McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto
County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910
The Indians and the Spirit Lake Massacre
The pioneer family on the western prairie
could endure with fortitude the life on a lonely claim, but one danger
continually menaced its peace of mind. The roving bands of Indians were
generally unfriendly and often treacherously destructive. Once roused to
vengeance, the savage nature found expression in deeds of pillage, arson and
murder that made one's blood run cold.
Many different tribes of Indians had roamed over the
Iowa prairies before the advent of the white settlers, but all these had
gradually drifted westward, and their land acquired by the government,
until in 1851 the last of Western Iowa was ceded by treaty to the United
States. Of all the bands of Indians the Sioux were perhaps the most ferocious
and warlike. They were continually at war with other tribes and as they saw the
onward march of the white settler and felt the encroachments upon their beloved
hunting ground, they became sullen and bitter toward the pioneers.
Some unfortunate conditions served to intensify this feeling.
As early as 1847, Henry Lott, and unscrupulous ruffian, who had settled far out
on the frontier in Webster County, organized a gang of desperate characters who
stole horses and committed many depredations among settlers and Indians. Lott's
cabin finally became such a notorious rendezvous, that when a band of Indians
under the chief Sidominadotah tracked a number of stolen ponies to his place,
they ordered him to leave the county. As he did not do so, a few days afterwards
the Indians killed his cattle, drove his family out, and burned his cabin. Lott
fled terror-stricken, leaving his wife and children, and one of his small sons
died from the cold and exposure. Lott swore vengeance upon the Sioux, but it was
several years before he returned.
The Indians resented the advance of the white man and
when the surveyors crossed the Des Moines in 1848, the Indians attacked them,
broke up their instruments and drove them back. This incident led to the
establishment of Fort Dodge by the government.
In 1853 Lott and his step-son came back again and
settled on the east branch of the Des Moines River in Humboldt County, at a
place that has since been known as Lott's Creek.
In the following January, the chief of the same band of
Sioux, unsuspecting and not recognizing his old enemy, camped a short distance
from Lott's cabin. Burning with hatred and revenge, in retaliation for the death
of his son and destruction of his property years before, Lott treacherously
killed Chief Sidominadotah and his whole family except a little girl who hid in
the bushes and a boy who was left for dead. 1
The bodies of the chief and his family were
brutally left where they lay, the camp was looted and burned, and the Lotts
escaped down the river. They sold the booty and hastened still farther west.
Several days later Inkpadutah, a brother of the murdered chief, discovered the
bodies of the victims, and it was soon known that Lott was the murderer. The
Indians were thoroughly enraged and demanded the punishment of Lott, but though
attempts were made to follow him, he was never apprehended. Not long after this
the head of the murdered chief was ingloriously stuck up on a pole in the town
of Homer near Fort Dodge. 2 The failure to punish Lott
increased the rage and desire for vengeance among the Sioux. The settlers were
greatly alarmed, and there was a vague feeling of distrust that boded ill for
Inkpadutah, also known as "Scarlet Point" or
"Red End," became the chief of the Sioux band. Reckless, domineering
and cruel, he ruled the tribe with a strong hand and his harshness drove many of
his followers to join more peaceful tribes. His band thus dwindled until it
became a small group of straggling Indians, who ranged the country throughout
the northwest, committing all sorts of petty depredations. Harvey Ingham, in an
article in the Midland Monthly, thus describes their actions: "Inkpadutah
and his followers contented themselves with stripping trappers and surveyors,
stealing horses, and foraging on scattered settlers, always maintaining a
hostile and threatening attitude. Many pages of the Midland would be required
for a brief enumeration of the petty annoyances, pilferings, and more serious
assaults which occurred. At Dakotah City, in Humboldt County, the cabin of E.
McKnight was rifled in the spring of 1855. Farther north, within a few miles of
Algona, the cabin of Malachi Clark was entered, and the settlers gathered in
great alarm to drive out the Indians- a band of eighty braves led by Inkpadutah
in person. Still farther north, near where Bancroft stands, W.H. Ingham was
captured by Umposhota, a leader under Inkpadutah in the massacre, and was held a
prisoner for three days." 3
The winter of 1856 was a very severe one. The intense
cold and heavy snow was followed by violent storms, and the sufferings of the
settlers were extreme. Inkpadutah and his band had been camping at Loon Lake,
but in December, 1856, started down the Little Sioux River as far as Smithland.
Another part of the band was in camp near Springfield (now Jackson), Minnesota.
In February, 1857, the Indians and settlers had trouble
at Smithland, until the redskins finally were driven away. With their savage
natures aroused and with a pent-up desire for vengeance, the combined band of
Sioux started north. Inkpadutah knew the defenseless condition of the scattered
settlers and he determined to wreak an awful vengeance upon the countrymen of
Henry Lott. As the band moved northward they robbed and pillaged with
destructive hand, and committed the most barbarous outrages that ever a savage
mind devised. No one had been killed, however, when with their murderous desires
roused by these atrocities to the highest pitch, they came to the peaceful
little settlement on the banks of the lakes in Dickinson County.
