Siouxland Observer


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Spirit Lake Massacre:
Joel Howe's Story Again

Storytelling gives vision to our daily lives; like a window to the soul, and according to Plato, brings us closer to God.  What Plato called: “the form of the good."

To Professor Charles E. Winquist, a religious studies instructor at California State University, Chico, storytelling created an inward journey of  "reflective visions reaching outward."  He taught “the idea of the self must be turned back on the primary consciousness of reality, and intelligibility, if it is to be identified with the act of self-affirmation.”  Thus, stories helped fulfill a human need, and can even become living, breathing realities.

Unfortunately, reflective visions are often subjective, and showcase differing realities, both good and bad. The song “Georgia on My Mind,” for example, takes on an entirely new meaning after reading Chief Justice Marshall's opinion on Georgia’s effort to rid the land of its native population.

History tells us the Cherokee Nation lost, but Marshall left their options open.  Unfortunately, they were exiled even after winning in Worcester v. Georgia (a story known as the “trail of tears”).

Winquist believed these “incarnations,” or “reflective transformations of narrative from experience,” are special to oral and written histories.  They are also archetypal, 1 a pattern in life from which a collective history, or “unconscious,” affects us personally as we experience life.

Thus, the impetuous cruelty of  manifest destiny ultimately found redemption in the renewal of a people.  The Cherokee Nation suffered, yes, but Winquist would argue their story was an exodus.  A tragedy; and the kind of truth that forever plays out on the path of an enlightened people, and a great nation.

Most of us have trouble understanding such cruelties, but share the stories anyway.  For reading or hearing such tales can be a life-changing experience.  We all know there is injustice. Why hide from it?  The telling of awful experiences in this "valley of tears” brings hope, a transcendental understanding of the human experience.  That is why some stories are repeated over and over; they're lessons in life and living.

A story of injustice that stands out in Iowa history reflects this reality.  The Tale of Howard’s Head, a campfire ghost story of  chance encounter, rage and death, comes from the Spirit Lake Massacre in northwest Iowa.

The killing of settlers by Native Americans in northwest Iowa was cruel and mindless, but the native people were often ostracized.  In northern Iowa, for example, much like in Georgia, Native Americans watched as their land, and their way of life disappeared.

According to a citation on Wikipedia, the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux, and other "treaties," ceded nearly 24 million acres of native land to white settlers. The Dakota people kept some of their land and were promised money and goods for the rest, but they never got it.

The land they ceded in the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux is shown in green. (The map is reproduced from Wikipedia, in accordance with Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 legal code.)

According to Wikipedia, the Dakota War  was was rooted here. The land was divided into townships and plots for settlement. Logging and agriculture on these plots eliminated surrounding forests and prairies, which interrupted the Dakota's annual cycle of farming, hunting, fishing and gathering wild rice.

Anger over this loss, in part, is what sparked the Spirit Lake Massacre.  It became one of the first in a series of native raids that protested the injustice of the 1851 treaty.

In 1857 Chief Inkpaduta, who had followed the Little Sioux River into northwest Iowa, led 14 Sioux in an attack on Spirit Lake, Iowa, an area just south of the Minnesota border. The Sioux killed 35 to 40 settlers in the scattered settlements.

The story of the massacre is a part of Iowa's history, and was especially popular at camps in northwest Iowa in the early 60s. Campers who spent time at YMCA Camp Foster, for example, knew the story by heart. Unfortunately, most campers never learned why the Chief, and his men, killed indiscriminately. Camp rumor held that Spirit Lake was sacred to the Dakota, and no one could live near the lake.  But how could this explain coldblooded murder and kidnapping?

According to an undocumented citation on Wikipedia, Inkpaduta was born in the Dakota Territory shortly before the turn of the 19th century. As a grown man he suffered many hardships.  When he missed the treaty negotiations of the Traverse Des Sioux, he refused to recognize the restrictions on tribal lands. He knew all about the white man and his "law."  In 1852 nine members of his family, as well as his older brother, were killed by a man wielding an ax.

Inkpaduta became chief of his tribe after the brutal murders, and did what he thought was best.  He told the U.S. Army.  Unfortunately, nothing was done to bring the killer, Henry Lott, to justice.

In the late winter of 1857, Inkpaduta (known as Scarlet Point in some accounts), was leading a starving band of hunters in northwest Iowa, when on March 8, according to Wikipedia, he launched a series of bloody raids.

No one really knows why he and his men went on a rampage, but according to the Iowa History website, the Chief was hated and feared by everyone — including his own men.

Yet Inkpaduta had experienced horrific violence and loss in his life. At the time, injustice was common for native people.  White men often decapitate Native Americans as a warning to other tribe members (a practice dating back to the earliest period of our history — Susan Bates' history).

Just before the massacre at Spirit Lake, native warriors, hunting on traditional tribal land, reportedly lost their rifles to Captain Seth Smith in Woodbury County.  Writer Clinton Engen wrote it happened when Inkpaduta, or one of his men, shot a dog that had attacked them. Engen's account is not as detailed as some reports on the massacre, but without doubt the men lost their guns.

In an article by David L. Bristow, at, no dog is mentioned, but the hunters did lose their rifles. They were heading south, and stopped to set up camp near the town of Smithland in southern Woodbury County.  In Smithland, Bristow said, settlers feared an ambush and took the guns away by force.

