For some time the lake region had been well‐known to the traders and voyageurs of the upper Mississippi Valley, and their tales concerning it were all favorable. The French interpreter of the Lewis and Clark expedition wrote so clearly of the region as to leave no doubt as to his having been there. He it was who first wrote of the Lac D'Esprit, mentioning it for its great natural beauty of location and as being the chief seat of one of the Dakotan tribes. Hunters, traders, trappers, and adventurers visited the region frequently thereafter, but left only oral accounts as to its character and worth. The same region was visited in the summer of 1838 by Nicollet xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx and eJolin C. Fremont, who made observations as to elevation, latitude, and longitude. It was following this official visit that white frontiersmen began to frequent the locality.
All reports of the region indicated it was the favored home of the Wahpekuta Yankton Sioux. Spirit Lake especially was believed by this tribe to be the scene of various myths and legends intimately connected with the origin and life of the tribe. It was reputed to be always under the watchful care of the Great Spirit whose presence therein was clearly evidenced by the lake's turbulent waters which were never at rest. It was this suggestion of the supernatural— a sort of mystic veil surrounding the region that led many people to visit it. Some came only to view the lake and, having done so, departed to add perhaps one more legendary tale to the volume of its romance. Practically every visitor enlarged upon the great charms of the groves of natural timber bordering its shores.
But in nearly all of the accounts and tales of the region there was persistent confusion with, regard to the several bodies of water. The Indians had always plainly distinguished at least three lakes; while reports by white men as persistently spoke of only one. The Indians knew of Okoboji, ''the place of rest", of Minnetonka, ''the great water", and of Minnewaukon, "the lake of demons or spirits" or Lac D'Esprit or Spirit Lake as it is known to-day. It is the first of these, Lake Okoboji, with which this narrative is primarily concerned. Upon its borders the first permanent white settlers built their cabins and staked their claims; and here was perpetrated the awful tragedy which has come to be known as the Spirit Lake Massacre.
The lakes, lying closely together as a group, occupy a large portion of the townships of Spirit Lake, Center Grove, and Lakeville. The northernmost and somewhat the largest of the group is Spirit Lake, which is about ten square miles in area. The northern shore of this lake touches upon or extends into Minnesota along practically the whole of its course. To the south, not connected at this time, and extending in a narrowed, almost tortuous course, stretches East Okoboji for a distance of over six miles. At no point is East Okoboji much over three-quarters of a mile in width. West Okoboji lies to the west of its companion and is connected with it by a narrow strait a few yards in width. The west lake stretches to the west and north, circling in a segment of a circle nearly halfway back to the north and east to Spirit Lake. In length it is about the same as the east lake, although its width is over four times as great at one point. Issuing from the southernmost bay of East Okoboji is the outlet stream, which at a distance of six miles from its source effects a junction with the main stream of the Little Sioux.
The shores of the Okoboji lakes are in the main well wooded, while those of Spirit Lake have only occasional clumps of trees. Along the shores of the latter prairie and water usually meet without interruption by bands of timber. In some respects the Okobojis present a reasonably good reproduction of the smaller lakes of southern New York and New- England. Thus easterners felt that here could be reproduced the familiar scenes of "back home". Although the attractiveness of the place was widely known, no one had settled in the region before the middle of the century. The vanguard of the permanent settlers came on July 16, 1856, with the arrival of Rowland Gardner and his family.
Rowland Gardner was a native of Connecticut, having been born in New Haven in 1815. Here he spent his boyhood years and learned the trade of comb-maker. Growing tired of life in New Haven he migrated to Seneca, New York, where he resumed his trade. At the occupation of comb-maker he had been able to accumulate some three thousand dollars, which, for the time, was considered rather a comfortable little fortune. On March 22, 1836, he married Frances M. Smith, and four children, Mary, Eliza, Abigail, and Rowland, were born while the family lived at Seneca. Abigail, the youngest daughter who is to figure so largely in the story of the Spirit Lake Massacre, was born in 1843. Later the father abandoned the trade of comb-maker and turned to that of sawyer. This change in occupation did not come, however, until the family had again moved‐this time to Greenwood, New York. Again, in 1850, they removed to the near-by town of Rexville.
