IAGenWeb, dedicated to providing free genealogy.

Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project


Join the IAGenWeb Team



By Thomas Teakle
Published at Iowa City, Iowa in 1918
By The State Historical Society of Iowa
(contributed to Iowa History Project by Kris Meyer, Dickinson CC)
Chapter IV

The strained relations between the whites and the Indians resulted in unfortunate incidents which served to intensify the bad feeling already engendered. Of these, two may be noted as especially significant in the frontier history of northwestern Iowa. Thus, in 1854 and 1855, the so-called "Grindstone War" caused the whites to abandon the frontier for a time and spread alarm far and near. This incident might properly be said to have had its origin in intertribal hatred.For some time a group of Winnebago families had been accustomed to camp near Clear Lake. In this they had been encouraged by an old Indian trader by the name of Hewett. At the same time there also encamped among these Winnebagoes some Sac and Fox Indians who for years, in the Iowa country, had been the greatest enemies of the Sioux. When the latter became aware of the presence of these Sacs and Foxes among the Winnebagoes they swooped down upon them and by mistake scalped a Winnebago. Greatly alarmed, Hewett and his Indian friends fled down the valley, telling their story, which appears to have suffered somewhat from repetition as they proceeded. Within a brief time about one hundred armed settlers collected at Masonic Grove. According to some reports, about four hundred Sioux warriors fortified themselves some twelve miles distant. Thus matters remained during 1854 with no action from either party.

As time passed the Sioux became bolder, until matters reached a climax in an incident which occurred near Lime Creek. A settler, James Dickerson by name, possessed an unusually fine rooster which was craved by a begging band of Indians. In chasing the rooster, a young brave upset and demolished a grindstone, and then made off with the largest piece in continued pursuit of the fowl. Dickerson pursued the Indian and, seizing a piece of the grindstone, knocked him to the ground, where he lay for a time insensible. The Indians, enraged at Dickerson's act, demanded a settlement for the injury to the brave, making it plain that only Dickerson's best horse or one hundred dollars in money would satisfy them. After no little parleying, in which Mrs. Dickerson acted as mediator, the Indians were pacified when Mrs. Dickerson had given them about six dollars in money, a number of quilts, and many other articles of household use.
This "grindstone incident" caused the settlers to become greatly alarmed: men from Clear Lake, the Mason City settlement, and vicinity organized and undertook to drive the Indians out of the country. After a chase of some miles, the band of over twenty‐ five white men came in sight of the rapidly fleeing Indians, who, realizing that they would soon be surrounded and punished, signified a desire to settle matters. Following an interchange of protests, the peace pipe was smoked, after which the Indians resumed their way westward. This understanding, however, did not allay the fears of the settlers who fled panic‐stricken to Nora Springs, abandoning for a time their claims in the vicinity of Lime Creek and Clear Lake."

However ready the Indians may have seemed to make peace, the settlers feared for the future; and so along the line of settlements they spread the alarm that the Indians were on the warpath. Many appeals were made to Governor Hempstead for aid. But when he sent Major William Williams from Fort Dodge to investigate the charges, the Major reported that no danger from further attacks seemed to exist. Unable to secure State protection, the settlers armed themselves. Doubtless the "grindstone incident" soon ceased to impress the settlers with any permanent sense of impending danger, for it was not long before they began to return to their deserted claims.

But not far from the scene of this near tragedy there occurred another incident which displays the temper not alone of the Indian but also of the white borderer of the more troublesome type. It appears that this tragic event grew to undue proportions mainly through the vengeful hate of a frontiersman by the name of Lott. The incident, somewhat trivial in itself, has been given so much prominence as a reputed chief cause of the massacre at Okohoji that it is deemed worthy of somewhat extended notice in this place. Its connection with later events may well be a matter of conjecture, owing to the character of the Indians concerned.

For nearly a decade after the whites had begun to settle in northwestern Iowa the inhabitants of that region had been obliged to endure constant molestation from a roving band of Sisseton Sioux Indians. Though at first composed of only about five lodges‐mainly, it is said, of desperadoes and murderers‐ the band had grown by the gathering of like characters, fleeing from their avenging fellow tribesmen, until it numbered at times nearly five hundred. The band as a whole only assembled from time to time for the purpose of united warfare against others‐particularly against isolated bands of the Sac and Fox Indians. It was known and feared from the Des Moines westward to the Vermillion and northward to the Minnesota River on account of its peculiarly ferocious and quarrelsome character. It was, in short, a band of Indian outlaws. As such, it was hated and feared by red men and white men alike. In its forays it spared neither friend nor foe, but preyed upon both without discrimination. It claimed no home, but roamed at will wherever its fancy might lead.

