Abbie Gardner Sharp’s story: The Spirit Lake Massacre

Before the Spirit Lake Massacre

A man named Henry Lott, cited as an “unscrupulous character” by an article in 1886 in the Sibley Gazette, had an encounter with Sintominaduta, Inkpaduta’s brother, and blamed the Wahpekuti tribe for burning his cabin and killing his family, although that didn’t actually occur. Settlers went to the ransacked cabin to find Lott’s family safe, except for his 12-year-old son, who had run from the Native Americans and died in the elements. Lott blamed the American Indians for his son’s death and eventually held them responsible for his wife’s death two years later, claimed she hadn’t recovered from the earlier incident.

When the leader of the Wahpekuti camped near Lott’s cabin in 1854, a still upset Lott invited Sintominaduta to hunt elk nearby. Lott then killed Sintominaduta, and with his stepson, Lott went to the Wahpekuti campsite and killed Sintominaduta’s family, except two children. The murders were possibly discovered by Inkpaduta, and tensions between the tribe and settlers increased.

Two years later, Inkpaduta’s band was struggling through a harsh winter, and one of his grandchildren died of starvation. Looking for food, the band followed a herd of elk to Smithland, IA, to hunt.

Photo of the Smithland historical markeropens IMAGE file

Photo of the Smithland historical marker

There, they found corn under the snow but were accused of stealing it from cribs. The Native Americans also claimed that settlers intercepted the elk they were chasing. To add to the tensions, during the chase, a settler’s dog attacked one of the braves. The dog was killed, and the owner beat the man who killed it. The Native Americans demanded provisions in return for the problems. Scared, the settlers went into the American Indian camp and took their guns and tore down their teepees.

Moving north, an angry Inkpaduta and his small, starving band reached Peterson and killed all the cattle they could in revenge and also injured some settlers. From there, Inkpaduta’s disgruntled band headed north to the Okoboji lakes.

Spirit Lake Massacre

On March 6, 1857, Harvey Luce returned from a provisions trip to Waterloo, but more items were needed, so his father-in-law, Rowland Gardner Sr., prepared to leave two days hence for Fort Dodge from Dickinson County.

Photo of a cabinopens IMAGE file

On March 8, the family rose early to give Rowland an early start, and a group of Native Americans from Inkpaduta’s Wahpekuti band came in to share breakfast — 14 in all, Abbie Gardner recalled. They requested food, ammunition and other provisions from the Gardners.

Dr. Harriott and Mr. Snyder, two other settlers, came to the Gardner house with letters they wanted to be mailed in Fort Dodge, but Rowland met them outside and told them to leave, fearful of the Native Americans. Before leaving, the Native Americans killed some of the Gardners’ cattle.

About 3 p.m., Abbie remembered hearing gunshots from what sounded like the neighboring cabin of James Mattock and his family. Soon after, the band of Native Americans returned to the Gardner cabin and asked for flour, shooting Rowland Sr. as he went to get it.

Mrs. Luce and Mrs. Gardner tried to get the gun but were killed in the process. Abbie was sitting with the three other children — her younger brother, niece and nephew — who were taken from her and killed outside.

Abbie was taken captive.

Moving north

In the next five days, Abbie traveled with the Native Americans who moved north and continued killing the other settlers in the area. Three other women were taken captive as well: Mrs. Lydia Noble, Mrs. Elizabeth Thatcher and Mrs. Margaret Marble.

On March 26, the group of Native Americans and captives reached Springfield, MN — now Jackson. A Mr. Markham had found the Spirit Lake dead on March 9 and had traveled to Springfield, the next closest settlement, to warn the settlers of the possible impending danger. Twenty-one Springfield residents, including Eliza Gardner, Abbie’s sister, gathered in one large cabin and prepared to fight.

The settlers and Inkpaduta’s band skirmished, and one child was killed.

The Stewart family had tired of the cramped space and the constant fear at the Thomas cabin, where the Springfield residents had gathered to protect themselves, and had returned to their separate homestead. The Native Americans found the isolated Stewart family and killed the father, mother and two little girls. The son, about 8 or 9 years old, hid behind a log during the attack and fled to the Thomas cabin.

Abbie and the captives continued on with Inkpaduta’s band.

Graphic of Spirit Lake Massacre deathsopens IMAGE file

Read other installments in the series:
“Traveling to Spirit Lake”
“Who was Inkpaduta?”
“Taken captive”
“Abbie’s rescuers”
“Life continues on”


  1. Melanie Rowley on July 20, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    Gives a true view as to what life was like back then for settlers having to deal with Indians. Sad that so many don’t know it now.

  2. Dennis Knipper Greeley Ia on April 29, 2019 at 12:57 pm

    I found a stone tombstone on my farm 40 years ago.James Mattock 1814 children Daniel M, Jacob W, Jackson, Agnes,Alice T all of whom were murdered by the Indians March 11 1857.I searched Delaware Co. Iowa and found nothing.Rumor was the stone fell off a stage coach. 4/28/2019

    • John Burkholder on May 25, 2019 at 5:19 pm

      According to one verifiable historical account James Mattock , his family and Robert Mathieson (incorrectly spelled “Madison “ in less accurate accounts) were buried by friends some distance from the cabin site. These friends came from eastern Iowa with coffins and interred their friends Mattocks and Mathieson in the spring after the massacre. (They had been hastily interred by the relief expedition of March 1857)
      When the monument was erected in the 1890s their bodies and those of other massacre victims that could be found were dug up and reinterred at the monument site.
      I know this to be accurate through my research. Also Robert Mathieson was my great great grandfather.
      Perhaps this stone you found was from the Mattocks original grave site and not reused at the monument…?
      I am curious to know if you also found my ancestor’s marker.
      Would love to know more from you. Can you photograph the Mattock stone and email to me?
      The consideration greatly appreciated!
      John Burkholder
      john.h.burkholder@gmail.comcreate new email

  3. David Squires on December 9, 2018 at 7:33 am

    I read “Horse Woman’s Child” by Roger Stoner which details the life and times of this rogue band of natives and the damaged relations they caused not only with the whites but also other natives. Inkpaduta should have been brought to justice long before.

    • Tommi Atkins on April 19, 2019 at 1:12 pm

      Horse Woman’s Child is largely fiction, Inkpaduta was falsely accused of attacking his father and uncle. The law that would have convicted those Dakota of murder never was used to bring the whites who murdered natives like Inkpaduta’s brother, his mother and the children on Bloody Run. When army soldiers killed unarmed natives at Wounded Knee, they got medals.