Even seventeen Dakota winters could not have prepared the Danish immigrant family of Jens Madsen and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt for what they faced in 1888.
January 12 dawned bright and clear in southeastern Dakota Territory. The weather was so pleasant that many children set off to school wearing only light jackets and wraps.1 In the Schmidt family, just twelve-year-old Mads was still in school; while he settled in with his classmates, his mother and older sisters, Mary and Christine, tinkered eagerly with the new sewing machine that had been delivered to them just that morning.2
Within a few hours, however, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon, bringing with it a wind so powerful that it roared as it whirled snow and ice into the air. The temperature dropped abruptly, and the snow and ice, said to be as fine as flour, made it impossible to see. Those unfortunate enough to be caught on the open prairie – or even in their barnyards – had little hope of making it to shelter.3
Through the remainder of the day and into the night, the Schmidt family waited in agony, a lantern burning in their window. They had no way of knowing whether Mads had taken shelter at school, or whether he had tried, in vain, to run for home. To search for him would be futile until the storm had ceased.
The next morning, which dawned bright and beautiful, Mads trudged home over the sparkling drifts of snow. The joy and relief that he, his sisters, and his parents must have felt at this reunion can only be imagined. As it turned out, the schoolteacher at the Breezy Hill School had managed to convince all of the children to stay in the shelter of the schoolhouse overnight, which, thankfully, had been sturdy enough to withstand the winds and had had enough fuel to keep them from freezing.4
Others had not been so lucky. Remembered as the “Children’s Blizzard” for the high number of school-aged victims, the storm tore apart some of the flimsier schoolhouses, forcing the teachers and children to flee into the storm, often in insufficient clothing due to the balmy weather of the morning.5 Others thought that they could beat the worst of it home, but on the open prairie where some children walked miles to reach school, many became disoriented in the storm or were forced by the wind in different directions. It became impossible for them to spot familiar landmarks either because of the fine and blinding snow or because their eyes had frozen shut.6
Later, two sewing machine salesmen, who had made their last stop at the Schmidt family homestead in Bon Homme County, were found huddled in the box of their bobsled just three miles to the west. They had frozen to death; their horses, tied in a grove of trees, survived. For years, locals referred to the area as Dead Man’s Grove.7
The Children’s Blizzard claimed an estimated two hundred fifty to five hundred lives across the Midwestern prairie, with the majority of the casualties in southeastern Dakota Territory.8 As reported by historian David Laskin, “The pioneers were by and large a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians […]. Even those who never wrote another word about themselves put down on paper everything they could remember about the great blizzard of 1888. Indeed, it was the storm that has preserved these lives from oblivion.”9
Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
1 David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 131.
2 Anne Schmidt, A Pioneer Narrative (Mitchell, South Dakota, 1961), unnumbered. Anne Schmidt was the daughter of Inger Marie “Mary” (Schmidt) Schmidt and the granddaughter of Jens Madsen and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt. She recorded her mother’s recollections of life as a homesteader for a term paper written approximately twelve years after the death of her mother.
3 Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard, 135.
4 “Christena Nelson,” Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 (Yankton, South Dakota: Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1958); private collection of Melanie Frick. Christine’s biography was recorded by her daughter, Julia (Nelson) Miller Sandau, in 1958, when Christine was eighty-five years old.
5 Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard, 136.
6 Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard, 147.
7 Schmidt, A Pioneer Narrative, unnumbered.
8 Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard, 252.
9 Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard, 7.