IAGenWeb Project

 Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project











The participation of Northwestern Iowa in the issues of the Civil war was not so much the support given the Union army on the pitched battle fields of the enemy country, as the men furnished in the northern border operations to save the State from a widespread onslaught of the Sioux, while Confederate forays and invasions were progressing from the south. Fortunately, the Indian menace was crushed in Northwestern Iowa, after it had appalled and all but succeeded in Southern Minnesota.


Before the outbreak of the Civil war, Northwestern Iowa had organized to oppose any Sioux incursions from the north. The necessity for it was terribly emphasized by the massacres in Dickinson County of March, 1857. Early in the year 1858, Cyrus C. Carpenter, of Fort Dodge, representing the district in the lower house of the Iowa Legislature, succeeded in having a bill passed providing for the raising of a company for the protection of the northwestern frontier.

The company was recruited chiefly in Hamilton and Webster counties, on the southeastern borders of the Northwestern Iowa covered by this work, and was commanded by Capt. Henry Martin, of Webster City. It arrived on the frontier about the first of March, 1858, and was divided into three detachments. Captain Martin, with the main squad, took up his quarters in the old fort at Spirit Lake; First Lieutenant




Church was sent to Peterson, in the southwest corner of Clay County, and Second Lieutenant Jewett was stationed with a few men in Emmet County. After remaining on duty until about the first of July, without any indication of an Indian outbreak, the men were ordered home, though the company was not disbanded. At the earnest request of a majority of the settlers along the frontier, the company was again called out in the fall of 1858, and remained on duty until the spring of 1859, when the men were discharged.


The withdrawal of Captain Martin’s company left the Northwestern frontier without any armed protection except such as could be furnished by the settlers themselves. Samuel J. Kirkwood was inaugurated governor early in 1860. No man in the State knew better the dangers to which the settlers along the northern border were exposed. he had noted that when the troops were on duty along the frontier the Indians kept out of sight, but as soon as the soldiers were withdrawn, new outbreaks were committed. He communicated these facts to the Legislature with the result that in March, 1860, a bill providing for a company of Minute Men was passed. As this bill is really a curiosity in State legislation and defense, it is given in full:
“Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Iowa, that for the purpose of protecting the citizens of the northwestern portion of the State and enabling them to defend themselves against the threatened invasion of hostile Indians, the governor be, and is hereby, authorized to furnish said settlers such arms and ammunition as may be necessary for the purposes aforesaid.

“Section 2. That the governor be, and hereby is, authorized to cause to be enrolled a company of minute men in number not exceeding twelve, at the governor’s discretion, who shall at all times, hold themselves in readiness to meet any threatened invasion of hostile Indians as aforesaid. The said minute men to be paid only for the time actually employed in the services herein contemplated.

“Section 3. That of the said minute men, under the orders of the governor at his discretion and under such regulations


as he may prescribe, a number of not exceeding four may be employed as an active police force for such time and to perform such services as may be demanded of them, who shall be paid only for the period during which they shall be actively employed as aforesaid.

“Section 4. There is hereby appropriated from the State treasury the sum of five hundred dollars, or so much thereof as may be necessary, for carrying into effect the provisions of this act.”

This act was approved on March 9, 1860. Think of placing a State like Iowa on a war footing with a force of twelve men, only one-third of whom were to be in active service, with an appropriation of $500! There were two hundred miles of frontier to be guarded! But Governor Kirkwood accepted the situation. The minute men were enlisted and headquarters established at Cherokee, then a frontier town. They remained in service until the fall of 1861, carrying dispatches and watching the movements of the Indians, but no official record can be found giving the time of their enlistment or date of discharge.


Soon after the commencement of hostilities in the Civil war, and the withdrawal of regular troops from the garrisons above Sioux City and along the Missouri River, the citizens of Iowa, especially those living in the valleys of the Floyd and Little Sioux, saw that they must depend upon themselves to avert the threatened depredations of the Sioux, who were taking advantage of this season of anxiety and unrest to increase the apprehension of the Unionists of the State. In the spring of 1861 was therefore organized, under State auspices, a body of citizen soldiers, known first as Home Guards and later as Frontier Guards. It was held liable for service in the protection of frontier points, regardless of locality. The troops especially assigned to the northwestern frontier were originally placed in command of Caleb Baldwin, of Council Bluffs, afterward chief justice of the State Supreme Court. Justice Baldwin was soon succeeded in command by A. W> Hubbard, of Sioux City, then judge of the Fourth Judicial district, which included thirty counties in Northwest-


