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Winter history lessons: natural and man-made

March 6, 2010
By Garry Brandenburg

OPOSSUMS are survivors. It may play dead as a technique to minimize its vulnerability to predators. Once the predator looses interest, the critter will 'wake up' and continue its hunt for food. Solitary and mostly nocturnal, the opossum will stay in a hollow log, ground burrow made by other animals, or under human storage buildings. It must get out of its bed every few days to hunt for carrion or just about any animal or vegetable remnants it can find.

If you should ever encounter an opossum during an outdoor hike, it may try to evade you at first, but if it considers itself cornered, it will hiss, screech, and salivate profusely while opening its mouth to expose all 50 teeth. It may also excrete a greenish substance. If all these repulsive behaviors do not work, it will feign death and allow its tongue to stick out of the mouth.

The little opossum may appear dull-witted, but one cannot escape the fact that this marsupial is a relic survivor from ages past. It plays a role that Mother Nature has carved out for it and does it very well.

Article Photos

North America's only marsupial, the Opossum (Didelphis virginiana), is a pouched animal and the sole survivor of an ancient line that existed during the age of the dinosaurs. After gestation as short as fourteen days, the embryo-like newborn must crawl across a forest of fur to reach the mother's pouch. Once inside, they can feed for two months before they will venture outside for the first time. They are mouse-sized at this point and will use the mother's back to ride wherever she goes. Today's photo was made last month at the height of a severe cold spell. Opossums do not hibernate.


The anniversary of the SPIRIT LAKE MASSACRE is March 8th. It was on this date in 1857 that the killing began when Rowland Gardner was shot in the back. Within minutes his wife, daughter, son and two grandchildren were also dead. Thirteen year old Abbie Gardner witnessed the killings. She was taken captive by the band of Sioux Indians lead by Inkpaduta. The Spirit Lake event would tally 38 dead settlers by the time it was over.

Inkpaduta took out his long boiling revenge on the settlers for the promised food items from the US Army that either never came or if it did, the food items were in spoiled condition. There had also been internal strife among the Dakotas, or Santee Sioux, for leadership. With the death of a rival, Inkpaduta became the leader. He had led a hard and violent life and was now in a position to extend his command.

The winter of 1856-57 was a hard, long and deep snowy time. The Gardner's and their neighbors huddled in their little cabins and lived on rationed food supplies. Inkpaduta was camped about ten miles north at Loon Lake, Minnesota. The reservation to the north was out of food. The people were desperate.

Inkpaduta and his band had moved south along the Little Sioux River and had camped near the present day City of Smithland in Woodbury County. They had hoped to hunt for elk which normally could be found on the open prairie grasslands. But the severe winter weather had driven the elk to find a bit of shelter in the woodlands or other groves of trees. Settlers in the area had a bad feeling of what was to come but had no way to inform the small group of settlers near Spirit Lake.

Rowland Gardner heard shots fired during the afternoon of March 7th, 1857. Not knowing what had transpired, he set out to investigate. Soon he rushed back in the cabin telling his family that they were all likely to be killed. His wife protested barring the door in hope that a fight could be avoided. Inkpaduta and his men entered the cabin and demanded flour. When Gardner turned his back to go to the flour barrel, he was shot. So were most of the others. Abbie was taken to the Indian's camp.

After a night of war dancing, Inkpaduta and his men went the next day cabin to cabin. They killed almost everyone except Lydia Noble, age 20, and Elizabeth Thatcher, age 19. As captives now with Abbie, they were joined a few days later by a fourth woman, 17 year old Margaret Marble. The endured the hard labor of chopping wood, putting up tents, cooking food and carried heavy packs when traveling.

A group of military men on patrol in the area on March 25th were heading toward the great lakes region. They battled heavy snow drifts some of which were 15 to 20 feet deep. Frostbite was common. Two of the soldiers became separated and their bodies were not found until 11 years later!

Mrs. Thatcher was the first captive to die partially from phlebitis and other ailments. When pushed into the Big Sioux River, she did swim to shore but was shot to death. Mrs. Noble wanted Abbie to go with her to the river so they could drown together. Abbie refused. On May 6th, 1857, two reservation Dakotas bought Mrs. Marble and took her to St. Paul. In June of 1857, Mrs. Noble refused to leave a tipi when ordered to do so by Inkpaduta's son Roaring Cloud. He dragged her outside and bludgeoned her to death. Abbie was now alone. She later told rescuers that "she despaired of ever seeing a tree again" after traveling over prairie lands northwest from Minnesota toward South Dakota.

Inkpaduta had entered the territory of the Yanktons Sioux and Abbie was sold to them. The Yanktons sold her to three Dakota men who at great risk to themselves, had come to rescue her. "Our conduct shows the heart of the Indian toward the whites," said one of the rescuers named Hotonwashte, when they reached safety at St. Paul. But the Indians knew all the whites were holding all the Dakota people responsible for the massacre.

White settlers packed up and moved east, not west, to get to relative safety. After three months of captivity, Abbie Gardner lived a hard rough life. She re-married but that failed. Two house fires took her meager possessions. She witnessed the death of her children and was not very healthy. Yet in spite of it all, in 1891, she moved back to Spirit Lake, Iowa and bought the land where her parents cabin had been. She set up a little shop and sold copies of her book documenting the massacre. The cabin still stands today at the Abbie Gardner State Historical Site near Okoboji.

Inkpaduta was never captured. He fled westward and became friends with Sitting Bull. Inkpaduta was at the Little Big Horn in 1876 when Custer and his soldiers were killed. He traveled with Sitting Bull and his people to Canada. Inkpaduta never returned to the United States. He died in Manitoba in 1881.


The next time someone says we had a rough winter in 2009-10, read the above story or read the history books from that era that tell how hard it was to survive in the mid 1800s in the wild prairielands of northwest Iowa. With a new perspective, you will thank your lucky stars for the conveniences we enjoy today. Agreed?


This weekend is the local IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE's Outdoor Sports Fishing & Gun Show. The place is Marshalltown's Coliseum on State Street. Fishing equipment, guns, wildlife art, resort get-aways for this summer, ATV displays, wildlife photos to purchase and as always a Kids Casting Contest. Today's doors opened at 9 am and will close at 5pm. Sunday hours are 10 until 3 pm.


Iowa's DEER CLASSIC is also this weekend at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines. This is a major event that will draw over 25,000 people! If one was to ever question the draw and excitement that Iowa's whitetail deer can muster, this event alone is proof of the intense appeal for area sportsmen and women. Schedule your time to attend this event too.


"Reflecting on Nature" is the theme for the Uncle Ikes Nature Program for students grade 1 5 and their family members on Saturday, March 13, from 9 11 a.m. at the GrimesFarm & Conservation Center. Discover how nature uses symmetry and mimicry and join the masquerade party. Bring a pair of sunglasses.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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