Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pawnee Homesteader's and the 1888 Blizzard

by Doris Martin

“The blizzard literally froze a single day in time,” David Laskin writes in the Prologue to his book, The Children’s Blizzard. The blizzard on Jan. 12, 1888, was so named because of the many school children dying as they tried to get home from school.

“Thousands of impoverished Northern European immigrants were promised that the prairie offered “land, freedom, and hope.” The disastrous blizzard revealed that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by the natural forces they neither understood nor controlled, and America’s heartland would never be the same,” according to the author of The Children’s Blizzard.

Keith C. Heidorn, PhD described the impact on Nebraska in an online Weather Doctor article.

“When the blizzard struck the many small communities around the region, schools were still in session. Some teachers panicked at the raging storm and dismissed their classes, often relying on the children to find their way home in the blizzard. In other cases, such as in the school of Seymour H. Dopp in Pawnee City, Nebraska, they stayed in the small schoolhouses until the storm abated. Rather than send the seventeen children home, Dopp kept them overnight in the country schoolhouse, Stockpiled fuel kept the building warm during the frigid night. The following morning, worried parents negotiated the snow-drifted roads toward the schoolhouse seeking their children. Relieved, they found all safe, but hungry at the school.

That afternoon, Dopp returned to his home in Table Rock to find the teacher at the school in that community had made a different decision. His 11-year-old daughter Avis and her classmates had been released from school. She, and undoubtedly others, suffered frostbite from the cold exposure on her one-block trek home.

What made the storm so deadly was the timing (during work and school hours), the suddenness, and the brief spell of balmy weather that preceded it. People ventured from the safety of their homes to do chores, go to town, attend school, or simply enjoy the relative warmth of the day. As a result, thousands of people – including a significant number of schoolchildren – got caught in the blizzard. Approximately 500 people died of hypothermia.”

Harper Collins proposed the following reading guide question for your consideration:

“The biggest natural disaster of recent years is Hurricane Katrina, and there are some striking parallels between Katrina and The Children's Blizzard.
  • Both affected large geographical areas;
  • Both were forecast well in advance but nonetheless caught residents unprepared;
  • Both provoked a huge response in the media.

Do you think The Children's Blizzard was the Hurricane Katrina of its day?

What, if anything, have we as a nation learned since 1888 about how to cope with natural disaster?”

The Children’s Blizzard tells the complete story in all its fascinating and harrowing detail. It is a vital addition to the lore of Western immigrant pioneering. Perhaps you have a story about blizzards or other natural disasters you would share.

Kruxo paper real photo postcard stamp box 1908-1910

Caption: Results of blizzard on N.P.R.R. (probably in North Dakota)

Related links

An interview with David Laskin: What exactly was the children's blizzard and why is it still remembered today?

THIS WEEK Jacob Anderson Tells of the early days on the "Cook Ranch" and big blizzard of 1880...

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