ern Iowa. The original commissioned officers were William Tripp, captain; William R. Smith, first lieutenant, and A. J. Millard, second lieutenant.
The Northwestern Frontier Guards soon made a flying and ineffectual pursuit of marauding Indians of several days’ duration. About the same time Thomas Roberts and Henry Cordua were murdered a short distance east of Sioux City; their horses were stolen by the Indians, which seemed to have been the chief motive for the attack upon the unsuspecting men. The Indians were pursued fifty miles, but escaped. Two men were also wounded by the Indians near Correctionville, Woodbury County, on the Little Sioux; one was William Roberts, brother of the man murdered near Sioux City, and the other Isaac Pendleton, afterward judge of the Fourth Judicial district and one of the most eloquent advocated in the Northwest of that day.

In the fall of 1861, the Frontier Guards made a vigorous campaign in the direction of Sioux Falls, a hundred miles away, and returned by way of Spirit Lake. No casualties were reported except the accidental wounding of John Currier, one of the rank and file, who was later made a captain under Gen. John Cook. During the summers of 1862 and 1863, the hostile bands of Sioux kept Southern Minnesota and Northwestern Iowa in a constant state of ferment and apprehension. At Mankato, Blue Earth, Jackson and other points in Southern Minnesota nearly a thousand whites ere sacrificed in battle and massacre. Consequently, the settlements along the Little and Big Sioux, as well as the entire border of Western Iowa, were constantly oppressed with fear and apprehension. While the Frontier Guards saw no heavy fighting, their presence and readiness for action proved the desired deterrent against Indian depredations and outrages.


This efficient military organization, which first operated as an independent company and was afterward incorporated into the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, was another home-defense body brought into the field to protect the western and northwestern frontiers, wherever the Indians threatened them. It was raised in the fall of 1861, under a special order from the


War Department, and the greater portion of the company came from Sioux City and neighborhood and the settlements along the Floyd and Little Sioux rivers. It was commanded by Capt. A. J. Millard, a hardy and industrious young man of Sioux City, who had been a sailor in his earlier years and when called into the service was a carpenter. He was a good officer, both as a fighter and an executive, and made a high record in the campaigns against the Sioux in what was then Dakota Territory. During the winter of 1861-62, the Sioux City Cavalry was divided into small squads, which were stationed principally at Cherokee, Spirit Lake, Peterson and Correctionville. The major part of the company was composed of heads of families and mature men, some of them quite well-to-do, and all of them took much pride in the quality of their horses and their general outfit.

The Sioux outbreak in Minnesota began at Acton, on August 17, 1862, when several settlers were murdered. News of the uprising reached Spirit Lake on the morning of the 29th, when a Norwegian named Nelson came in, carrying two of his little children, and reported that the other members of his family had been killed by the Indians the night before, in the Norwegian settlement on the Des Moines River some six miles above Jackson, Minnesota. Even the two children he carried had been taken by the heels and their heads knocked against the corner of the cabin, and one of them afterward died.

A company of volunteers from Spirit Lake and Estherville went up the Des Moines and rescued some of the settlers. On the day this party returned, Lieutenant Sawyers arrived at Spirit Lake with thirty men of the Sioux City Cavalry. The little detachment was divided into three parts. One under Corporal Robbins was sent to Okoboji; another, under Sergeant Samuel Wade, was sent to Estherville, and the third, under Lieut. James A. Sawyers, remained at Spirit Lake.

At this time, when Northern and Northwestern Iowa were laboring under the terror of Sioux forays and massacres such as were appalling Southern Minnesota, squads of the Sioux City Cavalry, and volunteer citizens unorganized, were patrolling the northern counties and doing what they could to protect the lives and relieve the panic of the Minnesota


refugees. At this time of uncertainty, Captain Millard wrote a letter to Dr. William R. Smith, a prominent physician of Sioux City, who had served as a lieutenant in the Frontier Guards and was chairman of the general committee for protection. It read as follows:

Headquarters Sioux City Cavalry, August 10, 1862.
William R. Smith
Sir: The report from Spirit Lake is very bad. Six hundred troops went out from Mankato, Minn., to repulse the Indians, and met with a loss of about 300, killed and wounded. The remaining inhabitants of the upper country are all leaving and coming toward Sioux City. Some are going toward Fort Dodge. The Little Sioux Valley is all deserted. I shall go to Spirit Lake as soon as I hear from there again. I would advise the people of Sioux City to retain all their ammunition. Keep at least one hundred rounds for each gun. A guard should be kept out at least two miles from town.

