Fort Dodge history arrives in the mail

Letter from 1857 details Spirit Lake Massacre expedition

-Submitted photo
Randy Kuhlman, CEO of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation, left, and Roger Natte, local historian, hold a letter from 1857 that details the Spirit Lake Massacre expedition.

The community of Fort Dodge is blessed with a very robust history; replete with extraordinary people, interesting places and fascinating events.

One of the most compelling events in our history was the Spirit Lake Massacre expedition from Fort Dodge in 1857. The Spirit Lake Massacre is an iconic Iowa historical event that took place between March 8 and March 12, 1857. Following this horrific massacre was a heroic expedition of men from Fort Dodge who traveled to the Spirit Lake regions to provide assistance.

The first settler in Webster County in 1848 was Henry Lott. Known as a rather notorious character and swindler, Lott had periodic run-ins with the local Indians over the selling of whiskey and stealing horses. Around 1854, after moving north into Humboldt County, Lott and his grandson killed a Sioux Indian chief, Sidominadotah, and his family. Sidominadotah’s younger brother, Inkpadutah, became the new leader of the Red Top Bank of Sioux Indians and vowed revenge. Inkpadutah and his Sioux warriors turned their anger on the settlers around Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake. The agitated warriors bludgeoned and decapitated 38 to 40 pioneer settlers; men, women and children living in that region, and took four young women captive. The warriors also plundered and burned the settler’s homes and slaughtered their livestock.

News of the massacre around Spirit Lake was brought to Fort Dodge by three men who had taken claims in the Spirit Lake region. The men were visiting their claims on March 15 and found the mutilated bodies of several men, women and children. Realizing this was the work of the Indians, they hastened back to Fort Dodge to carry the news and secure aid. They reached Fort Dodge on Saturday night, March 21. The next day a public meeting was called in the “old brick” schoolhouse and the following day, three companies of volunteers were organized by Maj. William Williams to go to the relief of the settlements at the Lakes region.

At the time, Maj. William Williams was commissioned by the governor of Iowa to protect settlers from Indian attacks and harassment. Maj. Williams immediately began enrolling men from Fort Dodge; 80 men volunteered. The towns of Webster City and Homer also responded promptly and furnished 40 additional men. By the second morning, the 25th day of March, Williams had three companies organized consisting of 120 men. The mission of this battalion of volunteers under the command of Maj. William Williams was to track the hostile Indians, remove them from the region and protect the settlers. They were also to bury the dead at the Lakes. On the morning of the 25th of March, the companies began moving up the west branch of the Des Moines River heading for the Iowa Great Lakes region.

Pictured here is the original handwritten letter, written in 1857 by a member of the Fort Dodge battalion of men who traveled to the Spirit Lake area following the Spirit Lake Massacre.

This brings me back to the present. On Jan. 12, I received a phone call from Patricia Woting, of Rowlesburg, West Virginia. Patricia introduced herself and said that she has never been to Iowa, nor does she know anyone in her family that has ever lived in Iowa or been to Fort Dodge. Yet, she had in her possession an original handwritten letter, written in 1857 by a member of the Fort Dodge battalion of men who traveled to the Spirit Lake area.

The letter had been passed down from generation to generation in her family. In December 2020, Patricia’s mother passed away and going through old boxes that her mother had in storage, Patricia came across this intriguing letter that was given to her mother by a relative who had previously passed away. Knowing nothing about Fort Dodge, Iowa, or the Spirit Lake Massacre, Patricia searched the internet and found the History of Fort Dodge website. She then called to inform me about the letter and asked if we would like to have it in our possession and care. Without hesitation, I responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

One week later, I received a large Priority Mail envelope containing the historic letter preserved in a plastic binder. The beautifully handwritten letter was written by William F. Porter to his father. The letter offered a first-hand account of what he witnessed and the challenges that he and the other men experienced in traveling by foot to the Iowa Great Lakes area and then back to Fort Dodge, 164 years ago. The letter conveys the gruesome carnage that the men witnessed and the incredible challenges they faced in accomplishing their humanitarian mission.

The winter in 1857 was one of the harshest recorded. The letter states how the men marched by foot up to the Spirit Lake region, a 220-mile round-trip journey through blustery cold winds, snow banks 3 to 15 feet deep and swollen streams. The challenges and hardships they faced were enormous, and at times, overwhelming. Every few miles, the men had to cross streams, marshes and bogs, sometimes through chest deep water. They navigated through large snow banks and shoveled out paths so they could pull their wagons and the oxen through the snow drifts using large ropes and the strength of their backs, arms and legs. Lacking food and other necessary provisions, the men faced enormous fatigue and hunger while coping with the freezing cold as they were wet all day long and then slept on the open prairies at night without tents or any coverings. During the 17-day expedition, two men froze to death and others lost fingers and toes due to frostbite. It was said that never were harder services rendered by men than those under Maj. Williams’ command.

