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A Tragic Historical Retelling with Jeff Stein

Many aspects of our Iowa history may not be the most pleasant to remember, including this story

Jeff Stein joins us today to talk about the history of the Spirit Lake Massacre. The winter of 1856 and 1857 was especially harsh. Supplies were hard to come by, and tensions were high between Iowa frontier settlers and some Native Americans in northwest Iowa. The federal government had set up a reservation along the Iowa/Minnesota border, pursuant to terms of a treaty. But promised improvements were not made on time, supplies were shipped too late, and what was shipped was not adequate for survival.

On the morning of March 8, 1857, one Native American pushed his way into a cabin occupied by the Rowland Gardner family, a log structure on the south shore of West Okoboji. He demanded food, which was provided. Then another 14 Sioux under the leadership of the renegade chief Inkpaduta entered the cabin. They ate and left. But they returned that afternoon, and what became known as the Spirit Lake Massacre began. Between 35 and 40 settlers were killed over a five-day period, and four young women were taken captive. One of the four was Abbie Gardner, a 13-year-old whose family was murdered in that cabin after providing food to the intruders. She was ransomed a few months later to a federal agent who paid two horses, 12 blankets, 20 pounds of tobacco, cloth, calico and ribbon, and two kegs of powder.

Some 30 years after the killing, Abbie Gardner published a memoir, which became popular as one of the last captivity narratives of European Americans being held by Native Americans. In 1891, she bought the cabin where the events occurred and turned it into a tourist site, where she sold her book and other items for 30 years. The state of Iowa now maintains the Abbie Gardner Sharp home site and park. The renegade chief Inkpaduta was never found, but the killing spree he organized led to strained relations for decades, and retaliation against innocent individuals. The last Native American attack on settlers in Iowa began on this date in 1857. 

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