McCarty, Dwight D. History of Palo Alto County. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1910


Chapter V
The Relief Expedition

     The alarming news of the massacre stirred the towns of Fort Dodge and Webster City. Public meetings were held, and within three days about one hundred men had volunteered to go in pursuit of the Indians and to the relief of the settlers. Such supplies as could be procured were hastily gathered and the men organized into companies.
     Governor Grimes had previously appointed Major William Williams of Fort Dodge as the executive agent to protect the frontier, and he now promptly took charge of the expedition. C.B. Richards was captain of Company A of Fort Dodge, John F. Duncombe captain of Company B of Fort Dodge and J.C. Johnson captain of Company C of Webster City. The number of men was considerably augmented from time to time by enlistments from the settlers and others on the way. In all, the expedition numbered about one hundred and twenty-five men.
     Realizing the delay would be dangerous for the success of their undertaking, they made ready quickly, and March 24, 1857, started on the difficult journey of over eighty miles to the scene of the massacre. The severe cold and deep snow rendered their progress slow, and they were poorly equipped for such hardships. After four days of difficult travel and extreme suffering, they reached the Evans cabin on the edge of Palo Alto County. Here nine men decided that the hardships were too great and returned home, leaving the loyal soldiers to fight their way onward.
     Several accounts of the progress of the expedition by men who marched with the command have been preserved and we will let these actual participants tell the rest of the story. 1
     On the morning of the 28th "the command started early and by hard and constant work reached Shippey's at dark. At McCormick's, a mile below Shippey's, we found Angus McBane, Cyrus C. Carpenter, William B. Polock and Andrew Hood, who joined Company A and went on with us from that point. We also found at Shippey's a part of a load of flour which A.M. Luce had left some weeks before, having got this far when the deep snow had rendered it impossible to proceed with his load. He had taken what he could haul on a hand sled and gone on to his family at the lakes. With this we replenished our meagre supplies and the next day reached the Irish colony in Palo Alto County, where we were able to get some hay for a bed and sleep under the cattle sheds. Our teams being nearly worn out we got an ox team to help us along." 2
     "Sunday, the 29th, was a beautiful, clear day; snow melted until long stretches of bare ground could be found and we made the longest march of any day since leaving Fort Dodge, reaching the Irish colony, sixteen miles from Shippey's. Here all the settlers for many miles above and below the river had collected for the company during the long, tedious winter. They knew nothing of the massacre at Spirit Lake until [ the news being carried to Fort Dodge] though they were only about thirty-five miles away; they were living in little log cabins and dugouts and seemed very destitute; most of them had only been there since the summer and fall before and had raised nothing . . . [A day or so later a scouting party that had been sent out to reconnoitre] met that heroic band of refugees from Springfield, Minnesota, where they had made a gallant defense, driven the savages back and were fleeing from their homes, destitute, having left everything but the clothes they had on. Their only conveyance was a sled drawn by a pair of oxen, and they were nearly starved. Here we camped and did all we could to make them comfortable." 3
     "We fully realized now that we were in the Indian country and Major Williams, with his long experience among the redskins, took every precaution to guard against a surprise. We camped at Big Islands Lake, where we found fresh signs of Indians. We reached Granger's Grove, on the Des Moines River, close to the Minnesota state line, that night, where the disappointing news reached us that the Indians had left the place some five days before, and that a detachment of the United States mounted troops, sixty in number, were then quartered at Springfield. Our whole company was sorely disappointed. After having undergone such privations, we hoped that though were were not in time to relive the distressed settlers, we might be able to mete out their murderers and torturers the justice they so richly merited. Our provisions by this time were running short, from the fact that owing to the deep snow all the way it had taken us longer to reach our destination than was expected. The men were so eager to follow the Indians, and leave the teams where they were, each man taking what provisions he could carry, that Major Williams offered twenty-five dollars a hundred for a few sacks of flour. But the settlers only had part of a load of flour and did not know when any more could be had. The Major refused to exercise military authority and take it by force, and on the morning of the 2d of April, he sent twenty-five men under Captain Johnson to bury the dead at Spirit Lake." 4
     Robert McCormick was one of the volunteers who formed that sad mission. On the return this party had suffered great hardships and two of the number, Captain Johnson and Private Burkholder, became separated from their comrades and perished in the cold. Their bodies were found years later in Palo Alto County by William Shea on the northeast quarter of section 3-95-33.

