Our Beginnings to 1860

Beginnings and Early Frontier History of Fort Dodge

As early as the 1600s, the importance of the Des Moines River territory was recognized by France and Spain. The northern territory between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River was seen as a very rich and plentiful region for the expanding fur trade industry. Historians account for French explorers traversing this region in the mid to late 1600’s. This area was part of the Louisiana Territory that was controlled by France from 1699 until it was ceded to Spain in 1762. During the 1700’s, a number of French explorers navigated through Iowa to map out the region for commercial fur trading companies.

On June 17, 1673, the two bold Frenchmen with five companions in two canoes floated out on the broad Mississippi from the mouth of the Wisconsin River. One of these Frenchmen was Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest; the other was Louis Joliet, a fur trader and woodsman. Marquette and Joliet were probably the first Europeans to come to the Iowa territory. Canoeing across the Mississippi they saw the high, wooded hills and deep valleys of the region near the present town of McGregor, in northeast Iowa.

In 1800, Napoleon regained ownership of Louisiana as part of a broader project to re-establish a French colonial empire in North America. However, France's prospect of renewed warfare with the United Kingdom, prompted Napoleon to consider selling Louisiana Territory to the United States. Acquisition of Louisiana was a long-term goal of President Jefferson, who was especially eager to gain control of the crucial Mississippi River port of New Orleans. The Louisiana Purchase extended United States sovereignty across the Mississippi River, nearly doubling the size of the country. The purchase included territory that later became the states of Iowa and Minnesota, as well as thirteen other states ranging from New Orleans up to Canada and as far west as Wyoming. At the time of the purchase, this large territory’s non-native population was around 30,000 Americans.

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the famous explorers Lewis and Clark to explore the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark, and their crew of forty men (known as the Corps of Discovery) began their journey up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804. Their mission was four fold: 1. Find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, 2. Create a good relationship with the Indians to increase trade, 3. Observe and record natural history and ethnology of the area, and 4. Look for resources for future settlers.

In the fall of 1825, Joseph Montraville and Joseph Laframboise got permits to set up a post at the "Fort Confederation, on the Second Forks of the Des Moines River" for trade with the Yankton Sioux. This "fort", probably just a temporary stockade, doubtless stood at the junction of the upper branches of the Des Moines in the present Humboldt County (Gotch Park area). The region had been much frequented by fur traders for several years. In the treaty of 1825, the United States government obtained from the Yankton Sioux a promise to protect the American traders and to arrest any foreigner not legally authorized to trade in this territory. The purpose of this treaty was to prevent British and Canadian traders from conducting commerce on in the Des Moines River Valley that was rich with fur-bearing animals. Many historians have noted that the Des Moines River was one of the most important routes of travel to and from the Northwest and was regarded as one of the greatest rivers in the Midwest, possibly just as important as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

In 1835, The United States Dragoons, led by Lieutenant Albert Lea, marched up the Des Moines river valley and across Iowa, starting from the old Fort Des Moines in Lee county. The Dragoons mission was to map the area and gather information on the topography, inhabitants, and the natural resources to establish a future military posts along the Des Moines River. In all probability, it was simply a part of the over-all strategy to preserve peace with the Indians along the frontier. Possibly one of the objectives of the whole expedition was in a general sense to impress the Indians with the power of the Great White Father and pave the way for opening up this territory to American pioneers moving west.

While traversing down the Des Moines River, the Dragoons discovered an area of high ground at the confluence of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek, the eventual site of a new post would be developed in the area, which is present-day Fort Dodge. This area was rich with timber, stone and nearby springs. There was plenty of game including deer, bison, elk, cougar, wolves, and coyotes. Smaller game was also abundant such as geese, turkey, ducks and swan. The nearby river and streams provided a wealth of fish. These resources made the Fort Dodge area very popular for hunting and trapping by the Indians and for the soldiers and settlers coming to the area around 1850.

In the early 1800’s, the Fort Dodge – Webster County area was inhabited mostly by the predominant Indian tribes in the area which were the Winnebago, Sac and Fox and the Sioux. This area was rich with game providing the Indians with abundant hunting and trapping for food. The Fox Indians (often referred to a Meskwakie) fought with the Sioux Indians on several occasions in the region, in fact, they warred with each other for generations.

The site of Fort Dodge was actually proposed in 1835 by Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny who recommended the establishment of a forty mile wide strip of land stretching from the Mississippi River to the Des Moines River. A treaty with the Indians was initiated to separate the warring Sioux Indians from the Sac and Fox Indians. Capt. Nathan Boone was the youngest son of Col. Daniel Boone, served under Colonel Kearny and was the surveyor of the forty-mile-wide strip of land known as the Neutral Strip in northern Iowa, purchased by the government from the Sioux, and Sac and Fox tribes in 1830. The purpose of the government's purchase was to settle boundary lines and thus prevent friction between the tribes. This Neutral Strip required that the Sioux Indians remain north of the neutral line.

In 1835, after the Black Hawk Purchase put the area under U.S. control, the 1st United States Dragoons explored Iowa. Even though there were probably European Americans that traveled through the Webster County region , the first recorded expansion activity in what is now Webster County, was the 1836 expedition of the U.S. Dragoons, which was a division of the United States Cavalry. The Dragoons were formed to explore new land for future military posts. Under the command of Colonel Stephen Kearny, three companies of Dragoon Soldiers were sent to explore the Des Moines River up to its source in Minnesota. Their assignment was to map the area and gather information on the topography, inhabitants, and the natural resources to establish a military post. This post would serve as a link in the general frontier defense policy, which consisted of a string of posts extending from Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. In all probability, one main purpose was simply a part of the over-all strategy to preserve peace along the frontier by impressing the Indians with the presence of 300 or more troops, well equipped and disciplined, marching in order through Indian land.

While traversing down the Des Moines River from Minnesota, the Dragoons discovered an area of high ground at the confluence of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek, the eventual site of the future post. The new post would be developed in the area, which is present-day Fort Dodge. This area was rich with timber, stone and nearby springs. There was plenty of game as well including deer, bison, elk, cougar, wolves, and coyotes. Smaller game was also abundant such as geese, turkey, ducks and swan. The nearby river and streams provided a wealth of fish. These resources made the Fort Dodge area very popular for hunting and trapping by the Indians and for the soldiers and settlers coming to the area around 1850.

Although the force spent only one night at this location, the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938 dedicated a plaque in commemoration of the event. The plaque is now located on the grounds of the Fort Museum.

The first actual settlers arrived in the region around 1845, settling along the Des Moines River. Generally credited as the first settler was Henry Lott, a subsistence farmer, Indian trader, and trapper and, charged rightly or wrongly, a horse thief who cheated the Indians. He built his cabin at the fork of the Boone and the Des Moines Rivers.

With the arrival of European settlers, the Woodland tribes were replaced by the historic Indian tribes the Sac and Fox, the Winnebago, the Ioway and the Sioux who moved west because of pressure from the expansion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The European settlement of Iowa began with a series of treaties by which the tribes transferred their lands to the federal government, thus requiring the tribes to vacate the land. The last of these treaties was signed by the Sioux in 1852.

As the tribes moved out of Iowa, there were very few incidences of conflict or resistance. Some smaller tribes refused to accept and abide by the treaties and fought back against the settlers. Most of the incidents were minor; petty thefts, destruction of property and general harassment of the settlers. Two incidents were far more serious. One band of Indians harassed the official federal government’s surveyors, destroyed their markers and equipment and forcing them to cease their activities. The second involved Henry Lott, the first settler. The same band entered his cabin during the winter of 1848, killed his cattle, destroyed and stole his property. His family fled from the cabin into the storm and his son died of exposure while his wife died a few weeks later as a result of the incident.

Other settlers in the region reacted by petitioning Congress for protection from further attacks. On May 31st, 1850, the War Department responded. The Secretary of War, George W. Crawford, ordered a company of Infantry to establish a post in the area for the protection of frontier settlements and to maintain peace and order between the Sioux, Sac and Fox Indian tribes and to stop the harassment by small bands of Indians who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the white settlements. On July 14th, 1850, Brevet Brigadier General Clarke, commander of the Sixth military department, assigned Brevet Major Samuel Wood(s) and soldiers of the Company E of the 6ths United States infantry to proceed with the construction of a military post at the point where the Lizard Creek and Des Moines River joined together. Second in command, Brevet Major Lewis Armistead recruited civilian laborers to construct the fort. Later that same year, the fort was completed and commissioned Fort Clarke, in honor of Brevet Brigadier General Clark. In the spring of 1851, by order of Armistead’s commanding officer, Major General Winfield Scott, the fort was renamed Fort Dodge, in honor of Colonel Henry Dodge who was the United States Senator of the Wisconsin Territory* and founder of the Dragoons.

The Fort Dodge post consisted of 21 buildings and housed a small company of 65 men. Its function was to serve as a police force covering all of the territory west of the Des Moines River. Within a year, another 60 or so soldiers were commissioned to the post. At no time was the company involved in any significant military action. In 1850, Major William Williams was assigned the post of sutler (civilian merchant) at Fort Dodge. The post was not very lucrative but did hold promise of greater future opportunities on the rapidly growing frontier. During this same time, the California Gold Rush was at its peak and the allure of fortune caused the desertions of 33 soldiers from Fort Dodge. Shortly thereafter, the remaining soldiers were ordered to leave Fort Dodge and travel north to Minnesota and establish a fort to police and resolve mounting problems with the Sioux Indians.

As the troops left Fort Dodge in 1853, Major William Williams remained at the post and with financial assistance from Jesse Williams, a banker and land speculator from Fairfield, Iowa, Williams purchased the abandoned military reservation, organized the Fort Dodge Town Company, and platted the town. Williams has since been recognized as the pioneer founder of the fledgling frontier town of Fort Dodge and was the city’s first mayor.

Two years after the abandonment of the military post, the U.S. Land Office was opened in 1855 and handled the sale of all government lands in 13 counties in the top three tiers of north central Iowa, extending from Hancock County west to Calhoun County, a total of 4,300,000 acres. The opening of this and other land offices in 1855 signaled the start of one of the biggest land booms in American history. Speculators flooded into the region and the price of land rose in less than a year from $1.25 an acre to $12.00. The population of the fledgling Fort Dodge community exploded from 243 people in 1852 to 3,088 in 1856. Many of these land speculators were get rich quick transients who would soon move on when the quick profits were made.

With the removal of the troops, Iowa Governor Stephen Hempstead appointed William Williams to represent the state in handling its relations with American Indians. In 1857 Williams organized the relief expedition following the Indian uprising at Spirit Lake, the Spirit Lake Massacre (*2). In 1862, he was again called upon to organize frontier defense after the Sioux uprising around New Ulm, Minnesota, and he established Fort Schuyler near the Minnesota border in Emmet County.

In spite of its small size and lack of activity, several of the company’s officers played significant roles in subsequent military history. With the outbreak of the Civil War all but one of the officers resigned their commissions and joined the Confederate army. Only the commanding officer, Samuel Wood(s), remained with the Union. He gained recognition for serving as paymaster general for the entire Army of the West which covered all the territory west of Iowa and retired after serving more than 50 years. Lewis Armistead, the second in command surrendered his commission to become a general for the Confederacy and led Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg where he lost his life. James Corley went on to become chief quartermaster for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Frontier Life in Fort Dodge

A major obstacle to the early growth of Fort Dodge was the lack of transportation. Lack of roads and extensive wet lands made travel by wagon or stagecoach challenging and slow, and moving goods and materials to market or into Fort Dodge was difficult. The settlers that came to the beautiful country in the Fort Dodge area, seeking a new life, fortune and adventure, traveled on foot, in a stagecoach, by conestoga wagon or on horseback. They risked life and limb to adventure west, often facing the threats of hostile Indians, uncharted territory and the harsh elements of Mother Nature to get to their final destination.

The first attempts to navigate the upper reaches of the Des Moines came in 1857 when a small man powered boat, the Rolling Wave, came up the Des Moines River and reached Fort Dodge. In 1858 leaders invested in the construction of a steam boat, the Charles Rogers. Largely because of a wet spring the boat was able to reach Fort Dodge three times before the water level dropped and travel became difficult. River navigation as a solution was a fleeting vision which died with the coming of railroads in 1869.

Like most frontier towns in the Midwest and West, life in Fort Dodge was difficult. Transportation was challenging, mostly by covered wagon and stagecoach. Receiving goods and living materials was difficult. There was very few amenities to support comfortable living. The first store in the village was a grocery store owned by William Williams. This store was by no means an exclusive grocery stock, but was made up of a general merchandise stock. In addition to the staple provisions, there was calico, muslin and denim cloth for clothing, a few tools and hardware, some household utensils, and a little patent medicine. There was but little ready-made clothing.

There were no clothing shops in those days, so the thrifty housewives made not only her own clothing, but those of the family. Some even wove their own cloth and spun the yarn of making the stockings and mittens. Fur used for caps and other articles of apparel was procured by trapping, for the woods were full of small fur-bearing animals. Beaver, otter, coon, fox and muskrat were found in abundance, while deer, bear and wolf were not uncommon. All the merchandise kept in stock at the store was freighted from Keokuk, which was at that time the nearest railroad point. The cost of transportation of goods was expensive, even for the staple of articles of food and other basic living necessities.

The nearest grist mills where flour and meal could be obtained were in Oskaloosa and Des Moines. A trip to the mill took two weeks under the most favorable circumstances. In bad weather the time was even longer. During the severe winters of 1855 and 1856, going to the mill was near impossible, thus making food and other items very scarce at times. Yet, the settlers coming to Iowa and, in particular, the Fort Dodge area still were courageous to brave the elements and challenges and even risk their lives for the opportunity of a better life on the plains of the Midwest.

The Region Officially Becomes Webster County

The first act of the federal congress authorizing the admission of Iowa into the Union was approved on March 3, 1845. Then followed nearly two-year’s time that was spent in the adoption of a constitution and in the adjustment of boundaries. The act which finally admitted the state was passed and approved on December 28, 1846.

