History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/1/25
|←Chapter XXIV||History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/Volume 1 by
The terrible news aroused the people in every direction. Prompt steps were taken to send a relief expedition at once to the lakes. Major William Williams issued a call for volunteers, and in three days one hundred men were enlisted. They were organized into three companies—Company “A,” of Fort Dodge, C. B. Richards, captain; Company “C” of Fort Dodge, and vicinity, John F. Duncombe, captain; Company “D” of Webster City, J. C. Johnson, captain. So intense was the excitement and desire to overtake and punish the savages, that the little army started out in haste, poorly equipped for a long winter march over unsettled prairies. The winter, which had been the severest on record, was still unbroken.
The snow storms had continued for months, filling sloughs and ravines in many places to a depth of from six to fifteen feet. But few tents could be procured and the blankets, clothing and provisions that were hastily collected were insufficient for such an expedition. Major Williams, the commander, was a vigorous man but he wassixty-two years of age. He had been commissioned by Governor Grimes two years before to act upon his own judgment in any trouble with the Indians. News of the outrages perpetrated along the Little Sioux some time before had reached Fort Dodge and the people were not wholly unprepared for tidings of further depredations. Howe, Parmenter and Wheelock joined the expedition at Fort Dodge; J. M. Thatcher, at the Irish colony, Morris Markham, John Bradshaw and Jareb Palmer turned back with it, after conducting the Springfield refugees to safety. A hard crust on the snow rendered the march slow and difficult, as it was not sufficiently hard to bear the weight of a man. At the close of the second day the party camped at Dakota, in Humboldt County, but eighteen miles from Fort Dodge. From this place onward the obstructions, hardships and sufferings increased. In many places the ravines they had to cross were filled with snow in depth of from ten to twenty feet, in which the teams were helpless. Long ropes had to be fastened to the floundering horses and they were pulled through by the men one at a time. The loaded wagons were drawn through in a similar manner. Sometimes it required the entire brigade to haul one loaded wagon through the immense drifts. Often the men were compelled to wade two abreast in long lines, up to their waists in snow, to break a road for the teams and wagons.
On the third night the expedition was obliged to camp on the unsheltered prairie in the deep snow, without fuel, with a bleak northwest wind sweeping down upon the exhausted men. They made a supper of crackers and raw pork, chained the oxen to the wagons, which were arranged close together to break the wind, while the men crowded together on their beds of snow, to keep from freezing. The next day was a renewal of the hardships until night, when they were able to reach the shelter of McKnight’s Grove, where they found plenty of fuel to cook their food and cabins in which to sleep.
On the morning of the 28th, after roll call, Major Williams made a brief address to his men, alluding to the hardships encountered and complaints of some of the faint-hearted. He told them plainly that greater sufferings were ahead of them and if any lacked the courage or endurance to encounter them, now was the time to say so and return to their homes. Nine men turned their steps homeward, leaving the command with weakened ranks to face the dangers ahead. No record has been kept of the names of these deserters.
On the 29th, the little army reached the Irish colony, near where Emmetsburg now stands and exchanged some of their worn out teams for fresh animals. They were also reënforced by several young men, bringing the number of the command up to one hundred and twenty-five. Dr. Strong, who had deserted his wife and child, was found here, but could not be persuaded to join the Relief Expedition. Major Williams knew that another day’s march might bring them within reach of the Indians, and so sent a company of nine picked men in advance as scouts. They were C. C. Carpenter. Frank K. Mason, J. M. Thatcher, W. L. Church, Wm. K. Laughlin, A. N. Hathaway, Wm. Defore and A. H. Johnson, under command of Lieutenant J. N. Maxwell. They carried corn bread to last three days. This was the 30th of March, and traveling northward about twelve miles, by noon, upon reaching an elevation, one of the company shouted “Indians!” Far away could be seen a party twice as large as their own, slowly advancing. Lieutenant Maxwell quickly formed his men in line for the attack, and followed a high ridge to keep in sight of the enemy, as the approaching party was seen to be preparing for battle. Coming nearer, Mr. Church, who was in advance, suddenly dropped his gun, sprang forward, exclaiming, “My God! there’s my wife and babies!”
Governor Carpenter, years after, thus described the scene which followed:
“They had surrounded the ox-sled in an attitude of defense, as they had supposed us to be Indians, and had resolved, if overpowered, never to fall into the hands of the savages alive. On discovering that we were friends, such a heartrending scene I never before witnessed, as the relatives and friends of the refugees had supposed they were dead. In the party were Mrs. W. L. Church and her children; her sister, Drusella Swanger, shot through the shoulder; Mr. Thomas, who had lost an arm; Mr. Carver, also severely wounded in the fight at Springfield; Mrs. Dr. Strong and child, who had been deserted by her craven husband. In the haste of their flight they had taken but few provisions and scanty clothing. The women had worn out their shoes; their dresses were worn into fringe about the ankles; the children were crying with hunger and cold; the wounded were in a deplorable condition for want of surgical aid. Their food was entirely exhausted; they had no means of making fire; their blankets and clothing were wet and frozen; and in their exhausted condition it is hardly possible that many of them could have survived another night’s exposure from the fearful storm then coming on. The refugees were so overcome by the sudden transition from deadly peril and impending death that seemed to confront them, changed in an instant to relief in their desperate extremity, that they sank down in the snow, crying and laughing alternately, as their deliverers gathered around them. If nothing more had been accomplished by the Relief Expedition, every member felt that the salvation of eighteen perishing refugees, from almost certain death by exposure and starvation, had richly repaid them for all the hardships encountered.”
