Deadly blizzard killed 84 in Minnesota in 1873 — including 3 from Nobles County

Carolyn Mankell Sowinski, author of “The Great Storm: Minnesota's Victims in the Blizzard of January 7, 1873,” will speak at 6:30 p.m. April 12, at the Nobles County Heritage Center.

The Great Storm: Minnesota's Victims in the Blizzard of January 7, 1873
The Great Storm: Minnesota's Victims in the Blizzard of January 7, 1873
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Mankell Sowinski

WORTHINGTON — By the time it was over, 84 people were dead — many of them immigrants — and many survivors were left to deal with amputations as they grieved their lost loved ones in the aftermath of a violent three-day blizzard that struck the Midwest on Jan. 7, 1873.

“There are no spoilers, because everybody dies,” said Carolyn Mankell Sowinski, author of “The Great Storm: Minnesota's Victims in the Blizzard of January 7, 1873,” who will speak at the Nobles County Historical Society’s annual meeting at 6:30 p.m. April 12, at the Nobles County Heritage Center.

That’s more of a reference to the length of time that’s passed since the blizzard than the reality of the storm itself, though it was horrific in its intensity, length and abruptness, particularly given the circumstances around it — though it did claim many lives.

“It descended on the people very quickly on a Tuesday afternoon,” Sowinski said. “It was a very warm day, above freezing, above the 30s.”

It had been a very difficult winter, with an early start and, like the winter of 2022-2023, residents of the young state had suffered through a long series of snowstorms, so when a warm day with favorable weather cropped up, many people headed out to do their errands, picking up food, chopping firewood or visiting neighbors, she explained.


That’s when the blizzard struck.

“People described it as a wall of white coming at them,” Sowinski said.

Temperatures plummeted to 20 or 30 degrees below zero in just a few hours, and intense wind battered anything and anyone unlucky enough to be caught outdoors.

No one had dressed for a snowstorm, because no one had thought one was on the way, and under those conditions, hypothermia sets in hard. Visibility was almost nonexistent and people who had just a quarter mile to go to get to their homes were found dead a mile away in the wrong direction, Sowinski said.

“All these factors contributed to people getting lost and disoriented in the blizzard,” Sowinski said. “Men died. Women died. Children died.”

It took three days for the storm to let up.
Originally, Sowinski’s book included only the stories of the people whose lives the blizzard claimed or who became amputees due to its ravages, but she felt it was too depressing to leave it there and included survivors’ stories as well.

“Most people survived the storm. Most people found their way to shelter, to a house, to a hotel in town, and farm families as well,” she said. “These little farm houses … were filled with maybe a dozen people taking shelter in these storms.”

Initially, Sowinski was a family historian, and for a 2016 family reunion she put her work into a book. As she was working on it, she learned about the blizzard, and read that 12 people died in Kandiyohi County.


“So I used a lot of my research skills and genealogy and history, and maneuvering through documents, to try to tell their stories,” said Sowinski, who has a graduate degree in library science and American history, with a concentration in archival management.

From that work, she discovered there had actually been 11 deaths, and she produced “ Almost Saved, But Lost: The January 1873 Blizzard in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota .”

The story grew, though, when the storm reached its 150th birthday, and the author wondered if she should write something about the Minnesota victims for the occasion. Reports varied on how many there had been, some counting a death toll as low as 70, though other sources said hundreds had perished.

“So I took the challenge on,” Sowinski said, noting she had found 84 deaths.

Three of those deaths were people from Nobles County, and her book also includes one local survivor’s story as well.

“When I speak at Nobles County, I will talk about, just briefly, each of those victims and parts of their stories,” she said.

One of them was a Civil War veteran wounded at Vicksburg, who received a military burial, but left his family so poor they could not attend the funeral service because they simply didn’t have enough clothing. Another was a woman who went searching for her ice-fishing husband in the storm. Her body wasn't found until the spring, and she was buried in Indian Lake Baptist Church Cemetery.

In the aftermath of the brutal storm, the state stepped in to help, but required a statement saying the individual was destitute before they would assist.


The blizzard continued to have ripple effects for families decades afterward.

“Of the 84 deaths, 66 were immigrants, and only one was born in Minnesota,” she said. “The others were migrants from other states.”

For more information or to purchase the book, visit

A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Phone: (507) 376-7319
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