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Winter Supplies on the Prairie


People often feel cooped up in winter, but the winter of 1880-81 was particularly challenging, with an abundance of snow. Going into the winter, people were not prepared for what was about to happen.

Summer had stretched into October, giving little indication of the change of seasons. Perhaps it was because white settlers had been in the area for a relatively short time, but many had been stalling on the farmwork, thinking they would have plenty of time to finish up the harvest and do fall chores. Even when it started to snow, accounts say that people didn’t start panicking, there could still be another thaw. Unfortunately, North Dakota winters weren’t so forgiving back then, and a blizzard fell upon the state that lasted for three days, an introduction to one of the harshest winters recorded by Dakota Territory settlers.

That blizzard brought enough snow to bury two-story homes, and by Christmas time the trains had to stop running. This was devastating, depriving prairie communities of precious supplies. The railroad hired men to clear the tracks, only to have new blizzards destroy their work. The Bismarck Tribune reported on February 18th, that the “Diamond R” bull train got snowed in 12 miles north of Fort Buford at Hay Creek.

Conditions stayed harsh throughout the entire winter, with many families surviving off of wheat ground in coffee mills. Then on this date in 1881, people had their patience tested again as another blizzard raged across the plains. This one lasted for nine days and brought mounds of snow that forced farmers to dig tunnels to reach their livestock.

In response to the crisis, Governor Nehemiah Ordway sought to get emergency supplies from the Army and from Native Americans until he got private donations. He eventually secured $7000 in private cash contributions and six tons of supplies.

As winter gave way to spring, hardship of a different type arrived -- historic flooding over much of the territory. 

Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas






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