The Children's Blizzard

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-05-24
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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"The gripping story of an epic prairie snowstorm that killed hundreds of newly arrived settlers and cast a shadow on the promise of the American frontier. January 12, 1888, began as an unseasonably warm morning across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, the weather so mild that children walked to school without coats and gloves. But that afternoon, without warning, the atmosphere suddenly, violently changed. One moment the air was calm; the next the sky exploded in a raging chaos of horizontal snow and hurricane-force winds. Temperatures plunged as an unprecedented cold front ripped through the center of the continent. By Friday morning, January 13, some five hundred people lay dead on the drifted prairie, many of them children who had perished on their way home from country schools. In a few terrifying hours, the hopes of the pioneers had been blasted by the bitter realities of their harsh environment. Recent immigrants from Germany, Norway, Denmark, and the Ukraine learned that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled. With the storm as its dramatic, heartbreaking focal point, The Children's Blizzard captures this pivotal moment in American history by tracing the stories of five families who were forever changed that day. Drawing on family interviews and memoirs, as well as hundreds of contemporary accounts, David Laskin creates an intimate picture of the men, women, and children who made choices they would regret as long as they lived. Here too is a meticulous account of the evolution of the storm and the vain struggle of government forecasters to track its progress. Theblizzard of January 12, 1888, is still remembered on the prairie. Children fled that day while their teachers screamed into the relentless roar. Husbands staggered into the blinding wind in search of wives. Fathers collapsed whil

Author Biography

David Laskin's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Preservation, and Smithsonian. He lives in Seattle

Table of Contents

Prologue 1(8)
CHAPTER ONE Departures and Arrivals 9(42)
CHAPTER TWO Trials 51(24)
CHAPTER THREE Disturbance 75(10)
CHAPTER FOUR Indications 85(32)
CHAPTER FIVE Cold Front 117(6)
CHAPTER SIX Explosion 123(50)
CHAPTER SEVEN God's Burning Finger 173(8)
CHAPTER EIGHT Exposure 181(22)
CHAPTER NINE Prairie Dawn 203(20)
CHAPTER TEN Sunday 223(14)
CHAPTER ELEVEN Heroines 237(10)
CHAPTER TWELVE Aftermath 247(26)
Sources 273(18)
Acknowledgments 291(6)
Index 297


The Children's Blizzard

Chapter One

Departures and Arrivals

Land, freedom, and hope. In the narrow stony valleys ofNorway and the heavily taxed towns of Saxony andWestphalia, in Ukrainian villages bled by the recruitingofficers of the czars and Bohemian farms that had been owned andtilled for generations by the same families, land, freedom, and hopemeant much the same thing in the last quarter of the nineteenthcentury: America. Word had spread throughout Europe that therewas land -- empty land, free land -- in the middle of the continentto the west. Land so flat and fertile and unencumbered that a familycould plant as soon as they got there and harvest their first season."Great prairies stretching out as far as one could see," wroteone Norwegian immigrant of the image that lured him and his wifeand three sons to America in 1876, "with never a stone to gatherup, a tree to cut down, or a stump to grub out -- the soil so blackand rich that as somebody said, you had only ‘to tickle it with aplow, and it would laugh with a beautiful harvest.'" As for the sky above this land, there was no need to worry. Rain, they werepromised, would fall abundantly and at just the right times. Winterswere bright and bracing, snowfalls light and quick to melt."Indeed, it may be justly claimed as one of the most beautiful climatesin the world," proclaimed a pamphlet written, translated,and distributed by agents of one of the railroad companies thatowned millions of the choicest acres of this land, "and one bestadapted to the enjoyment of long and vigorous life." And so theycame for land, freedom, and hope, some 16.5 million of them between1850 and 1900, the majority of them never getting beyondthe East Coast cities, but many hundreds of thousands, especiallythe Germans and Scandinavians, ultimately bound for the vastAmerican grassland frontier bordered by the Mississippi to the eastand the Missouri River to the west.

Gro Rollag was one of the seven hundred fifty thousand Norwegianswho emigrated to America in the nineteenth century. She wastwenty-two years old and a bride of several days when she left herfamily's farm in Tinn in the Telemark region of southern Norway inApril 1873. Gro had married a strapping blond boy named Ole,three years her junior, from a neighboring farm. Rollag was his surnameas well, since it was the custom in that part of Norway forfamilies to take the names of the farms where they lived. In Tinnthere were six Rollag farms scattered through the valley -- NorthRollag, South Rollag, Center Rollag, and so on -- all of them smalland niggardly in yields of barley, oats, potatoes, hay. Growing seasonswere short this far north, crop failures all too common in chillyovercast summers, fields so pinched that only the most primitivetools could be brought in. "Our honeymoon took us to America,"Gro Rollag wrote fifty-six years later with her dry humor, as if theymight have chosen Paris or Nice instead. While the truth, ofcourse, was that Gro and Ole left Tinn because the fields of the Rollagfarms were being divided into smaller and smaller parcels everygeneration, because they didn't want to leave their children with less than they had, because in Norway only the firstborn sons inheritedthe arable valley parcels known as bonde gaard, and becauseOle was facing five years of compulsory military service.

But it wasn't in Gro's nature to write this in the memoir she titled"Recollections from the Old Days." Nor did she mention howhard it was to leave behind this stunningly beautiful landscape atthe beginning of spring -- the mountains rising sharply from theshores of a twenty-five-mile-long lake known as the Tinnsjo, thefarms clustered on a level shelf of land at the head of the lake, thewaterfalls gleaming on the sides of the mountains and feedingstreams that merged into the broad Mana River, the red and whitefarmhouses scattered around the stately white church. Beauty wasabundant and free in the countryside of Tinn -- but you couldn'teat beauty, and the beautiful farms were yielding less and less whilethe population steadily grew. But they were comparatively lucky inTinn. Elsewhere in Telemark the farm fields had become so smallfrom repeated division that farmers had to harvest the hay thatgrew on the thatch of their roofs and grow vegetables by spreadingdirt and manure on top of rocks. It was a sad, haunted country forall its beauty. Men in the prime of their lives built their coffins andstored them inside until they were needed. "It was not a verypleasant thing to look at before you got used to it," recalled oneNorwegian immigrant.

Gro Rollag was no beauty, but she was a strong capable youngwoman with a long face, prominent cheekbones, high forehead,and a kindly intelligent look in her rather narrow eyes. Accordingto family lore, she was not the most conscientious housekeeper becauseshe preferred reading to housework. A love of books andreading ran in the family. Of all the possessions they were forced tosell or leave behind in Norway, what the Rollags remembered withdeepest regret was the library they inherited from an eighteenthcenturyancestor -- lovely old books sold to pay for their passage toAmerica.

Gro and Ole were the first of the family to emigrate, leavingOslo on April 24, 1873. "We traveled via England and with theCunard Line from Liverpool," Gro wrote in her recollections half acentury later, furnishing precious few details. "We were thirteendays on the Atlantic and landed at Boston. From there we wentwest in a railroad boxcar. We took a little snack for the journey -- apiece of sausage and a few crackers each."

The Children's Blizzard. Copyright © by David Laskin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Childrens Blizzard by David Laskin
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