January 12, 1888 is the date of what has become known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard. While relatively small in the number of deaths compared to other natural disasters, the 250-500 deaths caused heartbreak for families living in the Dakota Territory. The deaths were mainly of children that had been caught unawares while doing chores or walking home from school. David Laskin has done his research to bring this horrible tragedy to life in his book, The Children’s Blizzard. Laskin has related the events of the blizzard as clearly as he is able, writing in 2004, when the survivors are long since deceased, and a few newspaper accounts are all that survive.
The immigrants of the Dakota Territory were mostly Germans and Scandinavians pulled by the promise of free land. The families were generally large, as a farmer needed all the free labor he could get to work his patch of free land into a working, profitable venture. While the older, teenaged children were mostly in the fields working, the younger children attended one room schools, with teachers barely out of their teens themselves. One of the few exceptions to this trend was Johann Kaufmann, who, at 16, still attended school with his younger brothers. The morning of January 12 was a clear and mild one. Most children set out for school in light outerwear with no hats or mittens. Johann included. A note of warning here, there are at least seven Joahnns in the story, and easy to mix up.
When the weather quickly turned cold, the winds whipped up and the snow started to fall, Johann wanted to stay in the school house with his brothers until their father could come and get him. His friend, Peter Graber agreed with Johann. Their teacher, however, disagreed and forced all the boys from the school and into the blinding snow.
Johann, his two younger brothers and Peter tried to make their way to the Graber homestead. Before the day was over, Johann, his two brothers, Peter Graber and Johann Albrecht, died from the pelting snow and exposure to the freezing temperatures. They were found two days later, frozen blocks of ice, two of the boys so frozen together; they could not be separated until thawed out before a fire.
The tales of loss, and a few of miraculous survival, fill the pages, along with explanations of why people’s lives could not be saved even when found in the snow and brought indoors.
Blizzards, however, were not the only hardships the immigrants coped with when they moved onto the Dakota Territory. There were also grasshopper swarms that could wipe out a farmer’s entire wheat crop in a matter of minutes. There was dry, drought filled summers. There were extreme weather conditions, such as the 1888 blizzard, the focus of this true-life accounting.
While the details of the children’s tragic fate are the main focus of the book, there is also a great deal of facts about the weather forecasting abilities at the time of the blizzard. Unless the reader is interested in the history of forecasting, these portions of the book tend to drag the narrative down.
Weather forecasting aside, this is a powerful novel of what mother nature can do to a population unaware of the horror that can come upon them in minutes and give them no chance of survival.