Lieutenant Sawyers came to camp yesterday and states that nine whites had been killed within fifteen miles of the lake. Sawyers left last night for the scene of the massacre and I shall hear from him in a couple of days.
Yours truly,
A. J. Millard, Com. S. C. Cav.

In the meantime, the settlers about Spirit Lake had gathered at the courthouse for protection. The building was not yet completed, but loose lumber was thrown over the joists to form a floor, the doors and windows were barricaded as well as possible, and while some slept others stood guard. This was the situation there, when Sawyers’ cavalry arrived. After a consultation, it was decided that the settlers should return to their homes, while the soldiers kept watch for the coming of the savages. It was also decided to build a stockade about the courthouse in which all could assemble upon a signal of danger. Prescott’s sawmill at Okoboji Grove was in good condition and the mill yard was full of logs. Both mill and logs were requisitioned. Planks twelve feet long and from four to five inches thick were cut and taken to the courthouse. While some were operating the sawmill, others dug


a trench about three feet deep around the courthouse. As the planks arrived, they were set on end in the trench, the dirt firmly packed around the foot, and a piece of timber pinned along the top for greater strength. Portholes were then cut and in a short time the “fort” was ready for an assault. It was occupied by United States troops until July, 1865.

At Estherville, the people gathered at the schoolhouse and organized for defense. That building was used for barracks, hospital and soldiers’ quarters, as well as a refuge in case of attack. At night the floor was literally covered with citizens of all ages, classes, sex and nationalities.

In the spring of 1863, the Sioux City Cavalry were ordered to rendezvous at their home town, preparatory to starting on an Indian expedition then organizing under the command of Gen. Alfred Sully. They were selected as the General’s bodyguard, both as a token of his regard for their good deportment, complete equipment and fine discipline, and because they were so well mounted, each member of the company owning the horse he rode. Lest this statement appear a little overdrawn, General Sully’s own words are quoted: “A better drilled or disciplined company then the Sioux City Cavalry can not be found in the regular or volunteer service of the United States.”

During the Sully campaign into Dakota Territory, the Sioux City Cavalry participated in the famous battle of White Stone Hill, on September 3, 1863, on which occasion they distinguished themselves by taking 136 prisoners. On their return from the battle to the Missouri River, they were met with an order consolidating them with the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, as Company I. Portions of the regiment were engaged in active Indian service from Northwestern Iowa to Eastern Colorado. On returning to Sioux City, Captain Millard, still at the head of Company I, was assigned by General Sully to command the military headquarters at that place, with a sub-district embracing Northwestern Iowa and Eastern Dakota. That great frontier was faithfully and successfully guarded until the company (formerly the Sioux City Cavalry) was mustered out of service on November 22, 1864. Captain Millard had the honor of driving the first stakes for the building of Fort Sully at the time of the 1863 campaign against the



Sioux, and he also participated in the campaign of 1864, when General Sully’s headquarters were at Vermillion. Thereafter, the Captain lived a quiet business life in Sioux City, having performed his military and executive duties with ability and precision, as one of the prominent leaders in defense of the northwestern borders where they were so fearfully menaced by the Sioux.


Although several of the interior counties of Northwestern Iowa, such as Greene and Cerro Gordo, furnished distinct contributions to the Seventh, Tenth and Thirty-second Infantry regiments, and their men participated in many of the important battles and campaigns of Missouri, Mississippi and The Southwest, there was hardly a regiment which was sent forward to fight the Confederates which was un-represented by a good, plucky Hawkeye. Even the fathers of the boys who had sent their sons to the front in the Civil war, and then formed the Thirty-seventh, or Gray-Beard Regiment, had large quotas from Northwestern Iowa and were proud to be sent where their years and their strength could be of service to the Union cause.