     The main body of the expedition returned to the Irish colony. "Here the officers were called together to consult as to ways and means to get food to keep the men together until we could reach Fort Dodge. The settlers at the colony were on short rations and could spare nothing. We decided to buy a steer and kill for the party, but we had no money and the owner refused to sell without pay. We offered to give the personal obligation of all the officers and assured him the state would pay a good price, but this was not satisfactory. We therefore decided to take one vi et armis, and detailed several men, women and children, armed with pitchforks to resist the sacrifice, and being able to convince them either of the necessity of the case or that they would get paid for the steer, I ordered Lieutenant Stratton and a squad of men with loaded  guns to go and take the steer, when, seeing we were determined and that further resistance would be useless, the hostile party retired. The animal was soon dressed and distributed to the men, and for the first time in ten days they had a full meal.
     "We had hoped the detachment sent to the lakes might overtake us, but as they did not come we left what meat had not been used for the men, and resumed our march. The day was warm until about noon, when a cold rain began, making it dreary and dismal. We found several small creeks and all the ravines full of water, but crossed all without much detention until we arrived at Cylinder Creek, about twelve or fifteen miles from the colony, and two from Shippey's, where we expected to camp for the night. This point we reached about 3 p.m., when we found the bottom on the west side one vast sheet of water fully half a mile wide. We had become accustomed to overcoming obstructions and at once sent two men with poles to wade out as far as possible and ascertain the depth of the water. Their report was that the men could wade from nearly half a mile in water from two to five feet deep, when they would reach the channel proper of the creek, which was from sixty to eighty feet wide and very deep, with a swift current. We determined to make a boat from our wagon box by calking the cracks with cotton taken from our comforters and with this (first stretching a rope across the deep water) we could wade the men out to that point and run them across in the wagon box. . . When we struck the swift current we were carried rapidly down stream, but by using our poles we managed to get across. As we struck the further shore where the bank was steep and a lot of ice piled up, our boat shut up like a jack knife, there being no braces at the corners. Every man jumped for shore and by getting hold of some willows all got out, Mason losing his overcoat and hat, and all getting wet. When the boat, which went under in the collapse, came up it was only separate boards floating down the rapid stream, and the rope was gone. The men who had come out to hold one end could not stand the cold water any longer and had waded back to the main body. We had hoped to stretch this rope across the deep water and ferry over the men.
     "About this time the wind suddenly changed to the northwest and was blowing fiercely and very cold, so that our wet clothes began to freeze and stiffen. . . In the face of that blizzard, for such it had now become, we could do nothing. By this time it had grown so dark that nothing could be seen of the other shore, neither on account of the noise of the wind could we get any reply to our frequent calls. We were utterly incapable of further exertion. The howling wind and drifting snow was fast obliterating the track. We consulted together and determined that it was as utterly impossible for us to render any assistance to our men as it would have been had they been in mid-ocean, and that our only safety lay in getting to Shippey's before darkness and drifting snow made it impossible. It was a terrible walk with our frozen clothes and it was nine o'clock in the evening when we reached the cabin. Here we passed a night which no lapse of time will obliterate from my memory, so small was the cabin and so cold, and we only had our wet clothes. We warmed ourselves by the open fire, had some bacon and bread and a cup of coffee- the best thing to revive exhausted nature I have ever found. We had no blankets, but borrowed what the Shippey's could spare from their scanty store and spent the night, some trying to sleep, some drying clothes by first turning one side to the fire, then the other, all anxious and making frequent visits to the door hoping the storm would abate, but each time only to find the wind and cold increasing. . . I remember that it seemed if the light of day would never come. The image of each man in the command, out in this terrible night, with neither food, fire or even the protection of a tent, was constantly before me." 5
     The main part of the force was thus left on the open prairie to face the terrible blizzard. Lieutenant Mason thus describes their experiences: "We were now drenched to the skin and as the wins had shifted to the northwest it rapidly grew cold, and before many minutes our clothes were frozen stiff. We were very scantily dressed-few of the men having more than an undershirt and a pair of pants. I fared as well as any of them, and all I had to brave that fearful storm with, was a flannel shirt, a pair of pants with one leg torn off at the knee and the seam in the other ripped from top to bottom, and one boot with the leg cut off, the mate having been burned a few days previous. We began to look around for a place to sleep. Some of the boys spread their blankets on the ground and arranged themselves 'spoon fashion.' Brizee, Howland, Hathway, and myself lay behind the hind wheels of a wagon. We got through the night, but I hardly know how, as the mercury was over 30 below. We were all glad to see daylight, but many did not dare to crawl out of their blankets that day. The poor boys were almost freezing and some of them had become delirious. I think we were all more or less insane during a part of that terrible night. Brizee would frequently put his face to mine and beg me to 'go down the creek, only half a mile, where there was a big hotel, where we could get a warm breakfast wit hot coffee.' When I would tell him that it was only a dream he would sob like a child and still insist we must go. After daylight I fell into a doze, and dreamed that I was at my dear old mother's home, that I had been away and had come home hungry, and that she and a favorite sister prepared some toast for me. I can see them now as I saw them then.