On the 31st the expedition pushed northward, finding frequent indications of Indians, until it reached the Granger house, on the west fork of the Des Moines River, near the Minnesota line. Here Major Williams learned that a company of soldiers from Fort Ridgely was at Springfield for the protection of settlers, and that the Indians had moved on westward. Learning that those murdered at the lakes were unburied, Major Williams called for volunteers to go to the lakes and bury the mutilated bodies. Captain J. C. Johnson, Lieutenant J. N. Maxwell, and Privates W. E. Burkholder, Henry Carse, W. N. Ford, J. H. Dailey, O. C. Howe, Geo. P. Smith, O. C. Spencer, S. Van Cleve, C. Stebbins, R. U. Wheelock, R. A. Smith, B. F. Parmenter, Jesse Addington, R. McCormack, J. M. Thatcher, W. R. Wilson, James Murray, A. E. Burtch, W. K. Laughlin, E. D. Kellogg and John Dailey promptlystepped forward and volunteered to go on the perilous mission. On the morning of the 2d of April, the command separated, the main body under Major Williams turned back to the Irish colony, while Captain Johnson’s party started for the lakes. They reached East Okoboji about two o’clock, guided by Thatcher to his own cabin. A horrible sight confronted him. His home was in ruins, and lying in the yard were the dead bodies of his friends, Noble and Ryan, as they had fallen three weeks before, when surprised and shot down by the treacherous Sioux. Inside of the cabin nothing was left but the ghastly forms of the two little children who had been snatched from the arms of their terrified mothers, Mrs. Thatcher and Mrs. Noble. The fate of the two young mothers who were dragged off by the Indians was then unknown. From cabin to cabin, all through the settlement the company went, burying the dead, until all were laid beneath the snow-covered ground.
Not a living person of the entire colony was found. Mr. Marble’s body had been buried by the soldiers from Fort Bidgely. The body of young Dr. Herriott was found near Mattocks’ cabin, with his right hand still grasping his broken rifle, the barrel empty, where he had fallen in a hand-to-hand struggle with the Indians, bravely defending his neighbors. The bodies of Luce and Clark were not found until some weeks later, near the outlet of the lake. Their sad mission ended, the burial party started on the 4th of April on their homeward march, their provisions entirely consumed.
The weather was warm and the melting snow filled the sloughs with water, in many places waist deep, through which the men had to wade, wetting their clothing to the shoulders. About four o’clock the wind, which had been in the south, suddenly changed to the northwest and in half an hour a howling blizzard was sweeping down upon them. Their clothes were soon frozen stiff. Some of the party had taken their boots off to wade the sloughs, andothers had cut holes in them to let the water out. Many had their boots frozen before they could put them on and were compelled to walk on through the snow and freezing water in their stockings, which were soon worn out.
As night came on the piercing winds nearly chilled them to death. They dare not lie down in the snow for it was only by violent exercise that they were able to keep warmth and life in their stiffening limbs and bodies. They separated into two companies, one led by Captain Johnson, the other by Lieutenant Maxwell. They dare not go on in the blinding storm and darkness, fearing to lose their way, so all that long fearful night, they tramped back and forth in a desperate effort to save themselves from freezing. Often the weaker ones would fall down benumbed in the drifting snow and the stronger comrades would lift them up and force them to keep moving.
In the morning, says Lieutenant Maxwell:
“I saw Johnson and Burkholder some distance from us, going in a southerly direction, while we were traveling east. They were following the directions of an old trapper, and we soon lost sight of them. Henry Carse became unconscious during the day, and sank in the snow, blood running from his mouth. We carried him to the river, where a fire was started by saturating a damp wad with powder and shooting it into the weeds. Carse was now helpless, and when we cut the rags from his feet, the frozen skin and flesh came off with them.”
