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The Long Winter – historical perspective

The October Blizzard. On Friday, October 15, 1880, a blizzard took Kingsbury County by surprise at a time when the area had been enjoying fairly warm fall weather. Temperatures weren’t as frigid as usually recorded during a blizzard, but the two-foot snowfall made travel difficult and was damaging to unharvested crops. The many newspapers reported that the storm occurred during the day, not at night as described in The Long Winter. According to several accounts, winds shifted to the northwest early on Friday morning, and within a few hours, there was blinding rain, followed shortly by sleet and ice. Snowfall increased during the day, and all night it fell; by morning, there were immense drifts of snow everywhere there was anything to block its path.

In 1886, Eliza Jane Wilder wrote about the October blizzard: “In October a blizzard came and for three days one could not see an object ten feet from us. The R. R. were blocked for ten days, snow in the cuts being packed like ice. After the storm ceased I went to town for flour and coal. Our merchants had none. A carload of flour should have been there in a few hours when blockaded.”

There were no reported deaths in De Smet, but David Gilbert – in whose claim shanty Laura Ingalls would teach the Bouchie school in 1883 – was stranded with two friends during the October blizzard: “On the [15th of] October 1880, [they] drove with two teams of oxen to the claim belonging to Mr. Gilbert’s father… taking lumber with them to roof over a sod house they were to build. That afternoon they began the breaking and, collecting some sods, made a wall for their house, to be about twelve or fifteen feet each way. It commenced to rain and so they covered the ‘sod shanty’, which had obtained a height of not over three feet. Making things as snug as possible, and expecting to complete the job of house building the following morning, they lay down to sleep.”

…They awoke to a world of white. They were able to dig away at the south and get a view of things. They made snowballs and patched the sod walls to prevent drifting snow from coming in. They had food enough so they did not suffer greatly. And there they stayed for three days, while the storm continued, the roof sagged with the weight of snow and the warmth of the well-enclosed ‘house’ melted snow and gave them a pool of water in which to lie.”

The third day the storm cleared away somewhat and the boys decided to make for home. They mounted the oxen… and headed for the nearest shanty. Snow squalls made their trip a difficult one but they reached the shanty at last, made themselves at home in the absence of the owner, built a fire and dried out. On their way toward home they met a rescue party a mile from De Smet going in search of them.”

Many settlers wrote of finding cattle just as Charles Ingalls did, lost in the snow and suffocating (or already dead). Amos Whiting found cattle that had been hit by the train heading east into De Smet; the engineer hadn’t noticed anything except snow. By most accounts, most of the snow from the October blizzard melted and farmers were able to continue their threshing and harvesting, although snow that had drifted into low places was still on the ground in May the following year. It wasn’t until January-February 1881 that repeated deep snowfalls occurred, and there was widespread flooding after the snowpack melted. Most roads in Kingsbury County were impassable into June, and there are reports of farmers being able to boat from their claims into town.

Clearing the Tracks. Although Wilder repeatedly suggests in The Long Winter that what Pa calls the “Big Tracy Cut” or the “Big Cut” west of Tracy was located close to the town of Tracy, Minnesota, there is no historical record which shows that the railroad tracks passing through areas immediately west of town could fill with “a hundred feet” of packed snow. Wilder was often incorrect in names, ages, and estimating distances, and therefore information given by story characters is often wrong as well. The big cut between Tracy and De Smet was south of Lake Benton, in Lincoln County, Minnesota. Here the tracks headed almost due south for several miles before turning west, and they pass through areas with large hills on either side of the tracks.
What became known as the “hundred day blockade” began after Christmas. Between January 13 and May 6, 1881, no trains arrived in De Smet. Historically, the main problematic cut was just west of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.



De Smet During the Hard Winter. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that school was cancelled entirely soon after the October blizzard, school records indicate that this was not the case. Perhaps Laura and Carrie didn’t risk being caught by another blizzard during school hours, or closing the school was a literary device used to support the isolation of the Ingalls family. School Superintendent Amos Whiting reported a “good daily attendance” during his visits to the school that winter. Due to spring flooding, it was impossible for teacher candidates to get to De Smet for the teaching exam in April, so no new teachers were certified in the spring of 1881.

The Ingalls family spent the winter in Pa’s office building on Main Street (Calumet). The photo at left was taken in 1912; at the time, the building had been moved around the corner from where it stood in 1880, and it was known as “the little yellow building on Second.” A lean-to is shown to the side of the main building (although Wilder’s description seem to indicate that the lean-to was on the other side of the building, or more likely at the building’s rear); this is where Laura and Pa would have twisted hay into sticks to burn. The center chimney was most likely where the main level was divided into front and back rooms. The family spent most of the winter huddled in the kitchen at the rear. Although Wilder wrote that there was one upstairs window, the photograph clearly shows two.

