The Little Ice Age of the 1880s

Vicki LogoOn Monday nights my husband and I get together with some friends down the street.  They live just eight houses away, so we walk.  No big deal, except last Monday it was snowing and my husband was at work.  I braved the cold and the wind alone, feeling the sting on my face and the ache in my fingers. In spite of my polka-dot boots, my toes were cold.

I had one thought as I kicked my way through the oh-so-deep ten inches of snow on my driveway.  I’m a weather wimp! Considering the amount of snow in the Midwest and the piles of white stuff in Virginia and Washington DC, I have nothing to complain about.  Our cars have good tires, and the county will (eventually) plow our street. I’ve got food in my fridge, electric heat and a fireplace. I’m as snug as the proverbial bug in a rug.Western-Chief-Rubber-Boots_96AB58A2

How different things were when America experienced what became known as “The Little Ice Age of the 1880s.”  

This period of intense bad weather began with the winter of 1880-81. If you’ve read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve got an idea of the intensity of that time.  Her books are fiction but largely based on fact. Set in South Dakota, the story portrays days and days of snow, white-out conditions, a lack of firewood and a food shortage. The snow was so deep the trains couldn’t reach the town with fresh supplies.

In Brown County, Nebraska, this winter is one of the most severe ever. The snow buried train in snowthe natural grazing, and at times it was so deep cattle could barely move. Thousands of head starved to death. Of the 3000 cattle on the Cook Ranch, only 800 survived. This winter had a secondary impact. Devastating losses forced cattlemen to shut down their operations, which opened the prairie to farmers and new settlement.

Ironically, the winter of 1881-82 was unseasonably warm. The average temps in the Twin City area were 27 F, but it ushered in a period of record breaking cold. For the next six years, winter temperatures (Dec. to Feb.) recorded in the Twin Cities area averaged from 0 F F to 9 F.

The cold weather in 1886-87 affected all of the United States but especially the West. Beginning in October, the country experienced waves of intensely cold arctic air, and snow cowboysnow fell much of December. These storms devastated the cattle industry. Winter began earlier than usual, and the summer had been unusually hot and dry. Some old timers noticed the tell-tale signs of a harsh winter–animals growing thicker coats, eating more food–but these natural warnings were largely ignored until it was too late to prepare.

The freezing temperatures killed cattle and people alike. White-out conditions made it impossible for people to see even a few feet, causing them to get lost close to their houses and thus perish in the cold.

cowboy in snowThe winter of 1887-88 offered a bit of a break temperature-wise, but in March 1888, the East Coast got a dose of the winter woes plaguing the center of the country.  A blizzard that came to be called “The Great White Hurricane” paralyzed the East Coast from Maine to the Chesapeake and killed 400 people.  More than 40 inches of snow fell in New York City. Major cities were isolated for days.

 How about you? Have you had enough winter?  Do you have snow in your yard, or are you basking in winter sunshine? I’m in Lexington, Kentucky with 6 inches of the white stuff on the ground and a midday temp of 24 degrees.  But you know what?  I’m fortunate indeed to be warm, cozy and safe.Kansas Courtship cropped


Coming March 16th! 

 Kansas Courtship!

Pre-order at Amazon:  Kansas Courtship, Love Inspired Historical, March 2010

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35 thoughts on “The Little Ice Age of the 1880s”

  1. hi Vicki, what a great post. And the pictures are gorgeous. I must confess on a day like today when I went shopping in sandals, I don’t envy what a lot of you all must go through in the winter. But I confess a deep longing for the white stuff during the holidays.

    I know I’ll be referring back to this post from time to time! Thanks! oxoxoxoxoxox

  2. I forgot this: last Thursday our local news said there was snow somewhere in 49 of the 50 states that day, first time ever recorded! Try as they might, they couldn’t find a single flake in Hawaii on Haleakala. But 49 out of 50 is pretty incredible!

