Monday, January 6, 2014

The brutal winter of 1836-1837

I mentioned this in a previous post about my great-great-grandparents, Sam and Sarah Vaughn, but the winter of 1836-1837 was a particularly brutal one in the history of the Midwest. Although weather data was being collected at a few locations in Wisconsin as early as the 1820s, this was still early enough in the history of record-keeping that it's hard to know exactly how it compared to winters that have come since. But from the anecdotal record, it seems that it would rank up there as one of the coldest, most extreme cold fronts ever to hit Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

Keith C. Heidorn has an excellent and detailed examination of the weather event itself on his Weather Doctor Blog. In it, he writes:
"On December 16, a severe snowstorm passed leaving about a foot of snow on the 17th. The storm was quickly followed by milder weather on the 18th and 19th bringing "A Great Thaw" on southeast winds... From the weather observations at Fort Leavenworth (Kansas); Fort Des Moines (Montrose, Iowa); and Fort Snelling (Minneapolis, Minnesota), we can surmise that a Colorado low was advancing along a frontal boundary lying across the northern Plains on December 19... With sunrise on the 20th, a change was beginning... Ludlum reconstructs the likely storm path beginning in the central Great Plains and then moving north-northeastward through Iowa to southwestern Wisconsin by dawn. It then likely turned and raced due northward across that state, likely deepening in the process. The trailing cold front was observed to pass through Burlington, Iowa on the western bank of the Mississippi River at 10 am and near Springfield, Illinois by 2 pm, a speed of around 50 mph. It reached the Indiana border by 6 pm and Cincinnati by 9 pm that evening... Behind the front, the frigid Arctic air plunged the temperatures to bitterly cold conditions across the region."
In Walworth County in Southeastern Wisconsin, the front hit hard and fast. Here is what I wrote in my initial post:

"[The winter of 1836-1837] was an incredibly brutal one, possibly the worst Midwestern winter in modern history. On Dec. 20, 1836, an exceptional cold front moved with hurricane-force winds across the plains and the Upper Midwest and by some accounts, temperatures dropped 60 degrees in a matter of minutes, from 40F to -20F. Wild animals, livestock and unprepared humans froze to death in a matter of hours. In Illinois, two men crossing a prairie became disoriented by the storm and got lost. One killed his horse and climbed into the carcass to keep warm, to no avail; he was found frozen to death inside the dead animal the next day.
In Spring Prairie, Wisconsin... the event was remembered as "the four terrible cold days." Another early Walworth County settler, S.A. Dwinnell, arrived in November of 1836. His account of that winter appears in a history of Walworth County from 1890:
The pioneers of Wisconsin must ever remember the 20th of December, for one of the most sudden changes to severe cold ever experienced in our history. It had rained all day upon some fifteen inches of snow. Early in the evening, the wind veered to the northwest and the temperature ran down at a rapid rate. Having no thermometer, I can form no certain estimate of the intensity of the cold. It soon became unendurable in our cabin, and, building a large fire and hanging up blankets before it, I saw down in front of them to keep from freezing.

It was so terribly cold that, had a person been caught four or five miles from a house, he must have perished. Fortunately, few were thus exposed. James Van Slyke, with his hired man, were on their way from Belvidere, Ill., to his house, at the head of Geneva Lake, with a drove of hogs. They had reached Big Foot Prairie, three miles from home, when the change came. They soon left their drove and started at a rapid rate for their house. Van Slyke succeeded in the undertaking, but his boots were so loaded with ice that it took a teakettle full of boiling water to thaw it off, as his wife afterward told me.

A mile from home, the hired man, named Disbro, fell, exhausted and overcome with the intensity of the cold. He must have perished had not a man, providentially at the house, started out at once and brought him in. As it was, his feet were so frozen that he lost several of his toes, which Mrs. Van Slyke amputated with her shears, having made unsuccessful efforts to obtain a surgeon to do it. All the hogs, except two, froze to death that night.
From other Wisconsin and Minnesota reports, we can deduce that the weather hovered between -30F and -20F during that time, after which it probably warmed up to about 0F and started snowing relentlessly.
Mr. Dwinnell was entirely alone in his cabin during the four terrible cold days of the last of December, and had hard work to keep himself alive. He says, “It soon became unendurable in our cabin, and building a large fire and hanging up blankets before it, I sat down in front of them to keep from freezing.”  Notwithstanding  the cold and the deep snow, Mr. Dwinnell got so thoroughly lonesome that on the 20th day of January he  started on a journey of forty-five miles to have a visit with some friends in Belvidere, Ill., then a little hamlet of six families.
In other words, for an entire month Dwinnell sat alone in a bitterly cold log cabin struggling not to freeze to death, having no contact with any other human beings, until it became necessary to risk his life with a 45-mile journey on horseback in the cold and snow just so that he would not lose his mind. Pioneers had to be the toughest kind of people to survive."
Another account from an early pioneer to the state of Wisconsin, Ebeneezer Childs, recounts his journey from Madison to Green Bay during this same period. He traveled with a driver and doctor on his way to the Fort at Winnebago: 
"When about half way I asked the driver how the doctor stood the cold — for it was a stinging cold day. The doctor, who was completely covered up with buffalo robes, made no reply and the driver, of course, could not answer for him. I drove past them and on reaching a grove of timber I stopped and made a fire. When the other conveyance came up, I went to see the doctor, took the robes off, and found him completely chilled through and could not speak. We took him out of the sleigh, carried him to the fire, and rubbed him a long time before he could speak. I had a little brandy with me; he drank some of that and after a while he was able to walk when we again started for the fort. When we arrived at the fort, as we did without further mishap, we found that the thermometer stood thirty-two degrees below zero. I did not suffer at all with the cold as I ran the most of the way."
Metereologist Heidorn includes these anecdotal records from central Illinois in his post:
"In an account from Lacon Township, north of Peoria, Spencer Ellsworth describes the situation: 'The morning was mild, with a settled rain gradually changing the snow on the ground into a miserable slush. Suddenly a black cloud came sweeping over the sky from the northwest, accompanied by a roaring wind as the cold wave struck the land, the rain and slush were changed in a twinkling to ice.' The day was henceforth known here as Butler's Snap after Mr Butler and his daughter who froze to death while attending their livestock.
John Moses recalled watching a heavy black cloud advance from the northwest on hurricane-force winds about two o'clock in the afternoon. "Almost instantly, the strong wind...accompanied by a deep, bellowing sound, with its icy blast, swept over the land, and everything was frozen hard. The water in the little ponds in the roads froze in waves, sharp-edged and pointed, as the gale had blown it. The chickens, pigs and other small animals were frozen in their tracks."
Another anecdotal report recounts this grave story:
"Martin Rinehart of Champagne County [IL, sic] remembers: 'It began to rain and continued all day, when suddenly it turned intensely cold, making ice over the ground and freezing very hard. The sudden change caught many persons unprepared, and they were frozen to death. Two men named Hildreth and Frame were crossing Four Mile Prairie on that day. They became bewildered and lost their way when the change came. They killed their horses, and Frame crawled inside the body of his horse for protection against the cold, but it proved his tomb, as he was found therein frozen to death. Hildreth wandered around all night and when found in the morning he was so badly frozen, that he lost his toes and fingers.'"
So the next time you're tempted to complain about the cold with all our modern-day conveniences, think of the pioneers of 1836-1837, struggling to survive one of the worst cold fronts in history with little more than buffalo robes, blankets and firewood.

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