Isaac K. Lakin: From the Tuscarawas to the Yellowstone

Yellowstone River at Miles City, Montana

The Yellowstone River with Miles City, Montana in the distance, c. 1881.

I always enjoy when I stumble across someone in history who, through a simple mention in a newspaper or other source, captures my interest so much that I want to learn more about them. My search for their life in the historical record is always rewarding in so many ways. In the case of Isaac K. Lakin (1847-1880) I found a young adventurer, raised in Tuscarawas County, who would pack more into his short life than many of us will in our lifetimes.


Issac’s ancestors came to America, settling in Maryland, at the beginning of the 18th century. Like many immigrants of the 18th century the family gradually, and generation by generation, moved westward until Isaac’s father William (1791-1855) settled in the Tuscarawas River valley. William already had three children by a previous wife by the time he arrived in Harrison County, Ohio and married Luessa Packer (1814-1860). The family was living in Freeport in 1850, three years after Isaac’s birth.

There were seven children in the Lakin household in 1850, and two more children were yet to come. William died when Isaac was eight years old, leaving Luessa and Isaac’s older siblings to fend for themselves. Isaac’s mother would pass away in 1860 and the Lakin children would move into the home of their older brother Calvin (1838-1918) in Gilmore, Tuscarawas County.

When the Civil War began Isaac’s oldest brother Everton (1836-1911) enlisted in the 30th Ohio Regiment and served throughout the war, while Calvin moved to West Virginia. Isaac stayed in Tuscarawas County and continued living with one of his sisters in Gilmore. When the war ended Everton settled in Iowa with his family and Isaac followed his older brother to Iowa.

Isaac began his journey to the west around 1868 and he appears in the Mississippi River town of Keokuk, Iowa in September 1870. There, at the age of 21, Isaac enlisted for a five year term with the Third United States Infantry Regiment, Company C. His enlistment records tell us that Isaac was working as a laborer at the time, was 5’9″ tall, with gray eyes and brown hair.

Fort Wallace, Kansas, c. 1867.

The Third United States Regiment was stationed at forts along the Kansas Pacific Railroad, protecting the railroad and settlers from the Native American tribes along the route. The regiment’s companies were scattered between Forts Dodge and Wallace in Kansas, and Fort Lyon in Colorado. Occasionally detachments of the regiment were also sent to Oklahoma, then known as “Indian Territory”.

According to his army records, Isaac was listed as having deserted the regiment in the fall of 1872, after only two years of service. Whether or not he returned to the regiment after that is difficult to ascertain, but in 1876 he returned east to visit his family in Tuscarawas County. Upon his return to the west he took up a new career.

Isaac used his experience as a soldier to become a frontier scout. He offered his services to the Army and to those wanting to hunt the large buffalo herds on the Great Plains. Isaac was, at this time, living in the Montana territory in a cattle-town named Miles City. Miles City was located at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers adjacent to Fort Keogh.

Isaac Lakin’s death reported in the Canal Dover Weekly Argus, 9 July 1880.

During the spring of 1880, and as winter snows melted, the Yellowstone and Tongue Rivers swelled and Miles City was often flooded with water from both rivers. Somehow, either while crossing the Yellowstone River or perhaps in the flooding that occurred that spring, Isaac drowned. His death is recorded as having happened in May 1880, but word of his death did not make the local papers until July that year.

Isaac Lakin died at the age of 32, having spent the last twelve years of his life as a frontier soldier, scout, and buffalo hunter. Isaac’s short time living on the Great Plains was likely more exciting, dangerous and interesting than if he had lived a lifetime on the farm in Gilmore.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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