On January 15, 1851, the general assembly of the state of Iowa passed the most important act in the whole history of the formation of counties in Iowa. By this measure, fifty counties were established in Iowa, embracing fully one-half of the state. Among the counties created by this act were the counties, of Risley and Yell, the former constituting the present county of Hamilton, and the latter the present county of Webster. In January of 1853, the fourth general assembly of the state of Iowa passed a law which was approved changing the name of Risley to Webster.

With the county established by the state of Iowa, the town of Homer, located in the southeast part of the county, was selected to be the county seat. But the villagers of Fort Dodge protested this decision and were aggressive seeking it to be changed to Fort Dodge . Under the leadership of John F. Duncombe and others they began a fight to secure the county seat. On March 3, 1856, John F. Duncombe, Walter C. Willson and others, numbering 357, presented to the court a petition asking for an election to be held to vote on the question of the removal of the county seat from Homer to Fort Dodge. The court granted the petition and the election was held April 7, 1856. The canvass of the votes resulted in favor of Fort Dodge by a vote of 407 as against 264 for Homer. Soon after the records were moved to Fort Dodge and the transition of the county seat to Fort Dodge took place. John F. Duncombe, and the Honorable Judge William X. Meservey played important roles in the making of the new county seat town.

At the time, Webster County was the largest county in Iowa geographically. This being the case, the general assembly, on January 28, 1857, passed an another act that created the county of Humboldt, north of Webster. New boundaries were determined with the territory located between Wright and Pocahontas Counties; eight townships were taken from Kossuth County and four from Webster County to form Humboldt County.

The Economic “Panic of 1857”

In 1857, a violent hurricane lashed at the Central America, a sailing vessel carrying passengers and a huge shipment of gold from California. U.S. banks needed that gold to reach its destination safely. The banks had invested in businesses that were failing, and this was causing the American people to panic. Investors were losing heavily in the stock market and railroads were unable to pay their debts. Land speculators who had counted on the construction of new railroad routes were losing money. People feared financial ruin. They ran to the banks to withdraw their money, but the banks did not deal in paper money. They used silver and gold. With their failed investments, it was impossible for the banks to gather all the gold their customers demanded. Soon all across the nation, banks began to collapse. The Panic of 1857 led to a severe economic depression in the United States that lasted three years. This economic depression hit the frontier village of Fort Dodge hard and growth of business and new settlers slowed dramatically for the next several years.

In 1850, the population of the military post was 60 people, mostly military troops. By 1854, the population of the frontier village of Fort Dodge was 904. Just two years later, the population grew to 3,088. But, by 1860,due to the Panic of 1857, Fort Dodge’s population had declined to 2,504. The population in Fort Dodge began to gradually grow again, even during the Civil War years. By the end of the Civil War in April of 1865, the village of Fort Dodge’s population had grown to 3,772.

The present generation, enjoying the comforts and conveniences of the twentieth century, cannot realize and scarcely imagine the trials and hardships which were endured by the pioneers who made their way westward, braving the dangers of frontier life. Great courage, fortitude and determination were necessary to meet these, and to the honored pioneers a debt of gratitude is due which can never be repaid.

*Library of Congress

*Webster County Historical Society… Roger Natte

*Harlow Pratt - History of Fort Dodge and Webster County, Iowa – Volume 1 Chicago – Pioneer Publishing, 1913

*Annals of Iowa – State Historical Society of Iowa… Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

*History of Iowa – Iowa Official Register…By Dorothy Schwieder, professor of history, Iowa State University

History of Native American Indians Around Fort Dodge and Webster County

Many different Indian tribes have lived in Iowa, each existing as an independent nation with its own history, culture, language, and traditions. Some were residents before recorded time; some lived in Iowa for relatively short periods but played memorable roles in the state’s history. No one knows when the Indians first came to Iowa. That they lived in almost every part of the state is shown by mounds which have been located in nearly every county including Webster. A favorite location for them was on terraces along streams and rivers and also in caves and on the sides of hills and bluffs. Beginning with the Native American Indians who traversed our country over thousands of years ago, many Indian Tribes started moving westward from the east coast of America. They traveled along the Great Lakes in pursuit of better hunting grounds. With the increasing number of tribes along the Great Lakes, the Indians moved southward into the Mississippi Valley region. These tribes included the Algonquins, Delawares, Ioways, Chippewas, Shawnees, Ottawas, Pottawattamies, Narragansetts, Illinois, Powhatans, Sac and Fox and other Indian tribes to the number of thirty or forty. From the Rocky Mountain region and the Northwest came the savage horde known as the Sioux or Dakota, including the Dakotas proper, the Assiniboian, the Winnebagoes who were the parent stock of the lowas, Kansas, Ouappas, Omahas, Osages and other tribes of the lower Missouri district and others. These two great streams of Indians first came against each other in the valley of the upper Mississippi and then turned southward. The Algonquins from the east seem to have outflanked the Sioux, and began to occupy that part of Iowa that lies south of a line extending from the mouth of the Big Sioux near Sioux City, and the Sioux occupied the territory north of this line and in Minnesota besides penetrating into Wisconsin. The first Indians seen in what is now Iowa by a white man, were of the Illini or Illinois tribe. When the French explorers, Marquette and Joliet, in 1673, coming down the Mississippi, landed in southeastern Iowa, they encountered Indians, who called themselves Illini, meaning "men." This apparently meant they were very brave and superior to all other people. This name seemed to have embraced five sub-tribes, Peorias, Cahokias, Kaskaskias, Michigamies and Tamaroas. During several generations and many wars between the tribes, the Illinois had been gradually driven into Illinois and Iowa regions. More than two hundred years ago, when visited by Marquette, the Illinois tribe had become greatly reduced in numbers and strength from wars with the Iroquois on the east and the Chickasaws on the south. When Iowa was next visited by white men the once powerful Illinois Indians had been nearly exterminated by the Sacs and Foxes. As the white began and exploring and settling in Iowa, the Indians were caught up in change of their civilization as they had known it. They could never go back to the way things used to be. The Indians thought about things one way, the white man another. The Indian believed the land belonged to the Great Spirit. Who, in turn, allowed the red man to take from it those things that he needed. For the white man the land was something to be owned and worked. As the American frontier continued to push closer to the future Iowa border, the Indians who had lived here found that the traditions of independence they had passed from generation to generation were quickly fading out and a new lifestyle lay ahead. In the midst of the Algonquins, dwelt for many years, a Dakota tribe, the lowas’ who under their noted chief Man-haw-gaw, migrated westward from the vicinity of the Great Lakes. They crossed the Mississippi and occupied the territory about the lower valley of the Iowa river, giving to that stream its present name, although it was for a long time called the Ayouas by the earliest French explorers. Early records show this name spelled in various ways, Ayouas, Ayouways, Ayoas and Aiouex. Lewis and Clark, in the journal of their explorations in 1804, refer to this tribe as the Ayouways. In later years the spelling became changed to loway and finally the y was dropped. The State of Iowa got its name from the Ioway Indians who were dominant for many years along the Des Moines River. Recorded history on the Ioway Indians characterize them as aggressive, hostile and unfriendly, often at war with other tribes. They were known as roaming Indians that were proficient hunters and trappers which often took them up and down Des Moines River valley because it was plush with game. The name of the greatest of the Ioway war chiefs, Mahaska, has been given to one of the counties in the Des Moines valley, embracing a portion of our state over which this once powerful tribe held domain. Over the years, this tribe was so greatly reduced by small pox disease and war with other Indian tribes that it ceased to play an important part in the state's history after 1823. In 1837, the remaining Ioways were moved from Iowa to reservations in Kansas and Nebraska. (Note: During the Civil war, the lowas were loyal to the Union, many of them enlisting in the northern army, and making good soldiers.) The Sac and Fox tribes, who probably held the most prominent place in the story of the Algonquin family in Iowa, had migrated to Iowa from the east and were first recorded by Jean Nicollet in 1634 are Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Sacs and Foxes contained a thousand warriors and nearly five thousand persons. These Indians appeared to realize that the invasion of French trappers and missionaries threatened the eventual occupation of their lands by the whites, and from the first they waged war against the intruders, and were nearly the only tribe with whom the French could not live in peace. About 1712, the Sacs and the Foxes became close allies. Each tribe, however, reserved the right to make war or peace, without the consent of the other. The Foxes had villages on the west side of the Mississippi, while the Sacs remained on the east side. The Winnebagoes, too, are mentioned by the French writers as early as 1669. Early in the seventeenth century the tribes of the Northwest formed an alliance against the Winnebagoes, and in a battle five hundred of the latter were slain. It is thought that they and the lowas were the only Dakotas that migrated to the east. They were reluctant to come under English rule, after the French were expelled; but finally became reconciled, and fought with the British through the American Revolution. In 1816, they entered into a treaty of peace with the United States; but in 1832 they joined Black Hawk in his war; and at its termination were required to relinquish their lands in Wisconsin in exchange for a tract in Iowa known as the "Neutral Ground." Of the three great Indian nations, occupying the upper Mississippi valley in the sixteenth century, the most powerful and populous was the Dakota nation (the Sioux). They were nomadic, wandering northward to latitude 55 degrees in the Rocky Mountains, and eastward to the shores of Green Bay. Thus it will be seen that this great Indian nation early in the sixteenth century occupied a large portion of British America, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, more than half of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Nebraska, the greater part of Minnesota, and the north half of Wisconsin. The Sioux, who belonged to the Dakota nation, were first known to the French in 1640. In 1680, when Hennepin was sent to explore the valley of the upper Mississippi. When the French took possession of that country in 1685, the Dakotas were divided into seven eastern and nine western tribes. During the wars between the French and the Indians, the Sioux were forced southward into northern Iowa about the head waters of the Des Moines river and Okoboji and Spirit lakes. When in 1804, Lewis and Clark explored along the Missouri valley, the Yankton division of the Sioux occupied the country along the upper Des Moines and Little Sioux valleys and about Great Lakes in northern lowa and southern Minnesota. While roaming about in these regions they had named the rivers and lakes. Their principal villages were along the shores of Okoboji and Spirit Lake. Their name for the latter was Minne-Mecoehe-Waukon, meaning "Lake of the Spirits." Lizard Creek they called, "Was-sa-ka-pom-pa," the river with lizards. The propriety of this name appears at once, when one views the many windings' of the little stream, like the tortuous tail of a lizard. In 1805, Lieutenant Pike estimated the number of Sioux at more than twenty-one thousand. One of their most noted chiefs in the first half of the nineteenth century was Wa-na-ta of the Yanktons. When but eighteen years old, he distinguished himself in the War of 1812, fighting with his tribe for the British at the battle of Sandusky. He was instrumental in organizing a union of all of the Sioux tribes and became the chief of the confederacy of Sioux, often leading them in battle against the lowas and Chippewas. The Sioux were always more or less hostile to the Americans, and were only restrained from open hostilities by the fear of troops stationed in the frontier forts. They were enemies of the Sac and Fox tribes. "Si-dom-i-na-do-tah," or "Two Fingers" was the head of a band of renegade Sioux that hunted and fished along the upper Des Moines valley including the Fort Dodge region. He belonged to the Sisseton tribe or clan. His name was due to the fact that on one hand he had but two fingers. Through petty thieving and plunder he and his band caused the early settlers of Webster county much annoyance. His first followers were four or five desperadoes who had been exiled from their own people. Then other joined them, until the party contained five hundred. Major Williams, in his reminiscences of pioneer days, mentions that Sidominadotah's band was the most insolent and daring of the bands of Indians. He stated, "Every effort was made to catch Sidominadotah, but he always managed to keep out of the way.” Whenever any outrage was committed, we could always hear of him, but could never catch him. He still remains one of the mysteries of the pioneer days of northern Iowa." This band of Sioux increased their number very much by gathering in renegades and allies from other bands of Sioux to aid them in fighting and pillaging their common enemies, the Sacs and Foxes and Pottawattamies. Henry Lott Story: Henry Lott is recognized as the first settler in Webster County. He erected the first cabin near the mouth of the Boone river, on land in section 24, township 87, range 27 in southern Webster County. The date of his settlement is approximated to be in the winter of 1846. The pioneers in the Boone and southern Webster County region considered Henry Lott a keen but corrupt man and a refugee from justice. In 1846, settlers to the area found that Lott was engaged in the enterprise of selling whisky to the Indians, stealing their ponies and running them off to the east and selling them. Finally in 1848, Indians of Chief Sidominadotah’s band of Sioux had several of their horses stolen by Lott, and found them by Lott's quarters. The Indians attacked Lott in the winter when the river was frozen. Lott ran down the river on the ice, leaving his family at the mercy of the Indians, who took all the horses they could find. The Indians killed his cattle and robbed his cabin of sundry articles. In the melee, two of Lott’s sons followed their father on the ice, became separated and one son, age 14, was found frozen to death near Elk Rapids. Lott’s wife also died a week later due to the trauma of the attack. A few years later, out of revenge, Henry Lott murdered Sidominadotah and his family, which many believed eventually caused the uprising of the Sioux that led to the Spirit Lake Massacre. (Read the biographical account of Henry Lott in the Iconic People section on this website). The Sioux were known as fighters and warring Indians. They would make expeditions and invade the territory of the Pottawattamies, who lived in the more southern part of the state, and in turn the Pottawattamies would attack the Sioux. These two tribes fought two desperate battles in the vicinity of Fort Dodge. One was fought near Twin Lakes in Calhoun county and the other on the South Lizard in Webster County. The Sioux were victorious in both battles. These were the last Indian battles in Iowa, as the various tribes soon after left for their western reservations. The Sioux were the most warlike and treacherous of all the tribes, which at any time had homes in Iowa. It was a band of this tribe, who massacred nearly the entire settlement at Spirit Lake and Okoboji in March, 1857; and in 1862, murdered nearly two thousand people in Minnesota. For many years the flood of immigrants moving east into the Midwest were prevented from occupying Iowa soil because of the reverence of the Indians for the "Father of Waters." As early as 1804, the Sacs and Foxes ceded to the United States their land east of the Mississippi, but it was not until after the defeat of Black Hawk in 1832, that the most desirable portion of Iowa came into the possession of the United States. After the Black Hawk Purchase was acquired by the government for use by the settlers, not many years had passed before the Indians lost every acre of the woodlands, hills and prairies of Iowa they had once owned. The transfers of land were made through treaties, agreed upon at council meetings, at which were representatives of the United States and of the Indian tribes interested. The government paid for the territory, and the amount and all other details were put in writing. It is likely that in many cases the promises made by the whites were not carried out and the Indians were defrauded as a result of the shrewdness of the whites. The Indians were partly to blame for any cheating, however, because whisky proved too enticing for the Indians and the price of many an acre of land was paid in whiskey. Owing to the murderous warfare kept up between the Sac and Fox tribes and the Sioux, the government interfered in 1825, and arranged for a conference at Prairie du Chien. Here the chiefs representing their respective tribes assembled, all arrayed in paint and feathers and each trying to outdo the others. A boundary line, (the Neutral Line) to which all agreed, was fixed. The "Neutral Line," which was to separate the warring Sacs and Foxes and the Sioux Indians, was surveyed by Captain Nathan Boone, who began the survey April 19, 1832. The line commenced at the mouth of Trout Run on the Iowa River, about six miles below Decorah. His next point was in or near section near the Des Moines River. The latter point was around at the confluence of the east and west forks of the Des Moines, some three miles south of Humboldt and Dakota City. The remainder of the treaty line to the Missouri river was never run. At the second Prairie du Chien council of July 15, 1830, the Neutral Line was established, being a tract twenty miles in width each side of the "Neutral Line." The hunting grounds of the Sioux were to be north of a line passing from the mouth of the upper Iowa River through the upper fork of the Des Moines River to the fork of the Big Sioux and down the Big Sioux to the Missouri. The Sacs and Foxes were to hunt south of this line. Permission was given to the lowas to live in this territory with them. Unfortunately, the mere "line" had not been sufficient to keep the Indian tribes apart. The Black Hawk War in 1832 was the last armed resistance to white settlement in Illinois and Wisconsin and cost the lives of 70 settlers and soldiers as well as the lives of hundreds of Native Americans. Although none of the battles of the Black Hawk War were fought west of the Mississippi River, Iowa Territory benefited from the results. The Black Hawk Purchase Treaty opened for settlement in the Iowa Territory, which went into effect June 1, 1833. The noted warrior Black Hawk had vigorously refused to recognize the treaty of 1804, and although in 1816 he "touched the goose quill," as he expressed it, to the instrument affirming the treaty, his reluctance to give up the land in question led to the conflict of 1832. He was. however, defeated and compelled to sell the land now known as the Black Hawk Purchase which involved a tract about fifty miles in width, extending along the Mississippi river from the Neutral Strip to the Missouri line. As a result of the Black Hawk Purchase, immigration to Iowa was greatly increased. The fame of its beautiful valleys, groves and rivers, her fertile prairies and rich soil had reached the distant east. Thousands of people were impatiently waiting for the removal of the Indians from such a land of promise. White top covered wagons quickly sought the paths, and home seekers soon crowded in searching for the best timber and farm locations. In 1836 the four hundred square acres reserved for the Sacs and Foxes was secured by the whites; and by a treaty made in October, 1837, the two tribes were induced to part with a tract adjoining the Black Hawk Purchase on the west. Still the whites wanted more land, and finally in 1842, the confederated tribes of the Sacs and Foxes ceded to the United States all other land east of the Missouri. They further agreed to move west of the Missouri, within three years from the ratification of the treaty. The remaining rights of the Indians to the state were relinquished, when the Winnebagoes in 1846, ceded their interest in the Neutral Strip; and the Sioux, in 1851, gave up the northern portion of the state. At the time, it is estimated that the state of Iowa cost the United States government to extinguish the Indian title approximately $2,377,500, a little over eight cents an acre. By 1848 the Sauk, Mesquakies, Winnebagoes and Pottawattamie had all left Iowa for reservations. The only Indians left in the state were the Sioux in North and Northwest Iowa. Anxious pioneers in this region who built their homesteads far ahead of established communities, found themselves in danger from roving bands of Sioux who still considered northwestern Iowa part of their hunting ground. Around the late 1840’s to 1860, small bands of Sioux Indians would live and hunt around Fort Dodge and Webster County. In 1849, settlers petitioned Congress for protection from the Indians and on May 31st, 1850, the War Department responded. The Secretary of War, George W. Crawford, ordered a company of Infantry to establish a post in the area for the protection of frontier settlements and to maintain peace and order between the Sioux, Sac and Fox Indian tribes and to stop the harassment by small bands of Indians who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the white settlements. On July 14th, 1850, Brevet Brigadier General Clarke, assigned Brevet Major Samuel Woods and soldiers of the Company E of the 6th United States infantry to proceed with the construction of a military post at the point where the Lizard Creek and Des Moines River joined together. Later that same year, the fort was completed and commissioned Fort Clarke, later to be renamed Fort Dodge. After the military post was established, small bands of Sioux Indians remained in the area and there were periodic incidences of theft and harass of settlers by the Indians, but no serious uprisings occurred in the territory around Fort Dodge. One Indian name retained in Webster County, is that of Wahkonsa, an Indian boy who befriended James Williams, the son of William Williams, the pioneer founder of Fort Dodge. Wahkonsa was a friendly Sioux Indian boy who helped the troops and settlers in Fort Dodge. (See the biographical account of Wahkonsa in the Iconic People section on this website). In 1861, the Civil War created a sudden emergency for Iowa and Minnesota because the general government found itself confronted with the need to withdraw of the Federal troops from military posts in this region to fight the war. The Indian tribes were quick to take advantage of the situation, and a series of depredations and massacres of whole families of the settlers ensued. The Dakota (Sioux) Indian outbreak in Minnesota in the latter part of August and in September, 1862, (the Minnesota Massacre of 1862) which killed over 800 settlers and sent a resounding alarm to the settlers in Webster County all the way up to the Minnesota border. The Sioux continued to attack settlements in Minnesota and along the Iowa border almost every week, keeping up a constant alarm among the people. It is estimated that over five thousand persons had left their homes and all of their property, causing immense loss and suffering. It became evident that the Sioux could not be subdued by the forces then operating against them, and that adequate protection could not be furnished to the settlers, without the establishment of a regularly organized body of state troops and the erection of a chain of defenses along the Iowa frontier. For a time it seemed that there was no safety for any of those hardy pioneers, and that they must all be either driven from their homes or share the fate of those who had already met death at the hands of the Indians. The greatly alarmed the citizens sent numerous appeals for aid and protection to the governors of Iowa and Minnesota, and they responded quickly by organizing the Northern Brigade and commissioning companies of militia into service in Fort Dodge, Webster City, Denison and Sioux City. A force of 250 mounted men, well-armed and equipped, cooperated with the cavalry forces already operating against the hostile tribes of Indians to provide protection for the settlers. While the danger from attack was not so great as it had been before these precautions were taken, the fact remained that the number of Sioux Indian warriors then engaged in hostilities far exceeded the number of troops. In spite of the disparity in numbers, the splendid troops displayed bravery and a keen understanding of how to fight hostile Sioux Indians and defeated the Indians in several pitched battles, and drove them far beyond the frontier. The Sioux Indians were the last Indians to leave Iowa. After the Spirit Lake Massacre and following the Minnesota Massacre in 1862, it was not safe to be known as a member of the Sioux. It was very difficult for any Sioux to establish innocence, so the bands broke up and were assimilated by other western groups until they completely lost their original identity. The Sioux moved westward into the Dakotas leaving the state of Iowa and their Iowa history behind. Sources: *The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County Iowa… Volume 1 *Legends of American – Native Peoples of Iowa
*Iowa History Project – The Making of Iowa – Chapter VI…. Iowa’s Indians *“First People of the Prairies,” The Iowa Heritage: Program # 1, Iowa Public Television