Leadership of this band had been early acquired by one Sidominadota or "Two Fingers". He had succeeded to the leadership of this loosely consolidated band upon the death of Wamdisapa, an Indian of somewhat milder disposition than his successor. Sidominadota well maintained the savage character of the band and may be credited with the inspiration of many vengeful and frightful deeds committed during his brief leadership. He was only nominally the head of the united group, while really the leader of a small band seldom numbering more than fifteen and frequently less. By all who had to deal with him, red or white, he was looked upon with distrust. His fellow leaders associated with him only in time of dire necessity, for they well knew that Sidominadota would go any lengths to accomplish an end. While he continued to make his refuge and headquarters along the Vermillion, as did his predecessors, his favorite haunts were the headwaters of the Des Moines and Little Sioux Rivers and the region of the Iowa lakes.

About 1847 Sidominadota began to frequent that portion of the Des Moines Valley where Fort Dodge now stands. It was his band that in 1849 attacked a party of surveyors in charge of a man by the name of Marsh about three miles from the present site of Fort Dodge. Marsh and his party had been sent from Dubuque to run a correction line across the State. After crossing to the west side of the Des Moines River, they were notified by Sidominadota not to proceed with their work as this territory was Indian land. "With the departure of the Indians, the surveyors continued to run their line. In a short time the Indians returned, destroyed the instruments and landmarks of the surveyors, stole their horses, and drove the men back across the Des Moines. About a year later some settlers, more adventurous than their fellows, located near the month of the Boone River. Sidominadota, becoming aware of the arrival of these settlers, paid them a visit and ended by destroying their cabins and driving the people out of the country. This sort of behavior was continued toward every white man who ventured into that territory until the founding of Fort Dodge in 1850.

"Among others who had received indignities from this band was one Henry Lott .... who in 1846 settled near the mouth of Boone River in Webster County. Lott's past had been a varied one and much of it was obscure. He boasted of New England origin, while his wife claimed to be a daughter of an early Governor of Ohio or Pennsylvania. If, however, we are to accept the judgment of their contemporaries the family had degenerated. Lott is almost always described as being notorious "lawless, a horse thief, a vender of bad whiskey, a criminal, half-civilized, a desperado, an outlaw, and a murderer." Up to the time he appeared in the valley of the Des Moines his whole life had been one of adventure.

His first appearance in Iowa, so far as known, was at Red Rock, Marion County, in 1845, where he essayed the role of Indian trader while dealing out bad whiskey to the Indians and surreptitiously stealing their ponies. It is said that his Red Rock neighbors in 1846 requested him to leave the neighborhood‐ which he did by moving on to Pea's Point.

Here his stay seems to have been brief, for during the same year he is found located on the Des Moines River near the mouth of the Boone, where he erected a cabin and resumed his whiskey‐selling and horsestealing. Lott's horse‐stealing activities caused the Indians to grow suspicious ; and finally they traced the loss of five ponies directly to him and his fellow marauders. This led to an Indian council which decided that Lott should be driven out of the country. Accordingly he was waited upon by Sidominadota and warned "that he was an intruder; that he had settled on the Sioux hunting grounds"; and that he was expected to get off at once. Lott contended that he was not an intruder and refused to go. The Indians then began the destruction of his property: his horses and cattle were shot, his bee‐hives rifled, and his family threatened. Lott seems to have been something of a coward, for when the Indians began taking summary action he fled. While the Indians were destroying or stealing his property and abusing the helpless members of his family he, according to his own story, crossed the river and secreted himself in the brush. Later he and his stepson, leaving his wife and young children to the mercy of the Indians, fled down the Des Moines River to Pea's Point, a short distance south of the present site of Boone.