But Gardner had a love for roaming that could not be satisfied by short moves; and so it was not long before he left Rexville for Ohio. His first stop in that State was at Edyington, where he opened a boarding house. His next resolve was to go to the then Far West. Thus, in the spring of 1854 he made his way with his family to Shell Rock, lowa. Here the family spent their first winter in the West and suffered much from the change of climate. Shell Bock, however, was only a temporary stopping place, for Gardner had no thought of settling short of the farthest bounds of the frontier.
In the early spring of 1855 Gardner, in company with his son-in-law, Harvey Luce, made a rather extensive prospecting tour to the west and north. He seems to have decided to settle, for a time at least, at Clear Lake; for a little later we find him and Luce with their united families moving up the Shell Rock Valley to Nora Springs and thence across the prairie to Clear Lake. This journey consumed the greater portion of April and early May. Settling too late to plant crops that season, the families could not look forward to a very comfortable year.
Gardner and Luce decided upon Clear Lake for the same reason that later led them to settle at Lake Okoboji. To a New Englander accustomed to the lakes and streams of his native parts, Clear Lake with its waters and groves made a strong appeal‐one that could not readily be resisted. Open prairies seemed to be "the abomination of desolation" itself. The Mason City settlement on Lime Creek was thought of, but the natural advantages of Clear Lake outweighed any inclination in that direction. At this time Mason City was little more than a station on the westward trail: it consisted of only three or four houses on the open, wind-swept prairie.
It was while the Gardner family was living at Clear Lake that there occurred the so-called "Grindstone War", in which indeed they were active participants. After the scare had spent its force, Gardner again grew uneasy; and, having heard of the attractiveness of the lake region farther to the west along the frontier, he became anxious to settle there. Thus, scarcely had they harvested a first crop when the Gardners were once more en route to the westward. The small returns from the sale of the claim at Clear Lake were invested in some oxen, cows, and young cattle.
To the homeseeker the lake region was regarded as a "promised land". This was largely due to its natural beauties as well as to the very great abundance of fish in the lake waters and the plenitude of wild game in the groves along its shores. Many claim seekers had visited the region previous to July, 1856, but no claims had been staked out. The Gardners found no settlers at the time of their arrival. In fact no settlers had been seen by them since leaving the claim of the Call brothers near the present site of Algona.
The journey from Clear Lake had been an arduous one, having been made with ox teams hitched to heavy, cumbrous carts into which had been loaded not only the familv but the household goods and the farming implements as well as the food supply. Thus burdened the oxen could make only slow progress even under the most favorable conditions. Furthermore, it seems that the Iowa plains had suffered from an over abundance of rain that summer: numberless quagmires were encountered; while many streams could hardly be forded on account of their swollen condition. Added to these conditions was the uncertainty of the route—due to lack of knowledge of the country. Many a time it was necessary to unload and carry articles of freight over difficult places. Enduring these trials with the fortitude of well tried pioneers they steadily pushed on. Upon July 16th they came to the southeastern shores of West Okoboji; and here they rested, for they were at their journey's end.
Since leaving New York the Gardner family had been augmented by a union with the family of Harvey Luce. The latter had planned from the first to unite his fortunes with those of the Gardners, but had been unable to do so at the time of their leaving New York. Luce had married Mary, the eldest of the Gardner girls; and at the time of their arrival at Lake Okoboji, the family numbered two children, Albert aged four and Amanda aged one. The Gardner‐Luce party was thus composed of nine persons at the time of its arrival.
Luce and Gardner did not settle at once: while the families tented, the men spent several days in a careful survey of the lake shores and the surrounding prairie region, the better to determine a suitable site. Since the lake region was to be the place of their permanent settlement they desired to make a careful selection of lands.
In the end it was decided to build cabins upon the southeastern shore of the west lake. The location selected was several rods southeast of what is now Pillsbury's Point upon the high, oak-wooded ridge which terminated in that point of land. The site was ideal. To the north and northwest the outlook presented a sweeping view of the lake; while to the south there was as fair a prospect of prairie land as any country could afford. No better selection for a home could have been made. The erection of a log cabin for the Gardners was begun at once. Fronting south, this cabin was for its time rather pretentious, since it was one and one-half stories high.
