The Children's Blizzard

David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard.

“Maria Albrecht also had a bad feeling that morning. The day dawned dull and cloudy over the Schweizer farms in Rosefield Township, and there was fresh snow on the ground from snow showers that had blown through the previous day. Like everyone else in the region, Maria noticed the unaccustomed mildness – but something about the look of the sky bothered her. She couldn't name it or explain it, but there it was. From the moment she had gotten up she could barely keep from crying. And so, while her husband Johann was out in the barn tending to the animals and her children were getting their breakfast in the dim morning light, Maria made up her mind. The boys would not be going to school that day. And anyway, it was her husband's forty-first birthday. That was reason enough to keep the boys home.”

We are fortunate enough to live in Tucson; we will never experience here the sort of weather that lies at the heart of this month's Read All About It selection. The Children's Blizzard, by David Laskin, is the gripping, heartbreaking account of a huge winter storm that hit the Great Plains states on 12 January 1888. The first paragraph of the prologue sets the scene:

“On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent. Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon. The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie. Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind. The cold front raced down the undefended grasslands like a crack unstoppable army. Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their early morning chores; South Dakota, during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal. In three minutes the front subtracted 18 degrees from the air's temperature. Then evening gathered in and temperatures kept dropping steadily, hour after hour, in the northwest gale. Before midnight, windchills were down to 40 below zero. That's when the killing happened. By morning on Friday the thirteenth, hundreds of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled – or been dismissed from – country schools at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded.”

The following passage is offered:

“We'll never know how many spent that night out on the prairie. It had to be at least several thousand, most of them in the southern and eastern parts of Dakota Territory, in the eastern half of Nebraska, and in southwestern Minnesota. Northern Dakota was largely spared because the storm blew through so early that people remained home and kept their children in. Iowa, though it received the heaviest snow, also suffered relatively few casualties. The storm didn't hit there until late in the day, when evening was gathering and farmers and their children were back home. But in southern Dakota and Nebraska the timing could not have been worse. Sergeant Glenn estimated that 1 percent of “those overtaken and bewildered by the storm perished” and that of the dead 20 percent were children....

In the region that would soon become the state of South Dakota there were deaths in thirty-two of the forty-four counties east of the Missouri River. Every pioneer who wrote a memoir, every family that recorded its history included a story of someone who died in that blizzard. Every story is heartbreaking.”

Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2007, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.