Spirit Lake Massacre

6/12/2006 • Native American Indian Chiefs, Sitting Bull, Wild West

In the spring of 1857, the renegade Wahpekute Dakota Chief Inkpaduta and his band of warriors descended on the homesteads near Spirit Lake in northwestern Iowa and committed murder and mayhem. The causes of the massacre are still debated. One reason can be traced to an 1854 episode when a whiskey trader and horse thief, Henry Lott, and his son killed, among others, Inkpaduta’s blood brother Sintomniduta and Sintomniduta’s wife and five children. Inkpaduta (meaning ‘Scarlet Point’ or ‘Red Cap’) appealed to the military to punish Henry Lott, but the killer fled and was indicted in absentia. The prosecuting attorney, Granville Berkley, took Sintomniduta’s head and skewered it on a pole over his house in a gross act of contempt. Lott was never found, and justice was never served.

During an elk hunt in Woodbury County in the winter of 1856, a Wahpekute hunter shot a dog that bit him, and the enraged owner, a white man, beat the Indian senseless. This Indian, whose name is apparently lost to history, then claimed to have conversed with the Great Spirit and been told that the white people who were responsible for all the Indians’ suffering must be destroyed. When other Wahpekutes stole the cattle, hay and corn of nearby settlers, 20 armed whites led by Captain Seth Smith rode into Inkpaduta’s camp and demanded the Indians surrender all their firearms. Inkpaduta stated that his people could not survive the winter without guns for hunting. Unmoved by Inkpaduta’s plea, Smith confiscated the weapons. The whites planned to come back the next day to escort Inkpaduta and his band from the area and give them back their guns, but the plan failed. When they returned the next day, the Indians were gone.

Seeking revenge, Inkpaduta took to raiding in northern Iowa in February 1857. At Lost Island Lake, one of Inkpaduta’s warriors approached the Gillett cabin, trying to steal food, weapons and livestock. The settler shot and decapitated the raider. On the Little Sioux River in Clay County, Inkpaduta’s band attacked Ambrose S. Mead’s home, killed his cattle, knocked down his wife and attempted to capture his 10-year-old daughter, Emma. When she resisted, the chief beat her with a stick and carried off 17-year-old Hattie instead. Inkpaduta knocked down Mr. E. Taylor, threw his son into the fireplace, badly burning his leg, and carried off his wife. Hattie Mead and Mrs. Taylor were released after one night in the Indian camp.

On March 7, the Indians arrived at Okoboji and Spirit lakes. The Dakotas considered Spirit Lake a sacred dwelling place for the gods. The Indians were not permitted to fish from those lakes or even place a canoe in the waters. The sight of the log cabins and fences incensed them, according to one account, to ‘bloodlust and butchery,’ for this was viewed as an invasion of their sacred shores.

A number of white settlers were unluckily caught in this proverbial powder keg at the wrong place and time. They had arrived at the lakes’ pristine shores in July 1856 and had selected them as the ideal place to live. The region, beautiful and teeming with fish and wildlife, was previously unknown to the civilized world. Roland Gardner built his home on the south side of West Okoboji Lake. He and his wife, Frances, shared the house with their three youngest children — Eliza Matilda (16), Abigail (13), Roland Jr. (6) — and their married eldest daughter, Mary, and her family. Mary and Harvey Luce had two children, Albert (4) and Amanda (1). Six other families and several single men were also drawn to this area, which became known as the Spirit Lake settlement. Residents Lydia Noble (21), Elizabeth Thatcher (19) and Margaret Marble (20) were all soon to share a common fate. Alvin and Lydia Noble, with their 2-year-old child, and Joseph and Elizabeth Thatcher with their 7-month-old child, lived in one cabin on the east side of East Okoboji Lake. Lydia and Elizabeth were cousins. William and Margaret Marble lived in Marble Grove on the west shore of Spirit Lake.