The season being far too advanced for the planting of crops little could be done besides preparing the land for the next year. This was accomplished by breaking some of the prairie sod. In addition hay was made as feed for the oxen and other cattle during the long winter season. The making of the hay was largely carried through by Mrs. Gardner and her children, including Mrs. Luce; while Gardner and Luce pushed ahead with the building of the cabins in order to afford protection for all as soon as possible. Shelter was also provided for the cattle. By the time this had been done, the season was so far advanced that, though the Luce cabin had been begun, its completion had to be postponed until the return of favorable weather in the coming year. Thus it came about that the Luces took up their abode with the Gardners for the winter which was now upon them.
While out prospecting for claim sites in the two or three days following their arrival, Luce and Gardner heard a report of firearms and upon tracing it to its source found that other settlers had just arrived in the vicinity. The camp of the new arrivals was in process of being pitched on the shore of the west lake near the strait connecting the two Okobojis. The party was composed of Carl and William Granger, Bertell E. Snyder, and Dr. Isaac H. Harriott. They had come to the lake region for the purpose of examining the country with a view to future settlement. Having completed their reconnaissance, the members of the party were preparing to spend some time in the neighborhood hunting and fishing.
These newcomers came to be so well pleased with the advantages of the region that they finally resolved to spend the winter here and possibly make a permanent settlement. After reaching this conclusion they constructed a cabin on Smith's Point north of the strait. These men, moreover, were members of a townsite company which had been founded in May, 1856, at Red Wing, Minnesota. As promoters it was their purpose to start a town on the border of some one of the lakes in this region. The Grangers as leading stockholders in the concern laid claim to the point upon which the cabin was built, as well as to all the land lying along the northern shore of the east lake. After resolving upon permanent settlement all but William Granger decided to remain during the coming fall and winter and engage in preparing the townsite for prospective settlers. William Granger was the only married man of the group, and his purpose in returning to Red Wing was two-fold—that of advertising the townsite which had been selected and of bringing back his family in the spring of 1857.
Although the Gardner and Luce families were the first to arrive at the lakes, they had not long to wait before other groups began to arrive, all of whom hurried preparations for the winter that was now not far removed. The sound of the saw and hammer was soon heard in a number of places along the lake shores, while signs of still greater activity in the future grew apace. All of the newcomers located within a radius of six miles of the Gardner cabin. The nearest settlement was that at Springfield, Minnesota, about eighteen miles to the northeast; while to the south the nearest was at Gillett's Grove, more than forty miles away. Neither of these settlements had made any provision for its protection against a hostile party of any kind. So far as anyone knew no reason existed for their apparent feeling of assurance against danger.
So rapidly had emigration set in that by November 1, 1856, there were six separate groups of people prepared to spend the winter in this vicinity. The first family to arrive after the Gardners was that of James H. Mattock, who came with his wife and five children directly from Delaware County, Iowa. They settled south of the strait, nearly opposite the site chosen by the party from Red Wing, and the place of their settlement has since become locally known as Mattock's Grove. The site was about one mile from the Gardner‐Luce cabin. With the Mattock family had also come a Robert Madison, who was about eighteen years of age. Robert Madison had preceded the other members of his family, who were still in Delaware County but were planning to move to the lake region when suitable accommodations had been provided for them by the son.
From Hampton, Franklin County, Iowa, there came in the late fall the families of Joel Howe, Alvin Noble, and Joseph M. Thatcher. These people had been neighbors at Hampton and had come west as a group. They settled along the east shore of East Okoboji, some two or three miles from the Mattock cabin. The Howe family was large, consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Howe and six children. Jonathan, the eldest of the children and a young man of twenty three, remained in Hampton, since it was planned that he should come out in the following spring or as soon as he could procure the supplies which would be needed by the three families in their work of pioneering.
Alvin Noble, Howe's son-in-law, brought with him his wife and one child‐a two year old son. The Thatcher family was also small, consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher and a child about seven months of age. The Howe cabin was the first to be erected and was also the nearest to those on West Okoboji. When it had been completed, all hands joined in the erection of a cabin about a mile beyond or northeast of Howe's place which was to be jointly occupied by the Noble and Thatcher families until further arrangements could be made. Boarding with the latter families was Morris Markham—a sort of frontiersman from Hampton, Iowa.
