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Orion E. Stearns

Kingsbury County teacher and his children caught at their schoolhouse by the Children’s blizzard of January 1888.

The Stearns family is doing as well as can be expected. Mr. S. is still in a bad condition, but the doctor hopes for the best. He will lose part of both thumbs, a majority of his toes, the side of his left foot and both heels… Guy is bearing his affliction bravely. – January 27, 1888, De Smet Leader.

In The Children’s Blizzard, page 218, David Laskin mentions Mr. Stearns, a teacher and this three children who were unaccounted for after the January 1888 blizzard, near De Smet.

In The First Four Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about this blizzard, although she misplaces the date (into April, not January) and doesn’t call it by its popular name. Wilder also misplaces the date by including the story of Mr. Stearns in her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, writing that after being caught at school by the blizzard, the other children were sent home, and made it safely because they lived near the schoolhouse. He and his children tried to get home but were caught on the prairie. He turned the horses loose and turned the sleigh over himself and the children, and all managed to survive, although the teacher’s hands and feet were frozen, although not badly.

The teacher was Orion Eugene Stearns. Born in Vermont, he was a farmer in Galesville (Trempealeau County) Wisconsin, prior to filing on a homestead in Kingsbury County, the SE 25-112-56, about two miles west of Erwin. His claim was filed just three days before the October Blizzard, 1880, that started the Hard Winter. In 1869, Orion married Gertrude Van Slyke; she had been almost totally blind since birth. The couple had five children: Lewis (born 1871; he died in 1885 of heart problems), Guy (born 1872), Nellie (born 1876), Bessie (born 1879), and Sumner (born 1885; he died in 1912 from typhoid fever).

In 1882, Stearns and nineteen other families wanted a school taught in their area, so Amos Whiting separating Districts 30 and 28 near Erwin to form District 68. The schoolhouse was located on the SW corner of Section 21 – Township 112 – Range 55, a mile south of the Stearns homestead. Mr. Stearns was teaching the school during the winter term in 1888 when an unexpected blizzard struck on the morning of January 12, after many children had been sent to school. The following was reported in the January 21, 1888, De Smet Leader:

The hardest experience in the blizzard reported in this vicinity was that of O.E. Stearns and three children. Mr. Stearns lives on his farm about ten miles northeast of De Smet. This winter he has been teaching school about two miles west of his place in the McCaskell district, going to and from school with a horse and cutter. On Thursday he went to school as usual with his three children, a boy 15, one girl 12 and another 10. No other scholars came to school, and about two o’clock he started for home. The storm was then upon them, but being well acquainted with the road and having a good horse, he thought he could get through without trouble. They got along all right until nearly home, but got off the road and wandered south. After traveling some distance the horse gave out, and died. Mr. S. knew where they were, but dare not start out for fear of getting in a worse place. He turned the sleigh on edge and shoveled a place for the children. In this way they stayed utnil the next forenoon. The experience of those hours cannot be realized by one not out in the storm. Sometime in the forenoon the boy started for Porter Lewellin’s house, about a mile off. His feet were frozen solid, and it was almost impossible for him to walk. After going half a mile his ankles both cracked and gave out, and the rest of the distance he went on his hands and knees. When some distance from the house he attracted attention, and soon two men were on their way to assist the rest. Mr. Stearns and the girls were taken to Paul Cooper’s house and it is to the credit of Mrs. Cooper that the eldest girl was saved. For four hours she worked over her unconscious body, finally being rewarded by seeing her regain her senses. Mr. S. was badly frozen about the face, hands and feet, and it is feared will lose several of his fingers and toes. The little girl came out all right, apparently none the worse for the terrible experience. Dr. Davies was sent for on Friday, and has done all in his power for the sufferers. For a time he had hopes of saving the boys feet, but on Thursday found it necessary to amputate them both. He reports the others doing as well as could be expected.

Sadly, Guy Van Stearns died on February 28, 1888. He was just 15 years and 7 months old, and the freezing of his feet was attributed to the fact that he had worn “fine new boots without overshoes” to school the morning of the blizzard, leaving off the felt boots that would have kept his feet warmer. He was buried in the Erwin Cemetery.

Bessie Stearns had been frozen badly about the face, but her main injuries were mental, not physical. It was said that it took her several years before she was “herself” again. She married Frank Van Schaick of Oldham in 1900. Nellie Stearns married Herbert Van Schaick of Oldham in 1897.

After the Stearns’s house burned to the ground in 1898, they moved into Erwin to live. About 1903, they moved to Madison, South Dakota, where Mr. Stearns had a harness and leather goods store. Orion Stearns died January 11, 1920, and was buried in Erwin Cemetery. Gertrude Stearns moved to Summit, South Dakota, to live with Frank and Bessie Van Schaick; she died there on December 17, 1929, and was buried in Erwin Cemetery.


Orion Stearns family