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Sharp, Abigail Gardner
(1843–January 21, 1921)

–celebrated survivor of the so-called Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857—was born at Twin Lakes, New York, the third of four children of Rowland and Francis (Smith) Gardner. At the time of the massacre, Abbie's sister Mary was married to Harvey Luce, and they were living, with their two children, in the Gardner household.

    Like many other Americans in the 19th century, the family moved steadily west with the frontier. They moved to Ohio and Indiana in 1851 and on to Joliet, Illinois, in 1854. Later that year they moved to Davenport, Iowa, and then to Janesville on the Cedar River. The following year they moved to Mason City and Clear Lake. In the spring of 1856, led on by reports of a beautiful scenic area to the west that also had fertile farm ground, they left Clear Lake and arrived at Spirit Lake in July. (Today the area is composed of three large lakes–Spirit Lake to the north, East Okoboji Lake in the center, and West Okoboji Lake, with a series of smaller lakes–but at that time the entire area was called Spirit Lake.)

    The Gardners built a cabin near the east shore of West Okoboji Lake. It was too late to plant crops, but they brought provisions that they hoped would last them until spring. That winter was extraordinarily severe, which threatened to exhaust the food supplies of most of the settlers in the area as well as those of the local Indians. There had already been some incidents between settlers and Indians and localized warfare between the Indians.

    A renegade band of Sioux Indians known as the Wahpekute under Inkpaduta appeared around Spirit Lake in early March 1857. On the morning of March 8 they came to the Gardner cabin and seemed friendly at first but then demanded food and supplies. Although Rowland Gardner tried to comply, they shot him and then proceeded to kill Francis Gardner and the rest of the family, except Abbie. One sister, Eliza, was in Springfield (now Jackson), Minnesota, at the time and escaped the massacre. Abbie (not yet 14 years old) was taken captive. During the next few days, the Wahpekute went from cabin to cabin around the Spirit Lake area killing settlers and taking three additional captives. Before Abbie's ordeal was over, two of the captives, a Mrs. Thatcher and a Mrs. Noble, were also killed.

    A relief expedition under the command of Major William Williams set out from Fort Dodge early in April to provide general assistance but also to pursue Inkpaduta and his band. However, they were already deep in the Dakota Territory with their captives and eluded capture. In June the Wahpekute negotiated with the Yankton Sioux along the James River and released Abbie to them. The Yanktons immediately headed into Minnesota and turned her over to Governor Medary, receiving $400 in return. On June 24 she went by steamboat to Dubuque, overland by stage to Fort Dodge, and then to Hampton, where she was reunited with her sister Eliza. The relief expedition found and buried the bodies of 29 settlers.

    At Hampton, Abbie met Casville Sharp and married him on August 16, 1857. She and Casville had three children: Albert (b. 1859), Allen (b. 1862), and Minnie (b. 1871). Minnie died in infancy, but the boys lived to adulthood. The family lived briefly in Missouri about 1858-1859 and in Kansas in 1860, but returned to Iowa. In the years that followed, Abbie Sharp tried unsuccessfully to reclaim her father's land. Finally, in 1891, she was able to regain 13 acres of the original Gardner claim near what is now Pillsbury's Point at Arnolds Park near the east shore of West Okoboji Lake. She settled and lived there the rest of her life, giving tours and telling her story to tourists during the summer months. Abbie Sharp died on January 21, 1921, and was buried in the Gardner family lot at Arnolds Park beside her parents.

    In 1894 the 25th Iowa General Assembly appropriated $5,000 for the construction of a commemorative monument. In 1943 the Gardner Log Cabin at Pillsbury's Point, Arnolds Park, became a State Historical Site.
Sources Abigail Gardner Sharp's own History of the Spirit Lake Massacre and the Captivity of Miss Abbie Gardner (1885) has gone through many editions. In 1990 the Dickinson County Historical Society and Museum published a 12th edition. The one piece of basic biographical information that is missing is Abbie's exact date of birth. Oddly enough, she gives the exact date of her parents' marriage, March 22, 1836, but not her date of birth other than the year 1843. No other sources give an exact birth date either. Notices of her death are in the Des Moines Register, 1/23/1921, and the Spirit Lake Beacon, 1/27/1921. Notice of her passing also produced a laudatory editorial in the Des Moines Register, 1/24/1921. A larger general history of the background and course of the massacre, the relief expedition, the general outcome, and the decades of settlement and life in the Spirit Lake area that followed is in Thomas Teakle, The Spirit Lake Massacre (1918). See also William J. Petersen, "The Spirit Lake Massacre," Palimpsest 38 (1957), 209–64; R. A. Smith, A History of Dickinson County (1902); and Benjamin Shambaugh, "Frontier Defense in Iowa, 1850–1865," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 16 (1918), 336–47. The massacre also has been treated in historical fiction by MacKinlay Kantor, Spirit Lake (1961).
Contributor: David Holmgren