14 May 2012

Where Were They: The Children's Blizzard, 12 Jan 1888

I am currently reading The Children's Blizzard, by David Laskin. If you have not read this, and are interested in American history or events in the plains states, you should really pick it up. Honestly, I'm only about half way through, but it made me stop to think: where were my family members on this day?

I had two major lines living in Nebraska at this time. Oscar F. Brown and family represent my paternal side, residing in Colfax County. Farther north were the family of Eilert Heerten, farming in Keya Paha County.  Eilert was the first of my mother's Heerten line to immigrate from Germany. Both of these groups would have seen this historic storm, and both would have certainly told stories of it later in life.

This is the comment published on the inside cover of the book, and when I first picked it up, this is what nearly forced me to purchase it and immediately sit down with a cup of coffee to devour this text:

"In three minutes, the front subtracted eighteen degrees from the air's temperature. Then evening gathered in, and temperatures kept dropping the northwest gale. By morning on Friday, January 13, 1888, more than a hundred children lay dead on the Dakota-Nebraska prairie..."


The problem with this storm, from what I've been able to decipher so far, was the timing. The morning of January 12 was unusually warm and sunny, so many of the children went off to school, most walking, in lighter clothing, not worried too much about good coats, boots and other typical winter gear. When the storm started to approach, teachers frantically sent their students home, and many were lost in this fast moving weather. When I say they were "lost", I mean that literally. They got lost in the blinding snow and wind, could not find their way to shelter of any kind, and died from exposure. It's a sad tale, tragic. And it begs the question: where were they?

Always curious to know more about the daily lives of my ancestors, and facing the reality that this could possibly explain young deaths in my tree, I begin my journey.

Eilert Heerten immigrated to the United States on the vessel "New York". Family legend and his obituary tell us that he was a stowaway. Three brothers came over together, but they only had enough funds for two, so the other brothers sneakily got Eilert on the ship and managed to keep him hidden for the duration of this voyage. I have no idea if this is really true or not, or even if it was feasible, but it makes for an interesting story.

When Eilert arrived, he originally settled in Mason County, Illinois, and this is where he met and married Amke Dirks Rademacher, also immigrated from Germany. Between 1875 and 1887, though possibly earlier, he had moved the family onto a farm in Keya Paha county, along the northern edge of the Nebraska border with South Dakota.

The young couple had seven children:

John, born 1875, Illinois
Dick, born 1878, Illinois
Annie, 1880, location unknown
Herman, 1884, location unknown
Frank, 1887, Nebraska
Edward, 1890, Nebraska
Bessie, 1896, Nebraska

The storm hit 12 Jan 1888, so all but Edward and Bessie would have been alive for this event. Thankfully, none of the family members have corresponding death dates. No matter what they were doing that day, they all survived. *whew*

Headstone of Eilert & Anna Heerten.
Springview, Nebraska

Enter the Brown family. I know them best, so I'm fairly confident I'm not going to find anything here, either.

Oscar F. Brown, veteran of the Civil War, homesteaded in Colfax County, Nebraska. There he married Frances Elizabeth Lawrence, originally from Ohio. Together, they lived in Nebraska until his death in 1906. After he passed, Frances followed her oldest son to Orting, Washington, where she resided for many years, finally living with daughter Carrie in nearby Tolt.

All of their children were born in Nebraska:

William, born 1876
Elizabeth (Bessie), born 1878
Sarah Alice, born 1880. Died February 1881.
Mortimer, born 1882
Carrie, born 1886
Warren, born 1892

William & Bessie Brown.
Richland, Nebraska.
Image: Private holdings of author.

The only child to die young was Sarah Alice, and she was not quite a year old at that time. Again, no one in the family appears to have suffered too greatly during this event. All but Warren would have lived through it.

Another of my Nebraska lines is the family of Charlotte "Lottie" Lee, whose memoirs I have transcribed and posted on this site. She certainly would have been affected, also, and because I have spent so much time on her recently, here is her family situation.

Cyrus Homer Lee and Mary Josephine Lawrence (sister to Frances, wife of Oscar, above) married 13 Aug 1872 in Columbus, Nebraska. Both transplants from Ohio, they ended up in Nebraska for very different reasons, and based on Lottie's memories of her parents, they lived a happy and fulfilling life; devoted to their religion. During the winter of 1888, they were on their land near Silver Creek in Merrick County, not too far from the Brown family in Colfax County. Cyrus ran the local store and served as post master for a time.

Their children include:

Charlotte, born 1873
Lawrence, born 1874
Bertha, born 1877
Florence, born 1879
Mortimer, born 1881
Lucy, born 1882
Elmer, born 1884
Roy, born 1886

Out of the group, Roy was the only child not born in Nebraska, he is a native son of Colorado. He grew only to be 15 years of age, but died in a drowning accident. Mortimer also died young, passing in July of 1881 at only 4 months. It would appear that the Lee's did well during the storm, also, and did not lose any immediate family.

Lottie does indicate that she and her siblings attended school regularly, as that was important to her parents. So I wonder how they managed to avoid getting trapped in the weather that day? Did Mary have a "sixth sense" as some stories describe in the book; feeling that the morning's warmth was too good to be true, and kept her children home?  Did their teacher shelter the children in the school, rather than send them home when the weather turned?

I suppose we'll never know, but it is certainly interesting to profile my ancestors with a historic event. I think I feel a series coming on...

I would love to hear where your folks were on 12 Jan 1888. Please feel free to comment, or share on your own blog. Just be sure to leave me a link!


  1. I find this fascinating, you have to wonder; how far did each of the families live from the school? With Cyrus family, was home or the store closer? Was the school in town? Could they have whether the storm out at the store? I wonder if it would even be possible to find the locations of the schools then and compare the distances to which they would have had to travel.

  2. It really gets your brain spinning, doesn't it? The questions seem to be endless, really, as to how they managed to avoid this catastrophe, when so many others didn't. Thanks for the comments, and thanks for reading! ~ Jen

  3. A hundred children dead on the Dakota-Nebraska prairie. What a story of the wilds of the New Country. This dramatic event reminds me of the beautiful but fierce novel My Antonia, by Willa Cather. It's easy to forget the material conditions of life, and the dangers, for our ancestors.

    1. Powerful, isn't it? So easy to lose sight of their "real lives". Thank you for commenting, once again, Mariann! ~ Jen

  4. It's not 100% relevant but I was somewhat shocked a few years back to learn I had a great-uncle that died on d-day. I've barely found anything about him, but supposedly one of my family has his military records. I've seen one picture of him from WW II. And the story I was told is that he survived storming the beaches but was killed by a sniper that evening. I just wish I could find out more.

    1. Actually, Merinda, its very relevant. Family stories like yours are what make the genealogical search exciting and motivating. I bet we could find out more about your great uncle. Send me an email, we'll chat. ancestralbreezes@gmail.com
      ~ Jen

  5. Fun!I enjoy paralleling our families to historical events. It makes the stories so much better. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading, Kathleen! Much appreciated. ~Jen

  6. Communication is an important bond which keeps families together.

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  7. In David Laskin's book it chronicles my Great Grandparents, last name Kaufmann. It fills in an incredibly important part of my family's history. Three of my great uncles froze to death together at the same time in S. Dakota. Write me at fudgelink.com if you like.


Please comment! I would love to hear your thoughts!