The Military Post

In the late 1840’s the settlers in Boone County petitioned the United States Senate and the House of Representatives for protection and to establish a military post somewhere on the Des Moines River at or about the Lizard Forks. The purpose of the petition was to provide security from the Indians and to attract settlers to the area.

On May 31st, 1850, the War Department responded. The Secretary of War, George W. Crawford, ordered a company of Infantry to establish a post in the area for the protection of frontier settlements and to maintain peace and order between the Sioux, Sac and Fox Indian tribes and to stop the harassment by small bands of Indians who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the white settlements.

On July 14th, 1850, Brevet Brigadier General Clarke, commander of the Sixth military department, assigned Brevet Major Samuel Wood(s) and soldiers of the Company E of the 6th United States infantry to proceed with the construction of a military post. The military leaders discovered an area of high ground at the confluence of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek, the eventual site of the future post. The new post would be developed in the area, which is present-day Fort Dodge. This area was rich with timber, stone and nearby springs. There was plenty of game as well including deer, bison, elk, cougar, wolves, and coyotes. Smaller game was also abundant such as geese, turkey, ducks and swan. The nearby river and streams provided a wealth of fish. These resources made the Fort Dodge area very popular for hunting and trapping by the soldiers and the settlers coming to the area.

Second in command, Brevet Major Lewis Armistead recruited civilian laborers to construct the military post. Later that same year, the military post was completed and commissioned Fort Clarke, in honor of Brevet Brigadier General Clark. On June 25, 1851, by order of Armistead’s commanding officer, Major General Winfield Scott, the fort was renamed Fort Dodge, in honor of Colonel Henry Dodge who was the United States Senator of the Wisconsin Territory and founder of the Dragoons. The name change also was due to the fact that there were several other forts operating under the name of Clark or Clarke, which caused confusion in forwarding mail and supplies.

Immediately upon receipt of this order at Fort Snelling, Major Samuel Woods and Company E of the 6th Infantry, which was composed of two officers and 66 men, broke camp and proceeded to the point designated. Upon arrival on August 2, 1850, the company established a military post named. As the men explored the area, they discovered that only a handful of white men were living in the northern part of Iowa. Once the military post was established additional troops came to the fort. The Garrison was generally composed of one hundred twenty to one hundred thirty men, besides women and children. One hundred of the men were veterans who had just returned from the Mexican War, after having distinguished themselves there. About one-half of their number was Irishmen, one-fourth Germans, and the remaining fourth composed of Americans and Englishmen. Amongst the rank and file of the detachments there were many young men who had fine educations (classical scholars some of them).

Contrary to the popular concept of a frontier post, Fort Dodge did not have a stockade surrounding its buildings. It was constructed more like a frontier town, with buildings on the north side of Williams Street, renamed First Avenue North in 1894, and extended from the Front Street to Sixth Street, now known as Second Street and Seventh Street, respectively. The Fort Dodge post consisted of 21 buildings and its function was to serve as a police force covering all of the territory west of the Des Moines River. At no time was the company involved in any significant military action. In 1850, Major William Williams was assigned the post of sutler (civilian merchant) at Fort Dodge. The post was not very lucrative but did hold promise of greater future opportunities on the rapidly growing frontier. The total cost of building the first buildings was $7,342 which included the cost of labor and building materials.

Building the Military Post - Major L. A. Armistead, the Quarter Master, as soon as possible, brought on and put in motion a steam saw mill, also brought on a number of citizen mechanics, carpenters, masons, brickmakers from Keokuk and other Mississippi towns, there being but a few mechanics amongst the troops. The first three months all were employed very diligently at work. Great efforts were made to have the buildings up and habitable before the winter set in. They succeeded in putting up twelve of the buildings and making them habitable by the middle of November by putting on temporary roofs (clapboard). The 20th of November of 1850, they struck their tents and took possession of the buildings. The following season the balance of the buildings, twenty-one in all, were put up and finished.

Front Street – Starting with the west end of the post, at the foot of First Avenue North at about Second Street, the buildings started down at the foot of the hill toward the river. The first building at the foot of the hill was a theatre building which the soldiers erected for performances by a theatrical troupe formed by the soldiers. Between Second and Third Streets there were four houses for soldiers with families. South of this area, approximately one block, was the sutler’s store.

Third Street – On the corner of Third street and First Avenue North stood the commissary building with the quartermaster and sergeant offices. To the north of the commissary on the top of the hill were the laundry house, blacksmith shop, and coal house. Also in the vicinity north of the commissary were the carpentry shop and lumber drying shed. To the north and along Soldier’s Creek were the garrison stables, corn cribs, and a large stockade that served the dual purpose of a shed for livestock and a refuge in case of attack by the Indians. Between Third and Fourth Street, next to the commissary, stood a small hospital, which later became the first store in Fort Dodge operated by James Williams, Major Williams’ son who moved with his father to Fort Dodge from Muscatine in 1850. Eventually, the first Fort Dodge newspaper, The Sentinel, was printed in the building. Beside this hospital was built the "Sons of Temperance Hall.' This building was used by the soldiers for temperance lectures and it was also used as a chapel. The surgeon’s quarters were east of the hall.

Fourth Street – To the east of the temperance hall and up the hill was located the bakery. The general quarters for the men with a mess room and kitchen attached were built to the east of this. Beside it was built the guard house and next to it, the adjutant's house. This house was later occupied by Chris Arnold, the first barber. The two-story general barracks, with a mess room and kitchen, were constructed at Fourth Street and First Avenue North. In later years, it became the Wahkonsa House, the town’s first hotel. The former Wahkonsa School building stood on this land. To the north of the barracks was the guard house.

Fifth Street – Farther east on First Avenue North were quarters for three officers: Major L.A. Armistead, Lieutenant Stubbs, and Lieutenant L.S. Corley. Next was the living quarters of the commanding officer, Major Samuel Woods. After the troops left in 1853 to establish Fort Ridgley, his quarters became the homestead of Major Williams.

Sixth Street – The home that Williams occupied at Sixth Street and First Avenue North became his son James’ home, after the troop’s departure. This site is now the location of Frontier Communications. The civilian blacksmith’s home was north of this area, approximately where the Salvation Army is now located.

