Buena Vista County, IA
A WILD LAND
Two other United States surveyors came through Buena Vista County in 1855. Their trail had led all day over the hot prairie country. It was early fall and the sun beat down with that golden but fierce intensity which ripens the corn in September and dries to crackling bronze the green seed pods of a multitude of plants. But there was no corn then, only grass. For weeks they had walked through it, up-hill and down-hill, until the soles of their shoes had worn slippery in the dusty miles of it and every step forward was an effort. Their nerves had become ragged as they pushed at mile after mile.
Then suddenly they came to a green valley, shady and cool, where wild grapes ripened and prairie plums hung in red glowing clusters. In every thicket brownish hazelnuts bulged from their furry cases and the stiff crimson of the roseberry was bright above the thorns. The sun was going down behind tall cottonwoods. Their wide crisp leaves twinkled in the light and here and there a golden leaf, pointed and smooth as though dipped in yellow lacquer, slipped down from a great tree and made a splatter of color on the ground. Below was the river where clear cool water flowed along sanded shores -- a refreshing place for a thirsty and tired man to rest.
The surveyors knelt down to drink and to wash their burning faces in the cool water. They looked about them, realizing that there must be an abundance of game in this timber and along the river. They made camp for the night with one thought in mind. They liked this place and decided to stake out a claim to the land. This was against the law, however, and both of them knew it. It was a Government rule that surveyors could not take possession of any land while doing their work of making a survey. Surveyors were usually first on the scene in opening up a new region and it would have been an easy matter for them to take all the best locations as they went. Lane and Ray, for those were the names of the two surveyors, disregarded this rule. The next morning they drove stakes and posted notices, printing in large letters the words: "This Land is Taken by Lane and Ray." Then they went on with their work. The site they had marked was near the place where the town of Sioux Rapids was later to grow up on the Little Sioux River.
During the winter season the men came back to hunt and trap along the river. They built a log cabin near what was afterward called Barnes’ Grove. After several months they left again to go back East to make preparations for settlement. It was spring, 1856, when they came back through Fort Dodge. Here they were joined by a little band of settlers: William Weaver and his wife and her brother, Abner Bell, and a family named Totten. Lane and Ray now led the little party back to the Little Sioux Valley, where they had hunted. But the surveyors were eager to get rid of their illegal holdings and as soon as they had disposed of their land they went away again. The last of their claims was sold to a man named Templeton.
Before leaving the country, Lane and Ray did one thing which greatly helped in the subsequent development of Sioux Rapids. They were commissioned to lay out a military road from Fort Dodge west, and they ran it straight to the new settlement -- that is as straight as such an early road could be built. Swamp lands, marshes, and sloughs had to be avoided because no drainage systems had yet been built, and rivers had to be forded as there were no bridges. This old Fort Dodge road was used by many settlers and was afterward extended to Sioux City where it became the chief artery of travel for stagecoaches, covered wagons, traders, and farmers going back and forth to mill.
Of the group who came with Lane and Ray, Abner Bell was always called the first settler because he was the only one who remained. The others were driven away by the horrors of that first terrible winter in the new country. Everything seemed to be against them. Fierce blizzards came early in November to shut them in and by January the snow was so deep that even whole herds of elk perished from starvation. Every bit of grass on which they fed was covered by deep snow and every trail and road was hidden in the drifts so that it was almost impossible for the settlers to drive to Fort Dodge for their supplies. To make matters worse, the Sioux Indians went on the Warpath. They were driven to starvation and by anger toward the whites, and traveled up the Little Sioux River with murder in their hearts. They stole guns, begged food, shot livestock, and terrorized the people all along the way. Finally at Spirit Lake they killed 32 people and took four women prisoners. Such terrible times drove people from their homes and some never turned. Why did Abner Bell remain?
Bell was 32 years old and unmarried. Without a family to worry about he could afford to trust to his own wits and gun to protect himself. He was a good shot and a great hunter. The very day he arrived at Sioux Rapids he set out at once in search of game, leaving the other members of the party to start making camp. While they planted and sowed that first season and built their rude log huts he roamed up and down the river shooting and trapping. Beaver, mink, and an occasional otter could be found along the Little Sioux and there were muskrats everywhere in the low places and in the ponds and swamps. His rifle always kept the larders of the settlers supplied with fresh meat, and he made a good living selling the pelts and skins. He never took any land nor wanted any but made his home with the Weavers. In later years Bell built himself a small shack and ran a store. His stock in trade consisted of groceries, traps, powder and shot, or any other article a hunter might need.
