Spirit Lake Massacre: 160 years later

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
The Gardner Cabin was one of the state's first tourist attraction and is open each summer for visitors who want to understand the history of the area.
Photo by Dave Petrick

One of Iowa's first tourist attractions still has a tale to tell. The story includes desperation, revenge and a lesson in perseverance from the young teenager who was kidnapped by American Indians 160 years ago.


Abbie Gardner was only 13 years old when the tensions from the harsh winter of 1856-57 boiled over between European-American settlers and American Indians in the area now known as Arnolds Park.

Former Gardner Cabin historic site manager Mike Koppert said the ensuing Spirit Lake Massacre began March 8, 1857. It claimed Abbie's entire family she was the only cabin occupant to survive a brutal attack that made headlines in Boston and New York.

"Forty-two people that's my number were killed in the Spirit Lake massacre: 33 in the Lakes region, two of the four women who were taken captive, and seven people in Jackson, Minnesota, on the 27th of March," Koppert said.

The Arnolds Park historic site still has the Gardner Cabin intact along with a 55-foot-tall granite memorial. History buffs will find a family burial plot, the frame of a teepee and memorials for others who were lost in the tragedy. Koppert oversaw a visitors center full of American Indian artifacts.

"It's a small but mighty site in American history," the longtime curator said. 
Koppert estimates the museum welcomes 12,000 visitors each summer school tours are common near the end of the school year. The site manager remembers the afternoon when Kevin Costner pulled up in a pink Cadillac to research a film. Koppert has welcomed leaders of the Hell's Angels biker gang as well. 
Folks from all walks of life can view interpretive data and a 13-minute video inside the museum. Some of Abbie's original oil paintings are also on display.

Koppert is always happy to answer questions about the 1857 uprising.

The war chief Inkpaduta arrived on an especially mild Sunday after a harsh winter, according to the local historian.


The State Historical Society of Iowa says settlers faced difficult frontier conditions and isolation as they arrived in the northwest part of the state. The Dakota Indian tribe used the area for hunting and gathering grounds and the land's original inhabitants were able to coincide with the first settlers. The relationship between the groups was chilly, but peaceful, according to historical accounts.

Iowa's historians say Inkpaduta was an exception.

He was left out of 1851 negotiations that transferred tribal land in northwest Iowa to the United States. He did not honor terms of the treaty as a result.

"We all know that when the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they did so with what I call a puritanical imperative put upon them by the queen and by the Cross," Koppert said. "They came with a kind of impudence as they were looking for gold when they found the Western Hemisphere. They set the table for what would happen for 500 years. In fact, some would say it is still going on today. As the native people were subjugated by the European people with gun powder and nice, big boats, we all know that it upset the American Indian people."

Inkpaduta lived in the Des Moines River Valley near Fort Dodge and was involved in a series of skirmishes with settlers between 1853 and 1856. One of the settlers, Henry Lott, killed several members of Inkpaduta's band, according to the State Historical Society of Iowa. Government officials deemed the settler responsible for the strife. Inkpaduta was furious when Lott wasn't held accountable for his acts of aggression.


Koppert said Inkpaduta and his band left the Fort Dodge area and suffered additional atrocities in the Smithland area near Sioux City. Settlers there destroyed the Dakota Sioux faction's village. Inkpaduta's band followed the Little Sioux River to the Iowa Great Lakes area in search of food.

"He came into Okoboji desperate for his women and kids," Koppert said.

The Dakota Indians found cattle and much-desired straw for bedding. They didn't find much hospitality, according to the Gardner Cabin site manager.

"The pioneers wouldn't give them any straw for the babies," Koppert said. "So, the next morning after what was probably a really terrible night he got his women and kids up and walked over to the Gardner Cabin, went in and demanded food. They were being belligerent, so Abbie's dad sent them off. About 6-8 Indians, a dozen at most, returned to demand gun caps. They were refused again."

Longtime Lakes resident Bill Archer has seen past accounts of the Spirit Lake Massacre. Back in 2009 he conceded: "There is no shortage of incidences of shameful treatment of Native Americans in U.S. history." But he added, "let's tell the truth. The Spirit Lake Massacre, though a minor incident in the overall history of the USA, was in fact, a brutal attack, killing women and children of several families in the Lakes area."

Inkpaduta's band took straw against the settlers' wishes. The groups exchanged fire and lit the fuse for the Spirit Lake Massacre. Over the next several days the war chief's band killed 33 settlers in the Iowa Great Lakes. They also abducted four women, including Abbie Gardner. Inkpaduta's group traveled north, to present-day Jackson, Minnesota. Seven settlers died in an unsuccessful attack there on March 27, 1857. Abbie was still held captive as Inkpaduta made his way west into South Dakota. Only two of the four female hostages survived the trip.

Indian agents from Minnesota helped arrange terms of a ransom payment. Abbie was freed after 83 days of captivity at a location near Redfield, South Dakota.

"What he did here was awful, but war is awful and some worse things happened to him, so where do you draw the line in the blame game? It's a piece of American history," Koppert said.

Inkpaduta's reputation was elevated by his ability to escape capture. Some historical accounts place him at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where a battalion led by George Custer fell in defeat. The war chief eventually moved to Canada and died in 1881, according to the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Abbie left the area, too. She joined her sister in Hampton and married Cassville Sharp five months after the Spirit Lake Massacre. They raised two children and separated sometime in the 1880s.


Abbie returned to northwest Iowa in 1891, purchased her family cabin, and spent the next 30 years operating the site as a tourist attraction admission was 25 cents for adults, a dime for the children.

Abbie successfully lobbied Iowa's early lawmakers to commission the 55-foot-tall Spirit Lake monument. It was dedicated in 1895 and an inscription on one side still refers to the acts of 1857 as "barbarous." The surviving member of the Gardner family eventually forgave her attackers. The welcome center near the Gardner Cabin still includes American Indian information and artifacts.

Abbie died in 1921 and left the cabin to her son and daughter-in-law, Albert and Mary Sharp. The Iowa Conservation Commission bought the property in 1941. The state used architects and archaeologists to restore the cabin to its original appearance at the time of the Spirit Lake Massacre. Any additions to the cabin were removed.

Koppert called the early days of American history "a brutal birth" that gave way to "a beautiful baby." He hopes people leave the historic site with new information, regardless of their political view.

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