In addition to the buildings mentioned above, there were sentry boxes and root houses at various locations and a steam saw mill, dwelling house, and stable on the bank of the Des Moines River opposite the Lizard. In addition, an ice house sat below the mouth of the Lizard on the east side of the river. The post’s parade grounds ran from the west side of what is now the City Square to Sixth Street between First Avenue North and South. To the east of Corpus Christi Church were the officer’s gardens.

In the spring of 1851, under the regulations of the Army, requiring the troops stationed at outposts or frontier posts to raise their necessary supplies of corn, oats and vegetables, the men were detailed for farming purposes and they commenced fencing and breaking up land for farming. The flag staff stood near the Mound on the west side of what is now laid out as the Public Square. The parade grounds were in front of the line of buildings extending from Sixth street to Third street. In the spring of 1851, the officers brought on their wives and families who had remained at Fort Snelling till the buildings were up and ready for their reception.

After the quarters were finished and the officers' families arrived, the residents of the fort had, although limited, very pleasant society. The ladies enjoyed themselves very much as they had just enough to form a cotillion; Mrs. Woods, Mrs. Stelle, her sister, Mrs. Barney and Mrs. Keeny, the wives and relatives of the officers. They could command excellent music and scarcely an evening passed without all being congregated at some one of their quarters enjoying themselves in dancing or playing chess and euchre.

The soldiers got up a theatric troupe and provided some excellent performances. There were two or three artists amongst them who painted excellent and appropriate scenery. Many of them were young men of talent and performed well. The officers and ladies attended their performances and saw that good order was observed. The men were very much indulged in the enjoyments of any amusements when it did not interfere with their duty. Strict discipline was always observed and enforced.

By 1853, most of the Indians had moved on and there was little activity for the troops to monitor. During this time, the California Gold Rush was at its peak and the allure of fortune caused the desertions of 33 soldiers from Fort Dodge. On March 30, 1853, General Clarke ordered Fort Dodge to be disbanded. He directed the remaining soldiers north to Fort Leavenworth and later established Fort Ridgely in Minnesota, where attacks by Indians were more frequent. On June 2, 1853, the flag located on the west side of what later became the City Square, near the site of the current Fort Dodge Public Library, was lowered and the military post in Fort Dodge was abandoned.

Most of the post’s buildings were sold at a public sale, with the principal purchaser being William Williams, the post-trader and postmaster who remained at the site. In 1854, he purchased the buildings and platted the town of Fort Dodge. The commissary became the United States Land Office on November 5, 1855. Several young men, who were seeking a place to establish businesses, moved to Fort Dodge and by the fall of 1856, Fort Dodge was becoming a thriving western village.

*Webster County Historical Society… Roger Natte
*The Early History of Fort Dodge… William Williams
*Fort Dodge Today Magazine– May 1995…. Beth Buehler
*The Full History of Fort Dodge and Webster County Iowa

The Spirit Lake Massacre

Spirit Lake Massacre This article was written by Susan J. Michno and originally

appeared in the February 2006 issue of Wild Westmagazine.

Published by Historynet.com

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 Chief Sidominadotah and Sidominadotah’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 Burkley, took Sidominadotah’s scull and skewered it on a pole over his house in a gross act of contempt. Lott was never found, and justice was never served. (Read more about Henry Lott under the Iconic People section of this website).

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 2:00 PM 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 killed. 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.’


*February 2006 issue of Wild West magazine. Published by Historynet.com

*Thomas Teakle - THE SPIRIT LAKE MASSACREIowa City, Iowa, The State Historical Society 1918

Additional articles on the Spirit Lake Massacre

*Chapter XI…. The Early History of Fort Dodge and Webster County…. by William Williams

*Chapter XVIII… The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County…. by H.M. Pratt

The Dragoon Regiment & March Across Iowa

The Dragoon Regiment and March Across Iowa

During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), Continental forces patterned cavalry units after those of the opposing British forces, especially the well-supplied mounted dragoons of the King's Army (British Army). The first cavalry unit formed by the Congress of the United States of America was a squadron of four troops (the Squadron of Light Dragoons) commanded by Major Michael Rudolph on March 5, 1792. In 1802 the dragoons were disbanded.

In 1808 the Regiment of Light Dragoons was formed and in 1812 another regiment (2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons) was raised. Units of both regiments of dragoons served during the War of 1812. The 1st Regiment and 2nd Regiment were consolidated in 1814 into the single Regiment of Light Dragoons of eight troops. This regiment was ultimately dissolved in 1815 due to military cost cutting efforts by the U.S. Congress.

Seventeen years later, on March 2, 1833, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill creating a new armed force called the Dragoons. This armed force consisted of groups of uniformed soldiers which patrolled on horseback across the frontier. Some of the Dragoons’ duties consisted of keeping peace between Indian tribes, keeping European poachers off Indian lands, building and maintaining paths/roads, and occasionally mapping and exploring uncharted areas of Iowa.

The 1st United States Dragoons was composed of soldiers who could ride to battle and fight either on horse or on foot. As this was the only mounted force at the time, it functioned as cavalry without the name. This was an elite unit, recruited from a better class than the rest of the Army, throughout the different states.

The first order announcing appointments in the regiment gave the names of the colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, four captains and four lieutenants, stating that the organization of the regiment would be perfected by the selection of officers from the "Battalion of Mounted Rangers." In June 1834, the regiment filled its complement of officers, many of whom later became noted Civil War generals. The size of the U.S. Regiment of dragoons was fixed at 34 officers and 1,715 men.

Recognized as an outstanding military leader, Major Henry Dodge was appointed Colonel in command of the United States Regiment of Dragoons in 1833. This Regiment of Dragoons was the first mounted Regular Army unit in United States Army history. One of Dodge’s captains was Nathan Boone, Daniel Boone's youngest son. Out of respect for Dodge’s military leadership and because he was the territorial governor over the Iowa territory until Iowa became a state in 1846, the Fort Dodge military post (Fort Clark) was renamed Fort Dodge in 1851.

The March Up And Back Down The Des Moines River Valley

In Iowa, one of these explorations was organized to map the area between the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kearny, Captain Nathan Boone (tenth child of Daniel Boone), Lieutenants Albert Lea (whom Albert Lea, Minnesota, is named for), and H.S. Tanner commanded three companies of approximately 170 men across “Indian Country.” Lt. Lea (cartographer for the party) drew maps and kept a journal.

In 1835, The United States dragoons marched up the Des Moines river valley and across Iowa, starting from the old Fort Des Moines in Lee county. The Dragoons mission was to map the area and gather information on the topography, inhabitants, and the natural resources to establish a future military posts along the Des Moines River. It was also to establish a treaty with Wabasha, an important Sioux Indian chief whose village was located near the present city of Winona, Minnesota. Under the command of Colonel Stephen Kearny, the expedition consisted of three companies of the First Regiment of Dragoons. The company commanders were Capt. Nathan Boone, Capt. E. V. Sumner, and Lieutenant Albert M. Lea.

Lieutenant Albert M. Lea was both a soldier and a civil engineer professionally. Albert Lea, Minnesota is named after him, and the expedition from old Fort Des Moines (at Keokuk, Iowa) in 1835 was one of two expeditions across the state in which he participated. He kept a diary of the expedition this article covers and afterwards wrote a small book describing Iowa and his experiences.

In 1835, old Fort Des Moines, in the extreme southeastern comer of the state, was on the fringe of Iowa civilization, and the territory traversed by the dragoons on this trip was entirely unsettled by whites except by a few trappers and an occasional white renegade. It is noticeable that Lieutenant Lea's day-by-day diary makes no mention whatever of meeting white men on the entire trip except while at Wabasha's village in Minnesota. He did, however, frequently refer to small bands of Indians which the expedition contacted. The route of the expedition followed the divide between the Des Moines and Skunk rivers, taking advantage of the terrain.

The three companies represented a body of 300 men, and in addition a small group of Indians numbering six to eight, who went along as guides, scouts and hunters. They of course carried in wagons and on pack animals all the accoutrements necessary for an extensive military expedition, and a large quantity of such necessary foods as flour, salt, etc. Each company organization included cooks and kitchen equipment as a fundamental military requirement. They expected to find an abundance of game along the way, and from Lieutenant Lea's diary these expectations were fully realized. However, the diary discloses that on the return trip they ran out of flour, salt, and pork. Anyone who lived in Iowa before tiling and other improvements will have no trouble in realizing that such an expedition as this would find the going difficult at times. Lieutenant Lea's diary shows that some days they made but four miles; on others, they made twenty-six miles.

The expedition left old Fort Des Moines on June 7, 1835. The distance to Wabasha's village was approximately 400 miles, and they made the journey in forty-five days, arriving July 8. The first week it rained incessantly, and the force made no great progress. On June 14 they passed Keokuk's village on the Des Moines river "a few miles to our left," and came up through the corner of what is now Jasper county about the site of the present city of Colfax. On June 21 they camped in what is now northern Boone county near what is locally known as Mineral Ridge, close to the edge of the timber extending out from the Des Moines river. On the twenty-third day they reached the vicinity of the mouth of Boone river, in what is now Hamilton county, and from there took a northeasterly course to Wabasha's village. On July 8 they established a camp on the prairie adjacent to their destination and remained there until July 21. They changed their camp every day or two to obtain changes in pastures and possibly for sanitary reasons, but always near the Indian village. On July 9 about thirty Sioux Indiana came out to visit them; then for several days but a very few made their appearance. However, on July 18 the situation changed. On that date Lieutenant Lea recorded the observation, "Expect to hold a treaty with them tomorrow." His judgment was justified the next day when Wabasha himself accompanied by his chief men entered the dragoons' camp, and with the usual deliberateness which characterized an Indian conference, concluded the treaty.

The command did not delay much after that. The following day they traveled only a half a mile, but got everything ready to move on the twenty-first. The next day they marched twenty-five miles. The dragoons were not much impressed with the Sioux. Lea said "They are mostly a dirty, thieving race, living in the most abominable filth." In comparing them with the Sac and Fox, he declared the latter "cleanly and decent in appearance."

The expedition took a different course on the return trip. They marched a westerly way across southern Minnesota, and around July 29, they crossed through an area of what is now Albert Lea, Minnesota. The following day they ran across a body of Indians, and from them learned that they had been following the St. Peter river, thinking it was the Iowa. Thus they discovered they were no nearer their home destination than they were at Wabasha's village over on the Mississippi.

After getting their geography straightened out, they found their way around the lake and traveled south and west until after crossing the west fork of the Des Moines river near the southeast corner of Palo Alto county. It is here where the dragoons encounter hostile Indians and engaged them in battle with the Sioux. After the Sioux retreated and moved on, the dragoons continued marching south on the west side of the Des Moines river. While traversing down the Des Moines River, the Dragoons discovered an area of high ground at the confluence of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek, the eventual site of a new post would be developed in the area, which is present-day Fort Dodge/Webster County. This area was rich with timber, stone and nearby springs. There was plenty of game as well including deer, bison, elk, cougar, wolves, and coyotes. Smaller game was also abundant such as geese, turkey, ducks and swan. The nearby river and streams provided a wealth of fish. (These resources made the Fort Dodge area very popular for hunting and trapping by the Indians and for the soldiers and settlers coming to the area around 1850. Although the force spent only one night at this location, the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938 dedicated a plaque in commemoration of the event. The plaque is now located on the grounds of the Fort Museum in Fort Dodge.)

Continuing the travel down the Des Moines River, the Dragoons reached the juncture of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers where the city of Des Moines is now located on August 8. On the next day Colonel Kearny made investigation of the availability of the locality for a fort. The colonel was anxious to complete his task as quickly as possible, because rations were getting scarce. For several days the troops had been on half-rations so far as flour and meat were concerned. So, on the morning of August 10 the troops crossed over the Raccoon river and the same day marched fifteen miles. On the fifteenth they came to Appanoose or Iowa town on the right bank of the Des Moines, and on the 16th crossed the Des Moines river and visited Keokuk's town. The Indians at both villages were "apparently living in comfort and neatness, and growing in wealth." On August 19 they reached Fort Des Moines, happy and contented to be back to their quarters again. The expedition had required almost three months and was made without the loss of life or serious discomfort. There had been no serious sickness among the men and on the whole the expedition provided a pleasant adventure.

One important result of the expedition was that of extending a knowledge of what is now the state of Iowa —"Beautiful Land." Just what the treaty with Wabasha really amounted to is unknown. The treaty, like hundreds of others, probably now rests in the archives of our national government.

In all probability it was simply a part of the over-all strategy to preserve peace along the frontier. Possibly one of the objectives of the whole expedition was in a general sense to impress the Indians with the power of the Great White Father. The presence of 300 or more troops, well equipped and disciplined, marching in order through Indian land must have had that effect. On the way they passed through much of the territory owned by the Sac and Fox tribes and into the domain of the Sioux, crossing the neutral territory in route. On the way they met a number of bands of Indians, and probably long before they had reached their destination news of their march had spread widely and aroused much speculation. The fact that food—particularly meat—was scarce on the last leg of the expedition leads to the supposition that game was more plentiful in the northern portion of the state. In the north central section of the state they saw for the first time a herd of buffalo, and the soldiers joined in a buffalo hunt. They also killed a large number of deer and at least one elk.

The march of the dragoons across Iowa in 1835 was just one of the incidents affecting the future of the various tribes of Indians who called the prairies of the central west their home. The Sac and Fox tribe originally held sway over most of Iowa and the northern half of Missouri. They ranged up and down the rivers of Missouri and Iowa, and claimed as their own the territory north of the Missouri river up to the northern part of Iowa.

The constant pressure upon the territory occupied by the Indians provided a problem for the federal government which could not be met. The various forts which were established up and down the Des Moines river valley and elsewhere in the state were originally as much for the purpose of restraining whites from molesting the Indians, as they were to provide protection for the whites. The utmost vigilance on the part of the Indian commissioners and the soldiers could not keep away the white adventurers. About the time of the Black Hawk purchase those in authority at Washington arrived at the conclusion that the region west of the Missouri river was uninhabitable for white men, but inasmuch as it abounded with game it was almost providentially designed to be the permanent home for the Indians. One of the last official acts of President Monroe was to urge congress to make provisions taking advantage of this benign situation.