Nelson Suckow said of Abner Bell: "He was a small man weighing perhaps 120 pounds, active and quick and as black as a Spaniard. He was always smoking a pipe and was inclined to be the contrary kind." He was restless and turbulent also, unschooled and uncouth, but he had a shrewd native humor and wit.
Bell always dressed very carelessly. At first he wore haphazard garments made by himself out of skins after the manner of the Indians but later when he bought his clothes readymade, he wore them until they were ragged and worn, and consequently was always considered an eccentric individual. He let his hair and whiskers grow also, never bothering to go to a barber shop, and in time his long black hair and black beard seemed to set him apart from the other settlers. But Bell made friends in spite of his queer ways. He was honest and fearless in facing the Wilderness alone, and his keen blue eyes saw a lot of humor and adventure in pioneer life. As settlements became thicker he formed the habit of selling venison to his neighbors, and would make regular visits to each home, often spending the evening while he entertained the family with tales of his hunting experiences, his trapping exploits, or his adventures with numerous Indians.
Bell disliked Indians intensely. One day while making his round of visits he found a group of Indian men begging flour from a pioneer woman. The woman's husband was gone and she was much frightened. Bell knew a few Indian words and he burst upon the savages with a yell, mixing loud profanity with Indian dialect and war whoops, and scattering the natives in every direction with the sheer power of his angry voice. The Indians dashed to their ponies and rode away in haste. Bell then told the woman never to give an Indian anything but to drive him away as soon as he appeared. This was the attitude of many of the settlers. To them all Indians were bad. The settlers made no effort to understand their grievances or to make friends with them, but drove them off with curses or clubs. The Indians on their part believed in revenge, and every hurt received from the whites by one of their tribe was carefully remembered and later paid back in kind.
One such revengeful Indian was Inkpaduta, the renegade Sioux chief. He was a big man, six feet tall and strongly built. The smallpox scars on his face made his expression look only the more cruel. For several years he had hated the whites and regarded them as his greatest enemies. They had taken the hunting grounds of his people, they had murdered his brother, Sidominedotah, on the banks of Bloody Run, and slain many of his kinsmen. Squaws who went begging for food had been driven off with whips. Now after the cold, hungry winter of 1856, Inkpaduta felt that the time had come to get even.
With a band of desperate followers he set out across Woodbury and Cherokee counties, leaving behind a trail of fear and pilfered cabins.
Finally the Indians arrived at the town of Peterson; just north of the line dividing Clay County from Buena Vista and entered the home of A. S. Mead. There they not only killed Mead's livestock and destroyed some of his buildings but they also knocked Mrs. Mead down and carried off the daughter, Hattie Mead, 17, as a prisoner. They tried to take along also a young girl, named Emma, but she cried so lustily that they let her go and one Indian picked up a stick and whipped her all the way back to her father's cabin. A neighbor, Enoch Taylor, who was at the Mead home, was also knocked down. His son was kicked into the fireplace and had a leg burned so badly that he carried the scar for years. Mrs. Taylor was taken prisoner but she and Hattie Mead were allowed to return to camp in the morning.
Still the Indians had not killed anyone. They knew that the United States Government protected the settlers and they feared the great "white father" in Washington. So they went on to Sioux Rapids. Here they entered the cabins with threatening gestures and angry grunts and signs. They took Mrs. Totten and Mrs. Weaver prisoners and held them for several days. The men were beaten and treated badly. Anything the Indians wanted they took from the scanty stores of the settlers, who had no way of getting more food until spring came to thaw the snow. With ruthless waste they shot the livestock, cooked what they wanted and threw the rest away. Then suddenly, one morning, they were gone. The settlers breathed easier.
But a few days later word came down the river of the massacre at Spirit Lake. Now the people in Buena Vista County knew what they had escaped, and also what might yet lie in wait for them. They stayed close inside the cabins, almost afraid to go out after firewood. Abner Bell set out for Fort Dodge with another man to tell the terrible news to the people there. Weeks later there was another scare, when two men came down the river saying that the Indians had started out on another raid and were moving toward Sioux Rapids. This was a false alarm but the people did not know that, and by this time they were so terrified that they imagined the worst. So they set out from their homes across the snow with starving oxen, and meager provisions. Some went to Sioux City, some got as far as Fort Dodge. It was a terrible journey for all and it is no wonder that few wanted to go back when spring came, even when they were assured that the Indians had gone back far into Minnesota. They could never forget the frightful hardships of that winter. Abner Bell was probably the only one of the original settlers who returned to Sioux Rapids in the spring. All this trouble might have been prevented if the United States Government had maintained a military post in northwest Iowa to protect the settlers. There had been such a post at Fort Dodge for a few years but when the Indians had been moved out of Iowa, the garrison there had been disbanded. The Indians had always been wandering tribes and in spite of treaties still traveled for miles, looking for better hunting grounds. Inkpaduta and his band had not signed the treaties and so did not receive annuities like the other Indians. They still lurked in Iowa and when they could not find enough game they followed the trail of some settler, to beg or steal.