But the man-strength of Northwestern Iowa was largely poured into the fine cavalry commands organized to protect the northern and western frontiers, whether in defensive or offensive operations. As the war progressed and spread over the nation east of the Rocky Mountains, even the warfare against the Sioux was conducted by the Federal authorities, and the Sixth and Seventh Iowa Cavalry regiments became sturdy spokes in the military organizations which revolved around the wily Indians and finally crushed them at their own game of maneuvers and surprises.

The Sixth Iowa Cavalry was recruited from the State at large, with a large contingent from the northwestern counties, in 1862-63. The Government organized two armies on the northern frontier, after the Minnesota massacres, to punish the Sioux and protect the settlers. One of these armies was to move up the east side of the Missouri River and the other, to march west in Minnesota to the Indian country, the two form a junction at some point on the Missouri. The


army with headquarters at Sioux City was in command of Gen. John Cook, and started thence in March, 1863, the Sixth in command of Col. David S. Wilson, of Dubuque. The regiment reached Camp Cook, Dakota, in the following month, and in April and May two of the battalions moved forward to Fort Randall where they reinforced the garrison there, which was threatened by the Indians. The Sioux were driven away, a detachment of cavalry left to pursue them, and headquarters for the general campaign established at Fort Pierre, on the Missouri River, south of the central part of the territory and some distance below the mouth of the Little Cheyenne River. In June, General Cook was relieved of his departmental command, and Gen. Alfred Sully succeeded him. By August, and army of 2,500 men had collected at Fort Pierre ready to move against the enemy, and on the 13th of that month its northern movement commenced. The command then under General Sully consisted of the Sixth Iowa Cavalry, Second Nebraska Cavalry, several companies of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry (including Company I, formerly the Sioux City Cavalry), and the Prairie Battery of four guns. The army moved rapidly up the east bank of the Missouri to the mouth of the Little Cheyenne River and then halted to await the arrival of a steamer with supplies. The sick and the baggage were sent by steamer back to Fort Pierre.


On the 21st of August, 1863, about a week from the time the march up the Missouri Valley commenced, the army was again on the move. A few days afterward scouting parties saw various bands of Indian bringing in their squaws and children, and on the 3d of September the army went into camp on the shores of a like, as more numerous signs of Indian occupancy and movements had been discovered. Scouts were at once sent out to thoroughly examine the country, and the fierce battle of White Stone Hill was soon in full swing. Benjamin F. Gue describes it, as well as the remainder of the regiment’s record, in his State history, as follows: “One battalion of the Sixth Iowa, three hundred men under Major House, came upon an encampment of more than four hundred lodges of warriors. Major House at once dispatched


a messenger to General Sully and endeavored to detain the Indians without bringing on a battle. Upon the arrival of the messenger, the bugles were sounded and the men mounted, except four companies left to guard the train. The command was formed in the following order: The Second Nebraska on the right, the Sixth Iowa on the left, one company of the Seventh (Sioux City Cavalry) and the battery in the center.

“The command ‘forward’ was given and, starting at full gallop, in less than an hour the Indian camp was reached. The Indians had formed their line of battle so skillfully that they could only be dislodge by a charge. Although this was the first battle most of the men had ever seen, there was no flinching; they moved steadily forward and in less than half an hour the Indians were in full retreat. They were armed with rifles, shot guns, bows and arrows, and fought for a time with great courage and desperation. Most of the cavalry, by order of General Sully , dismounted and fought with rifles until the Indians were dislodged, when they mounted their horses and joined in the pursuit. Night coming on, most of the Indians succeeded in making their escape. The following day, General Sully sent out strong parties in a vain effort to overtake and capture the fleeing Indians, but they had got beyond his reach.

“The loss to our army was twenty killed and thirty-eight wounded. The loss of the Indians was estimated at 150 killed and wounded, while thirty-two warriors were captured, as well as a great amount of provisions and many ponies. The Sixth Cavalry which was in the thickest of the fight, lost twelve men killed (among whom was Lieut. T. J. Leavitt) and ten wounded. The bodies of our men were buried upon a knoll near a small lake at the foot of White Stone Hill, from which the battle takes its name.

“On the 11th of September, the army was back at Fort Pierre. In obedience to orders, General Sully selected a site and erected a log fort. The buildings had accommodations for five companies of soldiers. Before they were completed, General Sully returned to Sioux City with most of his troops, leaving Lieutenant Colonel Pollock in command with five companies of his regiment to complete the fort. It was named


Fort Sully, and was situated about 300 miles northwest of Sioux City.

