Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Blizzards in Old West days


Blizzards in Old West days were catastrophic throughout most of the West, particularly throughout the Great Plains. For obvious reasons, severe snow, strong winds, and poor visibility combined with near-zero or sub-zero temperatures were dangerous for anyone living in isolated and rural areas. Combine that with the openness of the terrain and dependence upon cattle and stored crops for food, and streams, creeks, or poorly dug wells for water, and blizzards were a far greater disaster then than they are now.

Blizzards in Old West still daunting in modern times

One reference to the “Big Blizzard of 1886” in Foster-Harris’ book “The Look of the Old West” indicates that a major Great Plains blizzard that year played a significant role in ending the great cattle drives from Texas northward. Some contemporary accounts of that blizzard point to regions of Kansas where the crops had been particularly poor the preceding two growing seasons, adding further to the impact of the January blizzard.

Having live in Nebraska and South Dakota for a number of winters when I was a child (Nebraska) and young adult (South Dakota), I can attest to the fearful feelings that accompany being on the road during various heavy snow storms and blizzards. Anyone who’s lived in the Plains knows, too, the frightening paralysis of trying to drive a car or truck through a “ground blizzard.” That’s a condition where snow is not falling, or falling very lightly, but some of the region’s infamous high winds are kicking up snow from the ground so severely it creates a white-out that eliminates all visibility for long stretches. Driving a car in such conditions often blocks visibility in such a way that you seem to be floating into a solid white wall, or down a narrow tunnel into the snow. (Drove through a nasty ground blizzard between Gregory, South Dakota, and Yankton, South Dakota that I’ll never forget.)

As awful as such situations are in modern vehicles, imagine the effects blizzards in Old West days had on travelers unfortunate enough to be caught outside on horseback or in a wagon.

When winter comes along to the Great Plains and other regions of the West this year, think back on the hard “breed” of folks we call pioneers, and the rugged endurance of the Native Americans, who faced and surmounted many blizzards in Old West to develop the Great Plains we know and live in today.