What Was the Children’s Blizzard of 1888?
January 12, 1888, started out as an unusually warm and sunny winter day in much of the central and midwestern parts of the United States. This area was known as the Great Plains. In the days leading up to January 12, the temperature in that region had rarely gotten above zero degrees. That was not a surprise to the people who lived there. Winters in the Great Plains were almost always brutally cold.
But the weather surprised everyone on January 12, as unusually warm temperatures hit the region. In the town of Aberdeen, in what is now South Dakota, the temperature rose to twenty-eight degrees. That might not seem very warm, but compared to a temperature of zero, it felt wonderful. Throughout the Great Plains, children walked to schools without gloves or hats. Many of the children wore just a light jacket. Farmers went outside to do their chores without their overcoats. The clear, sunny skies and warmer temperature were a welcome relief. In addition, there were no warnings about cold weather returning to the area any time soon.
But that afternoon, the weather suddenly changed. The sunny skies disappeared. Children and teachers looked out the windows of their schoolrooms and watched nervously as a cloud of darkness swept across the skies.
Temperatures suddenly plunged to forty-seven degrees below zero in some areas. Winds started howling, gusting at more than seventy miles an hour. A mixture of ice and snow started falling.
The violent storm hit without warning. Farmers out in the fields tried to find their way back home, but the snow was so thick and the winds so strong that they couldn’t see. The snow started blowing sideways, freezing the eyelids of anyone standing outside. Children were trapped in their classrooms as the storm battered their schoolhouses. Some students made the difficult decision to brave the roaring winds and blinding snow as they attempted to return to their homes.
A day that had started so happily soon acquired a new and terrible name. The horrible storm on January 12 would soon be known as the Children’s Blizzard of 1888. Chapter 1: New Arrivals
During the 1800s, the population of the United States grew quickly. Many new immigrants arrived from Europe. During the years between 1850 and 1890, the population of the United States grew from twenty-three million to sixty-three million, almost tripling the number of people living there. Most of these immigrants were very poor, arriving without jobs or money. Many found homes in crowded and usually run-down apartment buildings in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and other big cities. But tens of thousands of other immigrants decided to make a second journey after they arrived in the United States. They traveled west.
In 1888, there were only thirty-eight states in America. The large midwestern region of the country that now includes the states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming was divided into what were known as federal territories. They were part of an even larger area known as the Great Plains, which included the entire states of Kansas and Nebraska, along with parts of Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and southern portions of Canada.
The midwestern section of the Great Plains was sometimes also called the prairie. It was mostly flat and ready for farming. Land stretched as far as you could see in every direction. Unlike the crowded cities on the East Coast, the prairie offered space. And it also offered an opportunity for many to start a new life.
The immigrants who traveled west came from many countries, including Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Norway. Some journeyed to America so that they could worship as they pleased. Others were hoping to escape poverty. The one thing that almost all of them had in common was that they wanted to start a new life.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act. This new law allowed any US citizen to buy land in the Great Plains for a low price. A flood of people took advantage of the offer and purchased farmlands.
Prior to the Homestead Act, the Great Plains had been the home of many large Indian nations, including the Cheyenne, the Sioux, the Comanche, and the Kiowa. Native Americans had been living on this land for thousands of years, and they farmed and hunted buffalo across the flat, grassy plains. There were millions of large, shaggy buffalo to be found on the Great Plains, and Native Americans found uses for almost every part of the buffalo they killed—eating the meat, making blankets from the fur, and using their dried bones as tools.
Before the white settlers started arriving in the Great Plains, the US government forced most of the Native Americans to move to reservations, which were government-owned lands established just for them. Land on the reservations was usually not as good for farming, and there were far fewer buffalo to be found. Life on the reservations was very difficult for most of the people who were forced to live there.
After the Native Americans were forced out of the Great Plains, immigrants arrived by the thousands. During the 1880s, the Dakota Territory—now known as North and South Dakota—grew from a population of 135,000 people to over half a million. More than 75,000 new farms were established there.
Most of the new settlers in the Great Plains could not afford building supplies and did not have access to materials to construct sturdy houses. There were far fewer trees on the prairie than in the woodlands, which meant that log cabins were rarely an option. Instead, many of the settlers lived in sod houses or dugouts. The sod house—also known as a soddy—was a tiny home made up of a layer of hardened soil mixed with roots. Long strips of soil and roots were chopped to make sod bricks. These were then stacked on top of each other to form the walls of the house. Roofs were made of branches, roots, and hay, topped with a layer of sod.
Sod houses had many drawbacks. They were, after all, made of only a layer of dirt and roots. Anything could be living in that soil. Snakes and small animals such as gophers sometimes emerged from the walls, dirt got into food and clothing, and sod houses also leaked when it rained. As one settler recalled, “I would wake up with dirty water running through my hair.”
Sod houses were only slightly better than dugout dwellings, which were merely caves dug into the side of a hill. Sometimes only a blanket covered the open entrance to the dugout.
Different types of schoolhouses could be found in the Great Plains. The best ones were two-story wooden buildings that had room for more than one classroom. But those types of schoolhouses were limited to the mostpopulated sections of the prairie. Students in more isolated areas were not as lucky. They studied in one-room schoolhouses, sometimes made of sod.
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