On Sunday morning, March 8, 1857, Inkpaduta and his warriors barged into the Gardner cabin and demanded breakfast. While Frances Gardner fed them, a warrior grabbed Roland’s gun and removed the firing mechanism. Roaring Cloud, one of Inkpaduta’s twin sons, demanded more food, but none remained. He pointed his gun at Harvey Luce, who grabbed the barrel and prevented the Indian from firing. After a few tense moments, the Indians left the cabin. About 9 a.m., bachelors Dr. Isaac H. Harriott and Bertell A. Snyder came by, knowing that Roland was about to leave for Fort Dodge for provisions. They wanted him to mail their letters, but Roland was worried about the Indians and refused to leave. Harriott and Snyder departed with their letters.

About midday the Indians took Gardner’s cattle, killed them and headed for the Mattock cabin. James Mattock, his wife and five children had built their home south of the strait between East Okoboji Lake and West Okoboji Lake. Living with Mattock was Mr. Madison and his 18-year-old son, Robert. Dr. Harriott, Bert Snyder and the Granger brothers, William and Carl, lived together in one cabin, between the two Okoboji lakes. The Indians attacked the cabins, killing everyone and burning the dwellings. They found Carl Granger near his cabin, shot him and chopped off the top of his head with a broad-ax. Only William Granger survived, because he was visiting relatives in Red Wing, Minnesota Territory.

Back at the Gardner cabin, the settlers were discussing their options. At 2 in the afternoon, Harvey Luce and a visitor, Robert Clark, went to warn their neighbors about possible Indian trouble. Two hours later, when Roland Gardner stepped out of the cabin, he saw nine Indians fast approaching. He called out, ‘We are all doomed to die!’ Although he did not want to give up without a fight, his wife took an opposing view. ‘If we have to die, let us die innocent of shedding blood,’ Frances Gardner said.

Honoring his wife’s wish, Roland did not resist as the Indians entered his home and demanded flour. As he went to the flour barrel they shot him in the heart. The Indians then grabbed Frances Gardner and Mary Luce and held their arms tight, while others took rifles and bashed in their heads. They were dragged outside and finished off. Abigail Gardner sat in a chair in a state of shock. The Indians tore her sister’s baby from her arms, dragged Roland Jr. and Mary’s toddler outside, beat them with stove wood and left them for dead. Seeing her family dead or dying around her, Abbie begged the Indians to kill her too. They grabbed the 13-year-old by the arm and indicated she would not be killed, but would be taken prisoner. ‘All the terrible tortures and indignities I had ever read or heard of being inflicted upon their captives now arose in horrid vividness before me,’ she recalled in an 1885 narrative, History of the Spirit Lake Massacre and the Captivity of Miss Abbie Gardner.

The Dakotas scalped the dead, plundered the house and took Abbie to their camp about a mile away, near the Mattock place. She saw the cabin in flames and heard the screams of two people as they burned to death. Around the house were the bodies of five men, two women and four children. Robert Clark and Harvey Luce were shot on the southern shore of East Okoboji, bringing the day’s death total to 20 whites.

Abbie Gardner spent her first night of captivity at the Indians’ camp near the ruins of the Mattock cabin, while the Indians celebrated by singing, dancing and drumming until early morning. Having whetted their appetites for murder, Inkpaduta’s cohorts searched for more prey. They found Joel Howe on the trail, shot him down and hacked off his head. A Mr. Ring discovered the skull two years later on the south beach of East Okoboji. Warriors entered Howe’s home, killed his wife, Rheumilla Ashley Howe, sons Jonathan (25), Alphred (16), Jacob M. (14), William P. (12), Levi (9), daughter Sardis (18), a young woman and old Mrs. Noble.

