The word “blizzard” blew into the American vernacular during the winter of 1880 – 1881 when snowstorms of unprecedented number and strength pummeled the nation. On October 15th, the first of a string of seemingly endless blizzards hit the prairies and blew furiously across the northern United States and Canada, cutting off the ill prepared settlers in the Dakota Territories from their winter supplies, decimating herds of cattle in Nebraska, and wrecking scores of boats on the Great Lakes. Winter had come early, and this was only the first of many storms that would batter the nation over the coming months. The extreme winter weather was not confined to the Dakota Territories, but spanned the entire nation, even crossing the Atlantic Ocean where it wreaked havoc in Great Britain, Europe, and Asia. There have been colder winters and deadlier blizzards, but for sheer volume of snow, expanse, and duration, that winter has never been rivaled.
In the newly settled Dakota Territories, Laura Ingalls turned 14 the winter she and her family found themselves cut off from the rest of the world; an experience she wrote about in her book “The Long Winter.” Though it is historical fiction, every major detail in the book matches up with actual events and the memories of other pioneers who lived through this long, hard, dark winter. Laura’s newly established town of De Smet was unprepared because winter supplies hadn’t arrived before the trains were snowed in. Food and fuel were scarce and the little town came close to starvation. Left on their own, the settlers were forced to find a way. They burned hay twisted into sticks instead of coal, ground seed wheat in their coffee mills to make flour, and simply did without when there was nothing else. When things were at their bleakest, Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband, risked his life with Cap Garland to go in search of a settler rumored to have a store of seed wheat from his summers harvest. This selfless act probably saved many from starvation, and as a result, not one person in town lost their life to the harsh winter. Years later Laura read an article in the St. Louis paper that stated, “Experts in the office of home econmics of the United States Department of Agriculture have found it is possible to grind whole wheat in an ordinary coffee mill fine enough for use as a breakfast cereal and even fine enough for use in breadmaking.” She wrote “If the experts fo the Depatment of Agriculture had asked anyone of the 200 people who spent the winter of 1880 – 1881 i n De Smet, South Dakota, they might have saved themselves the trouble of experimenting.”
The winter of 1880 – 1881 hit the whole nation hard, but it was those that were stranded on the unsettled prairies, cut off from food, fuel, and people, that felt the brunt of it. It was the kind of experience that affects people for the rest of their lives, revealing the strength of ones spirit and shaping ones character. While cold and hunger ravaged their bodies, the continual howling of the winds, the persistent darkness, and the helplessness they felt while hovering close to their stoves for months ravaged their spirits. The Ingalls family, however, turned it around and made it a time of building intense family bonds through personal sacrifice, finding happiness in the midst of hardship, and encouraging one another through the trials. They had learned to be thankful for what they had, and counted themselves blessed. Through them, the epitome of the American Pioneer was revealed.