Winter 1856-57 and Its Role in Human Affairs
Cerro Gordo County
Cerro Gordo remembers the winter of 1856-57 as one of its most brutal. Its first white settlements were only a few years old when, from November 15 to April 10, heavy snow and unyielding cold pummeled the budding county.
Up to 4 feet of snow blanketed the ground. Wind blew the thick snow cover into drifts up to 9 feet tall, making it nearly impossible for vital provisions to be brought into the young settlements except by hand sled.
In February, temperatures still below -30 degrees Fahrenheit were recorded in Dubuque. Even April that year was Iowa’s coldest on record. After so many months of brutal conditions, game was scarce when spring finally arrived, prolonging the settlers’ struggle for survival.
One of that winter’s most notable stories comes from the Williams brothers, aged 14 and 20 at the time, who were lost in a blizzard on December 28, 1856.
The boys were upstream from their property with their father’s cattle when a severe blizzard rolled in. The brothers got lost in their attempts to lead the cattle home and spent the night wandering through the blizzard. The following morning two woodcutters came upon them and returned them to Mason City.
Though the Williams boys were lucky to have survived, one lost his right foot, half of his left, and a finger. The other lost part of his right foot and two toes from his left.
Twenty-two other individuals in Cerro Gordo were not so lucky, and froze to death that winter.
Another tragic event that brutal winter was what became known among settlers as the Spirit Lake Massacre, where a band of Dakota “Sioux” killed 32 white men, women and children living in cabins off of Spirit Lake and Lake Okoboji in March of 1857. They kidnapped four girls as well, including Abby Gardner of Cerro Gordo who watched her family’s murder.
Due to the harsh conditions that winter, the settlers were especially ill prepared to fight back, and it was over a month before the Company of Volunteers were able to reach Spirit Lake and aid the survivors.
The harsh winter had played a role in the Dakotas’ turn to violence as well. In their desperation for food, they had turned to begging and raiding white settlements to survive. After some Dakotas shot a biting dog in a white settlement, a group of white men disarmed the Dakota, leaving them unable to even hunt.
Once they were able to recover or replace their weapons, they began seeking out violent vengeance, first at Spirit Lake and immediately afterwards in a settlement near what is now Jackson, Minnesota. Not only had they been denied the ability to hunt, but earlier some of their people had been killed by a white man who himself unfairly blamed his son’s death in the cold on the Dakota. The cold only made worse the ricocheting violence.
Though these incidents at Spirit Lake and Jackson, MN, occurred west of Cerro Gordo County, in Dickinson County where many bands of Indians once lived, the Spirit Lake Massacre was a continuation of the Dakota’s armed resistance to settlers that had visited Cerro Gordo years earlier, and a product of the same brutal winter that tested Cerro Gordo’s settlers.
Prior to white settlement, the Cerro Gordo area had been a summer location for the “Winnebago” (HoChunk) and Dakota “Sioux” tribes. Mason City was established on what had formerly been a battleground between the Dakota and the southerly Sauk and “Fox” (Meskwaki).
Though the settlers maintained a relatively friendly relationship with the HoChunk, they feared the Dakota, who were hostile in return.
During the summer of 1854, two visiting Dakota shot and beheaded a teenaged HoChunk boy after having conducted themselves peacefully in relations with the tribe for weeks. The ensuing armed conflict drove the Dakota back to Minnesota, and solidified their enemy status in the minds of the white men.
The following summer, 21 Dakota returned to Cerro Gordo for another go, and pillaged the property of James Dickirson. The settlers drove the Dakota out for good during the following “Grindstone War,” sending them back on their bitter path toward hunger and the tragedy at Spirit Lake .
Sources: Full text of “History of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa.” From materials in the public archives, the Iowa Historical Society’s collection, the newspapers and data of personal interviews; also containing sketches of representative citizens. Web. 2/2018; “History of Cerro Gordo County.” A. T. Andreas Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa (1875), transcribed for the IAGenWeb project by Sharon R. Becker in 2011. Web. 2/2018; “History of Clear Lake Township.” Transcribed for the IAGenWeb project by Sharon R. Becker in 2011. Web. 2/2018; “History of Franklin and Cerro Gordo Counties.” Union Publishing Co. Springfield, IL (1883). Compiled and contributed by Susan Stevenson for the IAGenWeb Project. Web. 2/2018; “The Mason City Story.” Mason City Globe-Gazette historical archives, transcribed for the IAGenWeb project by Sharon R. Becker in 2014. Web. 2/2018; Meyer, Roy Willard. History of the Santee Sioux: United States Indian Policy on Trial, Revised edition 1993. Web. 2/2018; Paul J. Waite, State Climatologist. Annals of Iowa Vol. 40 No. 3, “Outstanding Iowa Storms.” pp. 194-209. Web. 2/2018.