These very earliest settlers, who had been driven out by Indians, left not even the record of their names behind them. Governor James Grimes of Iowa wrote to President Franklin Pierce in Washington, D. C., requesting protection for the settlers who had been disturbed by wandering bands of Winnebagoes, Sioux, Pottawattamies, Omahas, Sacs, and Foxes. In this letter he stated: "I am reliably informed that the same Indians, but in increased numbers, have again pitched their tents within the State and are making preparations to remain during the winter. The Secretary of this State, General George W. McCleary, writes me that he has information that a large band of Sioux Indians have destroyed the settlements in Buena Vista County and forced the inhabitants to abandon their homes. He also writes me that these Indians are manifestly making preparations for war, and have been and are now making great efforts to induce all of the Mississippi River Sioux to unite with them in hostilities upon the whites. I hear from various sources that several runners have been sent by the Sioux west of the Missouri River, to those in this State, and in Minnesota, with war belts, urging the latter to make common cause with them. The result of all this is a great state of alarm along the whole frontier. The pioneer settlers are abandoning their homes and improvements, and are retiring to the more dense settlements in the interior of the State...“The governor asked for the establishment of a military post on the Big Sioux River near the northwest corner of the State, and for at least two companies of dragoons or cavalry to protect the settlers.
Meanwhile the frontiersmen took matters into their own hands and organized the Little Sioux Guards. But there were no funds with which to buy guns and other equipment necessary, and the settlers lived so far apart that it was hard to get them together and to train them as a military unit. George Coonley, captain of the Little Sioux Guards, wrote a letter to Governor Grimes, dated January 2, 1857, three short months before the Spirit Lake Massacre. In it he mentioned the difficulties his company had experienced: "The continued depredations of the Indians upon the inhabitants of Little Sioux Valley have made it necessary to arm in self defense [sic]. We have organized an independent military company comprising the inhabitants of Cherokee, Buena Vista, and Clay counties. We have the men but lack the guns. Last winter the Indians passing through found the settlers unprepared and took nearly every gun in the above mentioned counties. They are upon us again this winter, burning houses and carrying off and destroying property. With 11 men we attacked 18 Indians but several of our guns being useless were compelled to retreat... During the month of December they have burned several houses and destroyed a large amount of property of settlers."
Even after the Spirit Lake Massacre not much was done to help the settlers. When the people of Fort Dodge heard of the tragedy they got together a company of almost 100 men from that place and from Webster City and set out across the melting snows to rescue any settlers who might be left and to punish the Indians. But the trip was so difficult that by the time the rescue party reached the lakes it was too late to do anything but bury the dead and return home. On the way back, this expedition was caught in a spring blizzard. The temperature fell to 54 degrees below zero and two of the men froze to death. The others suffered terribly and barely returned alive.
Four years later Governor Kirkwood asked the Federal Government for rifles with which to arm the settlers. He got a promise of 1,000 guns which would be sent to Keokuk, but whether any of these guns ever reached the settlers, 400 miles away from the Mississippi, is not known. Nevertheless these discouragements did not prevent settlers from coming into Buena Vista County. They persisted in spite of every hardship. Even in August 1852 when the Sioux Indians killed 650 white people in Minnesota, the surviving neighbors were not driven away for long. They were too much interested in their new homes and the towns they hoped to found. The State of Iowa was at last aroused. Governor Kirkwood sent Schuyler R. Ingham of Des Moines to do everything necessary to protect the people of the frontier, and the State Legislature ordered that a force of mounted men be raised to guard the settlers. Three companies of volunteers were rushed from Council Bluffs to Sioux City and a full company was located at Estherville. The old Sioux City cavalry company was sent to Spirit Lake and smaller bodies were stationed at Ocheyedan, Peterson, Cherokee, Ida Grove, Sac City, Correctionville, Little Sioux, West Fork, Melbourne, and Sioux City. Forts were built at Correctionville, Cherokee, Peterson, Estherville, Spirit Lake, and Iowa Lake.
Iowa Writers’ Project. Buena Vista County History. Storm Lake, Iowa: Work Projects Administration, 1942. 7-13. Print.