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Spirit Lake Massacre


In the mid-1850s, families of white settlers pushed far beyond the frontier line of settlement in northwest Iowa onto the shores of Spirit Lake.  Although by formal treaty the Wahpekute Sioux (Dakota) tribe had given up title to the land, small bands separated from the main tribe still lived in the region.  They were not under the authority of tribal leaders. 

While the details between different accounts vary somewhat, sources cite several incidents between the settlers and Sioux that created tension.  The formal treaty in which the Sioux relinquished title to their remaining lands in Iowa was signed in 1851, but settlers had begun moving into northwest Iowa illegally, far beyond the protection of soldiers stationed at Ft. Dodge.  Most histories of the event point to an alleged theft of some Sioux horses by Henry Lott in 1846 then living with his family near where the Boone and Des Moines Rivers join.  When Sidominadotah  the Sioux leader, camped near the Lott cabin seeking to reclaim the horses, Lott’s twelve-year-old son panicked and fled into the winter without adequate clothing.  He froze to death, and Lott blamed the Indians.  Later when Lott moved north into Humboldt County and located the Indian camp, he attacked and killed Sidominadotah, his wife, and his  children.  The chief’s younger brother, Inkpadutah replaced him and vowed revenge.  Several years later, in another incident in Woodbury County, a Sioux hunter killer a settler’s dog whom he alleged had attacked him, and the settler beat him severely.

According to the Treaty of 1851 that ended Sioux claims to traditional lands in the area, the tribe agreed to move to a reservation in southwest Minnesota.  The U.S. government promised to plow lands for cultivation, pay annuities, and provide other benefits, including education.  However, many of these benefits never materialized.  Unable to support themselves, many small bands abandoned the reservation returning to their old hunting grounds. 

Troubles between area settlers and the native people continued. One account describes conditions this way: “Suffering food shortages during the severe winter of 1856-1857, which saw heavy snows, Inkpaduta and his band begged for food at European-American settlements in northwestern Iowa. Also struggling that winter, whites rebuffed the Indians with violence and a posse disarmed Inkpaduta's band after they killed a settler's dog that had bitten one of the band.[3] They managed to acquire arms and retaliated by attacking settlements there and at Spirit Lake.”

According to a slightly different version, Inkpadutah and his followers were “camped near current day Smithland, Iowa. Native people were sometimes beaten and chased for stealing livestock and scavenging grain in harvested fields; thus, weary of the group, who in turn "borrowed" community items freely if they could, a vigilante group from Smithland went out to their encampment. The group, including John Howe, Eli Floyd and Jonathan Leach, appropriated guns and told the tribe they would be back in the morning.[4] The Indians broke camp that night.”

They moved north in the freezing cold toward the Spirit Lake and Okoboji region.  Early in March, attacks on the cabins began.  Altogether, the band killed 35-49 settlers and made captives of four women: Abbie Gardner, Elizabeth Thatcher, Margaret Marble, Lydia Noble.  The band fled north into Minnesota.  The women were forced to carry heavy loads, especially after the band killed their horses for food.  A militia followed but was unable to overtake them. 

Iowa authorities refused to take military action against the band until the women had been released. The Iowa legislature authorized a ransom for the women.  Inkpadutah merged his group with another Sioux band.  They had heard of the ransom offer for the women bargained with Inkpadutah for the women.  By this time, only two remained.  Thatcher and Noble, unable to endure the harsh conditions, had been died or killed by their captors.  In May, Inkpaduta struck a bargain with two Indians from a different camp for the release of Margaret Marble.  Her new captors negotiated for a ransom and she was turned over to Iowa authorities.  A few weeks later, bargaining for Abbie Gardner started, and eventually she too was sold to new captors for a high price: two horses, twelve blankets, two powder kegs, twenty pounds of tobacco, 32 yards of blue cloth and 37 yards of calico.
Under official protection of the Yankton Sioux tribe, Abbie was escorted by a wagon driver, an interpreter and her three Indian rescuers down the Minnesota River to Fort Ridgely and then onto a steamboat for the remainder of the trip to St. Paul.  On June 23, 1857 after three months captivity, Abbie Gardner was delivered into the hands of Minnesota Governor Samuel Medary.

In the fall, she married On August 16, 1857, Casville Sharp, a cousin of Elizabeth Thatcher.  In later years, she supported herself giving speeches of her years in captivity and wrote a first-person account that went in to several editions.  Returning to Arnolds Park in 1891, Abbie purchased the cabin, operating it as one of Iowa's first tourist attractions until her death in 1911.

Margaret Marble did not seek recognition after her release and disappeared from public view.  In 1868, Margaret was living in Napa County, Calif. At some time she married a man named Silbaugh, for in 1885, she corresponded with Abigail Gardner Sharp and signed the letter M.A. Silbaugh. At the age of 74, she too died in the year 1911.

Inkpadutah was never captured.  Rumors reported that he was seen again, in the Spirit Lake area, that he later participated in the New Ulm, Minnesota, massacre that killed 600 white settlers, and later in 1876, participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Gen. George Custer.  Spirit Lake was the last white-Indian conflict in Iowa.