“In the spring (1864), General Sully returned with a brigade to prosecute another campaign against the Indians. His army now consisted of eleven companies of the Sixth Iowa Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Pollock (Colonel Wilson having resigned); three companies of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry (including the Sioux City Cavalry)’; a battalion of Minnesota cavalry; two companies of Dakota cavalry; a battery of four guns and howitzers, and a company of scouts under Capt. Nathaniel Pope. The whole command numbered about 1,800 men.

“On the 26th of June, the army began a march of two hundred miles up the river, where a military post was erected and named Fort Rice. While here, a brigade, which had marched from Minnesota, joined the expedition. On the 29th, the army resumed its march northward, leaving a detachment of infantry to finish the fort. Following a divide between the Big Cannon Ball and Heart rivers, the expedition moved on toward the Yellowstone. The passage through the Bad Lands was attended with great difficulties, owing to the natural obstructions which sheltered and concealed the movements of the Indians. Dismounting his cavalry, General Sully moved cautiously forward, driving the Indians from their lurking places, often meeting with determined resistance. The Yellowstone was reached on the 12th of August, where two small steamers were waiting with supplies for the army.

“With the assistance of the steamers, the army with its trains was able to cross the river on the 13th and moved on toward Fort Union, a trading post on the Missouri River on the border of the Crow Indian country. The expedition then proceeded westward to Fort Berthold, where one company of the Sixth Iowa was left to garrison the post. The march was continued to Dog Buttes on the Mouse River in search of hostile Indians, but none were found, and the army marched back reaching Fort Rice on the 9th of September. Here the active campaign for the summer (1864) ended. Bands of Indians were often seen in the vicinity for several weeks, and




while pursuing a party one day Sergeant Murray, of the Sixth Iowa, was killed.

“The main army started on its return march toward Sioux City on the last of September, leaving a battalion of the Sixth Iowa at Fort Rice to garrison the post. The remainder of the regiment was quartered at Fort Randall, Sioux City, Yankton, the Sioux and Winnebago Agency and at Fort Berthold for the winter. The Indians had been so thoroughly overawed by the march of the army through their country that they made no trouble the next year (1865). Nor further hostilities being anticipated, orders were issued to disband the Sixth Cavalry, and it was accordingly mustered out at Sioux City, on the 17th of October, 1865.”

The military activities of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, after its participation in the second Sully campaign of 1864, covered a wide range of country in Nebraska, Kansas, Dakota and Colorado. The greatest loss of the regiment was sustained at Julesburg, Colorado, on the 7th of January, 1865. At that time Capt. G. W. O’Brien, with Company F, was escorting a train, and a large body of Indians made an all-day attack upon it. Col. Samuel W. Summers was with the company and directed the defense. At one time, he was besieged on a ranch, while Captain O’Brien brought up artillery and opened up on the Indians, who were finally driven off with heavy loss. Colonel Summers shot one of the chiefs with his revolver and fifty-five warriors were killed during the fight. Colonel Summers was mustered out of the service on the 31st of January, 1865. In the following May, Maj. H. H. Heath was promoted to colonel and soon after attained the rank of brevet brigadier general. He was placed in command of a sub-district with headquarters at Fort Kearney, and did fine service in that region in subduing the hostile Indians. General Heath was an intrepid officer and before he joined the Seventh had been wounded in a brilliant charge against Confederates at Clear Creek, Missouri. Major O’Brien also became colonel of the regiment and subsequently brevet brigadier general. The Seven Iowa Cavalry, which had as its star unit the Sioux City company under Capt. A. J. Millard, graduated several able officers. The regiment was


finally mustered out of service at Leavenworth, Kansas, on the 17th of May, 1866.


IT required the New Ulm (Minn.) massacre to thoroughly stir the public authorities of Iowa to the necessity of protecting its northern and northwestern borders from like outrages. The Minute Men, the Frontier Guards and the Sioux City Cavalry had all been organized, under State authority, to guard the northwestern borderland largely under the stimulus of apprehension caused by scattered Indian murders and disturbances. But when the terrible Sioux came down upon the sister State with all the outward marks of concerted rage and slaughter, a united and broader front was demanded of the Iowa whites. The Sioux City Cavalry was then the only well organized military body upon which the settlers of Northwestern Iowa could depend and a company of a hundred horsemen, however brave and efficient they might be, could neither patrol such a vast territory nor awe such intrepid warriors as then threatened that portion of the State.