Both accounts hold truth, but the story is best reported (with firsthand information) by The Danbury Review.  According to the Review, a settler’s dog was in fact killed, but only one rifle was taken at first.  The man was also beaten.

"The settlers began to assume an unfriendly attitude toward the Indians,” The Review reported, “which in turn changed the attitude of the Indians toward the whites. The settlers thought (that) before there was more trouble they had better try to persuade the Indians to break camp. They appointed a vigilante group to talk to the Indians and devised a plan. The men selected were Eli Lee, John Howe, John Kinnea, Thomas Nagle, Eli Floyd, Jim Kirbey, M.L. Jones, O.B. Smith, William Thurman, Ed Howe, B.M. Mead, Wesley Thurman, John Floyd, Thomas Bowers, Jonathan Leach, A. Livermore and Thomas Davis. There were only 24 eligible men in the Smithland settlement….”

According to this report, vigilantes “took the Indians' guns and told them they would be back in the morning."  The natives were gone the next morning.

Whatever happened, most certainly Inkpaduta and his men were starved and filled with rage as they headed toward the lakes.  No excuse for murder and kidnapping, but it certainly helps explain what happened in Spirit Lake.

A most telling raid came at Lost Island Lake, now near Ruthven, Iowa. A warrior of the group, who approached the Gillett cabin, according to, was shot and decapitated while looking for food and rifles. Later, on the Little Sioux River in Clay County, just 20 miles from Spirit Lake, the band attacked Ambrose S. Mead's home, killing cattle.

At Mead’s home, they also tried to kidnap his daughters, but at least one escaped.  Her name was Emma.  They then continued their journey north, where Abigail Gardner's family was killed, and she captured, in an area now called Arnolds Park, Iowa.

As the warriors traveled along the lake shore of East Lake Okoboji, they came to the land where YMCA Camp Foster is located today.   In fact, according to Historynet, the campsite sits on what was once a part of the old settlement. The area is reported to have housed Alvin and Lydia Noble, along with their 2-year-old child.  Joseph and Elizabeth Thatcher, also with child, lived with them in a cabin on the east side of the lake.  This report was also confirmed by the Iowa History Project, which reported people killed, and women taken captive.

In 1857, Inkpaduta’s band "celebrated" their murders with red meat and dance, then continued their mindless slaughter indiscriminately as they headed toward the Spirit Lake.  When they came across a man reportedly named Joel Howe, they killed him and hacked off his head. A Mr. Ring discovered the skull two years later on the south beach of East Lake Okoboji, perhaps near Arnolds Park.

Of course, Foster lore always placed the killing at camp, and most likely (if close by at all) Joel Howe died near Twin Hills, another natural beach (now gone to private housing).

The Foster story always placed Inkpaduta and Howe in a ravines near camp.  And, in fact, if Inkpaduta was heading north toward Spirit Lake, he and his men might well have found Howe on their way to "Old Baldy," another Foster destination for campouts on the lake.

But wherever the murder took place, the campers and staff regularly pitched tents on overnight campouts at both locations. And naturally, as everyone knew, Howe, aka “Howard,” was still looking for his body.  It had never been found.

The massacre outraged Iowans, but it was revenge, most certainly, that fueled Howe's gruesome murder, not his intrusion on native land.  And while both sides were guilty of savagery, Inkpaduta outdid himself. Consequently, the United State’s military never stopped looking for him.  

History records the leaders of the troop surge known as “The Expedition” may have even tracked him to Whitestone.  According to a comment posted on, he and his men were camped there, and military leaders may have known it.

Around the Foster campfire, and at other campfires in the area perhaps, the stories were shared year after year, Howe's especially.  The decapitated victim looking for his body became a right of passage for all at camp, and its telling gave vision to the unknown.  Campers learned all about the horror of the Spirit Lake Massacre, and one of its victims firsthand (via story), even though they were safe in modern-day Iowa.

For those who study narrative and storytelling, there is real meaning here, even without a historical understanding of the massacre.  For despite warnings not to tell the story by administrative staff and others, what happened to Joel Howe was shared again and again.  If not openly, then certainly in whispers.  Even the outbuildings told the tale: campers in the 1960s brushed their teeth at "Howard's Hall."

For many during campouts, the fear of sleeping in the wild vanished in the telling of  Howard's Head — even if the sorrow and horrific misunderstanding of the massacre was not understood very well.  For on dark nights when someone dared tell the tale, everyone ultimately slept well.  The fear of the unknown vanquished once again.

Editor’s Note:To learn more about the Treaty of the Great Sioux Land Grab visit Wikipedia. We found the map here, and learned about the horror to the families who suffered and died for wanting to live in such a beautiful place

1 In “Homecoming: Interpretation, Transformation and Individuation,” Professor Winquist explained the idea in detail:   “Archetypal patterns should be viewed as connected procedures between actual feelings and forms of possibility that have evolved through the collective history of culture.  Thus, archetypes are not identifiable with the realm of formal possibilities but are the residue of decisions that make patterns available for the integration of formal possibilities with actual feelings.  To feel possibilities is to feel their embodiment in actual relationships. The discernment of an archetypal situation is a consciousness of a relational pattern that is present within the ecology of experience passed through the collective history that contrasts with the immediate pattern of individual decision or with a prevailing cultural pattern.”