Of the Iowa Indians the Sac and Fox were the first to experience the results of this national] policy. In October, 1842, only around ten years after they had been assured of central Iowa as a hunting ground "so long as grass grows and waters run," the leaders of the tribe once more bowed their heads to the will of the White Father's government, ceded away their title to all their remaining lands in Iowa, and agreed to move beyond the Missouri. The agreement was made at Agency, near the present city of Ottumwa. The treaty was to become effective October 11, 1845, By that date Chief Keokuk and a majority of his hunters and warriors had bidden good-bye to the land they unquestionably loved, and had moved westward on their new journey to their new home near Ottawa, Kansas, where they built a new village. They never got over their love for Iowa. Not all the Indians obeyed the terms of the treaty. Bands of them, refusing to go, fled northward up the Des Moines river valley hunting and fishing.

The second company of Dragoons to explore Iowa was led by Captain James Allen in 1844.The primary purpose for this journey was to reach the source of the Des Moines River andexplore modern day southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. They, like Albert Lea’s group, traveled up the Des Moines River. However, this company left from Fort Des Moines, present day Des Moines. This company followed the Des Moines River north, (passing through the current Fort Dodge area) until they reached its source at Lake Shetek in southwestern Minnesota.

Who Were the Dragoons

The dragoons were a unique breed of soldier. They were a mounted arm of the U.S. Army but were neither cavalry nor mounted infantry. The cavalry were trained to fight from the saddle primarily utilizing the saber, and the mounted infantry used horses as transportation but fought as infantry on foot. The dragoons stressed the ability to fight either in the saddle or on foot. Dexterity, versatility and audacity were the watchwords of the dragoons. Armed with carbine, pistol, and saber, the dragoons were ideally suited to plains' warfare against the American Indian. The 2nd U.S. Dragoons were some of the best of a hardy lot with a reputation of being rowdy, insubordinate, yet, tough, no-nonsense fighters.

For recreation the troops diverted themselves with music; the original regiment had men who brought along their fiddles, clarinets, and banjos. Added to this were the bugle and drums of the Army, and in time a Regimental Band formed that played on ceremonial and social occasions including parades and balls. The dragoons were also noted for their dramatic groups which formed and presented plays at the forts at which they were stationed.

One activity that the Army very much wished to discourage was drinking. Young, American men at the time were inclined toward heavy alcohol use. Among the class from which the enlisted troops were recruited, this usually meant an habituation to whiskey. The Dragoons were no exception in this regard. The troops were often clever in figuring out how to get whiskey, despite it being illegal both on post and in the Indian territory. Everywhere the Dragoons went, there were unscrupulous civilians willing to sell or trade whiskey with the soldiers. Colonel Kearney nearly got into trouble for wiping out some of the "dram shops" that were undermining discipline at Fort Dodge Des Moines. The high command of the Army, the surgeons, the officers, and even the men themselves all agreed that alcohol was the major cause of discipline problems, filling the guard house with defiant soldiers and inspiring desertions. The surgeons even attributed excessive drinking as the cause for the majority of injuries and ailments among the troops.

Desertion was always a challenge for the Dragoons as well, not only because of the rules against drinking, but also because the troops would get bored; many would desert to pursue what they felt were better economic opportunities for them in the untamed west territory including the gold rush to California.

Disease was also a constant in the lives of the enlisted men. Far more Dragoons died of disease than of accidents or hostile action with Indians. Relations with the Indian nations were for the most part peaceful. The very presence of the Dragoons tended to prevent hostilities. Cholera and malaria were entirely more hostile and deadly than the Indians.

In 1861, the two existing U.S. Dragoon regiments were re-designated as the 1st and 2nd Cavalry. This reorganization did not affect their role or equipment, although the traditional orange uniform braiding of the dragoons was replaced by the standard yellow of the Cavalry branch. This marked the official end of dragoons in the U.S. Army.

(Note: In 1933, the State of Iowa opened the Dragoon Trail, a scenic and historic drive that follows the path of the historic march of the 1st United States. The Trail is about 200 miles long and passes cultural, historical, natural and scenic attractions including Lake Red Rock, Ledges State Park, the Kate Shelley High Bridge and Dolliver Memorial Park.

Site Marker No. 12

Marker No. 12 located at the Fort Dodge Museum in Fort Dodge

Dragoon Trail Historical
Site Marker No. 12


*The Annals of Iowa - Volume 27/Number 2 - The March of the Dragoons

*Corridors of Exploration – Iowa’s Rivers: Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 2003

*Historical Marker Database… Dragoon Trail Historical Site Marker No. 12


The Pioneer Business of Early Fort Dodge

The Pioneer Businesses of Early Fort Dodge

William Williams is recognized as the pioneer founder of the fledgling frontier town of Fort Dodge. In 1853, after the troops left the military post, Major William Williams remained at the post and with the financial assistance from Jesse Williams, a banker and land speculator from Fairfield, Iowa, Williams purchased the abandoned military reservation, organized the Fort Dodge Town Company, and platted the town.

In 1854, numbers of people started coming to Fort Dodge seeking a place to establish themselves in business. Several people with families bought lots and commenced building new businesses. By 1855, a post office had been established in the frontier village of Fort Dodge. By the fall of 1856, Fort Dodge began to take on the appearance of a thriving western village. With the establishment of a United States land office in Fort Dodge in 1855, in addition to the natural resources of area, many settles were attracted to the region with the purpose of claiming land. The immense beauty and rich fertility of the new country proved to be an attractive enticement to pioneer settlers. People in the Fort Dodge region were highly pleased with the location. Blessed with fine groves of timber, pure springs of water and rippling streams, combined with the appearance of coal, gypsum and other minerals and enchanting scenery, the area around Fort Dodge was highly regarded and caused many to pronounce it the most beautiful part of Iowa they had ever seen.

The First Businesses in Fort Dodge

In the early spring of 1855, Major William Williams, who was at that time was the civilian merchant (sutler) to the United States troops stationed at military post (Fort Dodge), opened a grocery store in the block just west of where the former Wahkonsa school was located on 1st Avenue North and 3rd Street. His first clerk was George B. Sherman, who began working for him on April l0th and continued in his employ for three months. Mr. Sherman then began to build a store for himself. James B. Williams, the son of William Williams, helped in his father's store. When his father was appointed postmaster, James took entire charge of the store. When the Civil war broke out, the young storekeeper, James B. Williams, answered the call for volunteers, and became first sergeant of Company I of the Thirty-second Iowa Volunteer Infantry. When he returned home after the war, he did not return to the mercantile business, but opened the first abstract office in Fort Dodge and continued in this work until his death.

The stock of the first store was by no means an exclusive grocery stock, but was made up of a general merchandise stock. In addition to the staple provisions, there was calico, muslin and denim cloth for clothing, a few tools and hardware, some household utensils, and a little patent medicine. There was but little ready-made clothing.

There were no clothing stores to go to in those days, so the thrifty housewives made not only their own clothing, but those of the family. Some even wove their own cloth and spun the yarn of making the stockings and mittens. Fur used for caps and other articles of apparel was procured by trapping, for the woods were full of small fur-bearing animals. Beaver, otter, coon, fox and muskrat were found in abundance, while deer, bear and wolf were not uncommon. All the merchandise kept in stock was freighted from Keokuk, which was at that time the nearest railroad point. The freight was three cents a pound, and there was no interstate commerce commission to adjust rates. When to this was added the railroad charges, even the staple articles of food came expensive, and necessities became luxuries.

The nearest grist mills where flour and meal could be obtained were Oskaloosa and Des Moines. A trip to the mill took two weeks under the most favorable circumstances. In bad weather the time was even longer. During the severe winters of 1855 and 1856, when going to the mill was well near impossible, and the cold piercing winds and drifting snow prevented even the most courageous from venturing any distance from home, the old coffee mill on the shelf was made to do double duty. The corn for johnny cake and corn pone was shelled and ground in the old mill. Corn was ground not only for meal, but was also used as a substitute for coffee. This coffee substitute was used because coffee beans were scarce and considered a luxury, not to be used every day.

One of the pioneers in speaking of those early days said, "There wasn't much style put on in those days. Comfort took its place. There were no fancy fixings like bouillon, salads and ices. A few slices of steak from a saddle of venison fried in the fireplace, some hot cornbread, some molasses from the jug under the kitchen table, some corn coffee piping hot, sufficed our needs.

With such a meal, we soon forgot the fatigue of the day's hard work. It cost $9.00 to have a barrel of salt hauled from Keokuk to Fort Dodge. This made it necessary to retail it at five cents a pound in order to come out even. Sugar sold at eight pounds for the dollar. Even green coffee cost thirty cents a pound. This we took home and roasted before grinding. There was no grind it please request to the grocer in those days. We were glad enough to get it green. .And there was no cooperative delivery either. When the molasses jug was empty we took it to the store ourselves to get it filled. We usually had a piece of stout cord, or rope run through the handle of the jug, and thus we carried it suspended from the shoulder; sometimes we poked a stout stick through the handle and carried it over our shoulder. Flour cost $10.00 a sack, and not guaranteed at that. Corn meal sold at $1.50 a hundred pounds."

After George B. Sherman left the employ of Major Williams, he and X. B. Morrison formed a partnership, and erected a store building for their use. This was the first store building after the town was laid out. It was finished in the fall of 1855. The work of getting out the logs and hauling them to the watermill was begun in the month of August. The soldiers at the fort had brought

with them sufficient equipment for a small sawmill. With the river to supply the power, (quite a quantity of lumber was sawed for buildings. The store was completed in November, 1855, and in December of the same year, the firm of Sherman & Morrison began business. They had a general merchandise stock which would probably have invoiced at $1,500.

The next firm to go into business was Dawley & Woodbury in 1856. They occupied the first brick store ever built in Fort Dodge. This building was on Sixth Street, but did not prove to be a successful venture. In the fall of 1857, Ab Taylor purchased the stock, and continued the business as a general merchandise store.

While not an early storekeeper, yet in the mercantile life of the city, D. V. Prindle played an important part. Coming to Fort Dodge in 1854, he helped build the first store building. He then engaged in the business of freighting, hauling goods from Muscatine and other railroad points until 1857. Years later he engaged in the grain business, as the successor to Colonel Leander Planden.

The Prusia hardware store was the earliest of its kind. In 1855 E. E. Prusia came to Fort Dodge, and in partnership with his step-father, George Klinedob, started a tin shop in a little slab shanty on Williams street. Mr. Prusia continued the business for many years.

Two new mercantile establishments were added to Fort Dodge in 1856. John Haire started a grocery store, which he ran for several years, later going into the clothing business.

In 1856, Charles Rank opened up the first bakery. He managed the business for four years and then later engaged in the dry goods business. He eventually a opened a shoe business.

A few years later, Jacob Schmoll, also a pioneer baker, started a bakery in the building now originally used by the Conway cigar store.

The first drug store was in a building on the site of Frank Gates & Son dry goods store and was run by James Swain. Later he moved to a building that stood where the Fort Dodge National Bank was located. Mr. O. M. Oleson, when he first came to Fort Dodge, worked as a pharmacist for Mr. Swain.

G. V. Patterson was one of the early contractors who came to Fort Dodge in 1855. The first brick schoolhouse was built under his direction. He was the architect of the old St. Charles hotel which was built in 1857. Later, Mr. Patterson opened a restaurant.

Anson V. Lambert, another pioneer builder who came to Fort Dodge in 1857, drew the designs for the first courthouse.

Air. F. J. Gunther, a brick mason, a pioneer of 1855, worked on the first brick store building in Fort Dodge.

Another pioneer contractor was John O'Loughlin, Sr., who came to the city in 1856. Mr. O'Loughlin's home in Fort Dodge is built of the native gypsum rock. He not only laid the walls, but also quarried the gypsum and cut the stone. It took him five years to complete the task.

Samuel Todd came to Fort Dodge in 1856 with a steam engine and sawmill machinery, the first engine used in northwestern Iowa, except a small one used by the government for sawing lumber for the fort buildings. His mill was located on the south side of town, where he operated it until 1864.

Walter Goodrich came to what is now Lehigh, October 7, 1855. He was a jack of all trades and a man of exceptional ability along mechanical lines, and during his early residence here followed various occupations. As a cabinet maker and carpenter he manufactured furniture, "looms, spinning wheels and wagons and built houses for the early settlers. As a blacksmith he made their tools, sharpened their plows and shod their horses and oxen ; and as a cooper he made

tubs and barrels in his shop. He also manufactured coffins and caskets and did a general undertaking business. He did some dentistry, and although he did not practice medicine he doctored his neighbors with simple remedies when they were ill. Walter Goodrich was a preacher and untiring worker in the Methodist Episcopal church, and attended to the spiritual wants of the people as well as their physical necessities.

Mr. John Parsons, who came in the spring of 1856, established the first blacksmith shop, except for the one owned by the government while the troops were stationed here. He also operated one of the first brick plants in Fort Dodge for several years.

One of the early carpenters was Israel Jenkins, who came to Fort Dodge in 1857. He took the contract of building the first house on the county poor farm, and which was let by the board of supervisors in 1873.

The first harness shop was opened in 1857 by P. R. Baldwin in the old commissary building of the fort. He remained in business until 1861, when he enlisted in the army and served through the Civil war. Returning to Fort Dodge, in 1870, Baldwin entered the agricultural implement business locating on the west side of the public square. He had the first agency in this part of Iowa for the sale of the McCormick reaper.

Christopher Arnold opened the first barber shop in 1857. He was a native of Germany. He came to Fort Dodge and opened a barber shop in a small room on Williams street between Second and Third streets.

