2014-03-10 / Front Page

All Things Historical… From The Gosport History Museum

The Winter Of Deep Snow, 1830-31
by Annie Arthur,
Curator

We have endured a winter that in many ways surpasses decades of records from previous winters. Whether the cause is global warming or natural events or both does not eliminate the harm a really bad winter can wreak. But bad winters in the Midwest are not unknown. One of the worse on record was the winter of 1830-1831.

It became know as “The Winter of Deep Snow” and covered the Midwest in snow of four to six feet. For two months that winter, winds of 60 miles per hour harassed the countryside and many families and travelers were snowbound.

It began with a cold rain December 20, 1830. The rain, sleet and snow continued until Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the snow began in earnest and accumulated to a depth of six inches. This was followed by blizzard conditions, driving snow that piled up to three feet. Then came a rain that froze as it fell, forming a crust that some claimed was strong enough to bear the weight of a team of horses pulling a sled. The night temperature plunged to 12 degrees below zero for weeks. The wind was a steady, fierce gale from the northwest day and night and drove snow through cracks in log cabins, forcing some occupants to move out because of snow piles inside their homes.

Dr. Edward Beecher, president of a local college, had gone to Vandalia, Illinois and was expected back during the Christmas holidays. Beecher was stranded there and was frantic to get back home when he met Charles Holmes, a man who owned a powerful horse. They improvised a sleigh and during a mid- January lull in the storm, plowed through the 40 miles to Beecher’s destination. It was the only such journey recorded that winter.

Men returning from a hunt had a wagon load of game drawn by oxen. Within two miles of home they had to cut loose the wagon and reached safety by clinging to the tails of the oxen. There is also a story of “Cold Friday,” when a man, his wife and six children froze to death huddled about their half-burned wagon on the prairie. There were many stories of people lost in the storms and of people found huddled together, frozen in the snow.

Many settlers depended on going into nearby woods for firewood but were unable to do so that winter. Corn and wheat had been left stacked in the fields. The only way in which snow paths could be made and followed by the settlers was by going as nearly as they could in the same place until the snow was finally trodden hard and flattened out to create a road. The sharp hoofs of deer cut through the crust, and they were easily caught by hunters and by wolves who could glide across the snow. Herds of buffalo also floundered in the deep snow and starved. It has been said that the “Winter of the Deep Snow” took the last of the buffalo from east of the Mississippi River.

According to records kept at the time, Fort Armstrong, Rock Island, Illinois received four inches of snow December 10th, and from December 15th to February 25th there was not a day without snow and freezing temperature. Fort Snelling at Minneapolis recorded 28 degrees below zero on December 21st. Records kept at St. Louis from 1804 to 1859 for the United States Government Survey, showed that the snow and cold were widespread over the winter of 1830-1831 as was also recalled by the pioneers.

Abraham Lincoln and his family left Indiana for Illinois in 1830 and found themselves settling into their new home during “The Winter of Deep Snow.” Later in life, Lincoln would tell of living through the “celebrated deep snow of Illinois.”

One of the factors that was believed to have generated the winter of 1830 was the result of a massive low-pressure system that passed through the Midwest during the winter months of 1830-1831. This system was several hundred miles wide and covered a wide area with snow and freezing rain. High winds associated with this system, brought the cold air into the Midwest which in turn created the blizzards that swept through the countryside.

The winter finally broke in late February, with a temperature on February 21st of 39 degrees. Poor weather continued for an extended period and the summer of 1831 brought deluges of rain. The following fall saw a hard frost in mid- September that damaged the corn in the fields, reducing its value as bread or seed. The winter of 1831- 1832 was harsh as well, though nothing like the Deep Snow.

So what about us today coming out of the harsh winter of 2013-2014? Because of the temperatures in the El Niño Basin, our coming summer may be one of the hottest on record. Also, because of the same expected El Niño this year, the winter outlook for 2014- 2015 is mostly favorable. I guess we shall see.

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