Nothing is more terrible during the settlement of a new country than a great storm. A long severe winter is full of danger even to the bravest and hardiest pioneers. Thousands have died of cold and starvation in the settlement of this country. Every state has its stories of great storms and the hardships and suffering which they brought to the people.
Three great storms stand out above all other storms in the history of Nebraska.
The first of these began December 1, 1856, with rain from the southwest, but soon the wind changed to the northwest and became fiercely cold. The snow fall which followed was the deepest ever known since the settlement of Nebraska. It was five feet on the level, and in drifts far deeper. This first storm lasted three days. Storm after storm followed during the winter. As one writer of that time says: "A terrible cold winter set in December 1, 1856, freezing into ninety solid blocks of ice all the days of December, January and February."
There were very few settlers in Nebraska in those days. Most of them were in the counties near the Missouri River. Every one of these counties has its old settlers' stories of the "hard winter" of 1857. In Richardson County the first December storm drove twenty head of cattle into a valley and walled them in with drifting snow When they were found by their owner in February most of them were dead, the few survivors having fed on the branches of trees. In Otoe County deer ran through the streets of Nebraska City pursued by the hungry wolves and many settlers lost their lives. In Dodge County the sun failed to show his face for two months. The ravines, thirty feet deep, were filled with snow. A settler was lost in the December storm. His funeral was held in April, after the snow had melted. In Burt County snow fell for six days and nights without stopping. Settlers would have starved were it not for the game which they caught in the snowdrifts. In Cuming County the creeks and rivers were buried by the snow. The settlers traveled on foot to the Missouri River and hauled back upon hand sleds goods to keep their families from perishing. All the ravines and hollows were drifted full. The timber along the streams was filled with deer, elk and antelope, driven in from the prairie. One settler killed over seventy with an axe. The crust of snow would bear the weight of a man, but these animals with their sharp feet cut through and were helpless. On the Oregon trail the snow lay two feet deep from October to May between Fort Kearney and Fort Laramie and the valleys were filled with the drifts. The general testimony of all the old settlers and the records indicate that the title "hard winter" belongs to the winter of 1856-57. In no winter since has the snow been so deep, so badly drifted, or remained so long as in that winter.
The second great Nebraska storm came at the end of winter, instead of the beginning. It had been raining on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873. Just before dark the wind changed from the southwest to the northwest, the rain changed to sleet, and the sleet to fine snow. At daybreak on the 14th, the air was filled with what seemed solid snow. It was so wet and driven so swiftly before the wind that it was impossible to face it. All day Monday, and Monday night, Tuesday, and Tuesday night, the storm increased in fury. Dugouts, sod houses, and stables were buried in snow-drifts. Nearly all of the stock in some counties was frozen to death. There were many cases where settlers took horses, cows, pigs and chickens into their houses, where all lived together until the storm passed. One settler remembers that the snow was as fine as flour and was driven so fiercely before the wind that it found every crevice and filled the stables Until the cattle, tramping to keep it down, had their backs forced up through the roofs. Many settlers perished in this storm. How many we do not know, for no perfect record was kept; but nearly every county had its victims.
One of the true stories of this storm is that of the Cooper family, then living about ten miles from St. Paul, Howard County. The mother and two daughters, Lizzie and Emma, were the only ones at home Sunday when the storm came, the father and son being away. Mrs. Cooper was not well and went to bed early. The two girls sat up keeping fire in the fireplace. The wind blew fiercer every hour, sifting the fine snow into the house. Then came a furious blast which blew the door open, scattered the live coals about the room and set the house on fire. While the two girls were putting out the fire another fierce gust tore off the roof and left them in darkness with the snow filling the room.
The two girls piled a feather tick on their mother's bed and crept under it, one on each side, with their shoes and clothing on.
When daylight came the storm was still raging and snow drifting deep in the room. The two girls decided to go to a neighbor's house a mile away and get help for their mother. Telling their mother to have courage and keep quiet, the girls put on what scanty wraps they could find and climbed over the wall of the house, for the snow had filled the doorway. As soon as they left the house they lost their way. The fierce cold wind had no mercy. The snow cut their faces. Lizzie, the older girl, threw her arms around Emma crying, "Let us pray," and in the snow the two children knelt and asked God to guide them. Then Emma said, "Come on. We must go and get help for mother. This is the way."