  3. I forgot this: last Thursday our local news said there was snow somewhere in 49 of the 50 states that day, first time ever recorded! Try as they might, they couldn’t find a single flake in Hawaii on Haleakala. But 49 out of 50 is pretty incredible!

  4. Hi Tanya! I envy your good weather! Having grown up in Los Angeles, I think it’s cold when the Santa Ana winds are blowing and it’s 40 degrees 🙂 I saw that stat about snow. Someone said you can even count Hawaii to get to get snow in all 50 stats if you’re generous and count snowing falling at the mountaintops but not sticking.

    Hello Jennie! Snow is beautiful when it first falls. And I like snow days! As long as I don’t have to go anywhere, I’m a happy campter 🙂

  5. I, too, love snow days since it doesn’t matter to someone who sits at a home computer most of the time. I found your post about the Little Ice Age extremely interesting, particularly since that is the exact time period I love. It must have gone on into the 1890’s in Texas. In 1896, there were killer tornadoes in the Denison area–and no TV weatherman to warn people ahead of time. And that same year or one year later there was a May snowstorm that killed a lot of livestock.

  6. Hi Caroline, I ended up writing about the 1870s because of a prequel situation w/ “The Maverick Preacher,” but my heart is in the 1880s. So many things were happening then.

    Tornadoes have to be the most terrifying of all natural storms. “Kansas Courtship” starts with a tornado that devastates a town. Scary stuff!

  7. Hello Pam! I’m looking forward to warmer weather, too. It’ll be our first summer in Lexington, and I’m hoping it’s not as humid as Wasnington, DC. Right now, though, I’ll take the heat even with the damp air.

  8. Hi Vicki,

    I have had it with snow too. Here in TN we have had alot of the stuff. It is pretty but I am getting sick of it. I have leaved in AZ and that is the weather that I love so I am announcing now that I am moving back to AZ within the next 6 weeks.

    I am so excited. I have alot of good friends there and I will never leave AZ again

    Have a good one Vicki and keep warm

    Walk in harmony,

  9. ugh–your post makes me shudder
    i dislike winter enough…let alone without all of today’s modern amenities
    i live in iowa…lost track of what we currently have for snow…enough–not too much–over a bitter cold spell with -30 windchills and enjoying sunny days in the 20’s 🙂
    i can totally see how so many would die in blizzards
    i feel bad for all the cows 🙁

  10. Hi Melinda, Congratulations on the move to Arizona! I love the southwest. I like it here in KY, in fact I like it a lot, but I still think of California.

    Hello Tabitha,
    The loss of livestock is haunting. I know animals have been living outdoors forever, but it pains me when I see them out in cold weather. That windchill you mentioned (30 below!) is bone jarring. I guess I wouldn’t make it in Alaska 🙂

  11. Hi Vicki,

    I also live in Kentucky and yes I am so tired of snow! I am so ready for spring. I want to see the grass again and be able to go out for walks. It has been a bad winter for us but we have nothing compared to the way it use to be years ago. We don’t have to chop wood to heat and cook with. When I was a child we heated with a coal stove! So I am so thrilled with the modern things we have today! Right now we have a little sunshine going on so maybe we will get rid of some of this white stuff for a day or so.

  12. Vicki, this is certainly a timely post. I’m certainly sick and tired of snow. Seems we can’t go more than two days without getting more. Which is so unusual for West Texas. Right now though, we don’t have snow on the ground. It’s all melted. Temps today are going to be in the 60’s. Yea!! But then, we have another round coming on Sunday. We just have to hang in there and pray that spring arrives soon.

    In the latter part of the 1800’s, West Texas had such severe blizzards and it killed thousands of head of cattle. The old-timers called it The Big Dieup. Waves of white-out conditions and feet of snow came one after another. Sure did a lot of damage. This year has been rough too but not nearly as bad as the 1800’s.

  13. Hi Quilt Lady! Grass? Isn’t that green? I vaguely remember . . . 🙂 I’m a walker too, and I haven’t been able to get out at all. I can bundle up against the cold, but the sidewalks are icy. But you’re so right . . . compared to 100 years ago, we have it easy!

