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Spirit Lake Massacre Monument.

Spirit Lake Massacre Monument and Graves

Field review by the editors.

Arnolds Park, Iowa

Many American pioneers were unlucky, succumbing to the myriad hazards of the trail on their way to a better life. But of those countless unlucky pioneers, a few were fortunate enough for their story of doom to be enshrined in a monument or museum. The Donner Party lives on, and so do the people hauling those rickety Mormon handcarts.

And then there were the settlers at Spirit Lake, in what is now Arnolds Park, Iowa. By all accounts it was an idyllic spot -- until some angry members of the Dakota tribe paid a visit in early 1857. By the time the Dakota had left, 36 of the settlers had been slaughtered, and the only survivors were three young women and one girl: Abigail Gardner. One of the women was beaten to death, one was deliberately drowned, and the remaining two were abused until the Indians eventually sold them back to the Whites. Abbie was one of them.

Separate grave site for six.

Abigail Gardner tried to live a normal life afterward, but everyone wanted to know about the massacre and her captivity. She finally wrote a book about it, then used the profits at age 47 to return to Arnolds Park, buy the cabin and land, and open it in 1891 as one of Iowa's first tourist attractions. In 1895 she got the state to build a 55-foot-tall granite obelisk at the site, memorializing the "barbarous" massacre. It's impressive, although it's difficult to see among the grove of trees that have grown just as tall around it.

The dead that could be found in 1895 were dug up and buried at the base of the obelisk, except for six members of Abbie's family, who were re-laid to rest under a neighboring pyramid of rocks. Abbie, who died in 1921, and two of her sons are buried next to it, under an odd granite bench that's off-limits behind a spiked iron fence. The massacre spot is now wedged in among lakeside summer cabins and carefree vacationers. Their indifference is excusable, since the monument blends into park foliage in an area favored now for walking dogs.

Abbie's Dakota enslavement was awful, and she had nothing good to say about her captors for many years. Forgiveness, however, apparently came to her in the end; chiseled into the back of her bench is a eulogy that concludes, "orphaned and enslaved by hostile Sioux, she lived to embrace in Christian benevolence the American Indian and all Mankind."

Spirit Lake Massacre Monument and Graves

2 Circle Drive, Arnolds Park, IA
I-90 exit 64. South on Hwy 86 for 22 miles. Turn left (north) onto US Hwy 71 for one mile. Bear left onto Okoboji Grove Rd. Drive four blocks, veer right, then immediately turn left onto Circle Drive. The Monument will be on the right, in the trees.
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Amusement Park with Ancient CoasterAmusement Park with Ancient Coaster, Arnolds Park, IA - < 1 mi.
Higgins Museum of National Bank NotesHiggins Museum of National Bank Notes, Okoboji, IA - 1 mi.
The Miniature GrottoThe Miniature Grotto, Harris, IA - 16 mi.
In the region:
12-Foot-Tall Metal Mammoth, Aurelia, IA - 53 mi.

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