After leaving Medium Lake evidences of the presence of Indians were observed from time to time. What appeared to be moccasin tracks were frequently seen. Cattle had been killed in such a manner as to leave no doubt that the work had been done by Indians. At Big Island Grove many signs of Indians were found. On an island in the middle of the lake the Indians had constructed a lookout in the tree tops from which they were able to see the country for miles around. Better evidence still of the fact that their visits were recent was the report that the campfires were still glowing, and that fishing holes were found in the ice.
Many members of the expedition believed that the Indians, after raiding the settlements at the lake, would cross over to the Des Moines and proceed south on a war of extermination; and the signs at Big Island Grove were very readily accepted as a substantiation of this belief. It is probable, however, that this was a mistaken conclusion. Sleepy Eye had frequently rendezvoused at Big Island Grove, and the arrival of the expedition may have followed closely his departure on the spring hunting trip. It is not probable that Inkpaduta's men went east of the lakes or south of Springfield.
On the evening of the arrival of the expedition at Big Island Grove, Major Williams decided that since they were evidently in the Indian country the march should thereafter be made with more caution. Accordingly, he called for volunteers for an advance scouting party of ten men whose work would be to precede the main expeditionary force and keep a sharp lookout for the near approach of Indians and to observe, interpret, and report any signs that might be discovered. They were to maintain an advance of perhaps three miles over the main column.
Major Williams selected as the commander of this advance guard William L. Church, who of all the members of the expedition was the most familiar with the country in which they were now moving, since he had passed through it a number of times after settling at Springfield. Those who had volunteered as his companions were Lieutenant Maxwell, Thatcher, Hathaway, F. R. Mason, Laughlin, A. S. Johnson, De Foe, Carpenter, and another man whose identity seems to have been forgotten shortly after the return of the expedition to Fort Dodge.
The members of the advance guard were astir early Tuesday morning; and while they breakfasted, rations for three days were made ready for each man. These rations when totalled amounted to forty pounds of corn meal and twenty pounds of wheat flour. In addition the men were allowed each a piece of corn bread about six inches square, which was supposed to be divided among the meals of the succeeding three days; but a number of the men, deciding that the easiest way to carry the bread was to eat it, immediately set about doing that very thing. The scouting party left the main body of the expedition about six o'clock on a beautiful winter's morning‐ although it was in fact the closing day of March. Orders were given to the men to scout north, northwest, and northeast of the route to be followed by the main body. Lieutenant Maxwell and Langhlin, being true plainsmen, took the lead, while the remaining eight were soon envying "the ease and celerity with which" they "with their long legs and wiry frames, pulled through the snow and across the snow-drifts.
The advance had made about twelve miles when the men paused on the bare ridge of the Des Moines watershed for the midday meal. Mason was stationed as sentry, while the others ate in the sheltered lea of the ridge. At some distance from the other members of the party, Mason had been at his post only a short time when he saw far to the northwest a black spot come into view. It soon became evident that the spot was moving. The attention of the other members of the party was called to the discovery. After sighting with their ramrods for some minutes, they too concluded that the object was really on the move. Furthermore it was agreed that the moving object must be a party of Indians; and so an attack was planned.
The squad advanced on the run to meet the party, which was probably two miles away. But no sooner had the whites started toward the "Indians" than the latter were observed to hold a hurried consultation. Between the two parties was a willow bordered creek toward which each started for the apparent purpose of ambushing the other. The advance guard, having reached and passed the creek first, scaled the knoll or ridge of ground just beyond. Having reached the crest of the swell, the expeditionists prepared to fight. The opposing force halted and likewise seemed to prepare for defense. Before beginning the attack, however, the arrival of Church and a second man was awaited. When these men had come up, breathless but ready for the fray, the order to advance was given. Suddenly Church gave a shout and sprang forward exclaiming: '' My God, there's my wife and babies!" The "Indians" turned out to be none other than the refugees from Springfield, Minnesota. The meeting was both dramatic and pathetic. For days relatives and friends of the refugees had believed them dead‐ victims of Indian barbarities. Now some were reunited with their loved ones, while others received word that their kin were lying in the snows of the lake region or had been carried away in captivity by the Indians.
A pathetic sight, indeed, were these terrified fugitives. In the haste of their flight they had taken but few provisions and scanty clothing. The women had worn out their shoes; their dresses were worn into fringe about the ankles; the children were crying with hunger and cold; the wounded were in a deplorable condition for want of surgical aid. Their food was entirely exhausted; they had no means of making fire; their blankets and clothing were wet and frozen .... The refugees were so overcome .... that they sank down in the snow, crying and laughing alternately, as their deliverers gathered around them." The wounded were in a terrible condition. "Mr. Thomas was traveling with his hand dangling by the cords of his arm, having been shot through the wrist."They were almost exhausted from the toilsome march, lack of food, exposure to the inclement weather, and the terrible anxiety of the previous week.
