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THE SPIRIT LAKE MASSACRE
In July, 1856, a number of white people came to the shore of West Okoboji Lake. Their good were loaded on wagons drawn by oxen. They had travelled very slowly across the prairie to their new home. Sometimes the oxen could hardly pull the wagons through the mud. There were no roads or bridges.
These people were Mr. and Mrs. Rowland Gardner, their five children, a son-in-law, named Harvey Luce, and two little grandchildren. They built a log cabin on the southeastern shore of West Okoboji and there they spent the winter.
A number of other families came to West and East Okoboji, and to Spirit Lake during the fall and built cabins several miles apart. Soon the winter came - a cold winter, too. How the wind blew across the prairies! The snow was piled in great drifts, often from fifteen to twenty feet deep in the hollows.
Now the Indians had all given up their lands in Iowa before these people came to this region, but some of the Sioux were still living in the woods near the lakes. The Gardners and the other settlers did not think the Indians would hurt them.
But early in the spring of 1857 a band of Sioux Indians came to the region around these lakes. Their leader was named Inkpaduta and he hated the white people. Indeed he was feared by his own people. Wherever these Indians went they quarrelled with the white people they met. They were cold and hungry, and they were angry when they saw white people living on their old hunting grounds. It is said also that they were angry because a white man had killed Sidominadota, one of their chiefs.
Sometimes they shot the hogs and cattle of the settlers. At one little village they broke up the furniture in the cabins and tore the bedding to pieces. All the time they were coming closer to the new cabins by the lakes. They reached there on the seventh of March, 1857. The first night they held a war dance and the Gardner family could hear their war whoops and see them as they danced around the fire.
Still the Gardners were not really afraid. The Indians in Iowa had seldom harmed white people. They did not know the Inkpaduta was a bad chief. The next morning Mr. Gardner was to go to Fort Dodge for supplies. All the family were up early. While they were sitting around the table eating their breakfast, the door opened and in walked a tall Indian.
Mrs. Gardner put a plate on the table for the Indian and he sat down and ate breakfast. Before they were through eating fourteen more Indian warriors and some women and children pushed their way into the little cabin. They asked for food and Mrs. Gardner gave them what little they had. Soon the Indians went out of the house, but did not go away. Mr. Gardner was afraid they would hurt his family and decided not to go to Fort Dodge. Two young men who were at the Gardner cabin started to warn the other settlers. As the hours passed the Gardner family watched for the return of the two messengers, but they did not come. They had been shot by the Indians, but the people in the Gardner cabin did not know this.
Then just at sunset the Indians came again. They demanded all the flour the family had. As Mr. Gardner turned to get the flour an Indian shot and killed him. Then the Indians killed all the family except Abbie, the youngest of the Gardner children, a girl about fourteen years old, who was carried away as a prisoner.
That evening Abbie watched the Indians dance around the fire with the scalps of her parents and her brothers and sisters on long poles. That same day and the following days the Indians visited the other homes around the Okoboji lakes and Spirit Lake. They killed all the people - all men, women, and children - except Mrs. Thatcher, Mrs. Noble, and Mrs. Marble. With these three women and Abbie Gardner as prisoners, Inkpaduta led his band to the north, for he hoped to kill more people at Springfield, Minnesota.
At the lakes they left the dead bodies - some of them scalped - broken furniture, and empty cabins. Before the Indians had left, a white trader, Morris Markham, had come to visit the settlers. He saw what the Indians had done and started for help. It was very cold, but he finally reached a white settler's cabin and told what had happened.
The nearest town of any size was Fort Dodge. Here a fort had been built in 1850, but all the soldiers had been sent away in 1853. Settlers lived there, however, ad about eighty men started for the lakes, hoping to punish the Indians. Major William Williams was chosen the leader of the party. About thirty men started from Webster City.
We cannot imagine how hard this trip was. There were no roads. The snow was very deep, and the wind was very cold. The men worked their way slowly through the drifts. At night they could only wrap themselves in a blanket and try to sleep on the snow. Just imagine trying to sleep outside on the snow when it is below zero.
The men had to break a path for the ox teams with the supplies, for of course the men had to take food for several weeks. But tired, wet, cold, and hungry, they struggled on. When they were nearly to the lakes they met a party of settlers who were coming south from Minnesota to escape the Indians.
By this time the rescue party knew that they could not overtake the Indians. They decided to send twenty-five men on to the lakes to bury the poor people who had been killed. The others were to start for home. These men went from one cabin to the other. What a terrible sight they found! When they had buried all the bodies they could find, these men, too, wanted to go home. But they were hungry and they had no more food. Under the floor of the Gardner cabin a man found a box of potatoes. The potatoes helped, but still they were hungry when they left the lakes.
The trip back was worse than it was going to the lakes. It was the first week in April, but before they were well started a blizzard struck them. They were wet from the melting snow. Suddenly their clothing was frozen stiff. They could not see their way across the prairie. They could not stop to rest, for they knew they would freeze to death. It was thirty-four degrees below zero and they had no shelter and not many blankets.
They did not have matches, but one of the men fired his gun into some cotton he tore from his vest and so started a fire. When they took their boots off to warm their frozen feet the leather froze so they could not put them on again. Some of the men had to wrap their feet in strips of blankets and walk that way through the snow.
Finally all the men reached home but two. These men tried to take a shorter route, but lost their way and were frozen to death. It was not until eleven years later that their skeletons were found and near them were their guns and powder flasks.
While these men were struggling through the snow in Iowa, the Indians were going far to the northwest with their captives. All the women had to work hard. One of the white women was made to carry a pack weighing one hundred pounds and an Indian child besides. They were given very little food. The Indians usually ate muskrats, but killed a dog for food once in a while.
On and on they went, always getting farther away from the white settlements, for soldiers from Fort Ridgely were following them. Mrs. Thatcher became ill and the Indians threw her into the Big Sioux River and then clubbed and shot her to death as she tried to crawl out.
Spring came. Still the Indians went on, now with only three prisoners. One day two Indians who had been sent by an Indian agent came to the camp. They bought Mrs. Marble for a gun, a lot of blankets, a keg of power, and some Indian trinkets, and took her back to her friends. They were going back later to buy the others.
Now there were only two prisoners. One night Roaring Cloud, a son of Inkpaduta, became angry because Mrs. Noble did not obey him. He killer her. So Abbie Gardner was left alone with the Indians. It was summer now and the Indians were far north. Some of the Indians there had never before seen a white person. They could not understand why Abbie's skin was so white.
It was not long, however, before the Indian agent sent more Indians to buy the white girl. So the Indians sold Abbie for two horses, twelve blankets, two kegs of powder, twenty pounds of tobacco, thirty-two yards of blue cloth, some calico, ribbon, and other articles. You can imagine how glad she was to go with the kind Indians sent by the agent. Many years later Abbie Gardner, then Mrs. Sharpe, went back to the cabin her father had built.
After the massacre, more white people came into the land around the Okoboji lakes. When a great many white people were killed by the Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862, the people in northern Iowa were afraid. They thought the Indians would kill them too. But the Indians never again troubled the white people in Iowa.
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