Peoples' Weather Map


The Weather and Migration After the Killings at Spirit Lake

Fort Dodge, Iowa

One link between the weather in the winter of 1856-57 and the killing of settlers by native people in and around Spirit Lake in March of 1857 is the severity of the winter and the scarcity of food that intensified frustration of some Lakota about the killing of several of their people and the presence of white settlers in their hunting territory.  But Major William Williams’s narrative tells instead a story about the role of the weather in the process of removing native people from central Iowa generally and white civilians fleeing north central Iowa headed for Fort Dodge in particular. 

            For the express purpose of removing native peoples from the new state territory of Iowa, three companies of troops were ordered to central Iowa.  Fort Des Moines, established in 1843, was abandoned in 1846, but Fort Dodge was established to continue U.S. military presence in central Iowa.  On the last day of July 1850, Williams’s men, who had served in the war with Mexico and, some, also, in Florida, left Camp Buckner on the Iowa River in Tama County and marched west.  It was a tedious march, writes Major Williams, because their path took them through sloughs and across streams with heavily loaded wagons that sank one place and then another.  They arrived, nonetheless, on August 23, 1850, and established Fort Dodge on the Des Moines River.

            Almost seven years later, in March 1857, they were negotiating a blizzard as they waded and swam through sloughs and streams for ten miles, set in motion by the killings further north around Spirit Lake.  At Cylinder Creek they—men, women, and children– found the whole valley covered with water, “better than a half-mile wide, varying from two feet to fifteen feet deep and terribly agitated by the strong wind.”  They could not wade or swim across so instead caulked some wagons hoping to float them across. But they found they could only travel west to east with the wind and not the way they needed to go. Williams returned the women and children back to Irish Colony and left the men behind.  When he arrived back at the creek expecting to reunite with the men, he found them gone and the creek frozen.  They had crossed the frozen creek then cut up and burned their wagons to create fires for warmth.  When warmer temperatures did arrive, the snow melt swelled the creeks and “covered the low ground in the county with water.”  It was a good while before finally the men, women, and children reached Fort Dodge.

            The numbers of civilians at the fort increased yet further that early spring because so many living along the northern Des Moines River fled their homes and also came down to Fort Dodge.  They were apprehensive about the presence of native people.  With the exception of Algona where settlers built their own fort, the countryside was deserted—at least by settlers and their dependents.

Source: SHSI:  Major William Williams, edited by Edward Breen, The History of Early Fort Dodge and Webster County, Iowa, 1950.