Located on the shore of West Okoboji Lake of the Iowa Great Lakes chain in Dickinson County’s Arnold’s Park, Iowa’s smallest state park of only 6.48 acres holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Pillsbury Point State Park.
Okoboji, a Dakota word loosely translating to place of rest hosted Iowa’s Indigenous peoples from a time immemorial. The oral traditions of the Ioway and the Dakota, part of a larger tribal confederacy known as the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ or Sioux, both indicate strong inhabitation of the lakes from well before European arrival in the area. The sacred origination site of Dakota corn agriculture, the lakes hold secretes to a much deeper past than many visitors imagine. Maps created by the earliest French explorers to the region clearly depict village sites for both the Ioway and Dakota. As American settlement arrived in the area, early accounts consistently document a strong Dakota presence throughout the lakes. Strong historical and archeological evidence suggest the lakes served as a summer village site for Dakota leaders including the Wahepekute band under Inkpaduta during the time of American arrival.
Although the Wahpekute band led by Inkpaduta did not participate in any of the dispossessive treaties taking place after 1825, the group watched as Americanization slowly engulfed the world around them. As steady pressure on the Dakota way of life paired with the one of the worst winters on record, Roland Gardner and other American settlers arrived at the Iowa Great Lakes during late-1856. When a militia of local residents at a small settlement called Smithland in Woodbury County disarmed Inkpaduta’s band and pushed them out into the forbidding winter, the Dakota fled for their place of rest at Okoboji. Trades with settlers helped to rearm the band, and Inkpaduta looked on as one of his grandchildren succumbed to the cold and starvation plaguing the band over the winter of 1856-1857. When Inkpaduta and the Wahpekute arrived in the Iowa Great Lakes Region, incredible violence broke out as the band moved cabin site to cabin site killing American settlers and taking captives. For more detailed analysis and interpretation of the events at Spirit Lake in 1856-1857, please see the resources linked in the comments below this video.
The most famous of the site’s named for the captured woman Abbie Gardner Sharp, stands adjacent to Pillsbury Point and hosts a museum run by an agreement between the State Historical Society of Iowa and Dickinson County Conservation.
Today, Pillsbury Point and the Abbie Gardner Sharp Historic Site offer visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. After an unimaginable and terrifying time of captivity, Abbie Gardner Sharp eventually returned to the Spirit Lake area and gained control over the site of her father’s claim and cabin in 1891. Gardner-Sharp published an enduring book detailing her interpretation of the events which continues to cloud how Iowans understand the Indigenous past of the state. In addition to the book, Abbie Gardner-Sharp worked tirelessly to preserve her family’s memory by petitioning the state to construct a monument and through running a tourist attraction at the cabin site. The monument, completed in time for dedication on July 25, 1895, sought to recognize the incredible violence which took place at the site. Her descendants continued to operate the tourist attraction until the middle of the 20th century. The State Historical Society of Iowa took over the site’s maintenance in 1943, and built a small museum still in operation today.
The adjacent state park provides a narrow window of public land to the waters of West Okoboji north of the cabin site. Initially developed by H.H. Lantz to serve as a recreation area during the 1890s, the state gained control of the lands thanks to a generous donation by Lantz’s descendants in 1925. The state bought an additional 2.5 acres in 1928 for $1,200, and named the resultant state park in honor of Reverend Samuel Pillsbury who lived at the site during the 1860s. The small park finds itself packed between backyards, and aside from providing a view of the lake and a link to the Abbie Gardner Sharp Historic Site offers few amenities.
Today, Pillsbury Point State Park and the Abbie Gardner Sharp Historic Site offer visitors an opportunity to explore the past in northwestern Iowa. The towering monument and the Gardner family burial plot pair plaques interpreting the events to offer year-round opportunities for reflection. The historic cabin and museum welcome visitors seasonally, and provide insights and interpretation of the events of March 1857. Recent archeological exploration by the State Archeologist of Iowa and students at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory continues to develop understanding of the site. Visitors often enjoy taking the short walk down Pillsbury Point to look out over the water and reflect on the incredible tragedy embodied in the park site.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Pillsbury Point State Park and Abbie Gardner Sharp Historic Site. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Pillsbury Point State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Pillsbury Point State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!