Next stop was the Noble and Thatcher cabin. Lydia Howe Noble was the daughter of Joel and Rheumilla Howe. She was born in Ohio in 1836. When she married Alvin Noble, they moved to the east shore of East Okoboji Lake. The Indians burst into the cabin and shot Alvin and visitor Enoch Ryan. They then took a 2-year-old child from Lydia Noble and a 7-month-old infant from Elizabeth Thatcher, and bashed their brains out on a nearby oak tree. The raiders killed all the livestock, plundered the house and took Lydia Noble and Elizabeth Thatcher prisoner. Retracing their path to Howe’s cabin, they stopped to gather more treasures. Lydia discovered her mother, Rheumilla, under the bed with her skull crushed by a flat iron and her red eyes peering out of their sockets ‘like balls of fire.’ The Indians found Jacob Howe sitting in the yard, still alive; they quickly killed him, and then continued on to their camp. They placed the three female captives in one tepee for a short time, allowing them to compare experiences. Abbie, Lydia and Elizabeth were then put in separate tepees and ordered to braid their hair and grease their faces so they took on an Indian appearance.

On March 9, Morris Markham, who was living at the Noble-Thatcher household for the winter, passed by the Gardner home after having been gone two days rounding up livestock. After discovering the bodies, he continued to Howe’s home and found more corpses; the same ghastly scene greeted him at the Noble-Thatcher home. Realizing this had been the work of marauding Indians, Markham thought it best to alert the settlement of Springfield (now Jackson, Minn.), about 18 miles north. There, he found Eliza Gardner, who had been visiting in Springfield with Dr. and Mrs. Strong, and reported that her entire family had been murdered except possibly for Abbie, whose body he did not find.

The next day, Inkpaduta moved the encampment three miles west. Abbie was enlisted to drive one of the sleds pulled by a team of stolen horses. On March 11, they moved to Marble’s Grove on the west side of Spirit Lake. On the 13th, the Indians stumbled upon the Marble homestead. William Marble was unaware that marauding Indians had been in the area for several days. The Marbles welcomed the braves into their home and fed them. Then the native visitors traded for Mr. Marble’s rifle and challenged him to a target shoot. After several shots, the target fell over. As William Marble turned to replace it, warriors shot him in the back and stole his money belt containing $1,000 in gold. Margaret Ann Marble viewed the contest from the cabin. She saw her husband murdered and attempted to escape, but the Indians nabbed her and had her join the other captives — Lydia Noble, Elizabeth Thatcher and Abbie Gardner. The warriors concluded another bloody day with a festive war dance.

On March 26, 1857, Inkpaduta’s band was camped at Heron Lake, about 15 miles from Springfield. Abbie Gardner noted that the warriors were all regaled for battle, with scalping knives in their belts and rifles loaded; they told the captives they were headed for Springfield. Abbie was in agony over what might happen to her sister. She figured Eliza ‘would either be killed, or share with me what I felt to be a worse fate — that of a captive.’ Had it not been for Morris Markham’s warning, the entire town might have been destroyed. As it was, the warriors still achieved a partial surprise. They stole 12 horses, various dry goods, food, powder, lead, clothing and quilts; then they killed Willie Thomas (8), William Wood, George Wood, Mr. Stewart, his wife and two small children.

The Indians packed up their camp the next morning and headed northwest. Abbie Gardner and Lydia Noble carried packs that weighed about 70 pounds. Margaret Marble toted a pack and a pudgy Indian baby about 2 years old. The child was cumbersome, so at every opportunity Marble would reach around, poke him in the face and make him cry. The Indian women decided that the child disliked the white woman for some unknown reason, so they took him away from her. The Indians had snowshoes to make their trek easier, but the captives had none. Elizabeth Thatcher was in great physical distress, suffering from phlebitis, what Abbie called a ‘broken breast,’ and a combination of other maladies. She had to trudge through deep snow, cross frigid rivers, chop and carry firewood, cut poles for tents and perform other drudgery, yet she displayed great perseverance throughout her suffering. The medicine man did find a way to relieve her pain for a short time.

The provisions the warriors stole from the whites lasted about a month. ‘The Indians have no equal as gormandizers,’ Abbie Gardner said. ‘They are perfectly devoid of anything like delicacy of appetite, or taste, or decency in that matter.’ They ate rotting animals, she said, and picked vermin off their babies’ heads and chewed them with great relish. They stuffed themselves at every chance and then, according to Abbie, ‘lie down and grunt and puff, like cattle gorged with grass in the springtime; or like overfed swine.’ The captives got the leftovers.

