On the morning of January 12th, 1888, rural farmers—many of them first or second generation pioneers—emerged from a week of sheltering to a sunny morning. Several days of heavy snow and drifting had plagued towns from Montana to Wisconsin and it finally seemed at an end. These hardy people were tired of the frigid cold of the Great Plains.
In fact, the morning of January 12th was nearly above freezing. Instead of donning the heavy layers of cold weather clothing, most people left their homes in light clothing, cheerfully celebrating the respite from winter. By lunch that day, the warmth had started melting the thick ice and snow. Farmers all across the Great Plains took advantage of this break in the weather to work outside, straying miles from home without a worry.
With weather forecasting little more than guesswork, they had no idea what was bearing down on them.
Children continued their schooling, unaware of the approaching Arctic cold front. The pleasant warmth they had so enjoyed was only a thin, humid puff from the Gulf of Mexico. The Arctic front, almost 800 miles wide, tore through that scrap of warmth. As it moved East, the Arctic front swallowed the humidity, churning and chewing it into snow and gale-force wind.
It buried the Plains. Montana in the late morning. The Dakota Territory around noon. Nebraska and Minnesota at 3:30 in the afternoon.
Farmers toiled in their fields. Many children were either at school or coming home. All caught unawares. In only minutes, the vicious blizzard was upon them. Some towns recorded a one hundred degree drop in temperature from one hour to the next, down to 40 below zero. Numbing cold, carried by blinding snow and the roar of gusting winds, signified a blizzard so horrifying it seemed Hellish.
“A dark and heavy wall builded up around the northwest coming fast, coming like those hevy [sic] thunderstorms, like a shot. In a few moments, we had the severest snowstorm I ever saw in my life with a terrible hard wind, like a hurrycane [sic], snow so thick we could not see more than 3 steps from the door at times.”
Most settlers weathered this storm well enough. Many lost livestock, which they would dig up or find in the spring thaw. Like their parents before them, the settlers on the Great Plains were alive for a reason. They were hardy, practical, and experienced. But there are always accidents and exceptions, and those would become the victims of the Children’s Blizzard.
The official death toll from the blizzard stands at 235, but that number is disputed by some historians. Considering the isolation of the Great Plains communities in the late 1800s, along with gaps in record-keeping, estimates range from just over 200 to nearly 500. We’ll never know the exact number.
In Dodge County, Nebraska, sisters Eda (13) and Matilda (8) Westphalen were caught in the storm as they loped through the snow to their home a mile away. It was an easy and direct route, but the blizzard quickly disoriented them. When they were found frozen the next day, their inconsolable parents realized they had spent hours walking in circles until exhaustion took them. The saddest detail is that before dying, Eda had removed her wrappings and coat and placed them on her younger sister.
Schoolteacher Lois May Royce in Plainview, Nebraska, guided three students (from age 6 to 9) from the cold schoolhouse to her boarding house only 200 yards away. Unable to see buildings through the white out, they struggled for hours in the snow, missing buildings by mere feet. By morning the children were dead, and Ms. Royce had found help by crawling to a farmhouse. Her feet, which would be amputated soon after, were frozen solid.
To celebrate the warming weather, young Minnesota farmer Erik Olsen from Beaver Creek decided to enjoy a walk. He attempted to return to his farm as the storm hit, but quickly lost his way. A few days later, his friends spotted two feet jutting out of a pile of snow over a mile from Olsen’s farm. They dug down and found Erik, blue and frozen.
Not all stories from the storm ended in tragedy. A young, Nebraska schoolteacher named Minnie Freeman would emerge as the most celebrated figure of the Children’s Blizzard. When the blizzard struck, she and her students had only the bare shelter of a sod schoolhouse to protect them from the blizzard. They quickly used up their wood trying to keep warm, and Ms. Freeman knew sheltering there would be certain death.
Instead, she led the children (from 13 to 17 students) from the school to her home, a mile and half away. She carried, coaxed, and sometimes cursed the children to keep them moving in the biting, blinding wind and miraculously led them to safety. Her deed transformed her into a folk hero celebrated in print and in song. A toymaker even made a Minnie Freeman doll.
The story of the Children’s Blizzard of 1888 (sometimes called the School Children’s Blizzard or the Schoolhouse Blizzard) comes up in odd historic articles from time to time, with most articles whittling it down to tragic trivia. That might be the healthiest thing.
No one wants to know the gut-wrenching horror of finding a swaddled infant frozen blue in a heap of snow. Or the panic of a man burying himself in pig excrement to escape the cutting wind. Or the agony of those that lost blackened hands and feet to frostbite. Doors of imagination like that are better firmly shut.
To the people of the Great Plains, there was life before the Schoolhouse Blizzard, and there was life after the blizzard. Its trauma would scar a generation, much like Pearl Harbor would in the 1940s, 9/11 would do in 2001, and COVID-19 would in 2020. Like those, the blizzard would become a memory so heavy and painful that it needed an entire population to shoulder.
If you’re interested in learning more, I cannot recommend The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin enough. Laskin weaves the collected accounts of survivors and rescuers coupled with the technology and cultural attitudes of the day. It is a fascinating and heartbreaking glimpse into this half-forgotten tragedy.
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