Here Lott related his story to John Pea and others of the settlement. Aroused by his tale, the settlers organized a relief party to return to his cabin and if possible to punish the Indians. An appeal for more help was sent to Elk Rapids, sixteen miles away. At this point lived Ghemeuse or "Johnny Green", a half-breed Pottawattamie and Mns(]uakie xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx chief, with many of his people who traditionally hated the Sioux. The chief with twenty-six of his men and seven settlers from Pea's Point went to Lott's assistance. It was past the middle of December, and the weather was intensely cold. After Lott's flight from his cabin, his twelve-year-old son, Milton, had started in search of his father, but when about twenty miles from his home and three miles from Boonesboro had frozen to death. The relief party, on December 18, 1846, found the dead body of the boy a short distance below the village of Centerville. After burying the body on the spot where it was found, the party continued on its way to Lott's cabin. When they arrived they found that the Indians had gone. The family was safe, though suffering and destitute as they had been robbed of everything. The wife, however, had been so mistreated and had suffered so extremely from exposure that she died a short time thereafter.

Vowing vengeance, Lott moved south to the settlements and built a second cabin. Here and at other points in the vicinity he remained a few years, according to all accounts, and bided his time in true frontier style. In the autumn of 1853 he and his stepson passed through Fort Dodge on their way to settle at a new location. In early November he selected a site for his cabin about thirty miles north of Fort Dodge, in Humboldt County, at a point where a small creek joins the Des Moines River. This creek has since been named Lott's Creek in honor of the first white settler in that vicinity." With three barrels of bad whiskey, he re‐opened trade with the Indians. And the trade was good; for at this time there was only one cabin, other than his own, north of Fort Dodge‐the cabin of William Miller which was located six miles from Fort Dodge.

In January following Lott's new settling, Sidominadota and his family‐which was composed of his squaw, mother, four children, and two orphan children‐came up the Des Moines and encamped on "Bloody Run", a short distance below the mouth of Lott's Creek. Aware of the coming of the old chief, Lott plotted his destruction. Going to the lodge of Sidominadota, where he perceived that he was not recognized, Lott reported the presence of a large drove of elk feeding on the Des Moines bottom at a point since known as the "Big Bend"." The chief's family being in sore need of food, the Indian was easily trapped by the ruse. Sidominadota, having been liberally treated to whiskey, mounted his pony and set out for the hunt; while Lott and his stepson followed. When a safe distance away from the Indian camp and beyond earshot, Lott and his stepson fired upon the Indian, killing him outright. Secreting themselves during the day, the murderers, at the coming of darkness, disguised themselves as Indians, returned to the lodge of the murdered Indian, raised a terrific war cry for purposes of deception, and then surprised and killed all the members of the family except a boy of twelve and a girl of ten years who escaped under cover of darkness.'

Completing the work of destruction, Lott returned to his own cabin, burned it to make the whole affair appear the work of Indians, and in the company of his stepson fled down the Des Moines Valley. Some years later a report came back to Iowa that he had made his way to California and had there been lynched by a vigilance committee."

Something more than a week after the murder of Sidominadota and his family a band of Indians from a camp on the Lizard Creek, while hunting in the vicinity of the mouth of "Bloody Run", discovered what had taken place. They reported the fact not only to Fort Ridgely but also to Major Williams at Fort Dodge, demanding an investigation and the righting of the wrong as far as possible. Major Williams at once raised a company of whites and Indians and set out in an attempt to locate the murderers, but to no avail. The Indians were firm in their conviction that Lott had committed the deed. A coroner's jury under the direction of Coroner John Johns met at Homer, the county seat of Webster County, and placed the guilt upon Lott and his stepson. But no very great effort was or could be made by the authorities to secure the offenders, owing to the start of ten days which they had secured.

Later they were indicted by a grand jury sitting in Des Moines, which ended the attempt to find and punish them. The Indians were highly incensed not only at the murder itself, but at the apparent inaction of the authorities in apprehending and punishing the murderers. Many reports became current as to the final disposition of the dead chief's body after it had been taken to Homer for the inquest. These reports only added to the embitterment of the Indians, who had expected much from the inquest, having been told that this would settle matters. That the inquest took somewhat the form of a farce was due to the attitude of the prosecuting attorney of Hamilton County, Granville Berkley, who humorously conducted the affair.

Fearing later unpleasant results, the whites attempted to pacify the Indians with many promises. But the Indians grew sullen and suspicious and behaved in such a manner as to create the impression that they might retaliate. It soon became evident that the authorities had no intention of keeping their promises. The Indians after some threatening seem to have disappeared. One can understand how such incidents, coupled with past grievances, "real or only imaginary", might in the end lead to desperate deeds.

  back to Spirit Lake Massacre index
  back to County index
  back to History Project index