  14. I love your pictures, Vicki. That TRAIN. What madness was that? Who had a camera?
    Love that cowboy standing with the saddle and the horse running, kicking up snow.

    The polka dot boots. 🙂 Well, hmmmmm not really in keeping and yet funny.

    I’m so sick of winter, well, the thoughts rushing through my mind right now don’t really bare typing. Not good. Not good at all.

    Have I written here about the DEER?

    It’s crazy. I drive along a rural highway to work. There are woods and cornfields, harvested, sweeping over rolling hills. Everywhere there’s a bald hilltop there are DOZENS of deer. I’m soooo serious. I’ve lived in my winter wonderland home of Nebraska for my whole life, it’s not like I just moved here from the tropics or nuthin’. I’ve NEVER seen anything like it. I would estimate I see over ONE HUNDRED DEER most nights on my drive home. All packed on those bald hilltops. I’m sure they must be starving.
    And, political aside, our state tried to pass a law to relax the hunting limits on deer and so far it hasn’t gone anywhere. So they’ll let the deer starve slowly to death but they won’t let hunters shoot them.

    And I’m sure they’re so skinny they’re not good eating but so what? That’s the hunter’s problem.

    Back to winter. There’s feet and feet and feet of snow. We’ve been snow covered since Thanksgiving. The seven day forecast hasn’t got a single day above freezing. I have been doing research to figure out how to speed up global warming, but with no luck. I don’t have an SUV that I could run. I’d be glad to go buy one if it’d warm the planet up a few degrees.

  15. Love your boots, Vicki! Feeling bad for folks in the East with all that snow. Here in Utah, a major winter sports center, we’ve had a relatively mild winter. Barely enough snow for the resorts.
    In researching my Wyoming series books, I learned that after the winter of 1886 ranchers started growing hay to feed their stock over the winter. Before that, the poor animals just roughed it on their own.

  16. I hear you, Mary. I can’t begin to complain compared to what you’ve got in Nebraska. And it’s so sad to hear about the deer. I love Bambi as much as anyone, but I’ve always thought that mankind is part of the natural order. I hate to think of them starving.

    Hello Elizabeth! Isn’t it odd how the winter resorts aren’t getting hit, while everyone else is? I’ve been watching some of the Olympics. I wish we could send them our snow via truck or train!

  17. You’re right – I have to remember to be thankful. But it’s hard after getting 26″ of snow and then another 10″ and we’ve probably added another 10″ over the last week. Many a roof is caving in because of the weight. We shored up our porch roof because of the weight. Now they are talking about flooding when (and if lol) it starts melting. Oh, I live in PA. It reminds my mom of the blizzard in 1950 when I was born – she had to go to the hospital in a herse because it was the only vehicle that could get through. Thank goodness she made it there in time lol.

  18. Hi Jeanne, Snow weighs so much more than we think, especially the wet snow that tends to come later in the year. I read about some roof cave-ins in Virginia and Maryland. We’ll all be glad when spring arrives.

  19. Hi Victoria!

    Great post — and I loved the pictures. There were tales in Vermont of a time when the snows were so big that you had a mountain of snow on each side of you (about 6 ft tall) as you walked down the sidewalk. It was never like that when I lived in Vermont, but the tales still remain. 🙂

  20. Wonderful pics, Vicki. In fact, it’s making me shiver just looking at them. I’m a snow wimp. I like to look at it from a distance. Like on the California mountaintops. How pretty it is. I’m really sorry for all of you who are swamped with snow now. Many of the states have had it bad lately .. with no relief. The only consolation – to get to wear those nifty polka-dot boots! Love them!

  21. Hi Karen, The biggest snowfall I ever experienced was in California. Locals called it the “March Miracle” because it ended 5 years of drought. We got 2 feet one week, and two more feet the next. With the plowing, the stop signs were nearly covered. People still talk about it. Like you said, the tales remain!

