Q&A: What was the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857?

Q&A: What was the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857?

On March 8 to 12, 1857, Inkpaduta and a small band of Wahpekute Dakota Indians attacked the settlers at Spirit and Okoboji Lakes in northern Iowa.  Of the approximately thirty-five settlers in the region, all were killed with the exception of four women taken captive.  The Indians then headed north and on March 26 they attacked the settlement at Springfield, Minnesota.  The settlers at Springfield knew of the previous attacks and were able to put up a defense against the Indians.  Seven settlers were killed at Springfield.

Abbie Gardner taken from her home, Spirit Lake Massacre

News of the attacks was slow to reach the nearest settlements at Fort Dodge and Fort Ridgely.  Once people learned of the attacks, a relief party was sent north from Fort Dodge and southwest from Fort Ridgely.  However, both parties were slowed by harsh winter conditions and by the time they reached the region of the massacre, the Indians had fled.  In the summer of 1857, a major expedition was formed which consisted of Chief Little Crow and about one hundred Dakota warriors.  The expedition headed west for several weeks.  Although they eventually located and attacked several of the Indians from Inkpaduta’s band, they were unable to find and capture Inkpaduta himself.

The expedition to capture Inkpaduta as illustrated in Grace at Spirit Lake
The expedition to capture Inkpaduta as illustrated in Grace at Spirit Lake

The tragic events at Spirit and Okoboji Lakes represented some of the problems with white/Indian relations on the Iowa and Minnesota frontier at that time.  The Wahpekute who incited the attacks were a separate band of Dakota who rejected the terms of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and who wished to maintain a traditional nomadic lifestyle.  This conflicted with the growing number of settlers that continued to pour into the region and threaten that traditional way of life.  Also, due to limited resources and harsh conditions, some Dakota such as Inkpaduta and his band, chose to fight back against encroachment.  All of these factors played a role in worsening conditions that eventually led to the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.

Read captive Abbie Gardner’s account of the massacre

See this blog post on YouTube


Mary Hawker Bakeman, Ed., Legends, Letters and Lies:  Readings about Inkpaduta and the Spirit Lake Massacre, (Roseville, Minnesota:  Park Genealogical Books, 2001).


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