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Early Weather Forecasting on the Prairie


The weather is a continual companion, with its whims and follies, highs and lows, bitterness and warmth. And for many of us, our daily routine begins with a check of the forecast. However, a good forecast was not always easy to come by.

During much of human history, storms and droughts were seen through the lens of religion or superstition, with weather patterns owing to the judgment of higher powers. In 1542 King Henry the VIII of England outlawed predicting the weather as part of the Witchcraft Act. Prognosticating weather was seen as sorcery, punishable by death!

Fortunately for a Mr. Martin of Medora, Dakota Territory, by the 1880s monitoring and predicting the weather was no longer a capital crime. In fact, it was becoming an indispensable service.

On this date in 1885, Mr. Martin received a package from the National Weather Bureau with supplies needed to become a volunteer weather observer. Mr. Martin had been contributing his observations to the Bad Lands Cow Boy newspaper, providing a service for cattle ranchers. But the chief of the Weather Bureau in Washington also appreciated his efforts, and encouraged him to continue.

Mr. Martin was one of many in the nation who volunteered to gather weather observations for the US Signal Service, which oversaw the National Weather Bureau. The Signal Service was established during the Civil War, and its network of telegraph communications were being utilized to consolidate national data on weather patterns. As the Little Rock, Arkansas Gazette, states in 1884:

There is not a thinking man…who does not realize the great value of the systematic dissemination of weather statistics and warnings, such as the Signal Service is furnishing the whole country…

The National Weather Bureau continued to grow, and in 1891 it became a civilian, rather than a military enterprise, and was moved to the Dept. of Agriculture. It was in the 1950s, post World War II, that weather technology made another big leap forward as a byproduct of war. The radar technology used to monitor enemy movements was found effective in detecting precipitation and weather patterns. The 1990s brought the development of Doppler Weather Radar, which made possible the storm warning systems we have today. However, even with all the advancements, completely accurate weather predictions remain inscrutably elusive. So, we close with this sentiment from an anonymous British poet:

Whether the weather be fine

Or whether the weather be not,

Whether the weather be cold

Or whether the weather be hot,

We'll weather the weather

Whatever the weather,

Whether we like it or not.

Dakota Datebook from Maria Witham


Bad Lands Cow Boy, May 14, 1885, p.4

Bad Lands Cow Boy, May 21, 1885, p.4

Bad Lands Cow Boy, June 4, 1885, p.4

United States Army, Signal Core. Report of the Chief Signal Officer, United States Army, to the Secretary of War. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884. Google Book Search. Web. 24 May 2017


Robinson, Niall and Witham, Claire. “Weather Forecasting Through Time” Audio blog post.

Mostly Weather. Met Office Archives. 11 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 May 2017