Column: More than a little relief was needed back in 1873
Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Dec. 29, 2007.
WORTHINGTON — The State of Minnesota has preserved a handwritten record, a journal written in brown ink on fading paper, titled, “Report of State Relief Commissioner for the Southwestern Counties, February 20 , 1873.”
The writer, E.P. Evans (who was he?), said he would set out from St. Paul to learn what happened in the counties of southwest Minnesota after a horrendous winter storm swept the frontier, beginning on Jan. 7, 1873. We are nearing an anniversary of that day. This was the first of the fabled three-day winter storms that often swept the local region up to the middle of the 20th century. Records at Fort Snelling from 1823 determined there had been nothing before like it in Minnesota.
Evans was appointed “relief commissioner.” He had $250 — Minnesota tax dollars — to give to people he judged were in need. The old, fading journal is Evans’ report to Gov. Horace Austin.
Evans explains, “(I) have visited the counties of Blue Earth, Farribault, Martin, Jackson, Nobles, Rock, Pipestone, Cottonwood, Brown, Watanwan, and Nicolet …” The spelling is his. Evans begins with a stop at Lake Crystal, just beyond Mankato.
“… I proceeded to Lake Crystal January 21st 1873 at which place I found a man by the name of John Halverson … whose feet and hands were frozen so as to cause the amputation of both feet and one hand — this was in the storm of Nov 13th …”
The story of John Halverson is enough to suggest if someone told Minnesotans from 134 winters gone by that a climate change would bring warming, there would have been applause — save that it is not possible to applaud with one hand.
When Commissioner Evans got to Nobles County he learned of “Mrs. Blix(t) age 26, town Indian Lake, Nobles Co, P.O. Worthington frozen to death …”
Only a short while earlier he had learned of a similar incident in Cottonwood County: “Wm Norris age 24, town Springfield, Cottonwood Co, frozen to death, also his team oxen, leaves wife and one child …” Evans gave the widow $20.
The next case to have Evans’ attention was in Nobles County’s Dewald Township: “Norwegian J. P. Poots, age 45, lives in Dewald Nobles Co, single man, both feet frozen and amputated, was out in the storm 70 hours, has soldiers homstead, 160 A(cres) was in the union army three years, no property of any kind except his claim, no improvement except a small house partly finished that he was at work on when the storm came …” There is no record that even $1 was given to Poots.
Evans went on to the central Nobles County post office that was named Hubbard. “A. Reed age 50 lives in the town Hibbard, Nobles Co, lost his only cow in the storm has an ox team and wagon the only personal property he has, his family consists of himself wife and one child that is sickley, has a homstead 160 A(acres). Not paid…”
There was mortal tragedy all across our region. Evans wrote:
“Kirk, A young man about 17 yrs of age, single, living in Lincoln, Blue Earth Co, frozen to death, being three miles away from his home after wood, got back within 80 rods of his house, unhitched his cattle and started with the wind, was found (dead) 8 miles from home, his team oxen belonging to his brother were also frozen …
“Also a boy 15 yrs of age (Swede) is missing, was out cutting Willows for fuel when the storm came up and has not been found, came from Sweden last year …”
That’s how it was in southwest Minnesota. Perhaps the wonder is that people continued living in this place.
Minnesota blizzards got international attention. Capt. S. Anderson of the British army was in Minnesota that month; in the spring he was to assist in surveying the Minnesota-Canada border. Capt. Anderson wrote a storm story, published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, for people in Britain.
Anderson said he was caught with a dog team “out in the open country.”
“The dogs were stung so pitilessly in their eyes and ears by the drifting snow that it was difficult to get them to face it; they continually rolled over on their sides and buried their heads in the snow.”
People did the same, but many died.