Biographies & Memoirs

Winter of the Blue Snow, 1886–1887

THE HAZE WHICH HAD HUNG over the Badlands all autumn rose to high altitudes in late October, causing weird “dogs” to glow around the sun and the moon.1 Then, late on the afternoon of 13 November, it turned white and began to sink again, very slowly, cushioned on the dead still air. Only when it touched the Elkhorn bottom, and sent an icy sting into the nostrils of the cattle, did the whiteness prove to be snow—snow powdered so fine and soft that it hovered for hours before settling.2

That night the temperature fell below zero, and a sudden gale came down from Canada, blowing curtains of thicker snow before it. By morning the drifts were piling up six or seven feet deep, and the air was so charged with snow that the cattle coughed to breathe it. Some cows stupidly faced north until the blizzard plugged their noses and throats, asphyxiating them.3

The beavers, meanwhile, snuggled down philosophically in their burrows. Thanks to six weeks of overtime chewing, they had cut and stored enough willow-brush to last them several seasons. They could not hear the wind, but as the mud around them froze itresonated with the growling of ice in the river. When the growling stopped they knew that the Little Missouri had glaciated, and that wolves and lynxes were now patrolling it.4

“Their hoofs were locked in ice, and they froze like so many statues.”
Dying cow, December 1886. Painted by Charles Russell. (Illustration col.1)

All through November the snow continued to fall—whirling, sifting, billowing across the prairie as rhythmically as waves in the ocean. Lines of violet shadow separated each “roller” from the next. Ever afterward pioneers would call this the Winter of the Blue Snow,5 the worst in frontier history.

One day in mid-December there was a brief spell of Indian summer. The temperature jumped to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the snow to a depth of six inches. But then subzero weather returned, and the slush became a slabby crust of ice. Cattle hungry for buried grass had to gnaw through it until their muzzles were raw and swollen. Sometimes the crust would split beneath a very heavy steer, and he would drop through it on all fours, lacerating his legs and bleeding to death in the soft snow beneath.6

It grew colder and colder. On Christmas Day the mercury stood at minus 35 degrees; on New Year’s Day it was minus 41, and still sinking.7 The first month of the year is traditionally cruel in Dakota—local Indians call it “Moon of Cold-Exploding Trees”—and January 1887 proved to be the coldest in the memory of any man, white or red. Blustery storms alternated with periods of aching calm, but the snowfall rarely ceased. Soon the prairie was covered to a depth of three or four feet. While the lower snow compacted, the powdery flakes on top responded to the slightest breeze. They rolled across the flat country like fog, and on reaching the Badlands tumbled slowly down into cuts and coulees. There they settled in great drifts which piled up, a hundred feet or more, to prairie level, making the broken country seem as smooth as any plain. Ranches—especially the dugout variety—disappeared overnight, with their owners asleep inside them. Thousands of cattle were buried alive.8

Beasts nimble enough to escape suffocation emerged wild-eyed on the open range, and began to search for herbage in places where the wind had kept the snow fairly thin. But last summer’s drought, aggravated by overstocking, had reduced the grass to stubble. The starving cattle were forced to tear it out and eat the frozen, sandy roots. Then they browsed the bitter sagebrush, gnawing every shred of bark off until the twigs were naked, finally chomping the twigs themselves. When there was nothing left but stumps, the cattle huddled along the railroad, waiting for dropped garbage, and staring at every passing train as if about to stampede aboard.9

Then, on 28 January, a blizzard struck which made all previous storms that winter seem trivial. “For seventy-two hours,” wrote one survivor, “it seemed as if all the world’s ice from Time’s beginnings had come on a wind which howled and screamed with the fury of demons.”10 Children wandering out of doors froze to death within minutes, bent by the wind into the fetal position. Women in isolated ranches went mad; men shot themselves and each other. Many cattle exposed on the prairie were too weak to withstand the gale: they simply blew over and died. Others kept their footing, until their hoofs were locked in ice, and they froze like so many statues. Dogies from Texas and yearlings from Iowa, who had not yet experienced the savagery of a northern winter, perished almost without exception, as did bulls and cows heavy with calf. Older range steers, whose coats were shaggier and whose flesh was tougher, survived through February, but they became so mad with cold and hunger that they invaded the streets of Medora, and began to eat tar paper from the sides of the buildings.11 Townspeople had to nail planks across their windows to prevent desperate steers from thrusting their heads through the glass. Every night the streets echoed with agonized bellowing. There was nothing to do but watch the carcasses pile up in vacant lots, until the snow mercifully shrouded them from view.

At last, on 2 March, when it seemed the Badlands could not possibly hold any more snow, a balmy chinook stole in from the west. Sunshine burned away the haze, and revealed a sky whose bright blue color, coming after a hundred days of monochrome visibility, was a shock to the eyes. Within hours the white landscape began to twinkle with thaw. Rivulets trickled down the slopes, carving cracks in the ice, exposing bits of yellow earth. Gullies and washouts flowed into each other, then sought out the creeks leading down to the river. The air was filled with the sound of running water.12 About the middle of the month it became a roar. Lincoln Lang hurried to a vantage point near the river, and saw a sight which haunted him through life.

A flood-wave was hurtling down the valley, so full of heavy debris that it battered the cottonwoods like reeds. At first Lincoln could not make out what the debris was: then he understood. “Countless carcasses of cattle [were] going down with the ice, rolling over and over as they went, so that at times all four of the stiffened legs of a carcass would point skyward, as it turned under the impulsion of the swiftly moving current and the grinding ice-cakes. Now and then a carcass would become pinched between two ice-floes, and either go down entirely or else be forced out on top of the ice, to be rafted along … carcasses continuously seemed to be going down while others kept bobbing up at one point or another to replace them.”13

This river of death roared on for days, and still the carcasses jostled and spun. Ranchers estimated their numbers in the thousands, then tens of thousands, then gave up guessing in despair. When the last drifts of snow melted away, and the flood abated, cowboys went out onto the range to look for survivors. Bill Merrifield was among them. “The first day I rode out,” he reported, “I never saw a live animal.”14

In the wake of the cowboys trundled a ghoulish convoy of wagons, not seen in the Badlands since the buffalo massacre of 1883. The wagons were driven by bone pickers in the employ of fertilizer companies. For such men alone the winter had brought wealth. Patiently they began to sort and stack the skeletons of what had been one of the greatest range herds in the world.15

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