Unlike the fictional Ingalls family in The Long Winter, the Ingallses didn’t live alone during the Hard Winter. George and Maggie Masters and their baby, Arthur, had already been living with the family for months prior to the October blizzard. In her Pioneer Girl memoir, Wilder wrote that the Masters baby was born at the Ingalls home. Whether this was in town or on the homestead is not clear; Arthur Masters was born in May 1880, and in June, the Masters family was enumerated as living with the Ingallses in town. Why the Ingallses were living in town and not on the homestead is unclear.

George Masters worked in the company store of Halls, Harrison & Shute, railroad contractors, and while he was working on the line to Pierre, Maggie and Arthur boarded with the Ingallses. When fall came and George joined them, Wilder wrote that they expected the family to leave, but they stayed until it was too late. Rather than complicate the story with non-family members, Wilder chose simply not to include them. Rose wanted her mother to have the Boasts stay with the family in the story, but Laura wrote that it wasn’t possible, because Mr. Boast would have helped with the work (unlike George Masters), and it made a better story to be able to have a grand reunion with the Boasts following the winter. Prior to her decision to write two books after The Long Winter instead of one (Prairie Girl), Wilder had also planned to have Almanzo Wilder attend the Christmas-in-May dinner.
Residents in Town – Who wintered there?

Readers have always been interested in knowing how many people spent the winter in De Smet, and who they were. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that there were fifteen students and about 100 people in town. In The Long Winter, there were said to be 14 business buildings and the depot, with 18 families totaling 75-80 people. In her Hard Winter manuscript, Wilder wrote that the 14 businesses were located “up and down Main Street.” Newspaper reports consistently say that about fifty families wintered in town during the Hard Winter.

Wilder included Mary Power’s family in The Long Winter, and historically they arrived in the summer of 1880. Although Rev. Brown’s family wasn’t introduced until Little Town on the Prairie, they were in De Smet that winter as well. Determining an exact head count is almost impossible, but families known to have wintered in De Smet Township include the Ingallses, Robert Boast, Charles Tinkham, Alfred Waters, Daniel Loftus, John Carroll, Amos Whiting, Edward Couse, Rev. Brown, George Masters, Charles Ely, Alfred Thomas, H.H. Plowman, R.H. Richardson, Andrew Sherwood, Henry Hinz, Charles Dawley, Martin Brislin, George Pirlet, Will Warner, Paul Cooper, Margaret Garland, Almanzo Wilder and Royal Wilder, George Wilmarth, Romanzo Bunn, Charles Lamson, V.V. Barnes, the Fuller brothers, Jake Hopp, and Edelbert Harthorn. The town itself was occupied by only about fifty families or men, but many more wintered in De Smet Township or in other parts of Kingsbury County.

In the early 1900s, De Smet residents during the Hard Winter formed the “De Smet Pioneers,” a group which met on an annual basis. At the time, 46 Hard Winter residents were still living in town. Ten years later, fewer than a dozen “pioneers” were still in town. Among them were Caroline Ingalls and daughter Mary.



Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland: Heroes of the Hard Winter? While the story in The Long Winter tells that Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland made a heroic journey twenty miles southeast of town to purchase sixty bushels of seed wheat (thirty bushels in the manuscript and in Wilder’s Pioneer Girl memoir) to feed the starving residents, there is no historical record of this act of bravery. The Garland family lived in De Smet for many years; Cap died in Kingsbury County in 1891. There is no “Garland family story” about Cap’s heroism, and one would suspect it would have been much talked about following his untimely death only ten years after the winter in question.

In June 1939, having completed her Hard Winter manuscript, Laura and Almanzo Wilder visited De Smet for Old Settlers Day. There is no newspaper account of Almanzo’s heroism, either that year or in later editions. It was also not mentioned in the De Smet News after publication of The Long Winter. Through the years, however, there were many stories and letters printed about the Hard Winter. One fact that tends to discredit the Wilder/Garland trip is that in 1880, Amos Whiting and his sons harvested 500 bushels of wheat on their farms several miles northeast of town, and during the blockade, hungry settlers would pull sleds to his farm to purchase wheat between blizzards. It is also widely known that Almanzo’s cousin, Charles Lamson, set up a commercial coffee grinder “mill” in town and ground Whiting’s seed into flour, which was then sold.