It’s not very often that a piece of our history is preserved and presented to us 164 years later. The Fort Dodge Community Foundation is making an archival reproduction of this letter that will be framed for display so people can see and read a first-hand account of the courage and heroism of these men from Fort Dodge and the region. The Foundation is also consigning the original letter to the Webster County Historical Society for preservation.

A typed written version of this letter can be found on the Fort Dodge Community Foundation website (www.fd-foundation.org). For a more in depth narrative of Henry Lott, go to www.fortdodgehistory.com and click on “Iconic People” and scroll down to Henry Lott.

For a detailed account of the famous Spirit Lake Massacre go to the Fort Dodge Community Foundation historic website: www.fortdodgehistory.com and click “Historical Eras” and then “Our Beginnings.”

For a detailed account of the famous Spirit Lake Expedition go to the Fort Dodge Community Foundation historic website: www.fortdodgehistory.com and click “Historical Eras” and then “Our Beginnings.”

A detailed, first-hand reporting of this amazing expedition is also documented in Major William Williams’ book that can be found in the Archives section on the Fort Dodge History website.

Randy Kuhlman is CEO of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation.


Here is the original letter transcribed:

Fort Dodge Iowa 11th 1857

Dear Father,

Our “Spirit Lake Expedition” has just returned to Fort Dodge after absence of something more than 20 days. I had designed to keep a journal of the trip and when I returned to send the details to some of the editors of the Westmoreland County for publication. But I refrain from the task and prefer waiting until an account is given to the people through the proper authority for I am sure were I to sit down and write the story of our adventures — it’s fearful scenes of trial, hardship, cold, exposure, peril, hunger etc. and confining myself within the strictest bounds of truth and veracity — I say were I so to do it would be put down as the wildest exaggeration or the fevered imaginings of some crazy fanatic. Suffice it to say that we traveled the distance of two hundred miles on foot walking through swamps and sluices waist deep and over snow drifts from three to fifteen feet deep. We frequently were compelled to travel whole days with snow and ice covering our clothing to the hips and at night lie down on the cold prairie ground with no other covering to shelter us but the wagon covers and at other times no covering at all. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining food and carrying it when obtained we had frequently to march whole days with no other subsistence but a camp biscuit a few cold potatoes or a small piece of raw fat bacon. Our wagons we had frequently to carry or haul over the surface of the deep snow gorges by hand and by oxen and mule were also in like manner dragged over the snow by means of a long rope tied to their heads and legs. Those who are acquainted with the incidents of Col. Fremont’s Rocky mountain trip assert that this was attended with equally as much scenes of real suffering and hardship considering the short duration as was that of the Explorer. And such a scene of blood and butchery as presented itself to the astonished gaze within the limits and vicinity of Spirit Lake. Our men buried 29 persons consisting of men women and children murdered robbed scalped tomahawked cut up and slaughtered in the most inhuman mode of savage warfare- they buried all they could find during a very brief search but from the number of inhabitants living in that section of country who are killed and missing the number is supposed to reach 60 or 70 persons- some were lying on the ground with the head chopped off- others with the body chopped asunder from the hips to the shoulder- others half burnt- others deprived of legs, arms? The whole scene presented a spectacle of cruel barbarity, revenge, murder, rapine and bloodshed unparalleled by any of the darkest plots of the Revolutionary border warfare. To such a degree of cold fatigue and hunger were we exposed that two of our hardiest and most robust young men- residents of Fort Dodge froze to death. Though possessing but a frail constitution and unused from boyhood to such hardships yet I endured the trials with a better grace and come off with as few scars and blemishes as any of the crowd- though I would hesitate upon accepting five hundred dollars as compensation for another like expedition of trial and suffering – for I am sure no reasonable amount of money would compensate for frozen toes, ears, nose and hands.

For by the way my right hand is badly frozen which accounts for the present bad writing.

There will be a full account of the Expedition published in pamphlet form by Major Williams- the Commander-in Chief of the Battalion. As soon as it comes out I will send you a copy- it is designed to give in detail the most interesting incidents of the trip- also a list of the members of each company- their names and places of residents. There will be certificates of invoice issued to each member of the three companies vis A. B. & C. I was enrolled as I stated to you previously in Company A. As soon as convenient an application will be made to Congress by Major Williams for land warrants and soldiers pay for each member of the companies. We have dearly earned such remuneration- And if Uncle Sam don’t see fit to pay us- we will just consider he’s no gentleman. But I must just draw to a close for I am almost used up with hard work and harder fare. I’ll send you a copy of the Fort Dodge Sentinel containing a resolution of thanks tendered by us to our Captain and officers of Company A. Tell Obe to write me- I would write him but I feel so fatigued from the hardship that I will have to postpone it. Give my love and respects to all and believe me.

Your Affectionate Son

William F. Porter


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