede the wagons, trample a road for a short space, haul the wagons over it, and pull the horses and oxen out of the drifts.  Rivers and creeks were swift, and the ice was not strong enough to afford secure support.  Thus men and beasts waded the bitter, stinging water.  Snow blindness attacked the column.  Frozen feet were prevalent.  Food was scarce.  It is said that in hardship and bravery this rescue march out of Fort Dodge, and back, has hardly a parallel in the world's history.

Yet, urged, inspired and buoyed by the indomitable major, the volunteers marched on.  The march lasted eighteen days and nights.

On the morning of March 31, about five or six miles northeast of High Lake, Emmet County, the advance guard saw ahead a band of what appeared to be Indians, awaiting assault.  The soldiers approached nearer, ready to fire, when to their delight and astonishment they discerned the people were white.  In the advance guard was W. L. Church.

"Oh, boys!" he exclained.  "There are my wife and babies!"

Thus husband and wife were reunited.  The party met by the soldiers was that from Springfield.  It had been on the road three days and four nights.  The women's clothing was torn to shreds and all were suffering from cold and exhaustion.  They had taken the soldiers for Indians, and had prepared to sell their lives dearly.  Two of the men were helpless from wounds.  A third, John Bradshaw, had stacked the eight guns beside him, a little in advance of the group, and telling his companions to look out for each other had made ready to hold off the supposed savages as long as possible.

Brave John Bradshaw!

The Springfield refugees were escorted back to the Irish Colony, near where Emmettsburg now is, and their wants attended to in as thorough a manner as time and place would permit.

Nor far from the present town of Esterville word was received by the volunteers that a detachment of the regular army had scouted the country along the Minnesota line, and that the Sioux had escaped.  Major Williams decided to send on a party to bury the dead of the lakes region.  Twenty-six heroes offered themselves for the hazardous duty.  After enduring frightful torture from cold and hunger, they accomplished their purpose.  Two in their number, Captain J. C. Johnson and William E. Burkholder, were lost on the prairie.  Eleven years afterward their bones were found.

The Irish Colony had been appointed the meeting place of the main body and the special detachment.  The night before the union one of the worst storms known in Iowa prevailed.  When the burial party entered the Irish Colony many in the detail were crazy.

From now on the troops exerted all their strength to reach Fort Dodge.  Their progress was impeded by a heavy rain that flooded the streams.  This was followed by a blizzard and freeze.  The mercury sank far below zero.  But at last home and shelter were attained.  All through this long march the soldiers had no tents!

The postured of the bodies found at the lakes showed that the victims had been killed with hardly a warning.  Dr. Harriott seems to have been the only one who made resistance.  When found he had a broken rifle, empty, in his hand.

The Sioux had intended descending the Des Moines valley, raiding the settlements in their course as they swept on.  But the promp action by the soldiers at Fort Ridgley, Minnesota, and the volunteers from Ford Dodge and Webster City, frightened the savages and they fled westward.

Abigal Gardner and the three women were taken with them.  The fight led into Dakota.  The prisoners were forced to walk and had no snow shoes.  At night they were made to gather firewood, and put up the tepees.  Mrs. Thatcher was ill, but no allowance was made for that.  Finally she became a burden.  While crossing a river on a narrow bridge she was pushed into the water and shot.  Mrs. Noble angered her captors by weeping and wailing, and one day she, too, was killed.

Mrs. Marble was sold to another band of Sioux, and by it delivered to the Indian agent at Yellow Medicine River, Minnesota.  Abigal had given up hope of anything but a life among the Sioux, when finally she was purchased by Sioux from the mission at Yellow Medicine River.  The price paid for her was two horses, twelve blankets, two kegs of powder, twenty pounds of tabacco, thirty-two yards of blue squaw cloth, thirty-seven and one-half yards of calico and ribbon.  The great Sioux chief, Ma-to-we-ken, gave her a fine headdress.

In December, 1883, nearly twenty-seven years after the massacre, Abigal, now a woman, once more stood within the walls of the old Gardner cabin on the shore of Minnetonka.

The Sioux never were punished for their deed.  To-day a monument stands at Okoboji, and a pile of stones marks the burial place of the Gardner family, the two serving to emphasis the significance of the little log cabin, preserved near at hand.



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