Mrs. Abbie Gardner Sharp, the sole survivor of the
terrible massacre, in a letter written in 1887, thus describes that never-
"It is with sadness that I recall to memory the
ill-fated March the 8th, 1857, when Inkpadutah and his murderous band invaded
the peaceful and happy little settlement of Spirit and Okoboji Lakes and
completely demolished it. It is not thirty years since those horrible atrocities
were enacted, and having lost all on that sad day, that made life dear to me,
and though wrecked in health, I still live a witness to those terrible scenes.
The outbreak was as sudden and unexpected as a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky.
The Indians approached and through their professions of friendship got into the
house, taking the people by surprise, and attacking in such a way that one
family could not help one another. My father was shot down while his back was
turned getting the Indians some flour. They then rushed upon my mother and
sister, beating them over the head with the butts of their guns, and drove them
out in the dooryard and killed them. My brother and two sisters, all little
children, were clinging to me in speechless terror. They next seized these
helpless children, heedless of their piteous cries for the help I was powerless
to give them, dragging them out of doors, and beating them to death with sticks
of stove wood. All through their course they shot down the men when their backs
were turned, and then rushed upon the helpless and terror-stricken women and
children and killed them in the most cruel and shocking manner. At the time of
the massacre I was little more than a child of less than fourteen summers, and
was with three other women taken captive, suffering for three months all the
cruelties and indignities that Indians only know how to inflict." 4
Over forty persons-men, women and children-
were thus brutally murdered at the lakes, 5 and the savages,
after holding their war dance and painting their victories in signs upon the
smoothed surface of a tree, broke camp and moved northward in their plunder to
find fresh fields for their murderous work.
Our settlers in Palo Alto County knew nothing of these
tragedies that were being enacted such a short distance away. The news was first
brought to them by three men from Jasper County-Wheelock, Parmenter, and Howe by
name, who were on their way to the lakes to join the settlement; but when they
found the cabins in ashes and the dead bodies of the victims lying where they
had fallen, they hurried back to give the alarm.
These harrowing reports spread terror through the whole
northwest, and many settlers fled to places of safety. The members of the little
Irish colony could hardly believe that the Indians who seemed so peaceful when
camped so near them that winter could commit such deeds. 6 It
was indeed a miracle that they were spared. But in spite of the general stampede
to Fort Dodge, the Irish settlers remained for some time. Their cabins furnished
a convenient station for the soldiers of the relief expedition as we shall see
in the next chapter. It was only after the soldiers of the expedition had all
returned home, that the faithful little band finally left the colony to seek a
refuge at Fort Dodge until the following spring.
1 For the story of Lott and his troubles see Gue, History
of Iowa, vol. 1, pp. 289-292; Smith, History of Dickinson County,
chap. 2; Flickinger, Pioneer History of Pocahontas County, pp. 27-28,
etc. See also an excellent article by L.F. Andrews in Des Moines Register and
Leader, August 12, 1907.
This Indian boy recovered and was afterward known as
"Josh." He was a frequent visitor at the Carter cabin.
2 "Sketch of Early History," by
Ambrose A. Call, History of Kossuth County, Union Pub. Co. The late
Charles Aldrich, also had a vivid remembrance of this, and says that the skull
was fractured in several places by a blunt instrument. L.F. Andrew's article, Des
Moines Register and Leader, August 12, 1907.
3 Harvey Ingham, Midland
Monthly; Smith, History of Dickinson County, p. 38; Abbie Gardner
Sharp, History of the Spirit Lake Massacre, chap. vi.
4 From a letter of Mrs. Abbie Gardner Sharp,
Aug. 4, 1887, Annals of Iowa, October, 1898, p. 550. Mrs. Sharp's book, History
of the Spirit Lake Massacre, is a graphic description of teh events leading
up to that terrible day, and contains a vivid picture of the massacre, the
relief expedition, the captivity of Abbie Gardner, her ransom and release.
5 Abbie Gardner Sharp, History of the
Spirit Lake Massacre, p. 47.
6 The late J.F. Neary, a member of the
original colony, once told me that he thought Inkpadutah's band camped until
March, 1857, in Crowley's woods, five miles north of the colony, and M.H.
Crowley is of the same opinion. But A.B. Carter, who knew Sleepy-Eye and his
band very well, is positive that it was Sleepy-Eye's band that camped at
Crowley's and remembers Sleepy-Eye telling him that it was Inkpadutah's band of
Indians that was killing whites on the Sioux and at the lakes.