     'The next morning was still and bright. Mr. Howland and myself concluded to cross the creek. We staggered to our frozen feet and arm in arm hobbled toward the stream. All eyes were upon us as we went out upon the ice. We began to feel encouraged but when we neared the center of the creek we found a space of open water about thirty feet wide and very deep. We had resolved, however, never to return to that camp again, and looked up the stream where we saw a clump of willows and went up to them. Here we found that ice had floated down, lodged against the willows and frozen there, thus forming a complete bridge. After passing the channel we signaled back, when a truly joyous shout went up from those poor insane boys. I will here state that there was not a man among our number-about 80- who had strength enough to reach the opposite shore. I do not understand why they were so affected, the trouble seemed to be shortness of breath. Every man's mouth was open with his tongue hanging out, and in some instances blood running from nose or mouth.  Shippey's cabin, where Major Williams, Captains Duncombe and Richards, and Private Smith had been during the storm, was two and a half miles southeast of the creek. Howland and I kept together until we reached the cabin, and were among the last to arrive. He, being the stronger, had rendered me considerable assistance, for which I now, after thirty years, thank him most sincerely. Major Williams met us with great tears streaming down his furrowed cheeks, and those who had remained at the cabin rendered us all the assistance in their power. We soon devoured the provisions given us and all sank down in the warmth of the sun and slept. We were allowed to sleep until about three o'clock P.M., when we were aroused from our slumbers and a consultation was held. It was decided to disband, separate into small squads, and strike out for the nearest settlement." 6
     "All the command finally arrived safely except Captain Johnson and Wm. Burkholder, who perished in the awful storm not far from the Irish colony, on the west side of the west fork of the Des Moines River. Some of the party, however, received injuries from the exposure on the march from which they never recovered. I have doubts whether any body of men for the same length of time, on any march, ever suffered greater hardships, more constant exposure, more severe bodily labor, than those who composed the Spirit Lake expedition. . . So long as the people of Iowa admire pluck and true courage; so long as Americans are freemen, the story of the Spirit Lake expedition will be told with pride by every true man of our state and by all who are familiar with her history." 7

1 The Annals of Iowa, October, 1898, contains the complete history of this remarkable march, graphically told by those who were with the expedition. The rest of this chapter is taken from these personal reminiscences as quoted in the Annals. See also Mrs. Abbie Gardner Sharp, History of the Spirit Lake Massacre; Gue, History of Iowa, vol. 1, chap. XXV; Smith, History of Dickinson County, chap. vi..
2 Recollections of Capt. Charles B. Richards, Annals of Iowa, October, 1898, p. 512.
3 Narrative of W.K. Laughlin, Annals of Iowa, October, 1898, p. 542.
4 Paper by Michael Sweeny, Annals of Iowa, October 1898, p. 540.
5 Reminiscences of Chas. B. Richards, Annals of Iowa, Sept. 1898, pp. 517-520.
6 Recollections of Frank B. Mason, Annals of Iowa, October, 1898, p. 535.
7 Address of Capt. John F. Duncombe, Annals of Iowa, Sept., 1898 pp. 507-8.