The Children's Blizzard
Updated: May 15, 2022
"I've never felt such wind. It blew the snow so hard that the flakes stung your face like arrows. All you could see ahead of you was a blinding, blowing sheet of snow."
Minnie Freeman, Jan 1888
The winter of 1887 - 1888 did not start well. Already from late October through November, the Great Plains saw ice storms, snow, and subzero temperatures. An average of 35" of snow fell across the upper plains in December. January 1888 started with a sleet storm that covered the region with an icy crust. Yet they would get a reprieve from the harsh winter weather in the first week of January. In the days leading up to the morning of January 12, 1888, temperatures had risen into the 40's in many places. Days were sunny, and the ice began to melt. People took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. Most were unaware of the monster that was racing down upon them from Canada.
The storm began life as an arctic air mass that arose on the 8th of January over Alberta, Canada. This air mass quickly moved southeastward towards the upper Great Plains. By Jan 11th, it had stretched nearly 750 miles. Ahead of this cold front was a mass of warm moisture-laden air being pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico. This accounted for the mild temperatures on January 11th and the morning of January 12th in the central plains. As the cold front advanced and collided into the warmer air, blizzard conditions arose early in the morning of January 12th in Montana. It reached the Dakotas by mid-morning and swept through Nebraska by the early afternoon.
The forerunner of the National Weather Service was the National Weather Bureau. The National Weather Bureau was created in 1870 under the direction of President Grant and was run by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Grant felt at the time that the military had the discipline and the means to gather the necessary weather data and be able to communicate information in a timely fashion. Weather information was gathered by telegraph from military forts and other army installations. Observations were generally made three times a day and included information such as barometric pressure, temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, cloud cover, and the general state of the weather. These reports were sent back by telegraph to Washington D.C. where forecasts were produced. The forecasts were then sent back to military forts, to railroad stations, and to newspapers. At the time, there were no established warning systems for severe weather. A few locations would hoist flags to warn locals of impending bad weather. The National Weather Bureau forecasted the advancing cold front, but no warning was ever issued.
People across the region took advantage of the break in the bitter cold temperatures. On the morning of January 12th, they went to work and children went to school leaving behind hats, gloves, and other appropriate cold-weather clothing. Yet within moments, the weather deteriorated. Just after lunchtime, one observer in Huron, South Dakota, remarked "the air was perfectly calm for about one minute; the next minute the sky was completely overcast by heavy black clouds which, for a few minutes previous, had hung along the western and northwestern horizon..." In Fargo, North Dakota, the temperature dropped to 47 degrees below zero. Suddenly, people found themselves struggling to find shelter from the below-freezing temperatures and the hurricane-force winds.
Caught unprepared, people sought refuge anywhere they could find. There were those who burrowed into haystacks. Two brothers dug deep into the snow. The younger one perished and the eldest lost both feet to frostbite. Erik Olsen, a Swedish settler in southwestern Minnesota, went out for a walk that morning. He was discovered days later with just his feet poking through the banks of drifting snow.
The worse off were the children who were at school at the time the storm hit. Most rural schools were simple one-room sod houses and in no condition to withstand the hurricane-like winds. As the blizzard hit, teachers needed to make decisions. Some teachers kept their students in the school building with the hope of being rescued. Others tried to take the children with them out into the blizzard. There were those who sent the children out alone to find their own way home in the blinding ice and snow. At one school, a teacher rang the school bell day and night to let people know they were still alive.
One of these teachers was Minnie Mae Freeman. Minnie was born in 1868. Her family moved from Pennsylvania to Nebraska in 1871. When Minnie was 19, she got a job teaching school in the Mira Valley south of Ord, Nebraska. She taught thirteen to seventeen children of all ages in a one-room sod schoolhouse.
During afternoon recess, Minnie noticed what prairie dwellers referred to as "Blue Northers". These were feared storms that struck without warning. They brought hurricane-force winds, whiteout conditions, and plummeting temperatures. She brought the children inside and assessed the conditions in the schoolhouse. They had one small stove and enough coal. But the children were not dressed for waiting out subzero temperatures. And there was no food. And Minnie was not confident that the rickety sod structure would be able to withstand the gale.
As she debated what to do, wind gusts tore off the front door and part of the roof of the schoolhouse. This forced Minnie's hand. Thinking quickly, she found some twine in her desk, and she tethered the children to each other and to herself. She would carry the youngest child in her arms. Her goal would be the nearby farmhouse, less than a mile away, where she boarded. She was familiar with the route and trusted that she would be able to find her way. She led her charges out into whiteout conditions and temperatures nearing zero degrees. Minnie relied on her keen sense of direction and her own determination. Many others who tried to venture out became disorientated and lost in the driving sheets of icy snow. Minnie Freeman and her schoolchildren made it safely to the farmhouse.
Minnie Mae Freeman instantly became not only a local hero but a national one as well. A Chicago music publishing firm produced a parlor song about her exploits entitled "Thirteen Were Saved". Freeman was dubbed "Nebraska's Fearless Maid", and a mural of her deed adorns the Nebraska state capitol building. She received over 80 marriage proposals from strangers. Asked about her notoriety, she said "Too much has already been said of an act of simple duty." Later on she married Edgar Penney, the president of a chemical company. She became active in state politics. She was the first woman to serve on the state Republican committee, a state president for the Federation of Women's Clubs, the first president of the Nebraska American Legion Auxiliary, and she served on the committee to decide the Nebraska state seal.
The blizzard of January 1888 became part of the lore of the Great Plains. It has been called the Children's Blizzard or the Schoolhouse Blizzard due to the number of children who died. The blizzard resulted in an estimated 250 - 500 people perishing, but precise numbers have never been determined. Many deaths were never reported and in many cases bodies were never found. More people died afterward from pneumonia and infections as a result of amputations of frostbitten limbs. Decades later survivors organized a club. In 1947, they published a collection of survivor stories in a book titled "In All Its Fury". Writer David Laskin, author of "The Children's Blizzard", wrote, "for years afterward, at gatherings of any size in Dakota or Nebraska, there would always be people walking on wooden legs or holding fingerless hands behind their backs or hiding missing ears under hats - victims of the blizzard."
The winter of 1887 - 1888 did not end with a whimper. Two months later, in March, New England and Canada were hit with what is called the Great Blizzard of 1888. That blizzard is still considered one of the worst weather disasters in the United States.
The Children's Blizzard: David Laskin
In All Its Fury: W.H. O'Gara