    Hello Charlene! It’s great to have you back at P&P! I’m kinda partial to those boots. I mostly wear them when I go out back to feed the horses at our fence. When the snow melts, our yard will be a muddy mess. LOL! I’m actually looking forward to mud! That’s a definite shift!

  22. As of Sunday, we’d had 40 inches of snow here in Nebraska! And Sunday it snowed more.

    I am sick to pieces of snow and cold and ice and gray gloomy overcast days and ready to garden and walk!

  23. This is the second day of sunshine. One more and we are supposed to have a week of rain. Seldom have snow on the southern Oregon coast.

  24. Vicki, I’m so tired of having to put on extra layers, coat and gloves just to get the mail. But I shouldn’t complain—summer is coming and it gets hot and humid here. Soon, instead of saying “I’m so tired of this cold, damp weather” I’ll be saying “I’m so tired of this hot, humid weather.” 😀

  25. Hi Cheryl! I can hardly *wait* to feel the sun on my face. Flowers . . . grass . . . trees with dense leaves . . . Birds that are singing instead of shivering on a power lines . . . I can’t wait for May!

    Hello Estella, Here’s hoping that sunshine makes its way to the rest of the country! Enjoy!

    Hi Tracy, My favorite season is autumn. No coats. No humidity. Right now, though, I’d welcome a 90 degree day!

  26. Victoria, Loved the pictures and the information. Blizzards in Nebraska are fairly common but the last few years have been fairly mild. Not so this year. We have had snow on the ground here in the Northeast part of the state we have had snow on the ground since October. I believe our area has had 56 inches and I swear it is all still piled up. Spring, I fear, will bring flooding and I fear for those living along the streams. While we can see a small stream from our window ,we are very high right where we live.

    Am looking forward to your newest.

  27. We are in NE TN. There is only an inch or so on the ground until you head up the mountains, then there is a foot or more. My daughter lives near Asheville, NC which is about 50 miles away and she has had about a foot or more on the ground since the first storm last year. I’m originally from the north and have missed the snow. The biggest problem has been that the municipalities are not equipped to deal with the snow and ice. The kids have missed so much school, they will be making it up until July 4th (I jest).
    From my experience in the North and in Colorado, we have a wood stove in our house. In the 90’s, we had a big storm and power was out for 5 days +. We did just fine. We were able to heat the house and cook on the wood stove, and I have a supply of oil lamps. It was actually a rather pleasant time. If we had to, we could live that way with no problem. It really wasn’t an inconvenience until the water stopped. Again, we made do, but if I had to choose between plumbing and water or electricity for a modern convenience, water would win hands down. I would miss TV, the computer, etc. but they are easier to work around not having. We have books, games, puzzles, and a hand crank victrola and records.
    Hope you thaw out soon.

  28. Hi Patricia, You’re exactly right about cities not being able to handle snow removal. Just a few inches can paralyze a place that doesn’t have enough snow plows. Then there’s the problem of where to put it all! Back in northern VA, the plow crews would make mountian in parking lots.

    I love woodstoves! We had an airtight back in the mountains in California. It was wonderful!

  29. Vicki you sure got us all going on all this snow, we have way to much… I live in Nebraska and it is supposed to snow again tonight and tomorrow morning another 1-3 inches and then on Sunday we are getting more not sure how much yet. I have seen so much snow and I hate Winter I have a hard time with it and this year has been really bad on me I was stuck in the house for about 2 weeks without getting out at all. UGH!!!!!!!!!!
    Your book sounds very interesting and those boots where can I get a pair they are so cute.

  30. Hello Brenda, I got the boots at Mejier’s. I’d never been in one until we moved to Lexington. It’s like Walmart, but with a different selection of stuff. The one near me has great book section. It’s two full aisles.

    It had to be rough to be snowed in for two weeks. That’s a long time, even with internet and phones. Here’s hoping Spring comes quickly!

  31. I live in Northern Ontario and we have winter about half of the year. If you live here you had better learn to love some winter sport, any winter sport. I love the picture of the cowboy walking in the snow. I love a good cowboy romance.

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