From the story of the refugees it seems that while painfully making their way southward, and almost ready to perish from cold, starvation, and physical exhaustion, they saw appear upon the summit of a ridge far to the southeastward a group of men whom they, too, supposed to be Indians. It happened that the men of the advance guard were wearing shawls as a protection from the cold, and so they really did have the appearance of blanket‐clad Indians. The refugees were wild with terror for they felt that their end had certainly come. There was only one man in the party who really had the courage and was able to fight. Loading the eight rifles which were in the possession of the party, John Bradshaw prepared to meet the enemy single-handed, ready to sacrifice his life if necessary in the defense of the helpless members of the party. It is said that he stood rifle in hand until Church, breaking from the ranks of the advance guard, ran forward shouting for his wife and children. Not until then was it evident to the refugees that friends rather than enemies were approaching.
Mason and Smith were chosen to carry the news back to the main body of the expedition, which at this time was nearly eight miles to the rear. Mason declares that he was so excited that notwithstanding his fatigue he ran the whole distance. When the messengers were within two miles of the expedition their coming was observed by Captains Buncombe and Richards who rode out to meet them. Major Williams was sent for and a consultation held. Mason, Duncombe, Richards, and Dr. Bissell were ordered by Major Williams to push forward as rapidly as possible to the aid of the refugees. At four o'clock in the afternoon the start was made, and so well did the men make the return trip that the fugitives from Springfield were reached about nine o'clock. The advance guard and the fugitives were found in the shelter of the creek willows over a mile from where they had been left. Camp had been pitched‐if such it could be called. Meanwhile, a storm had come up and it was raining furiously, which only increased the sad plight of the starving and ragged refugees who were without adequate shelter.
When the main expeditionary body arrived about midnight strenuous efforts were made to provide some sort of comfort for the distressed and starving fugitives. The only semblance to a tent in the expedition's equipment‐one made of blankets patched together‐was provided them, and their wounds were dressed by Dr. Bissell. Being so near the scene of the massacre, it was feared that even then Indians might be in the vicinity of the camp. And so guards were placed to prevent a surprise attack. Since the men were greatly exhausted by the day's efforts, they were relieved of guard duty each hour. Thus little rest came to any of the men that night. In the morning the refugees were again fed and provided with blankets by the expeditionary force from its already slender store. Being thus outfitted, they were given a guard and sent on to the Irish Colony. Mr. Church left the expedition at this point to accompany his wife and children to Fort Dodge and Webster City.
Learning from the fugitives the facts concerning the presence of the Indians at Springfield, Major Williams decided to push toward that point as rapidly as possible. When the march was resumed on the morning following the meeting with the refugees from Springfield, the expedition moved in the direction of Granger's Point. John Bradshaw, Morris Markham, and Jareb Palmer did not continue with the refugees, but enlisted as members of the expeditionary force, each hoping for a chance to even up matters with the red men.
The march to the Granger settlement was enlivened by a little incident that aided much in detracting from the trying ordeal of the march. In the morning additional precautions were taken to guard against a surprise by Indians: a small group of men were selected by Major Williams to scout just ahead of the main body and ascertain if Indians might chance to be in the timber along the streams and about the lakes. The scouts were given orders to fire their guns only in case they found Indians. The advance had continued about three miles when the crack of a gun was heard, followed by a number of reports in quick succession from the timber just ahead. Immediately two men emerged from the timber on the run. Captain Duncombe who was about a mile in advance of his command thought the runners to be Indians, and he at once gave chase hoping to head them off before they could enter another grove a short distance beyond and for which they were evidently making. Being mounted, Duncombe soon approached near enough to recognize two of the expedition scouts.
It was soon learned that while passing through the timber two old hunter members of the squad chanced to see some beavers sunning themselves on the ice. Unable to resist the first impulse, they emptied the contents of their guns at the unsuspecting animals. The men seen running out of the timber were only chasing some of the animals that had not been killed by the initial volley. Meanwhile, the whole expeditionary force had been halted, and with loaded guns put in readiness for the attack. Some members, unable to control themselves, did not wait for the command, but broke ranks and ran toward the imagined Indians with guns ready for firing. After some little time the expedition was again restored to a state of order and the march resumed.
Upon reaching Granger's Point that evening, they were very inhospitably received by a man and boy who were occupying the cabin. Little information and absolutely no assistance could be secured from them. They reported that they had no food, withdrew into the cabin, and barred the door. Within a brief time, however, a horseman arrived, who proved to be a United States regular from Captain Bee's command which had but lately arrived at Springfield. He brought the information of Bee's arrival, of the flight of the Indians westward, and of Bee's sending a detail to Spirit Lake to bury the dead. He said, however, that the detail had visited only one cabin on Spirit Lake and had there found one body which they buried. They had made no attempt to reach the lower lakes on account of bad weather and roads and the shortage of provisions.
That night Major Williams called a council, and upon a review of the facts it was decided to abandon the chase. But since the bodies of the massacred were yet unburied, it was thought that a detail of volunteers should proceed to the lakes on that mission.