Late in September came Mr. and Mrs. William Marble from Linn County, Iowa. Having stopped temporarily on the Okoboji lakes, the Marbles after some prospecting decided to locate on the southwest shore of Spirit Lake‐distant, in an air line, about six miles from the Gardners and perhaps a mile less from the Howes. Their cabin was the most isolated of all‐which made it easily possible for events to transpire upon the shores of the Okobojis without the knowledge of the Marbles for days or even weeks.
Such was the chain of settlements of those pioneers who were to pass the frightful winter of 1856- 1857 on this isolated frontier. As winter closed in upon them they felt reasonably secure, since iddians had only very rarely been seen. With little or no experience of frontier life on an American prairie, they believed their supply of provisions to be ample for the closed season. No one anticipated an unusual winter. During February a trapper named Joseph Harshman came to the cabin of the Red Wing people. Being a man of genial disposition he was encouraged to spend the remaining portion of the winter with them. Whence he came no one knew; nor did anyone inquire concerning his antecedents, since on the frontier such questions were regarded as discourteous to the stranger.
About eighteen miles to the northeast, on the Des Moines River in Minnesota, was the newly formed settlement of Springfield. Here were to be found by the winter of 1856-1857 about six or seven families. The town had been platted in the summer of 1856 by three brothers‐William, George, and Charles Wood of Mankato, Minnesota. For many years these brothers had been widely known in Minnesota and the northwest as Indian traders. By the winter of 1856-1857 they had concentrated their trading interests in a store in Springfield, which made the little village the meeting and trading place of the Indians and whites for many miles around. Indeed, Springfield was the only settlement of note within a radius of fifty miles.
Most of the settlers comprising the Springfield, or as it was sometimes called the "Des Moines City" settlement, had come from northeastern Iowa. The vanguard had appeared in August, 1856, and had located on the east side of the Des Moines River. The Wood brothers had come somewhat earlier and had established their post on the west side of the river, where they laid out the town which they planned to promote. As in the region of the lakes, the cabins were widely scattered up and down the river for seven or eight miles. By the opening of winter the settlement had about seventeen able bodied men and twelve adult women; but by March, 1857, the number had somewhat increased so that the settlement had about forty-seven people in all, living in seven or eight family groups.
In general the cabins were centered about the home of J. B. Thomas, who had built in the edge of the timber near the river about one and a half miles from the Wood brothers' store. In this family were Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and five children, the eldest of them was a boy, Willie, of twelve or thirteen years. About two miles from the Thomas cabin upon the open prairie lived Joshua Stewart with his wife and three children; while the Wheeler cabin was about three-fourths of a mile and the John Bradshaw home nearly one and a half miles away. The Adam P. Shiegley cabin, where he and one son lived, was the most isolated, being far removed from all of the others. In addition, there were the homes of Strong, Skinner, Smith, Church, and Harshman.
In the family of Dr. E. B. N. Strong, the community surgeon, were Dr. and Mrs. Strong, two children, and Miss Eliza Gardner, the daughter of Rowland Gardner of the Okoboji settlement. The Strongs had made the acquaintance of the Gardners after the latter had come to the lakes. As Mrs. Strong was not in good health Eliza Gardner had been prevailed upon to accompany the Strongs to their new home at Springfield. In the Church home were Mr. and Mrs. William L. Church, two children, and Miss Drusilla Swanger, a sister of Mrs. Church. The family of J. B. Skinner comprised, beside himself, his wife and two children ; while in the Harsh man home there were also two children. Mr. and Mrs. William Nelson had one child; while Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith and a second Harshman and wife were without children. The unmarried men of the community were Joseph Cheffins, Henry Tretts, Jareb Palmer, David N. Carver, Nathaniel Frost, John Henderson, and John Bradshaw. As the result of being badly frozen during the winter of 1856- 1857, it had been necessary for Dr. Strong to amputate both of Henderson's legs and one of Smith's. These operations had been performed shortly before the visit of the Indians in March, 1857.