Two days after the Springfield encounter, there was a great commotion when soldiers were seen approaching the raiders’ camp. The Indian women were sent away while the warriors placed a guard over the captives and readied for battle. The soldiers, a 24-man detachment under Lieutenant Alexander Murray sent from Fort Ridgely, searched the area for more than an hour, but apparently could not find the Indian camp and turned back. Their retreat saved the captives’ lives, for they were going to be killed had the soldiers attacked. Inkpaduta then had his group clear out of the area. After a two-day march, Abbie Gardner could no longer walk and refused to move. A female Indian swung a hoe over her head, but Abbie just bowed her head and was ready to die. Instead, the woman dropped her pack, grabbed Abbie’s arm, hauled her up and pushed her forward. Finally they stopped to camp for the night.

The Indians crossed icy rivers, and the captives nearly froze at night. Two or three days passed between meals and the captives were glad to eat the camp offal. When the horses died, the Indians feasted on their remains. As a result, the captives got a little more food but were then required to carry larger packs. They camped at the red pipestone quarries (where natives have quarried the red stone, catlinite, for centuries to make ceremonial pipes) in Minnesota Territory, and then moved into land that would become Dakota Territory in 1861. They had been on the go for six weeks.

On the Big Sioux River in the vicinity of Flandreau (a town that sprouted in 1857 in what would become South Dakota), a 16-year-old Indian removed Elizabeth Thatcher’s pack from her back as she approached a fallen tree bridge. Elizabeth had a premonition of death. ‘If you are so fortunate as to escape,’ she called to Abbie, ‘tell my dear husband and parents that I desired to live and escape for their sakes.’

When Thatcher reached mid-stream, the teenage warrior shoved her into the frigid water. Elizabeth swam to the shore and grabbed a tree root. More Indians took clubs and poles and beat her back into the river. Desperately she swam to the other shore, and once again the warriors clubbed her back in. As she floated downstream, the Indians followed along as if it was a grand game, clubbing and stoning her whenever she neared shore. When they tired of the sport, they shot and killed the 19-year-old. Abbie Gardner called Elizabeth’s death ‘an act of wanton barbarity.’ Lydia Noble was so devastated by the murder of her cousin that she gave up hope of rescue or escape, and implored Abbie to go to the river with her ‘and drown ourselves.’ Abbie drew deep within her Christian upbringing, found the will to survive, and declined the suggestion. Lydia did not have the strength to act alone.

On May 6, 30 miles west of the Big Sioux River near Skunk Lake, two Sioux brothers, Ma-kpe-ya-ha-ho-ton and Se-ha-ho-ta, from Minnesota Territory’s Yellow Medicine Reservation paid a visit to Inkpaduta. They spent the night listening to Inkpaduta’s exploits and offered to trade for Abbie Gardner, but she was not for sale. Instead, they traded for Margaret Marble. Before they took her, Margaret spoke to Abbie and said she thought the Indians might trade her to the whites, and as soon as she could she would send someone to rescue her and Lydia. They left in a hurry, before Inkpaduta changed his mind. Two of his warriors accompanied them to collect the rest of the ransom. They traveled east to the Big Sioux River, where they came to an Indian camp. A Frenchman approached them and greeted the brothers. They went to his tent, and his Indian wife prepared potatoes, pumpkin and hot tea.

‘Surely, I thought this a feast fit for the gods!’ Margaret said. ‘A great contrast from my former experience with Inkpaduta, where we subsisted mostly on digging roots, and roasting bones and feathers, to keep soul and body together.’ Inkpaduta’s men were paid off and left. Margaret was taken to Yellow Medicine Reservation, where the parents of the brothers who rescued her became her caregivers. In a few weeks, Stephen R. Riggs and Dr. Thomas S. Williamson, missionaries from Hazelwood, came to claim her. Minnesota (which became a state in 1858) paid $500 to each of the brothers who rescued her. Major Charles E. Flandrau, Indian agent for the Upper and Lower Minnesota Sioux, took Margaret to St. Paul.

