The Spirit Lake Massacre and
the Northern and Southern Border Brigades
History of The Iowa National Guard
1LT Stephen N. Kallestad, CW2 David L. Snook and LTC (Ret) Michael J. Musel
During the Civil War, 76,000 Iowa soldiers served their state and nation. Most fought in the great campaigns in the Mississippi Valley and in the South. Often overlooked, however, are two brigades – the Northern and Southern Border Brigades – that defended the borders of Iowa itself.
The threats that brought these brigades into existence were real but different. To the north, settlers faced an uprising among the Sioux Indians. To the south, the danger came from pro-Confederate border raiders.
The fears of western Iowans regarding the Sioux can be traced back to the 1850s. In the late 1840s and the early 1850s, settlers in Northwest Iowa moved beyond Fort Dodge and into areas unprotected by military garrisons. Considered intruders by the Indians (in this case, the Wapekutah Sioux), the settlers were bound to face difficulties. By most accounts, the Indians generally acted in a civil manner. The Indians were also conscious of the existing treaty and they knew the white people were not to encroach on Indian land.
In December 1846, a band of Wapekutahs, led by Sidominadotah (Two Fingers), traced some stolen horses to the cabin of Henry Lott, who was living on Indian land, at the confluence of the Des Moines and Boone rivers. Mr. Lott was known to steal Indian horses. At the time of the raid, Henry Lott and his stepson were on the other side of the Boone River and observed the Indian activity. Lott’s twelve-year-old son Milton was directed to gather all the ponies on the farm. Frightened, and without dressing properly for the weather, he panicked and fled down the Des Moines river looking for his father and froze to death before finding him. Lott and his stepson left the area in 1847 after Mrs. Lott died from natural causes.
Henry Lott and his stepson, several years later, moved north into Humboldt County where Lott struck back at the Indians in January of 1854. Finding Sidominadotah and his band camped on the Des Moines River about 30 miles north of Fort Dodge, Lott and his stepson attacked the camp, killing the chief, his mother, his wife, and their four children.
Inkpadutah, Sidominadotah’s younger brother, became the new leader of the band and vowed revenge. Lott and his stepson left Iowa for California. Incidents between the settlers and the Indians continued, culminating with the killing of a young Indian man accused of making lewd advances to a Mrs. Gillett, wife of one of the settlers in the area. Unable to find the Gilletts, who had wisely left the area, Inkpadutah’s band turned their anger on the remaining settlers.
On March 8, 1857, Inkpadutah and his band began attacking the scattered cabins of settlers in the vicinity of Spirit Lake and Lake Okoboji. The bloodshed also spread to the nearby town of Springfield, Minnesota.
Thirty-eight settlers were slain, including James and Mary Mattock and their five children. A relief expedition from Fort Dodge, led by Major William Williams, buried the victims and made a futile attempt to track down the perpetrators of the massacre. Williams found enough bloody clothing and other evidence to conclude that 15 to 20 Indians had probably been either killed or wounded.
Four women were carried off from their cabins at Spirit Lake. Lydia Noble was beaten to death, and Elizabeth Thatcher was drowned. Margaret Noble was bought from Inkpadutah’s band for $1,000, and Abbie Gardner was purchased by a $1,200 ransom appropriated by the Minnesota legislature.
Inkpadutah was never apprehended, but he and his followers left the State of Iowa, never to return.
The Northern Border Brigade
In 1862, only five years after the Spirit Lake Massacre and one year after federal troops were pulled from the frontier to fight in the Civil War, the Santee Sioux went on the warpath in southern Minnesota, near the northern border of Iowa. Five thousand people fled after 600 settlers were killed and 100 women and children were captured by the Indians. With only 91 soldiers of the Sioux City Cavalry available to protect the entire western and northern borders of the state, Governor Samuel Kirkwood authorized the formation of a "Northern Border Brigade" and a chain of forts along Iowa’s northern border with Minnesota.
The new brigade was to consist of six troops of cavalry. Each troop was authorized a strength of not less than forty and not more than eighty men. Each man volunteering was to furnish his own horse and equipment. Two hundred and fifty men were mustered and formed cavalry troops in Sioux City, Denison, Crawford County, Fort Dodge, Webster County and Spirit Lake-Chain Lake.
After formation, the new units, made up of untrained citizen soldiers, moved north to build a fortified line along the state’s northern border and to convince the settlers to return to their abandoned farms. Getting people back to their farms was of paramount importance, as Union troops battling the Confederacy needed huge quantities of food. Under these circumstances, every Union farmer was important. Blockhouses or stockades were built at Correctionville, Cherokee, Peterson, Estherville, Chain Lake and Spirit Lake.
These fortifications were built of wood or sod. In Spirit Lake, they built a fort by encircling the brick courthouse with a wooden stockade. The entire chain of fortifications was completed by June of 1863.
September of 1863 saw the routing of the Santee Sioux in the Dakota Territory by Union troops under General Sully. With the need for frontier protection ended, the Northern Border Brigade’s mission was complete. The 1864 Adjutant General’s Report notes that the Northern Border Brigade had been disbanded.
The Southern Border Brigade
While attention was still focused on the northern frontier, Confederate irregulars began cross-border raids into southern Iowa. Three hundred refugee families from Missouri, most with Union sympathies, left their homes and fled north across the Iowa border. In response to the threat, Governor Kirkwood authorized the formation of a "Southern Border Brigade," to be raised in the southern two tiers of counties.
Within months, 1,500 Iowa volunteers were ready for action. They began patrolling the border and supporting Union troops which had been sent in response to a Confederate buildup near the Grand River in Missouri. While the federal troops concerned themselves with the 1,200-man force at the Grand River, the militia guarded lines of supply through Iowa.
In October of 1864, the largest raid occurred in Davis County. A number of Confederate irregulars, dressed in Union uniforms, came across the border. They robbed a number of Davis County farms, took hostages and shot two Union veterans. As the account of James Jackson, the lieutenant commanding the local militia, reads: "The news soon reached the (county) fairgrounds; the fair was broken up, and men hurried to the town. He arsenal was opened, arms and ammunition distributed, companies were formed in line of battle, horses cut loose from wagons and carriages without reference to who owned them, and mounted by armed men." The raiders fled, some being captured the next month.
When the Civil War came to an end, the men of the Southern Border Brigade were discharged. So ends the story of the brave Iowans who answered the call to service.