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Author details 1857 events

Teen girl was held for months

July 1, 2012
By Fritz Busch - Staff Writer , The Journal

FORT RIDGELY STATE PARK - A Roseville author detailed events surrounding the Spirit Lake Massacre Saturday in the Fort Ridgely State Park Commissary.

In her book "Legends, Letters and Lies," Mary Bakeman wrote about how a 13-year-old white girl saw most of her family killed by Indians before being held captive for several months before she was ransomed.

Nearly 30 years after it happened, Abigail Gardner-Sharp published her memoir "History of the Spirit Lake Massacre and Captivity of Miss Abbie Gardner" whose popularity led to several reprints.

Bakeman described the winter of 1857 as severe enough for about 100 First Minnesota militia members to walk about 140 miles through snow up to nine feet deep with spades and shovels.

The march began after word got out that an attack by 15 Dakota Indians led by chief Inkpaduta (Scarlet Point) killed about 40 settlers and took four women captive, before heading north.

The Indian band of about 50, including women and children, lived by hunting after being expelled from the main band in dissension after the murder of a chief in 1840.

"The settlers had recently moved around what is now Lake Okoboji and refused to share what little food they had with the begging Indians, so most of them were beaten to death," Bakeman said. "Gardner and three older women were taken captive and headed towards Minnesota with the Indians." Two of the women were killed and Gardner and the other woman were ransomed. The militia men never caught Inkpaduta and most of his band.

The incident made relations between Dakota and settlers worse, leading to mistrust to the point where settlers killed Indians found hunting near settlements.

Fearing Indians would attack, settlers called for their removal by the U.S. government.

Resenting the government's failure to fulfill treaty obligations and seeing thousands of children and elders die from starvation while whites seized prime Dakota land, some Indians rebelled, attacking white settlers.

After years of marriage and living elsewhere, Gardner-Sharp returned to the Spirit Lake area in 1891 and bought her former family cabin which she operated as a tourist site, selling books, postcards, and souvenirs until her death in 1921.

In 1895, the State of Iowa erected a memorial to the settlers at Arnolds Park, near the site, memorializing the pioneers. The settlement site was later redeveloped as Camp Foster, a YMCA youth summer camp.

The Iowa State Conservation Commission bought the Abbie Gardner Sharp Cabin in 1941 and transferred it to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1974, who restored it to its original appearance. The park visitor center has artifacts relating to the period, and to the cultures of the Dakota and European-American settlers.

Author MacKinlay Kantor based his 1961 novel "Spirit Lake" on the historical events.

"History is not neat," Bakeman said. "There are always differences in the way people look at things. But we should be able to learn from history by bringing forward some of the messages to see where we've been and why we were there."

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at



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