About one month after Marble’s rescue, Inkpaduta joined forces with a Yankton band. One of the Yanktons, End of the Snake, hoped to get a reward by returning the remaining captives, so he purchased them from Inkpaduta. He continued to work the women as before. A few nights later, Roaring Cloud burst into End of the Snake’s tepee and demanded Lydia Noble go with him. She was the only captive to be consistently disobedient to her captors. Lydia refused to leave with Roaring Cloud, but the enraged warrior forced her out of the tepee. He picked up a piece of firewood that Lydia had just cut and beat her with it, then left to wash his bloodstained hands. Abbie was not allowed to go to her. She heard Lydia moaning for a half hour before she died.

The next morning, the Indians forced Abbie to watch as they abused Lydia’s corpse by using her as a target, scalping her and tying her hair to the end of a stick. They then broke camp. While they marched, a young Indian walked next to Abbie, repeatedly whipping her in the face with the bloody scalp. ‘Such was the sympathy a lonely, broken-hearted girl got at the hands of the `noble red man,” she said later.

While Abbie Gardner was wondering if she would ever be rescued, Margaret Marble was in St. Paul meeting William Granger, whose brother had been killed on the first day of the massacre. He offered her a home with his family in Michigan. Three months after Marble moved to Michigan, she filed for damages with the commissioner of Indian Affairs. According to the Sioux City Eagle of August 22, 1857, she claimed the Indians destroyed or stole property worth $2,229, plus $200 for her husband’s preemption rights under the 1834 law. She was finally granted $1,994, but it did her little good — she gave power of attorney to Granger, and he collected the claim. When he was asked if he was going to pay her, he said that he learned from the investigation that Margaret’s husband was alive and had another wife and therefore she was due no payment.

Margaret might never have learned of Granger’s duplicity, for she made no mention of it in a letter she later wrote to Abbie Gardner. She continued to stay with his family.

Granger later moved them all to Sioux City, Iowa. There, Margaret met and married a Mr. Oldham, who was working for Granger. Oldham was suspicious of Granger’s story and inquired to the Department of Indian Affairs about any payoffs made to him. He discovered that Granger had totally misrepresented the amount the government allowed her. An official confronted Granger with demands for restitution, but he disappeared into Dakota Territory.

Little is known about the rest of Margaret’s life. Mr. Oldham disappeared from the scene sometime after 1857. 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. She lived in California for 43 years, dying on October 20, 1911, at age 74. She is buried in the St. Helena Cemetery.

Abbie Gardner finally was rescued. Inkpaduta and his band moved northwest to a large village on the James River in present-day Spink County, S.D. On May 30, 1857, three Wahpetons appeared in the encampment and began a three-day bargaining session for Abbie. An expensive deal was struck: For two horses, 12 blankets, two powder kegs, 20 pounds of tobacco, 32 yards of blue cloth and 37 yards of calico, the captive had new owners. Mazakutemani (Man Who Shoots Metal As He Walks, or John Other Day), Hotonhowashta (Beautiful Voice) and Chetanmaza (Iron Hawk) were from Yellow Medicine Reservation and acting under orders of Major Flandrau, who aided in Margaret Marble’s rescue and supplied the goods for Abbie’s purchase. About 10 days’ travel in early April brought them to the Yellow Medicine Agency and to the mission of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson.

At the agency, Abbie was presented, in the name of Dakota Chief Matowaken, with a beautiful Indian ‘war cap’ that had been secretly transported from the village on the James River.

Each feather represented an enemy that the chief had killed in battle, and it symbolized Abbie’s bravery during her captivity. While she retained the cap, it was supposed to place her under the protection of the Dakotas.