On the 29th of August, 1862, about ten days after the Indian outbreak in Minnesota and when the startling nature of the Sioux incursion had been realized by Governor Kirkwood, S. R. Ingham, a leading citizen of Des Moines, was appointed by the chief executive as a special agent to investigate conditions on the border. Mr. Ingham was instructed to proceed to Fort Dodge, where he would find arms and ammunition for the protection of the inhabitants of the northwestern frontier, and he had been furnished with funds to the amount of $1,000. He was also advised to communicate with Captain Millard, of the Sioux City Cavalry. Immediately upon receipt of this commission, Mr. Ingham visited Webster, Humboldt, Kossuth, Palo Alto, Emmet and Dickinson counties, and “found many of the inhabitants in a high state of excitement and laboring under constant fear of an attack by the Indians. He also ascertained that quite a number of families had left, or were preparing to leave, for the more thickly settled portion of the State. In Emmet


and Kossuth counties, Mr. Ingham called the settlers together and learned that they wished a small force of mounted men, who were familiar with the country and with the habits of the Indians, rather than young and inexperienced men from the more central portions of the State. A force of forty such men was then raised from Emmet, Kossuth, Humboldt and Palo Alto counties, mustered in and armed. This force afterward became Company A, of the Northern Border Brigade. Mr. Ingham then went to Spirit Lake, were he found Lieutenant Sawyers’ detachment of the Sioux City Cavalry.

While Mr. Ingham was thus engaged, the Legislature convened in special session and passed a bill authorizing Governor Kirkwood to raise a volunteer force of mounted Iowa men of not less than 500, to be stationed at the most convenient points tot he northwestern borders of the State. On September 10th, the day after it was approved, as well as a resolution calling upon the General Government for aid, Mr. Ingham made his preliminary report and was authorized ot superintend the organization of the Northern Border Brigade. It was to consist of five companies - one already stationed at Chain Lakes and Estherville, and four others to be raised at Sioux City, Denison, Fort Dodge and Webster City. Each man was to furnish he own horse, subsistence and forage to be provided by the State, and the pay would be the same as that allowed for like service by the United States.

Lieut. James A. Sawyers, of the Sioux City Cavalry, was elected lieutenant colonel and active commanding officer of the brigade in November, 1862. The original Northern Border Brigade consisted, as stated, of five companies. Company A was organized before the passage of the legislative bill, while S. R. Ingham was in the field. Its captain, W. H. Ingaham, established his headquarters at Estherville, with a detachment at Chain Lakes. Company B and the greater part of Company C came from Webster County; Company D, from Crawford, and Company E from Woodbury. As fast as the companies were raised, they were mustered in for nine months, unless sooner discharged by S. R. Ingham, who ordered blockhouses and stockades to be erected at Correctionville, Cherokee, Peterson, Estherville and Chain Lakes.




Of these frontier fortifications which stretched along the northwestern corner of the State from Sioux City to Chain Lakes, the most elaborate was that at Estherville, the headquarters of Capt. W. H. Ingham, Company A. As soon as the orders came to erect the stockade, the captain took possession of the sawmill at Estherville, and sent men out to cut logs without asking permission of the owners of the land, or without even inquiring who the owner was. Teams were pressed into the service to haul the logs to the mill and the lumber to the site of the fort (called Defiance), which was one block west and three blocks south of the southwest corner of the public square. Because of his war methods, some of the citizens of the Estherville neighborhood dubbed Captain Ingham the Dictator.

Forty years afterward, Captain Ingham, then a mild-looking, benevolent old gentleman, told the story of the building of Fort Defiance. He had been ordered from Iowa Lake to that point, to take charge of the work, and says (See Annals of Iowa, Vol. V, pages 498 and 499): “Here I found Lieutenant Coverdale and men occupying the schoolhouse for their quarters, which had already been stockaded by the citizens with two-inch planks, with stabling inside the enclosure for their horses. While looking about for a site for the works, as contemplated in the order, Robert E. Ridley generously offered to donate for this purpose lots 1, 2, and 3, block 59, as shown by the town plat. As this site was satisfactory to all parties concerned, his offer was accepted, when he and his wife, Esther, after whom the town of Estherville takes its name, conveyed them to the State free of charge. It will be noticed in the report (S. R. Ingham’s) that Company B, Capt. William Williams (our old-time Major Williams, of Fort Dodge), was ordered to report at Iowa Lake and complete the works there. On their arrival, Lieutenant McKnight and men came to Estherville, when for the first time the members of Company A were all brought together for roll call.

