The line of frontier settlements by 1857 extended in a semi-circle from Sioux City to Fort Dodge as a center and thence to or near Springfield (now Jackson) in Minnesota." Only a brief time served to destroy this line as the settlers moved westward in search of the choicest claims. Before discussing the events which were soon to transpire it will be well to note the outward movement of this frontier to the northwest. The effect upon the Indians of the sudden outward bulging of the line was little short of maddening, as they felt themselves being swept onward by a tide they could not stem. All of their illy concealed hatred of the whites now bade fair to be loosed, while all past wrongs seemed about to be avenged.
Times were now "flush" and the tide of emigration "swept across the state with an impetus that carried everything before it." During the summer of 1855 "land-hunters, claim seekers and explorers" steadily flowed into northwestern Iowa. At this time little more was done by many of the settlers than to make temporary improvements, after which they returned eastward planning to take up permanent possession in the following summer.
The main arteries for this westward movement were the Little Sioux and the Des Moines. From Fort Dodge the wave spread out in fan‐shape to the furthermost limits of the frontier. The lines of the movement were in the main determined by two facts: Fort Dodge had been established as a United States land office for the territory west and north, and Lizard Creek made that region readily accessible to settlers. Up the Des Moines, settlers had pushed to the point where Jackson, Minnesota, now stands.
Many had stopped at occasional points along the Des Moines and made permanent settlements. Near the present site of Algona, in 1854, two brothers, Asa C. Call and Ambrose A. Call, made "the first settlement on either branch of the Des Moines above the forks." To the west of Algona at Medium Lake was the "Irish Colony"‐a group of five or six families of Irish extraction from Kane County, Illinois. This settlement has become the Emmetsburg of today. George Granger had staked out and settled upon a claim in Emmet County just south of the State line, and beyond this was Springfield, Minnesota, with six families. Thus a line of isolated settlements extended up the Des Moines Valley from Fort Dodge to Springfield.
To the northwest of Fort Dodge the incoming settlers moved up the course of Lizard Creek, which they followed to its beginning. Thence they crossed to the Little Sioux and settled near Sioux Rapids and Peterson. Near the latter place in the midwinter of 1855-1856 had come J. A. Kirchner and Jacob Kirchner, in company with Ambrose S. Mead. They did nothing at this time but select claims and return to Cedar Falls, from whence they returned in the early spring. After putting in his crops J. A. Kirchner had returned to New York. About the time of his departure, James Bieknell with his family and two men by the name of Wilcox also arrived at the little settlement in Clay County. Up the Little Sioux to the north were about six families at what became known as Gillett's Grove. In the early spring of 1856 the Hon. Wlliam Freeborn of Red Wing, Minnesota, and others projected a settlement at Spirit Lake. Their first attempt had not met with much success, and they now awaited the coming of the spring of 1857 to renew the attempt.
In the late summer of 1856 about forty people had settled along the shores of Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake. Following the original movement up Lizard Creek and the Des Moines River, settlers had begun pushing up the course of the Little Sioux from the Missouri River to a later junction with those coming by way of Lizard Creek to Sioux Rapids and beyond. This movement was marked by an initial settlement at the present site of Smithland, Woodbury County, in about 1851 by a group of three apostate Mormons from Kanesville. In the spring of 1856 the Milford, Massachusetts, Emigration Company had founded a colony of about twelve families near Pilot Rock in Cherokee County. The site chosen was a little north of the present city of Cherokee. Nearly ten miles above this point was a second settlement. To the northeast of these, in Buena Vista County, was the Weaver family at Barnes's Grove. Above this in O'Brien County was H. H. Waterman, at Waterman, who could boast of being the only white man within the confines of that county. Further up the Little Sioux, in the southwestern corner of Clay County, were the families of Mead, Kirchner, and Taylor.
This stretch of settlements outlined the extreme limits of the frontier. To the west there were no settlers; while to the north and northeast the nearest settlements were those on the Minnesota and Watonwan rivers. Although on ceded ground, all of these settlements were in the heart of the Indian country, where the passing of Indian bands was not uncommon. All were separated from each other by vast stretches of prairie, and frequently the settlers of one place were wholly unaware of the presence of ally other white people in the region. Their complete isolation from each other and consequent helplessness in case of Indian attacks were probably best known by the Indians who not infrequently visited them. This isolation appears the more complete when it is recalled that the nearest railroad station in Iowa at that time was Iowa City over two hundred miles away.
By 1857, therefore, the northwestern frontier may be described as "commencing at Sioux City and extending irregularly in a northeasterly direction, by way of Correctionville, Cherokee, Waterman, Peterson, Sioux Rapids, Gillett's Grove and Okoboji, to Spirit Lake; thence turning abruptly to the east by way of Estherville and Emmet to the headwaters of the Des Moines and Blue Earth Rivers, where it extended into Minnesota, terminating at Mankato.
Thus was the meeting round of the Indians and the white settlers rather roughly demarked when the winter of 1856-1857 began. Although the fertility of its soil had not been doubted and its great natural beauty and attractiveness as a region of boundless prairies had never been disputed, the northwest had acquired a reputation of climatic extremes ‐of hot summers and cold winters. This partly accounted for the fact that many settlers delayed their permanent coming to the region until they were amply prepared for the vicissitudes of climate which they must endure in their new homes. Glowing reports had brought the region into general notice, and by the fall of 1856 many people to the east were preparing to migrate to this wonderful country in the not distant future.
"The winter of 1856‐7 set in with a fury, steadiness and severity, which make it a land‐mark in the experience of every person" who passed through it. The storms came early in November, and for weeks northwestern Iowa witnessed nothing but a succession of terrific blizzards, accompanied by the most intense cold. By December 1, 1856, the snow was three feet deep on the level and from fifteen to twenty in the ravines and other low places. Communication of settlement with settlement was well nigh impossible. The scattered settlers were illy prepared for such a winter: their cabins were unfinished and generally without floors, as all lumber had to be hauled a distance of more than one hundred miles. Most of the settlers had planted no crops during the preceding growing season; hence provisions were scarce and could only be obtained by the use of snowshoes and hand sleds. Wild game was nowhere to be had, for it had either migrated before the oncoming storms or perished in the snow.
As the season progressed the intensity of the cold also increased; while heaw wind-driven snows continued to fall at frequent intervals. The prairies became bleak and barren snow-covered wastes, lashed by terrific winds and untenanted by man or beast. The closing of February and the opening of March witnessed no abatement in the severity of the winter. The snow which had been falling the whole winter long yet remained on the ground. Indeed, the season was so prolonged that it is said spring came only in late April, while May and June were cold. In July great banks of snow were yet to be seen in some of the sheltered places.
Although the white settlers suffered considerably from self‐imposed denial of food and from unsuitable houses in which to shelter themselves, their privations could not compare with those of the Indians. In Dakota, which was their winter home, they suffered terribly. Their game was gone‐ where they did not know. Nor were they able to follow it if they had known. As the winds swept over the prairies of Dakota and sharply penetrated the thickets wherein they lodged, their desperation grew apace. At last, in the closing days of February, the intense suffering from cold and famine could be endured no longer and they sallied forth. The course of their march spread out to the east, the north, and the south, and took them to the white settlements along the lowa and Minnesota frontiers where they sought and took both food and shelter.