The Winter and the Tragedy of 1857
Spirit Lake, Dickinson County, Iowa
In his 1902 history of Dickinson County, R.A. Smith claims that the word “blizzard” was brought to Dickinson County by William Jenkins. The definition of “blizzard” that he offers is 60-70 MPH winds, ceaseless drifting walls of snow and the inability to see ten feet in front of you. He attributes the presence of blizzards in NW Iowa to the absence of trees, but does not know whether to endorse the theory that these very winds removed the trees or that prairie fire had removed the trees. He speculates that cultivation and development of the countryside of Dickinson County had reduced the number of blizzards by 1902. Among the blizzards he cites “in those days” was the first on county records: December 1, 1856.
The winter of 1856-57 later became notorious not only because of the degree of cold and depth of snow but because it was a winter of serious food deprivation for native people and new settlers both. Many writers point to the winter as a contributor to the violence inflicted by Inkpaduta’s warriors on settlers in the Lakes Region, the set of events usually called the “Spirit Lake Massacre.”
Whether severe cold or severe heat, drought or flood, severe weather and, even more, changing climate are causal factors in humans’ battles with one another. And yet PWM would not want to point its readers to weather without also acknowledging the deeper human histories that produce violence when weather makes people vulnerable. Historian of the Shawnee in Ohio Country, Stephen Warren, calls the kind of native-settler brutality that occurred on contested ground all along the Ohio River Valley and its tributaries and in places
like Dickinson County, the scorched earth battles. A stew of confusing negotiations or unenforced treaties, confusing and fraudulent land sales, and political battles often centered in capitals of other nations among other occurrences over the decades of colonial and frontier US history set the stage for the murder of settler parents and children in Dickinson County in March 1857, after a long, hard winter. And it set the stage for the subsequent vengeance visited on native people in Minnesota.
Of the histories of the “Spirit Lake Massacre” is one produced by Mrs. Abbie Gardner- Sharp, a survivor of the event and a former captive of Inkpaduta’s people. In 1885, 28 years after she witnessed the murder of her parents and siblings and the subsequent deaths of other women held captive with her, she describes herself as “embarrassed” to have to write this story. “Sad misfortune,” she says, has foisted the duty of this storytelling on to her, work she hoped would have been done by historians or writers informed by her experience. Why embarrassed? Did she feel that American readers in 1885 wanted to hear tales of the cultivation of prairies and towns but not the tale of a harsh winter in Dickinson County when Inkpaduta’s men stepped into the cabins of new settlers demanding food and taking human lives?
Sources: SHSI: R.A. Smith, A History of Dickinson County, Iowa, Des Moines, 1902; Mrs. Abbie Gardner-Sharp. History of the Spirit Lake Massacre and the Captivity of Miss Abbie Gardner. Des Moines, 1885.