As soon as the fire was well started, Maxwell and Laughlin, who were the strongest of the party, determined to cross the river and go to the Irish colony for help. They reached the settlement and sent assistance to their comrades, who were brought in badly frozen but alive. Major Williams gives the following account of the sad fate of Captain J. C. Johnson and Wm. E. Burkholder:
“G. P. Smith was the last one who saw them. He fell in with them after they separated from their comrades and traveled with them for some time. They were very much exhausted from wading ponds and sloughs; their clothes frozen and covered with ice. Their feet were badly frozen,and unable to walk farther, they finally sank down in the snow, and Smith helped them to pull off their frozen boots. They tore up a part of their blankets and wrapped them around their freezing feet, which were very painful. Smith urged them to get up and make another effort to reach the Des Moines River timber, which was in sight, but they were so chilled and exhausted by the bleak wind, frozen feet and icy clothing that they were unable to rise, and said they could go no farther. After vainly trying for a long time to get them to make another effort to reach the timber, Smith at last realized that to save his own life he must leave them. After going some distance he looked back and saw them still on their knees in the snow, apparently unable to arise. It is not likely they ever left the spot where Smith left them, but finally, overcome with cold, they sank down and perished side by side.”
Eleven years after two skeletons were found near where they were last seen and identified by the guns and powder flasks lying by them as the remains of Johnson and Burkholder.wagon box into a raft on which to cross and with a long rope establish a ferry. But the raft was swamped as its four occupants reached the opposite shore and the rope was lost. A messenger was sent to the nearest house for help and material for a raft. Captain Richards says:
“The wind was now blowing a terrific gale and the cold was intense, so that our wet clothing was frozen stiff upon us as we traveled up and clown the banks of the swollen current in a vain search for a better place for the men to cross. When help and material for a raft came, so strong and cold was the wind, and so swift the current, filled with floating ice, that all of our efforts to build a raft failed. It was now dark and still growing colder, and the roar of the blinding storm so great that we could no longer hold communication with our companions on the other side. We were benumbed with cold, utterly exhausted, and three miles from the nearest cabin. We were powerless to aid our comrades, and could only try to save ourselves. It was a terrible walk in the face of the terrific blizzard, our clothes frozen, our feet freezing, and our strength gone. After wandering in the blinding storm until nine o’clock, we fortunately found the cabin. Here we passed a night that will never be obliterated from my memory. We gathered about the fire vainly trying to dry our frozen clothing. We had no blankets, and the piercing wind was driving through every crevice of the cabin, and we walked the floor in the most intense anxiety over the fate of our companions, left on the banks of the creek, exposed to the fury of the blizzard, without shelter, food or fire. All through the night we kept looking out on the wild storm in hopes it would cease, but the cold ever grew more intense, and the wind howled more fiercely, and no one slept. We knew that Carpenter, Stratton, Stevens and Wright were men endowed with courage equal to any emergency, and we trusted they would find some way to keep the men from perishing; still a harrowing fear would come over us that we should in the morning find them frozen to death. Terrible visions of their fate tortured us through the long hours of the night, and with the first dawn of light Buncombe, Smith, Mason and I were wading through the drifts toward Cylinder Creek. The mercury was now 28 degrees below zero, and the blizzard at its wildest fury. Mason gave out and sunk down in the drifts. I got him back to the cabin and soon overtook the others. Strong ice was formed on the creek from the shore, and we hurried over it to the main channel where the current was so swift that it was too weak to bear us up. We could go no farther, could not see across for the drifting snow, and could hear no sound on the other side in answer to our loud shouts. Our faces and hands were now freezing, and we had to return to the cabin and wait until the ice should be strong enough to support us. Toward nightwe made another vain effort to cross, and had to return to the cabin, oppressed with the conviction that not one of our companions could survive until morning. But soon after dark three of the men came to the cabin and reported the command safe.”
Governor Carpenter tells how they managed to save themselves.
“We took the covers from the wagons and some tent canvas and stretched them over the wheels and made a rude shelter. We then put all of the blankets together on the snow and crowded in, lying down close together in our wet and frozen clothing, where we remained from Saturday evening until Monday morning, with nothing to eat until we reached the Shippey cabin Monday noon. We had waited until the ice was frozen over Cylinder Creek hard enough to bear up our loaded wagons and teams. I have since marched with armies from Cairo to Atlanta and up to Richmond, sometimes traveling continuously for three or four days and nights with only a brief halt occasionally to give the exhausted soldiers a chance to boil a cup of coffee. Under burning suns, through rain, sleet and snow, we endured great suffering; but never in all the weary years could our suffering be compared with that of the two terrible days and nights we endured on the banks of Cylinder Creek.”
Lieutenant Mason says:
“How we survived those fearful nights I do not know, when the mercury sunk to 34 degrees below zero the last night. The poor boys were slowly freezing, and many of them were insane; I think all of us were more or less insane the last night. The tongues of many of the men were hanging out, and the blood was running from the mouth or nose as we got up the last morning.”
The command now broke up into small parties and spread out over a wide range of country. In no other way could they find food in the scanty supply the few settlers had who lived along the river. The sufferings of some of the small parties reached the last degree of endurance as they traveled on homeward. But for the help of the settlers many must have perished. All at last reached their homes, however, except Johnson and Burkholder, though many were severely frozen.
Captain Buncombe, in writing of this relief expedition thirty years afterward, says:
“For severe hardships, continuous toil, constant exposure, bodily and mental suffering, I do not believe it has ever been surpassed by men who have risked their lives to rescue their fellow men from peril and death.”