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A January thaw is what all of us look forward to out here, a breath of warmth that reopens our hope that someday soon April will return. Two cold-of-winter days, then maybe three of forty degrees. No wind. Heaven comes to Siouxland.

That’s the relief people felt early on January 12, 1888, when most of those who’d put down homesteads had just arrived out here on the Plains.

Here’s how David Laskin describes that morning: “Everyone who wrote about January 12 noticed something different about the quality of that morning—the strange color and texture of the sky, the preternatural balminess, the haze, the fog, the softness of the south wind, the thrilling smell of thaw, the “great waves” of snow on the prairie that gleamed in the winter sun.” And then this: “The one aspect they all agreed on was the sudden, welcome rise of temperature.” A January thaw, a morning to remember, and a balmy prelude to horror.

Laskin’s book, The Children’s Blizzard, tells the story. When that strange warmth suddenly lifted, hundreds of people, most of them children, perished in a blizzard that made prairie skies dark as night and created massive drifts in winds that drove crystallized snow into your face so ferociously it filled up what it didn’t tear away.

Seven miles east of Freeman, South Dakota, five boys died, lost in the unremitting blast of snow. Three of them were Kaufmanns–Johann, Heinrich, and Elias. What they and two other boys intended was simply to get to safety at the Graber house, a quarter mile east of the school, Ratzlaff #66. The wall they hit was a zero-visibility blizzard.

The victims’ families were all “Schweizers,” German-speaking Mennonites booted from Russia, who’d come to the Dakota Territory with fifty other families seeking the religious freedom they’d looked to find for 200 years–and the opportunity to live a good and safe life. None of them had it easy; sometimes their children would alternate attending school because families didn’t have shoes enough to go around.

But there was promise here in Dakota.

Then came “the Children’s Blizzard.”

Those five Freeman boys just disappeared; and even though search parties went out the next morning in the swirling remnants, no one found them until three days later, on the Sabbath, when a man spotted an arm jutting from a snowbank, an arm belonging to the eldest Kaufmann, Johann, who was likely holding up a coat to shield the younger boys from the killer.

They ended up two-and-one-half miles southeast of Ratzlaff #66, buried by the blizzard, just forty feet from the farm house of the man who found them.

The story goes that man went to church with the news that Sunday. I don’t know if he interrupted worship. I don’t know what they might have been singing, but I can guess how hard they prayed.

No one knows precisely how many people perished in that massive blizzard.  Most estimate the grim death toll at somewhere near 250.

It all began with a sweet January thaw that quick as a fox descended into madness. At Valentine, Nebraska, the temperature was 30 degrees at 6 a.m., six degrees at two in the afternoon. 14 below at nine that night.

Somewhere out in south central Nebraska you’ll find a highway marker that tells that neighborhood’s chapter of the story, but there’s nothing up at all east of Freeman, where five boys died. There’s no sign, no story, only endless rows of corn and soybeans. Even the farms are gone.

All the way from Russia, those Schweizers carried with them an old Mennonite hymn, something with a first line that went like this: “Wherlos und verlassen sehnt sich oft mein Herz nach stiller Ruh”—“When I’m lonely and defenseless,/my heart longs for rest and peace.”

Maybe that Sunday, that old favorite was the one they went back to, all of them. If not that Sunday, then surely the next.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • Helen P. says:

    The descriptions are reminiscent of Tim Egan’s, “The Worst Hard Time,” about the great dust bowl that terrorized the Great Plains during the depression years.

    I am always humbled by stories of the hearty souls who came from other places to settle – longing to make a new life and be able to worship freely.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Yes, Helen, it is humbling, their heartiness, their hardiness, and their strong faith. And how they must have handled such grievous losses.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, James, for this story of heartbreak and recovery. The quoted Schweizer hymn gave perspective to these early settlers. “When I am lonely and defenseless, my heart longs for rest and peace.” Such a statement is no doubt the confession of nearly all people in dire circumstances. No doubt these Schweizers found comfort in their God, just as people of other religions find comfort in their Gods and religions. Even those of no religion find comfort, supported by the oft quoted proverb, “time heals all wounds.”

  • Helen P says:

    Yes Daniel…it’s the faith piece in particular. How many times in our lives have we faced that kind of devastation? I would venture it is seldom…yet our faith can falter with a change in the weather it seems.
    I have ordered this book.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    The Children’s Blizzard is a poignant look at the hardships and depravtions, along with the faith that sustained those early brave souls. One always reads these books, wondering if they could have withstood the seemingly cruel quirks of fate that left some families with multiple children frozen to death within shouting distance of warmth and security. Thank you for bringing this story to light and your wondering exactly how they dwelt with this horrific news during their possibly already somber worship.

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