“The people at Estherville manifested much interest in the construction of the works and gave encouragement to the


company in many ways. As this was the only post with a sawmill and plenty of timber near by, the works were laid out on rather a more extensive plan than any of the other posts on the line. Then the larger settlements on the West branch of the Des Moines would necessarily require this, in case there should be any occasion for the settlers to make use of them thereafter as a place of refuge. From now on, we were kept busy, as well as the other companies, in getting out material for their respective works.

“In addition to this, there were the camp duties, drilling, scouting, target practice, and the keeping up of communication between the different posts and the United States forces at Fairmont, Minn., and at Sioux City. Now and then government dispatches were passed along the line, and whenever of great importance they were sent through from post to post on limited time. This service came to be known as the Pony Express. A part of the brigade was supplied with Austrian rifles from General Fremont’s famous purchase. While they were not the best, they were probably the best that could be obtained at that time. Many of the cartridges were defective, so that when discharge it became a question as to the direction in which they were likely to do the most harm, as many of the boys will remember.

“It was the latter part of November before Lieutenant Colonel Sawyers made his first inspection of the several posts on the line, and reported to Governor Kirkwood under date of December 15, 1862.”

The stockade of Fort Defiance was built of planks four inches thick and enclosed an area which was about one hundred and thirty feet square. At one corner and extending six feet beyond the stockade were the barracks, a building fifty-two feet in length and eighteen feet in width, made of timbers eight inches thick. The office and commissary room at another corner was a building fourteen by thirty-two feet in dimensions, built in much the same manner as the barracks. The entire south side of the enclosure was formed by a barn, the sides of which were covered by boards an inch thick, while the ends were built of four-inch planks. The exposed side of the barn was protected by a sod wall, five feet at its base and two feet wide on top, seven and one-half feet high.




Within the stockade was a guardhouse, a well furnishing an abundance of excellent water, and a flagstaff. Fort Defiance was occupied by troops until late in the fall of 1863, when General Sully and his commands commenced to drive the bulk of the fighting Sioux into and through Dakota and crush their strength as “bad Indians.” The Estherville structure was afterward used as a residence for some time, and it was torn down or moved away in 1876.

The preparations for defense at other points were less elaborate than at Estherville, but equally well adapted to repel an Indian attack. The blockhouses and officers’ quarters at Peterson (Clay County), for instance, were built of oak and ash timbers ten inches square, with roofs of soft maple boards. The stockade was constructed of timbers six inches square. In each case the stockade surrounded an area large enough to accommodate a considerable number of settlers with their livestock and wagons.

Says an account of these various measures taken for the “Border Defense in Iowa”: “These preparations for defense had the desired effect. Not once did the Indians invade Iowa during this great uprising which left such a trail of death and devastation in Minnesota. Settlers soon began to return to their abandoned homes and a feeling of confidence was restored. This time the Federal Government took energetic measures to punish the hostile Indians, and they were so decisively defeated that they did not again seriously menace the tranquility of the Iowa frontier.”


Soon after the Northern Border Brigade was mustered out of service (in the late fall of 1863), Company I, Sixth Iowa Cavalry, under command of Captain Wolf, was stationed on the frontier. Captain Wolf made his headquarters at Estherville, and a part of his command was sent to Spirit Lake under Lieut. Benjamin King. In the spring of 1864 Captain Cooper’s company of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry relieved Captain Wolf. This company remained but a short time, when Capt. Daniel Eichor came with Company E, Sixth Iowa Cavalry, and continued on duty until the spring


of 1865, when he was succeeded by a detachment of Minnesota troops under Captain Read. This was the last military force stationed along the Iowa border. With the State troops thoroughly prepared to protect the frontiers and the settlers of Northwestern Iowa, and the Government troops invading the Sioux country beyond the Missouri and crushing any considerable forces of the enemy Indians, peace and security again threw their sheltering and developing mantle over the regions lately harassed by the Indians and at one time almost deserted by the panic-stricken whites.


~ transcribed and submitted by Mary E. Boyer for Iowa History Project, August 2008

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