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the children’s blizzard

January 12, 1888, blizzard that struck Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory, with no prior warning, and title of 2004 book by David Laskin.

There are about forty disabled engines on this division, all used up in bucking snow. One day last week twelve engines were received from the Eastern division and the first day’s work used up four of them. Drifts seventeen feet deep are reported said to line the tracks for hundreds of feet near Bartram. The worst storm of the season struck us about 10:30 a.m. on the 12th. Rumod says O.S. Purinton lost two colts, D.D. Brooks four cattle and J. Badrich two cattle. We understand these parties were watering their stock when the blizzard struck them and were unable to get them back in the barn. The stock drifted with the storm and froze to death. – The De Smet Leader, January 28, 1888.

While I appreciate the reply I got from David Laskin about the LH mistake in his 2004 book, The Children’s Blizzard (he wrote that the exchange in a quote he used from The Long Winter was between sisters Laura and Mary Ingalls; it was between Laura Ingalls and Mary Power) saying that the mistake would be corrected in future editions [Note, 2007: it was], I was just a wee bit annoyed to see that Laskin has about the same level of understanding about the Homestead Act as, well, just about everyone else who has a partial understanding of something that simply wasn’t quite as misunderstood back when there were such things as actual homesteaders under the Homestead Act.

Mind you, the rest of Laskin’s book is excellent, and I highly recommend it to all those interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder. The children’s blizzard of 1888 was covered in Wilder’s The First Four Years, although she has it happening in April, not January. It is also included in her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, although she places it during her own period of time in school, which for her ended in 1885.

Laskin wrote:

The Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, was the first color-blind, sex-blind equal opportunity piece of legislation on the American books. White or black, male or female, foreign born or native born, it made no difference. As long as you were twenty-one or older, could muster $18 for the filing fee, and lived on the land and farmed it for five years, 160 acres was yours. The one group the Homestead Act privileged was the military. Those who served in the Civil War had a year stricken from the five-year residency for every year of service in the Union Army. — David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004), 37.

(1) white or black – what about American Indians? It doesn’t seem as if the law was blind to all colors.

(2) male or female – if female, you had to be the head of a household, meaning that a married man could file, but a married woman could not

(3) foreign born or native born – yes, but you had to be a U.S. citizen or have filed intent to become one. What were American Indians considered at this time?

(4) twenty-one or older – If you were head of a family, you could be under 21 years of age. If you had served in the Union Army, you could be under age 21 as well.

(5) $18 in filing fee – $14 was required at filing. The other $4 was paid at final proof. One of the main failures of homesteading was that it took a lot of money to farm the land.

(6) lived on the land – Your family could live there; you didn’t have to (remember Mrs. McKee and Mattie?). And only 6 months continuous residency each year for five years was required. (Remember Eliza Jane Wilder? Remember the months the Ingalls family lived in town? They were homesteaders.)

(7) farmed it – how much of “it”? This was specified.

(8) 160 acres was yours – up to 160 acres

(9) the privileged military – the UNION army was privileged. If you had been a Confederate soldier, then you had borne arms against the United States government and you were not allowed to homestead, no matter what your age, race, sex, or inclination to do so happened to be.


The Children’s Blizzard