If – as Wilder wrote in The Long Winter – Almanzo and Royal were busy seeding their land to wheat in April – before the train arrived with seed or supplies – one wonders what the townspeople thought of Almanzo then? It would have been obvious that he had been hoarding seed throughout the winter…

“Eighteen or twenty miles” south or southeast of town (southeast in the manuscript) would have been the most dangerous direction to travel from De Smet that winter. Wilder mentioned Lakes Henry and Thompson, but Lake Whitewood was to the east of Lake Thompson, and there were many pothole lakes and sloughs. If any settler in the southeast part of Kingsbury County had harvested a large amount of wheat, he most likely filed on his claim prior to June 1880 to allow time for the grain to be sown. The map below shows claims which had been filed on prior to June 1880.

The large number of Timber Culture claims is typical. Since there was no residency requirement for tree claims, they were often filed on early by speculators who knew they could sell their relinquishment later, and one could always hire someone to tend trees on the land. Most crops were grown on Homestead claims because it was a requirement.

The name of the settler visited is given as “Anderson” in The Long Winter, yet in the manuscript, “named Anderson” is written above the first paragraph about the settler, and his name is not given elsewhere in the text. Note, however, that it is 20 miles from De Smet due east to the county line, and 20 miles south or southeast of De Smet could have been in either Miner or Lake County.

Laura Ingalls Wilder must have firmly believed that Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland made a trip to find wheat at a time during the Hard Winter when wheat was in short supply. She wrote about it in Pioneer Girl and in letters to daughter Rose and did not indicate that it was something she was at all fictionalizing. During one of the Wilders’ visits to De Smet, South Dakota, to attend the annual Old Settler’s Day celebration, Laura even went looking for the family of the mysterious “wheat settler.” However, she didn’t travel south or southeast of De Smet, she went north of Lake Preston. In her own memoir, a grand-daughter of homesteader Peder Anderson writes of this trip:

“While visiting my brother… several years ago, he told me about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and three other ladies from De Smet, South Dakota, driving out to my grandfather’s farm in North Preston, a rural community North and East of Lake Preston, to verify the fact about the men coming to his sod shanty for the purchase of the wheat, before writing the book. They arrived in an open two-seated buggy, similar to a surrey with the fringe on top. I have heard from many of the old timers and neighbors that my grandfather could and did drive a hard bargain upon occasion and the chapter in the book confirms this fact. This chapter is Chapter 27, For Daily Bread.”

I am not sure whether this was the winter of 1879/1880 or 1880/1881, but I almost positive it was 1879/1880 as my grandfather had come the first year alone and then brought the family out in 1880. My mother was born on this homestead in a log house June 11, 1881, the original deed was issued in 1879 and has been in possession of some of the family and relatives to this day. My grandmother sold it to my Aunt and her husband. Now their son owns the farm.”

While Peder Anderson was an early homesteader with family members still in the area at the time Laura was working on her manuscript, he didn’t file on his claim until May 1881, and his own homestead files states that he was not in Kingsbury County during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881. And while the memoir-writer’s other grandfather also homesteaded in De Smet and settled on his claim in 1879, he also was not in Kingsbury County during the Hard Winter.

Norwegian emigrant Niels Anderson (Neils Kopperud) is a likely candidate for any historical “wheat settler” of The Long Winter, he living about 6 miles south of town and slightly west of Lake Thompson. According to his preemption claim file, Niels Anderson first settled on the NW 26-110-56 on 23 January 1880 with his wife and 1 child, who both continuously resided with him. Residency was established 15 February 1880, and 10 acres of land broken prior to final proof in 1881. (No mention of a wife and child of Mr. Anderson is ever mentioned in The Long Winter or any manuscript.) Anderson reported that he sowed 10 acres to wheat in 1880, and newspaper accounts at the time reported an average yield of 20-24 bushels per acre.

While Anderson seems to fit the story in some ways, it cannot yet be proven that he was the historical counterpart of the fictional settler, and while his family remained in Kingsbury County, there is no known family or newspaper story of Mr. Anderson supplying wheat for the starving town of De Smet, either. In fact, newspaper reports suggest that only sugar and tobacco were in dire short supply that winter in De Smet, and if the Ingalls family had been in danger of starving to death, one wonders why didn’t Pa butcher his own cow or calf? Research continues!

Chapter posts from my pioneergirl Facebook group, February-April 2020:
* Nancy Cleaveland.

Over 300 pages of mostly Chicago-to-Pierre chronological “bits” from newspapers pertaining to the Hard Winter:


The Long Winter, historical perspective