Mr. A. J. Haviland was the pioneer nurseryman of not only northwestern Iowa, but also of all the country beyond. His nursery was established in 1857, and for a long time was the only one in this section of Iowa. Mr. Haviland served as president and board member of the State Horticultural Society. A.J. Haviland continued in the retail business until the time of his death. His son, V. C. Haviland, under the firm name of Bardwell 8: Haviland continued the business. The firm had two plants, one in Humboldt County and the one in Webster county, between the two, the business managed 500 acres of land.

The first lumber yard was that of Keefer, Blanden & Norton, which was established in 1858. In those days the most of the lumber was hauled from Iowa Falls to Boone. Another pioneer lumber merchant was J. O. Slauson, who opened a lumber yard in 1868.

The earliest real estate men were Ben Grayson, who came to Fort Dodge, October 18, 1855, and L. M. Olcott, who came in 1856, Olcott later became county judge.

The first livery was run by a Mr. Halleck. In those days, the top buggy with the spring seats was a sign of luxury that few could afford. .

The first jewelry store was run by a man named Anskins. While perhaps not the first, Leisenrings photograph gallery near the public square was one of the earliest.

The first clothing store was opened by David Fessler, in 1858, in the land office building, in a room twelve feet wide and fourteen feet long. Mr. Fessler stayed there six months, and then moved his clothing stock to a building near the courthouse, owned by Henry Burkholder. In 1872, he built the brick block, which was known as the Fessler Opera House block. He continued his business at this location Here he continued in business until his death.

The Laufersweiler furniture store was the earliest of its kind. Conrad Laufersweiler came to Fort Dodge on the "Charlie Rogers,'' in the spring of 1858. He brought with him a small stock of furniture consisting of a few beds, and some chairs and cupboards. This stock was placed in a small room which he rented, and which had been built for an office, having been occupied by the Strow brothers as a law office. It was eighteen feet wide and thirty feet long, and was located where the Messenger building now stands. He used the front part for a store room and the rear for his work shop. Mr. Laufersweiler made all his furniture himself, out of black walnut lumber, and afterwards exchanged the furniture for more lumber. Coffins were also made out of the same kind of wood.

The earliest brick-maker was Henry A. Piatt. Upon coming here in 1858, he started a kiln just below the old Bradshaw plant. Later he engaged in the grocery business for some twenty-five years at the corner of Fifth street and Central avenue, just south of the public square park.

Jacob Brown, Sr., claims the distinction of being the oldest continuous grocer in business in Fort Dodge. Mr. Brown started in the grocery business on the second day of November, 1877, at his present location, on South Sixth street, and has continued in business ever since. Previous to that time, he had a blacksmith shop, on the same site, which he started in 1868.

"Honest" John Thissell who first ran a hotel in the old barracks, opened his grocery store in 1866 and continued in the same location until 1883, when he retired on account of poor health.

The firm of Furlong & Mulroney began business in 1865 in a wooden building on the site of the building used by McIntire and Mallon as a grocery. This building was later torn down and the present brick structure erected. In 1875, Mr. Mulroney purchased his partner's interest. Mr. Furlong later went into business on the east side of the pubic square, establishing the firm of Furlong & Brennan.

The earliest brick-maker was Henry A. Piatt. Upon coming to Fort Dodge in 1858, he started a kiln just below the old Bradshaw plant. Later he engaged in the grocery business for some twenty-five years at the corner of Fifth street and Central avenue, just south of the public square park.

D. M. Crosby was the pioneer shoemaker and started the first boot and shoe store in Fort Dodge.

Major Elliot E. Colburn, came to Fort Dodge in 1855, in company with Messrs. Booth and Kavanagh. Major Colburn preempted a half section of land, on the west bank of the Des Moines river, where he lived for four years. Mr. Colburn opened the first coal mine in Webster county in 1856.

After service in the army in the Civil War, Colburn returned to Fort Dodge in 1866. He then began laying out of West Fort Dodge. He then undertook the development of the coal mines on the west bank of the Des Moines river.

Another early miner was Silas Corey, Sr., who came to Webster County in 1862 and located on a farm on Holiday creek in Pleasant Valley township, six miles down the river from Fort Dodge. In addition to his farming, Mr. Corey also operated a coal mine on Holiday creek which was the first mine to be worked permanently in the county.

While not one of the earliest settlers, yet in his business Jacob Kirchner was a pioneer. He came to Fort Dodge in 1867, and established the first sash and blind factory in the city. He continued in this business until 1875, when he started a steam flour mill at the corner of Twelfth street and First avenue, south.

In 1850, the population of the military post was 60 people, mostly military troops. By 1854, the population of the frontier village of Fort Dodge was 904. Just two years later, the population grew to 3,088. In 1857, the nation experienced a severe economic recession that greatly impacted Iowa and Fort Dodge. Many businesses went under and people had to move one, many losing most, if not all of their fortunes. By 1860, due to the Panic of 1857, Fort Dodge’s population declined to 2,504.

In the early days of Fort Dodge during the years of 1855-1870, the pioneer business men often risked everything to eke out a living. They had to survive a national recession and also the Civil War years. Yet, with an entrepreneur spirit, some made a good living for themselves and their families while others lost everything. The ones that made it and continued to invest in the early frontier town of Fort Dodge were the fore fathers of our community that built the foundation for the future growth and development of historic frontier town of Fort Dodge.


*The Full History of Fort Dodge and Webster County… by H.M. Pratt

The Establishment of Webster County

The Establishment of Webster County

By an act of congress approved on June 12. 1838, the original Territory of Wisconsin, which included the region of Iowa, was divided, and the territory received the name of the Territory of Iowa. It included not only the area of the present state of Iowa, but also that of the western part of Minnesota and of the eastern part of the two Dakotas. Its area was about three times that of the present state of Iowa. The Organic Act of the Territory of Iowa was to be in force from and after July 3, 1838. From this date the territory continued in existence until December 28, 1846, when the state of Iowa was finally admitted into the Union.

The first session of the legislature of the Territory of Iowa passed several acts in January, 1839, relative to counties. Some of these dealt with the organization of counties, others relocated seats of justice, provided for the sale of public lands, and similar matters. After the minor acts of January, 1839, no more new counties were created in Iowa for four years. In the meantime the Sac and Fox Indians had ceded to the United States a vast region in the central and south central part of the state of Iowa. Under various acts of the legislature, this territory was divided into counties. These acts also sought to define the boundaries of existing counties.

The first act of the federal congress authorizing the admission of Iowa into the Union was approved on March 3, 1845. Then followed nearly two years spent in the adoption of a constitution and in the adjustment of boundaries. The act which finally admitted the state was passed and approved on December 28, 1846. At this time Iowa contained forty-four counties covering a little less than one-half of the state.

On January 15, 1851, the general assembly of the state of Iowa passed the most important act in the whole history of the formation of counties in Iowa. At least it was the most comprehensive and created the largest number of counties. By this measure fifty counties were established embracing fully one-half of the state.

Around the same time, Granville Burkley, an attorney from Homer, Iowa, carried a petition to the state legislature to establish a new county of Webster and was successful. Webster County was created by taking all of Yell, all of Risley, and the lower half of Humboldt (then called Bancroft) Counties. The new county was assigned to Boone County for administration. Two commissioners, Elisha Anderson and Samuel McCall came to meet with Burkley to locate a county seat. Burkley persuaded them to select his site for the town and to name it Homer, for the epic Greek poet. The new county obtained title to the land on October 14, 1854. Judge Pierce entered a warrant for $114.00 for the town plat.

The fourth general assembly of the state of Iowa passed a law, which was approved January 12, 1853, that changed the name of Risley to Webster; and attached the county for revenue and election purposes to Boone county. On January 22, 1853, the same assembly passed an act entitled "An act to create the county of Webster." The act of January 12, 1853, which changed the name from Risley to Webster was to go into effect upon publication in certain papers. The county was name after the pioneer statesman, lawyer and U.S. Senator, Daniel Webster.

Webster County formed the sixty-second representative district, and with other counties formed the twenty-seventh senatorial district, the eleventh judicial district and the tenth congressional districts.

With Homer now the county seat for Webster County, Granville Burkley built himself a cabin and got himself appointed as postmaster. He kept the mail under his bed in a tin box. He constructed the first school in Homer, and then promptly padlocked it until the residents would pay him what he wanted. Burkley then arranged for the new state road, which came from Des Moines through Boonesboro (Montana) in Boone County, then through Mineral Ridge, and then passing through Hook's Point. The road then went to Homer before turning west through Border Plains, Brushy, and on to Fort Dodge.

Homer grew and prospered until it reached a population of about 600. Fort Dodge had about 200 and Newcastle (Webster City) about 100. It seemed that Homer's future was secure.

Two men came upon the scene to change things. John F. Duncombe, an attorney in Fort Dodge got together with Walter C. Willson of Newcastle and plans were made to "get" the county seat. On March 3, 1856, John F. Duncombe, Walter C. Willson and others to the number of 357, presented to the court a petition asking for an election to be held on the first Monday in April, 1856, to vote on the question of the removal of the county seat from Homer to Fort Dodge. Even though they lived on opposite sides of the county, Duncombe and Willson shared mutual interests. John Duncombe was boosting for Fort Dodge. Mr. Willson, planning for the future, had in mind a division of the county, and the creating of a new county out of the eastern part, with another county seat town, (to be Hamilton County with the county seat to be in Webster City). The petition, signed by George Gregory and 347 others, was presented and the court granted the petition. The election was held April 7, 1856, with the purpose changing the county seat to Fort Dodge.

Since the population of Homer exceeded the combined population of Fort Dodge and Newcastle, Homer felt secure. Willson had arranged earlier to have the Western Stage Company run its line from Dubuque to Alden, Newcastle, and Fort Dodge. Fort Dodge had secured the federal land office in 1855. To ensure a legal election, Burkley stayed in Newcastle to supervise the balloting. He loved to argue politics and he loved to drink. The Newcastle people kept him busy with both, and he did not detect that stage passengers were allowed to vote and then get on the stage for a run to Fort Dodge and vote again. The results went against Homer in favor of Fort Dodge by a vote of 407 to 264. The residents of Homer protested and carried their case to the Iowa Supreme Court who ruled that there was evidence of widespread cheating on both sides, so they ruled to uphold the election results. Soon after, the records were moved to Fort Dodge.

The transition of the county seat to Fort Dodge led to Fort Dodge residents taking several county offices, among them the Honorable William X. Meservey, who later played an important part in the making of the new county seat town. Many residents of Homer, including Judge Meservey, moved to Fort Dodge. No doubt, the transition of the county seat from Homer to Fort Dodge was the beginning of the end for the small village of Homer.

Because Willson helped Duncombe get the county seat changed to Fort Dodge, John Duncombe helped Willson get elected to the state legislature for the purpose of petitioning to split of the county. Willson rode a mule to Marengo and then took the stagecoach to Iowa City, the state's capital at the time. He planned to arrange for the west half to retain the name Webster and designate Fort Dodge as the county seat. He also had planned for the east half to take the name Sharon and have as the county seat, Newcastle, which was to be renamed Webster City. When Willson arrived at the state house he quickly realized that he needed some help to get his bill passed. William W. Hamilton, of Cascade, Iowa, was president of the senate. Willson changed the act to give the name Hamilton County to the east half to honor and recognize Hamilton's help. This act was passed on December 22, 1856 to take effect on Jan 1, 1857.

At the time, Webster County was still a very large county geographically. This being the case, the general assembly, on January 28, 1857, passed an another act that created the county of Humboldt, north of Webster. New boundaries were determined with the territory located between Wright and Pocahontas Counties; eight townships were taken from Kossuth County and four from Webster County to form Humboldt County.

Since the first election, some of the county offices were abolished, the names of others changed, and a number of new ones were created. A board of five supervisors was established along with thirteen elective officers. The other county officers were: auditor, clerk of court, treasurer, recorder, sheriff, superintendent of schools, coroner and county attorney. The office of county judge existed from 1853 to 1868, in which year the duties of the office were assumed by the board of supervisors, established 1860. In 1859, the office of superintendent of common schools was established and the office was filled by S. B. Olney, who was elected at the election held the first Monday in April, 1858. In that year, by an amendment to the state constitution, the name was changed to county attorney, and Albert E. Clark was elected to the office. In 1873, the journal of the board of supervisors, shows that John F. Duncombe was hired by that body as attorney of Webster county for a term of two years.

Webster County Folklore

Folklore has it that a political ploy was launched by leaders in Fort Dodge and Newcastle (now Webster City) to “steal” the county seat for the village of Homer and place each of their own communities as seats of two new counties. Fort Dodge would become the new county seat of the new county of Webster and the eastern half of the “old” Webster County would become Hamilton County with the seat in Newcastle. The leaders of the two communities worked together to solicit signatures for a petition to allow an election to determine the county seat. 357 signatures were procured and the election was cast. The residents of Homer were confident of winning the election and a great deal of distrust developed between Homer and Fort Dodge. Rampant cheating was asserted by both communities. The final count was 407 in favor of Fort Dodge and 264 in favor of Homer. Many residents of Homer questioned the final election results.

As the story goes, the legitimacy of the election results were so questionable that according to various accounts about transitioning the county seat to Fort Dodge, John Duncombe and a small group of men from Fort Dodge went to Homer to get all the county records and transport them back to Fort Dodge. The story continues that this caused quite a conflict around the city square in Homer including residents from Homer hollering obscenities and offensive insults at the Fort Dodgers. Then as a result, Granville Berkley from Homer suggested that a wrestling match between John Duncombe and John Maxwell, from Homer, take place to decide the issue with the winner determining the location of the county seat.

The story continues with John Duncombe agreeing to the wrestling match. Duncombe was a good athlete but Maxwell was much more physically imposing. Oral accounts state that Duncombe won the match over the larger Maxwell. The story of this wrestling match passed downed verbally through the ages is certainly entertaining and maybe even embellished, but this is how legendary folklore is made. Recorded historical accounts of that period do not reference the wrestling match event nor did the local newspapers during that period. In addition, the firsthand accounts of the period that covered the political activities of the transition of the county seat, including journals by Major Williams and John F. Duncombe, do not refer to a wrestling match. This makes one believe that it is probably more urban legend than fact. Yet, in spite of this, there is no real evidence or documentation that indicates that the wrestling match didn’t occur, so it remains today, as in yesteryear, captivating Webster County folklore.


