Snowflake In her book, The Long Winter, Laura tells us of a remarkable series of blizzards in 1880/1881 which totally cut off the town of De Smet, South Dakota, for several months. Her description is accurate and is in keeping with other documents about this period. Again in 1886/1887, in the book The First Four Years, she tells us of yet another hard winter.
On October 15, 1880, after a warm autumn, a three day blizzard struck Dakota. Many farmers couldn't help but notice the early migration of birds and the thick homes that various animals were making for themselves. Sensing that this might be the beginning of a hard winter, some farmers prepared themselves for the worst. However, temperatures fell rapidly and a quick succession of snow storms took many by surprise. Expecting each storm to be short-lived and hoping for plenty of time between storms, a lot of farmers and their families perished in their thin walled shanties. Roads and railways quickly became blocked and all attempts at clearing them were futile as each blizzard brought more and more snow. The remarkable thing about this winter is that the blizzards were almost continuous until the middle of April.
Weather reports tell us that the summer of 1886 was exceptionally hot and dry. Well into October it was warm and there were no frosts. However, it was noted in several places that the wild birds were starting their southerly migration much earlier than usual. Muskrats and beaver were building unusually thick dens. Several observers noted an unusual quality of the light with high cirrus clouds and haze giving an unpleasant, unnatural atmosphere. Only the brightest stars shone through the haze, and the moonlight seemed "ghostly". It had been a good year for cattle ranchers who had greatly increased their stock throughout the year. However the dry grasses had caught fire in several places, seriously depleting the stock of hay.
On November 16, the storms hit Montana and Wyoming and spread eastward. They returned intermittently until Christmas when there was a short respite from the storms. On January 9, a blizzard lasted for ten days and the temperature went down to -43°C (-46°F). On Jan 28, another blizzard raged for three days nonstop. By this time, thousands of cattle had frozen to death; others came into towns and raided trash and ate tar paper from the sides of shanties. Those settlers who lived in thin-walled shanties froze to death; those in thick-walled sod houses had a better chance for survival.

In March, a slow thaw began. 90% of all the cattle from the Canadian border down to Colorado were dead. Many cattle farmers returned east, penniless and dispirited. Those that remained rounded up the emaciated remains of their herds and collected the bones of the dead cattle to sell as fertilizer.

Brown, D., The American West. (1995);

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frontier Girl

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Rebecca Brammer & Phil Greetham
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