Abbie was escorted by a wagon driver, an interpreter and her three Indian rescuers down the Minnesota River to Fort Ridgely, where Captain Barnard Elliot Bee Jr. and his wife prepared dinner for them. Mrs. Bee gave Abbie several gold dollars, and Lieutenant Alexander Murray bought her a shawl and material for a dress. At the head of navigation at Traverse, they boarded a steamboat for the trip to St. Paul, where they docked on June 22, 1857. The following morning, the Indians officially delivered her to Governor Samuel Medary with much pomp and circumstance. The people of St. Paul presented her with $500, which she deposited in a St. Paul bank.

From St. Paul, Abbie, Governor Medary and his entourage took a steamboat for Dubuque, Iowa, where she debarked and traveled overland to Fort Dodge. There she waited to be picked up by her newlywed sister Eliza’s husband, William Wilson, of Hampton, Iowa. She reached her sister’s home on July 5. In Hampton, Abbie delivered to Elizabeth Thatcher’s parents the final message Elizabeth had entrusted to Abbie just moments before her death. Things happened quickly for Abbie, mature beyond her actual 13 years. On August 16, 1857, she married 19-year-old Casville Sharp, a cousin of Elizabeth Thatcher.

About a year and a half later, Abbie returned to the house where her family was massacred and discovered that J.S. Prescott occupied the cabin. He reimbursed her only a small percentage of what the property was worth. In 1859 Abbie and Casville had a baby boy, Albert, and in 1862, a second son, Allen. In 1871 daughter Minnie was born, but she died at age 19 months. The Sharps moved to several locations in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. Twice, house fires destroyed the family’s possessions, and one of them consumed an early version of Abbie’s Spirit Lake manuscript. In the late 1870s, the Sharps’ marriage failed. In 1883 Abbie returned to the area of the Okoboji lakes and made money by soliciting speaking engagements, telling about her captivity. She finished her narrative of the Spirit Lake Massacre in 1885, and in 1891 she used the profits to purchase her family’s cabin. She restored it as a historical site and opened it to the public, charging admission — 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. During the winter of 1893-94, Abbie lobbied the Iowa Legislature for money to construct a monument to the victims (about 40 people were killed) of the Spirit Lake Massacre. On July 26, 1895, about 5,000 people attended the dedication of a 55-foot granite obelisk that was erected near the Gardner cabin. Abbie’s scars ran deep. ‘Never have I recovered from the injuries inflicted upon me while captive among the Indians,’ she said. ‘Instead of outgrowing them, as I hoped to, they have grown upon me as the years went by, and utterly undermined my health.’ Abigail Gardner Sharp died at Colfax, Iowa, on January 26, 1921.

After 1857 Inkpaduta was reportedly seen still lurking about the Spirit Lake area. His depredations led to the withholding of Dakota annuities until the guilty parties were turned over to authorities. Scarce supplies led to unrest among the innocent bands, which contributed to the start of the Sioux Uprising (also called the Minnesota Uprising) in August 1862; more than 600 white settlers were killed at New Ulm and elsewhere in southern Minnesota, and about 300 were captured. Inkpaduta again was involved in some of the atrocities. Once more, he escaped punishment and fled. He, according to Lakota holy man Black Elk, was present at the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, where he reportedly led the Santees (another name for the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton Dakotas) against the 7th Cavalry. In 1877 he took refuge in Canada with Sitting Bull’s band. Inkpaduta never returned to U.S. territory; he evaded capture and died in 1881 in Manitoba. Today, some New Western historians and others view Inkpaduta in a kinder, gentler light. He has been described as ‘trustworthy,’ ‘a very humble man who tried to avoid trouble,’ ‘a figure of heroic caliber’ and ‘one of the greatest resistance fighters that the Dakota Nation ever produced.’ But Abbie Gardner expressed the views of most Americans who survived those earlier days. ‘By the whites,’ she said, ‘Inkpaduta will ever be remembered as a savage monster in human shape, fitted only for the darkest corner of Hades.’

This article was written by Susan J. Michno and originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Wild West magazine.

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