*H.M. Pratt - The Full History of Fort Dodge and Webster County Vol. 1

*Roger B. Natte – Frontier Foundations – Creating an Iowa County Webster County Historical Society, 2000

*Martin E. Nass - History of Hamilton County

The Spirit Lake Expedition

The Spirit Lake Expedition

The following account of the expedition is extracted from with the writings of Major William Williams and the Honorable John Duncombe. Both men were leaders of the expedition and offered first-hand accounts of this historic event.

In the spring of 1857, the renegade Dakota Chief Inkpaduta and his band of warriors descended on the homesteads near Spirit Lake in northwestern Iowa and committed murder and mayhem, slaughtering 38-40 innocent settlers who lived around the lakes of Okoboji and Spirit Lake. It was the worst act of Indian hostility in Iowa’s history.

The news of the destruction of the settlements around Spirit Lake was brought to Fort Dodge by O. C. Howe, R. U. Wheelock and B. F. Parmenter, who had taken claims in the neighborhood of Spirit Lake. They had started early in March to visit their claim, and reached the Thatcher cabin on the 15th. Unable to arouse anyone in the cabin, they opened the door and beheld the

dead bodies of Noble and Ryan. Upon approaching the cabin of Mr. Howe, they found the mutilated bodies of seven women and children. Realizing that this was the work of the Indians, they hastened back to Fort Dodge to carry the news, and to secure aid. They reached Fort Dodge on Saturday night. March 21, 1857. The next day a public meeting was called in the "old brick" schoolhouse and the following day two companies were organized to go to the relief of the settlements.

At the time, Major Williams had a commission from Governor Grimes, authorizing him, in case of Indian depredations, to organize sufficient military force to protect the settlers. Williams was commenced to enroll men at Fort Dodge. Webster City responded promptly as did Homer. Between the two places they furnished about 40 men. Fort Dodge about eighty men. The second morning, the 25th day of March, 1857, Williams had three companies organized and fitted out. The battalion consisted of one hundred and twenty men, divided into three companies; Company A commanded by Captain C. B. Richards, Company B by Captain John F. Duncombe and Company C by Captain J. C. Johnston of Webster City, Surgeon C. C. Bissell and Commissary George B. Sherman. These three companies were formed into a battalion and Major William Williams assumed the command. Their mission was to track the hostile Indians, removed them from the region and protect the settlers. They were also to bury the dead at Lakes. On the morning of the 25th of March, the companies moved up the west branch of the Des Moines river to intercept the savages, who reports said, were about to sweep all the settlements on the river.

The three companies were furnished with teams and wagons and with the supposed necessary supply of provisions, clothing and blankets ; and with such arms and ammunition as could be furnished at the time, consisting of nearly every kind of gun, from double-barreled shot guns to the finest rifles. Thus equipped, the expedition left Fort Dodge on March 24, 1857.

The winter in 1857, was one of the harshest recorded. The volunteer troops were marced through snow banks fifteen to twenty feet deep and swollen streams. The companies forced their way up to the state line, where they learned the Indians were two or three hundred strong at Spirit Lake and Big Island Grove. Never were harder services rendered by any body of men than by the one hundred and ten men under Williams’ command who were able to reach the state line. Ten men of the one hundred and twenty who started with Williams gave out after the first and second days march and were discharged. Some were becoming blind and others were discharged for want of boots or shoes, two or three for insubordination and bad conduct. After the detachments were thus reduced, never was there a better set of men marched on any expedition than the one hundred and ten men left. The companies had to ford streams, breast deep every few miles and at all snow banks or drifts had to shovel out roads and draw our wagons through by hand with big ropes. All the men were wet all day up the past their waist and laid out on the open prairies at night without tents or other covering than a blanket or buffalo robe.

The following day the troops shoveled snow, tramped it down for the teams, and when no other plan was possible, fastened a long rope to a wagon, and every man taking hold, hauled the wagon through banks so deep that the snow would pile up in front until it reached the top of the dashboard. After getting their wagons through such a bank they would haul the oxen and horses through places where it was impossible for them to travel. In this way they reached the point now known as Dakotah City, after wading the Des Moines river fifteen or twenty times, where there were places to drag their wagons over, as they could not get down to the river at any place where it was sufficiently frozen to carry their heavy loads. The troops had made about ten miles on that day, by dark.

The following day the command started for McKnight's Point, a distance of about eighteen miles in a direct line northwesterly from Dakota City. Their course lay over a rather low, flat prairie, which had gathered and retained the great bulk of snow and ice of the earlier winter storms. The troops were without guide, landmarks or tracks of any kind to direct them. This necessitated having someone go ahead and find the best places for crossing the deep and almost impassable drifts. This duty was assigned to John Duncombe (who later became a U.S. Senator) and it necessitated double the amount of travel required of the command. Duncombe kept two or three miles in advance of the companies, signaling back from high points the direction to be taken to avoid, so far as possible, the depressions in the ground which were filled with snow, in many places ten or twelve feet in depth. All this distance there was a crust on the snow on which a light man could sometimes walk five or six rods, but a heavier man would break through and go in, up to his hips, thus making the march exceedingly difficult and tiresome.

By dark, the companies were together about three or four miles back, and we were about the same distance from a grove of timber at McKnight's Point, on the west fork of the Des Moines river. The companies held a consultation and concluded it would be as easy to reach this timber as to return to the command, and immediately started for it. One of the men would go ahead for a few rods and another two would follow in his footsteps, at one time on the crust of the snow and at another time sinking down two or three, or more feet into the snow, wedged in by the hard crust which made it almost impossible to extricate themselves. Then another would change with the leader. This continued until they reached the grove.

From McKnight's Point, the command, led by that brave, intrepid old soldier, Major William Williams, continued on. Each day being a repetition of the preceding one until they reached the Irish Colony (now known as Emmetsburg). Here, the troops rested for a short time and were joined by several persons living in the settlement and by Honorable C. C. Carpenter (who later became the Governor of Iowa) and Angus McBane and others who happened to be there on business, but resided in Fort Dodge.

During the march from Dakota City to the Irish Colony, the troops found all the settlers from the northern Iowa territory were fleeing as far as they were able, with reports of Indians in their rear. Once reaching the Irish Colony, Wllliams and his troops expected to meet the Indians in force. The troops were very confident of meeting the Indians and took every precaution, keeping out an advance guard and scout constantly. No signs of Indians were discovered until they approached Big Island Grove. Some ten miles east of the Grove they met two men who were fleeing from the Indians. They were told that the Indians were at the Grove and because of their appearance and conduct they became alarmed and fled. The two men reported, as did some trappers that were met, that Sleepy Eye was there with quite a band of warriors.

On reaching the Grove and surrounding lakes, the troops found that the Indians had left probably the previous day. Williams and his men found where the Indian teepees stood. On the ice where the Indians had been fishing were left a lot of fresh fish, a half finished canoe, and other items that they had plundered from the settler's house, including dead oxen that the Indians had slaughtered. From the Indians' trail and appearances generally, it was evident they had left in a hurry in the direction of Chain Lakes. The troops march on these lakes was made early the next morning under cover of a drizzling fog. Finding that the body of Indians posted there had fled, they proceeded to march on to Granger's Point.

About three o'clock that afternoon, the advanced scouts discovered in the distance what they took to be Indians. The men succeeded in getting close to them, when they were discovered by this party, who, in turn, took the scouts for Indians and began to prepare for a battle. After watching the scouts for a period of time, a man from the fleeing party raised a white flag. This was answered by the advanced scouts who then approached them and found the supposed Indians to be a party of settlers who had escaped the massacre at Springfield on the upper Des Moines River.

This party fleeing from Springfield was composed of three men who were uninjured, Granger, Bradshaw and Markman, and two men, Thomas and Carver, and a young woman who was wounded and several other women and children. In all, the party totaled about twenty people. Some were injured from defending themselves from the hostile Indians. They had escaped in the night, carrying nothing with them but what they had on when they were attacked and had been wandering about through the snow banks without anything for two days and nights. They were exhausted and frozen, and the Indians were on their trail pursuing them. Had not the scouts discovered them, there can be no doubt that they all would have been murdered that night.

Members of this party were found to be in miserable condition, destitute of everything. Three of them were badly wounded and several of the women were without shoes. The poor women had been wading breast deep through snow and water carrying their crying children. The troops rounded up timber, made fires and warmed them. They also furnished them with provisions including blankets and clothing to shield them from the severe weather. The company surgeon dressed their wounds, of which many, were quite severe.

Williams and his troops prepared to be attacked that night, as the people told them that Indians were following them. Williams posted silent sentinels and pickets, hoping to induce them to attack under the belief that the fleeing party was alone. Next morning, Williams sent the party with an escort to the Irish Colony (Emmetsburg) to remain until the troops returned.

The troops proceeded by as rapid a march as possible, keeping scouts in advance for reconnasaince, examining every point of timber, lake and stream where Indians might possibly be concealed. They often found very fresh traces of Indians throughout the day. From their tracks or trails they were all going in the direction of Spirit Lake. The troops reached the state line near Springfield about sunset and encamped in the margin of a grove, cooked their suppers, and prepared for a night march.

While the troops were at the lakes, the appetites of the men, on account of the cold and severe labor, had nearly exhausted the amount of food supplied for the march, and they were reduced to half rations. Much of the time, however, they were supplied with raw meat, some of it beavers' meat, which was cooked by the night fires. The men were furnished a stick, fastening to it a piece of meat and holding it over the coals, until it was ready to eat.

For the last few days of the march, the troops were constantly in expectation of meeting Indians. This constant watchfulness, which required the stationing of guards at night, permitted but few hours of good, sound, restful sleep during the entire march. The labors of the men were of the most severe character. They were almost constantly shoveling snow and dragging out teams and wagons by ropes through the deep banks, traveling with sore, wet and swollen feet. To add to the difficulty, several became snow-blind.

As the troops continued to move north, the advanced guides provided the troops with information that Indians were encamped at or near Granger’s Cabin near the Minnesota line. Major Williams then detailed sixty men with rifles and six shooters and divided them in two divisions of thirty men each, with the intention of surprising the Indians before daybreak next morning. Despite the intense vigilance of Williams’ troops, they faced no particular incident. At Granger’s cabin, Captain Bee from Fort Ridgely met Williams and his Regular troops and reported they had done, stating that the Indians who massacred 40 to 50 settlers at Springfield had hastily fled and were probably a hundred miles northwest of the place where we were encamped for the night.

Williams’, writing in his journal, noted a real disrespect for Captain Bee. Williams believed that had Captain Bee and his troops done their job of tracking the Indians at the northern border with diligence, the Indians would have been overtaken and lives would have been saved and property recovered.

Ascertaining that the troops from Fort Ridgley had not buried the dead at Spirit Lake, Williams decided to send a detail to bury the dead at Spirit Lake as an act of humanity, and find whether any were yet alive. He asked for volunteers to proceed to the Lakes, a distance of about 12 miles, to bury the bodies if they could be found. Captain Johnson of Company C, and 25 other men volunteered. Captain Johnson was placed in command by Major Williams, and was given the order to bury the dead. Guides were furnished and they set out under the command of Captain Johnston and Lieutenant J. Maxwell, who applied for and were anxious to take on this difficult duty. The rest of the troops parted with these brave men, expecting to meet them on their return to the Irish colony.

When the troops started down the Des Moines river, they kept on the hills to avoid the water, which by this time covered the bottom lands. After wading and swimming through ten miles of sloughs and fast moving streams of water, they succeeded in getting as far as Cylinder Creek. About one o'clock a dreadful snow storm came on, and arriving at Cylinder Creek they found the whole valley covered with water, better than a half mile wide, varying from two feet to fifteen feet deep and terribly agitated by the strong wind. After making every effort by examining up and down the valley they found it impossible to get across the body of water. After wading through snow and water up to their middle, with Lieutenant Linn who accompanied Williams, they returned to the main body so completely chilled that they could not talk. The women and children they had rescued were crying and exclaiming that they were freezing. Major Williams was so frozen that he could not talk but he was able to make signs with his hands and directed that they should be hurried back to the Irish Colony, the only place they could send them to. That was done as speedily as possible. Major Williams seemed close to death so James Sweeney of Webster City, seized hold of him and forced him on to a light wagon and ran him back to the Irish Colony where they landed after a hard ride facing a brutally cold wind. They were very much exhausted. After recovering a little, they found all the women and children safely landed with the exception of some frozen feet and faces.

The balance of the command then started on the return march. The fast melting snow had raised the streams and in places they were impassable. After a hard, toilsome march, the troops finally reached the Irish colony, expecting to meet the other men who had been sent to bury the dead. The night before the troops arrival, the weather turned bitterly cold and there was quite a blizzard. Captain Johnson and his detachment, as soon as they had buried the dead, started to cross from the lakes to the meeting place. They became bewildered and disoriented as to the proper course to take to get to the Irish Colony. The men remained all night with their frozen clothing and wet feet on the open prairie without shelter or food.

On returning to the Irish Colony, Major Williams could learn nothing of the Spirit Lake party under Captain Johnston and he found the provisions were all exhausted. Williams had to purchase another ox, slaughter it and divided it out amongst those in charge and the citizens who had divided their last provisions with them. The troops at the Irish Colony saved a portion for their friends whom they had been so anxiously expecting their return from the lakes. A short time after dark, one of Captain Johnston's men who was separated from them in the snow storm came in very much exhausted but he could not account for the other men.

Out of loyalty and concern for the other men, Captain Richards and Duncombe took it upon themselves to try to rescue those left behind. They decided to rig up a boat from a new wagon box, which they caulked with cotton from a bed-quilt, and taking two other men, they started across the river, hoping in this way to be able to get the rest of the troops across the river. The wind, however, rose suddenly from the northwest and blew so hard that they had to bale water constantly and they barely reached the other shore before the boat was swamped and sunk.