All the day these two girls wandered in the storm. Once they found a dugout where potatoes were kept and beat upon its locked door, but could not get in. Only a few yards away was the house, but when they tried to reach it they lost their way and again wandered on. That night they scooped a hole in the snow and held each other close to keep from freezing.
In the morning Emma tried to encourage her sister to push on. She rubbed her hands and beat her face to rouse her. Lizzie started, but fell exhausted and died in the snow with her sister watching over her.
When she knew her sister was dead, Emma pushed on to find help for her mother. She kept saying to herself, "I must not go to sleep. I must not go to sleep;" for she had heard that when one was freezing to go to sleep was to die. So she kept moving on all through that day and the next. Her feet became frozen and her clothes were torn, but she stumbled on and fought for life. On Wednesday the sun came out and she saw at a little distance the neighbor's house she had tried so long to reach.
The people in the house saw her, brought her in and cared for her. Her first words to them were for her mother. Searchers found the mother lying frozen to death a short distance from her home. Emma lived to womanhood and became Mrs. Adolph Goebel of New York.
The third and last great storm came January 12, 1888. The day had been so mild that men went about in their shirt-sleeves and cattle grazed in the fields. The air was as soft and hazy as in Indian summer. All over the state men and stock were abroad in the fields and the school-children played out of doors. Suddenly the wind changed to the north, blowing more furiously each minute thick blinding snow, first in large flakes and later in smaller ones fierce as bullets from a gun. There seemed no limit to the fury of the wind, nor the increasing density of the driven snow. Men driving their teams could not see the horses' heads. The roads were blotted out and travelers staggered blindly on not knowing where they were going. The storm, and the intense cold which followed lasted three days, and was almost immediately followed by another fierce storm. It was two weeks before the news from the farms and ranches began slowly to come into the newspaper offices. Then it was learned that the loss of life was the greatest ever known in the West. In Dakota over one thousand persons were reported frozen to death, and in Nebraska over one hundred. The wind blew at the rate of fifty-six miles an hour and the mercury fell to thirty-four degrees below zero. In Holt County alone more than twenty people lost their lives and one half of the live stock in the county perished.
This great storm of 1888 is known as the school-children's storm. Over a great part of Nebraska it came between three and four o'clock, just as the children were starting from the schoolhouses for home. Many stories of heroism in the storm are recorded. One school-teacher, Mrs. Wilson, of Runningwater, South Dakota, started from the schoolhouse with nine children. All were found frozen to death on the prairie when the storm was over. In Dodge County, Nebraska, two sisters, thirteen and eight years old, daughters of Mrs. Peter Westphalen, started from the schoolhouse together. Their widowed mother watched anxiously for them but they never came. Their bodies were found lying close together in an open field drifted over with snow. The older girl had taken off her wraps and put them on her little sister. The story of their death told in the newspapers at the time was full of pathos. These verses were written to their memory:
"I can walk no further, sister, I am weary, cold and worn;
Pioneer Seeking Shelter
Three young women school-teachers became famous as Nebraska heroines of this storm. They were Miss Louise Royce of Plainview, Pierce County, Miss Etta Shattuck of Inman, Holt County, and Miss Minnie Freeman of Mira Valley, Valley County. Miss Royce started from her schoolhouse with three children to go to a house only a few yards distant. They lost their way and the children were frozen to death. Miss Royce after being out all night was rescued the next day so badly frozen that one of her limbs was taken off. Miss Shattuck sent her children safely home at the first signs of the storm, but lost her own way and wandered to a haystack. She crept into the hay and lay there three days before she was discovered by a farmer, coming to get hay for his stock. Two of her limbs were frozen and had to be taken off. She was removed to her home at Seward, where she died a few weeks later. Miss Minnie Freeman tied her school-children together in single file with herself at the head of the line, and thus guided them through the storm to the nearest farm-house where all were sheltered. People everywhere read with deep interest the story of the heroism of these school-teachers. Thousands of dollars were raised by the newspapers to reward them and to care for the other victims.
In the annals of Nebraska will always be remembered the "Hard Winter" of '57, the "Easter Storm" of '73 and the "Great Blizzard" of '88.