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The Spirit Lake Massacre Through Abbie Gardner's Eyes
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The Spirit Lake Massacre Through Abbie Gardner's Eyes

A Native American saddened by a death in his family. Settlers short on food. Mistaken assumptions on both sides.

So many factors led to the atrocity that was the Spirit Lake Massacre in March 1857. Individuals on both sides were killed. The lives of young and old were taken. But one little girl survived to tell the tale, and you can see her story at the Abbie Gardner Cabin & Museum in Arnolds Park Memorial Day-Labor Day.

Abbie Gardner was thirteen when she was kidnapped during the Spirit Lake Massacre and lived with the Indigenous tribe for months before she was traded back for two horses, 12 blankets, two kegs of powder, 20 pounds of tobacco, 32 yards of cloth, ribbon, and other articles.

When she later returned to Pillsbury Point as Abbie Gardner Sharp, she opened a museum to tell her story. Her legacy is still intact as the history of the Spirit Lake Massacre is recalled at the Abbie Gardner Cabin & Museum in Arnolds Park each year.

The state historical site opens for the season Saturday, May 26, and is open noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Labor Day weekend.

“Even so many years later, people are fascinated by Abbie Gardner Sharp’s story and are compelled by the issues that led up to the Spirit Lake Massacre and what happened afterward,” said Kiley Roth, community relations coordinator with the Dickinson County Conservation Board, which staffs the cabin in a partnership with the Iowa State Historical Society.

Docents at the museum will take people through the entire story, from the treaties and lack of food that might have helped start the horrific situation to how Gardner survived and regaled others with her story through her adult years.

Visitors will also get to see Gardner Sharp’s original paintings, historic artifacts, and newspaper clippings. They can also tour the historic cabin and visit the massacre monument and the Gardner family gravesite.

“This is truly a place that you won’t want to miss when you’re visiting the Okoboji area, or if you live here and have never been to this historic site before,” Roth said. “While you’re there, take a walk along the lake to Pillsbury Point and experience the view that the first settlers to the area would have seen.”

For more information on the Abbie Gardner Cabin & Museum or on other Dickinson County Conservation Board parks and areas, visit its website or call 712-336-6352. You can also keep up with the latest happenings on the Dickinson County Nature Center Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Image credit: Dickinson County Conservation

Leave a Comment

  1. Patrick Muller
    This site has existed for decades and is worthwhile Iowa history to engage. But to continue to call it a massacre, as if the first nation individuals had all the culpability, is pretty Caucasian-centric. The site should really raise funds and expand articulation into the multiple perspectives and complex dynamics that surround this one moment in history.
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    1. kroth
      Thanks for the response. It really was a massacre for both sides, not blaming one side or the other. Both the settlers and the American Indians lost friends and loved ones in this and other struggles as America's landscape changed in that day. The docents at the cabin do a great job of presenting the facts of that sad day as well as the precursors that led to the misunderstandings on both sides. You're right that a lot of perspectives and dynamics led to this one moment, and the docents do try to add that in to their presentations.
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