Captain Richards and Duncombe tried to reach the men on the other side by calling to them, but failed. They were exhausted and knew they had to reach the Shippey cabin about three miles away or their chances for the night would be poor indeed, as all their blankets were left with the men. As they could accomplish nothing more, they started as rapidly as they could go for the Shippey cabin with wet feet, frozen boots and clothing. They reached the cabin after dark. They secured a little bread, bacon and coffee and then sat around the fire drying their clothing, looking out of the door to see if there was any change for the better with the awful storm and wondering how it would be possible for the men to live through the night. This was one of the longest nights they had ever experienced.

As soon as the sun came up in the morning, Captains Richards and Duncombe started back to the point where we had left the men. With the mercury still below zero and the wind blowing at a fifty mile rate, Captain Richards and Duncombe reached the place through the blinding storm.

The main body of the men were left on the north bank of Cylinder Creek without anything to eat but a peck of raw rice and no wood to make a fire. They were completely cut off by water from all timber and a dreadful storm of wind and snow was raging. When they reached Cylinder creek Duncombe and Richards could see that the men were all hidden from sight by the blankets and canvas coverings of the wagons and they greatly feared that all the men were frozen to death, as there was not the least sign of life. The two men remained as long as they could stand it and then returned to Shippey 's cabin. About three o'clock they again faced the storm and reached the place a second time opposite the men. Captain Richards and Duncombe had brought a rope with them and renewed their efforts to pull out the wagons, but again, with no success.

At that time, however, Duncombe saw and talked with two of the men, who informed him that all were safe. With great coolness and presence of mind, the men gathered as close together as they could lie, covered themselves with the blankets and laid there through the storm from 2:00 PM Saturday until Monday morning about 1:00 AM when they succeeded in crossing on the ice. During that time it was so cold that notwithstanding the agitation of that great body of water by the strong wind it had frozen so as to enable them to cross over. The men and women were rescued and able to return to the Irish Colony. Captain Johnson never returned, nor did William Burkholder.

Tragically, Captain Johnson and William Burkholder never returned. They were frozen to death, their bodies never found until eleven years later when they were identified by the rifle which Burkholder carried with him. Captain Johnson and Burkholder were heroic men who volunteered to lead a company of men through unfathomable hardship in order to bury the dead at the lakes. Duncombe stated that Captain Johnson and Burkholder were as noble of men that had ever lived.

Many of the other troops that had accompanied Johnson and Burkholder returned but were actually so delirious from the cold that they did not recognize their companions for some time after. It has always been a mystery how any of that detachment survived that terrible night. On the open prairie, in the neighborhood of the lakes, the storm was the worst that had ever known in Iowa. The hardships which these brave men experienced and endured on the march undoubtedly accustomed them to greater hardships and increased their powers of endurance, or not one would have been left to tell the tale of their sufferings.

Once the horrible weather had broken, Williams’ troops and the rescued settlers began their journey back to Fort Dodge. Owing to the lack of food, the men at this point separated, going in squads with the hope of securing sufficient supplies to last them until they could reach Fort Dodge. Finally, frozen and exhausted, all of the troops under Major Williams command, except Johnson and Burkholder, arrived safely to Fort Dodge, although some of the party were severely injured from the exposure and never fully recovered.

This amazing and heroic expedition of volunteers under the command of Major Williams accomplished their mission in spite of unbelievable circumstances. Upon their arrival back to Fort Dodge, John Duncombe stated, "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 these who composed the Spirit Lake Expedition."


*The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County… by H.M. Pratt

*The History of Early Fort Dodge and Webster County… William Williams

Additional articles on the Spirit Lake Massacre

*Chapter 13…. The Early History of Fort Dodge and Webster County…. by William Williams

*Chapter XVIII… The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County…. by H.M. Pratt

The "Charlie Rogers" - Fort Dodge's Steamboat

Iowa is the only state with four border rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, Des Moines, and Big Sioux. The ability to navigate these rivers was of great importance in the settlement of Iowa before railroads. In the early to mid-1800s, steamboats traveled into Iowa border waters even before Iowa was legally open for settlement. Steamboats and flatboats brought thousands of early settlers to the new land of Iowa. Steamboats brought supplies to the new Iowans and transported their produce and products to market.

In the spring of 1859 the businessmen of Fort Dodge organized a stock company for the purpose of raising funds to build a steamboat to navigate the Des Moines river. The stock was readily taken and Captain Aaron F. Blackshere and others were sent to Pittsburgh to superintend the building of the boat. A small sternwheel boat of fifty-ton capacity, with adjustable smokestack and pilot house was built so it would be able to navigate the Des Moines River and go under the bridge at Des Moines. The name of this boat was the "Charles Rogers."

A small group of men led by Captain Blachshere were sent by the Fort Dodge Navigation Company to Pittsburgh to bring back a steamboat to navigate the Des Moines river. They left Fort Dodge on July 21, 1858 and arrived at Pittsburgh on the 6th of August; on the 9th of August they closed the contract with Charles Rogers for a steamboat with a hull seventy-six feet long, fifteen feet wide, and an engine with two cylinders ten and twelve inches in diameter, and a three-foot stroke.

The boat was built according to contract, the price agreed upon being $2,259. The boat was completed in the early part of October and the crew left Pittsburgh and headed down the Ohio River to Cincinnati on October 14, 1858. The crew had very little money left to help them pay for the necessities they would need on their trip to Fort Dodge. After arriving at Cincinnati, the boat continued traversing the Ohio River to Louisville and then on east to the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. From Cairo, the boat traveled north on the Mississippi up to St. Louis. The boat then continued steaming up the Mississippi River and then connected with the Des Moines River at Keokuk. From Keokuk, the Charlie Rogers traveled up the Des Moines River to Des Moines and then finally arrived in Fort Dodge the first part of April, 1859.

Traversing the rivers in the 1800s was a dangerous proposition and the boat trip from Pittsburgh to Fort Dodge was a challenging one to say the least. This 1,350 mile trip over the Ohio, Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers took six months with the crew having to overcome some amazing hardships to get to their final destination. The trip of the Charlie Rogers to Fort Dodge from Pittsburgh began in the fall of 1858 and took place over the course of the winter and early spring of 1859. During this period of time, the Charlie Rogers and its crew had to deal with bad weather conditions, strong currents, numerous obstructions on the rivers - including floating logs, ice jams, high water - making it difficult to traverse under bridges, and low water making it difficult to navigate the river. They even had to deal with navigation conflicts with other larger steamboats that created hazards and even potential collisions in some of the narrow straits of the rivers.

The crew itself was broke financially which created huge hardships for the men. At times, they had little or no food and had to fish the rivers in order to eat. Without money, the crew had to conduct slick negotiations with vendors that had to be paid along the route in order for the boat to continue to travel to it destination. Sometimes the crew had to barter and even promise payments that they knew they would never be able to pay, including costs for repairs to the boat, fees to dealers on the levies and also payments to cargo dealers.

The trip from Pittsburgh to Fort Dodge took much longer than anyone expected and the investors back in Fort Dodge became quite frustrated. Many thought their investment in the Charlie Rogers was lost. Finally, around the first of April, the Charlie Rogers came steaming up the Des Moines River to Fort Dodge for the first time. Captain Blackshere blew the whistle so long and loud that the citizens imagined a Mississippi River fleet had arrived, and before he could land at the levee, the banks of the river were lined with men, women and children anxious to get a sight of Fort Dodge’s own steamboat.

Mr. John F. Duncombe, editor of the Fort Dodge Sentinel, in the issue of April 7, 1859. described the arrival of this boat thus: "It will be remembered by many of our citizens with feelings of extreme delight for many years to come. By the politeness of Capt. F. E. Beers, of the Charles Rogers, in company with about one hundred and twenty ladies and gentlemen of the town, we enjoyed the first steamboat pleasure excursion on the Upper Des Moines river. The steamboat left the landing at Colburn's ferry about two o'clock and after crossing the river and loading with coal from the mines, started for' the upper ferry. All our citizens are well aware of the shallow ford on the river at the rapids at this place, which is at the head of the island at the mouth of Soldier creek, where the river divides into two equal channels. The steamer passed up over the rapids in the west channel with perfect ease. At the mouth of Lizard creek the boat 'rounded to' and passed down the eastern channel of the river at race horse speed. The scene was one of intense interest. The beautiful plateau on which our town is built was covered with men, women and children. The river bank was lined with joyful spectators. Repeated hurrahs from those on the boat and on the shore filled the air. The steamer passed down the river about six miles and then returned. Old grudges were settled, downcast looks brightened, hard times were forgotten. Everybody seemed perfectly happy. We had always believed that the navigation of our river was practical, but to know it, filled our citizens with more pleasure than a fortune. We felt like a boy with a rattlebox, 'only more so.' The Fort Dodge steamboat enterprise has succeeded in spite of sneers and jeers. Long may the friends of the enterprise live to remember the first pleasure excursion at Fort Dodge."

At a public meeting of the citizens, held at the schoolhouse that evening, Major Williams presiding, a vote of thanks was tendered to Captain Blackshere, Captain F. E. Beers, Henry Carse, and the other crew members of this steamboat project. To celebrate this amazing achievement, the leaders of Fort Dodge and its citizens held a dance at the Masonic Hall in honor of Fort Dodge’s first steamboat, the “Charlie Rogers.”

River navigation in Fort Dodge as a financial venture and solution for hauling people and products to the area never turned out to be a successful financial venture and it died with the coming of railroads. Even though the Charlie Rogers did not become a thriving enterprise, the residents of Fort Dodge still harbored great pride in their steamboat.


*The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County… by H.M. Pratt

*Iowa Public Television - Iowa Pathways – Steamboats on the River

For more in-depth information on the trip of the Charlie Rogers, go to: Chapter XX of the History of Fort Dodge and Webster County.

Early Pioneer Leaders of Fort Dodge in the 1850s

The biographies of these leaders can be found under ICONIC PEOPLE on this website.

William Williams: Pioneer leader and founder of Fort Dodge

Major Lewis Armistead: Led the efforts to build the military post in Fort Dodge and was the first and only military leader of the fort.

John Duncombe: First attorney in Fort Dodge. State Senator – Leader in the establishment of Webster County

CC Carpenter: Pioneer leader and former Governor of Iowa

Henry Lott: First settler in Webster County – stirred up trouble with the Indians

Wahkonsa – the friendly Indian

1857 Spirit Lake Expedition Historical Letter

Fort Dodge Iowa 11th 1857

Dear Father,

Our “Spirit Lake Expedition” has just returned to Fort Dodge after absence of something more than 20 days. I had designed to keep a journal of the trip and when I returned to send the details to some of the editors of the Westmoreland County for publication. But I refrain from the task and prefer waiting until an account is given to the people through the proper authority for I am sure were I to sit down and write the story of our adventures – it’s fearful scenes of trial, hardship, cold, exposure, peril, hunger etc. and confining myself within the strictest bounds of truth and veracity – I say were I so to do it would be put down as the wildest exaggeration or the fevered imaginings of some crazy fanatic. Suffice it to say that we traveled the distance of two hundred miles on foot walking through swamps and sluices waist deep and over snow drifts from three to fifteen feet deep. We frequently were compelled to travel whole days with snow and ice covering our clothing to the hips and at night lie down on the cold prairie ground with no other covering to shelter us but the wagon covers and at other times no covering at all. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining food and carrying it when obtained we had frequently to march whole days with no other subsistence but a camp biscuit a few cold potatoes or a small piece of raw fat bacon. Our wagons we had frequently to carry or haul over the surface of the deep snow gorges by hand and by oxen and mule were also in like manner dragged over the snow by means of a long rope tied to their heads and legs. Those who are acquainted with the incidents of Col. Fremont’s Rocky mountain trip assert that this was attended with equally as much scenes of real suffering and hardship considering the short duration as was that of the Explorer. And such a scene of blood and butchery as presented itself to the astonished gaze within the limits and vicinity of Spirit Lake. Our men buried 29 persons consisting of men women and children murdered robbed scalped tomahawked cut up and slaughtered in the most inhuman mode of savage warfare- they buried all they could find during a very brief search but from the number of inhabitants living in that section of country who are killed and missing the number is supposed to reach 60 or 70 persons- some were lying on the ground with the head chopped off- others with the body chopped asunder from the hips to the shoulder- others half burnt- others deprived of legs, arms? The whole scene presented a spectacle of cruel barbarity, revenge, murder, rapine and bloodshed unparalleled by any of the darkest plots of the Revolutionary border warfare. To such a degree of cold fatigue and hunger were we exposed that two of our hardiest and most robust young men- residents of Fort Dodge froze to death. Though possessing but a frail constitution and unused from boyhood to such hardships yet I endured the trials with a better grace and come off with as few scars and blemishes as any of the crowd- though I would hesitate upon accepting five hundred dollars as compensation for another like expedition of trial and suffering – for I am sure no reasonable amount of money would compensate for frozen toes, ears, nose and hands.

For by the way my right hand is badly frozen which accounts for the present bad writing.

There will be a full account of the Expedition published in pamphlet form by Major Williams- the Commander-in Chief of the Battalion. As soon as it comes out I will send you a copy- it is designed to give in detail the most interesting incidents of the trip- also a list of the members of each company- their names and places of residents. There will be certificates of invoice issued to each member of the three companies vis A. B. & C. I was enrolled as I stated to you previously in Company A. As soon as convenient an application will be made to Congress by Major Williams for land warrants and soldiers pay for each member of the companies. We have dearly earned such remuneration- And if Uncle Sam don’t see fit to pay us- we will just consider he’s no gentleman. But I must just draw to a close for I am almost used up with hard work and harder fare. I’ll send you a copy of the Fort Dodge Sentinel containing a resolution of thanks tendered by us to our Captain and officers of Company A. Tell Obe to write me- I would write him but I feel so fatigued from the hardship that I will have to postpone it. Give my love and respects to all and believe me.

Your Affectionate Son

William F. Porter