Character Biography – Abbie Gardner-Sharp

Character Biography – Abbie Gardner-Sharp

Image from “History of the Spirit Lake Massacre and Captivity of Miss Abbie Gardner,” Fourth Edition, Iowa Printing Company, 1894.

My name is Abigail Gardner-Sharp.  I was born at Twin Lakes, New York in 1846.  My family consisted of my two older sisters, Mary and Eliza, my younger brother Rowland Jr., my mother Francis, and my father Rowland.

My father made a modest living working in a comb factory in Seneca, New York.  But my father longed for a life of adventure and so he sought to move us west, to the great American frontier.  Thus, in 1852, my family and I moved to Edyington, Ohio, where we opened a boarding house.  Life seemed well enough in our new surroundings, but, like many Americans it was not good enough to go west.  We wanted to go furthest west of all.  And so, taking everything we owned, we loaded our wagon and set out for a place called Iowa.

We settled in Cerro Gordo County and stayed there for four years, making new friends and becoming a part of the American frontier.  My eldest sister was married and had two children, increasing the size of our happy family from six to nine.  After some time my father received word of a beautiful and lush wilderness known as Spirit Lake.  Here the land was so arable and the land so pristine that it was called the Eden of the West.  And so once again, we packed our belongings, said goodbye to our friends, and made the tedious journey further west.

We came to the region of Spirit and Okoboji Lakes in July of 1856.  Indeed, it was the most glorious landscape I had ever seen, untouched by any settler before us.  Immediately we built ourselves lodging and did what we could to prepare for the long winter.  But it was well past planting season and so we relied on the settlement of Fort Dodge, 80 miles to our Southeast, for our supplies.  By the time the leaves started to fall, five other families had joined us in settling along the shores of Spirit and Okoboji Lakes.  Our station was remote and our home was quaint, but we were together and we were happy.

The Wahpekute Indians from the Dakota Nation who lived in the region were at first not quite so agreeable.  But hunting game was abundant and the Indians became friendly and did not mind sharing their enchanted lakes and forest.  Soon we laid aside all fears and got along well and freely with our Indian neighbors.  The winter was harsh and we had few resources to share, but even this did not change our friendly relationship with the Indians.

Everything changed on March 8, 1857.  With evil intentions, a small band of Wahpekute Dakota Indians visited our cabin and demanded flour.  My father agreed, but as he turned to obtain the desired food, an Indian shot him in the back and ended his life.  The Indians proceeded to kill my entire family and ransack my home and all I could do was watch.  Only my sister, Eliza, was saved because she had been living in Springfield, Minnesota at that time.  I wished the Indians would have killed me, too, and ended my suffering, but they did not.  They took me captive.

The Indians proceeded to kill nearly every settler at the lakes that day.  Each settler was surprised and never suspected their evil intentions.  Along with me, three other women were taken captive.  I was just thirteen years old that day.  I lost my family, I lost everything.

Captivity was arduous and painful.  I was made to carry more than I could handle and was given little to eat.  I was forced to haul water, cut wood, pitch tents, and to make bread and bake it.  I was sick, tired, lonely, and heartbroken.  And though I witnessed the death of two of my fellow captives and the rescue of a third, I determined to go on.  I determined to stay alive to tell my story.

After nearly two months in captivity I was rescued by three Wahpeton Dakota from Minnesota.  They traded many goods and horses in exchange for me.  I was then taken to the reservation in Minnesota where I was received kindly by the missionary there.  From there I was taken to St. Paul, Minnesota, and presented to the governor at a special ceremony.  Later that summer I was reunited with my sister Eliza in Hampton, Iowa.  Here I lived with my sister and her new husband.

Soon, I too was married to a young gentleman named Casville Sharpe.  We had three children, though one died in infancy.  We spent most of our lives living in Iowa.  In 1891, I succeeded in purchasing the plot of land where my father’s cabin had once stood and where our happy family was forever destroyed.  I turned the land into a park, had the cabin rebuilt and spent the remainder of my life telling people about the terrible tragedy…about the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857.

Source:  Gardner-Sharp, Abbie.  History of the Spirit Lake Massacre and Captivity of Miss Abbie Gardner.  Des Moines:  Iowa Printing Co., 1885.

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