The Easter Sunday Blizzard of 1873

Today, a blizzard is rarely more than an inconvenience, but to pioneers living in sod houses and claim shanties, an unexpected blizzard often brought fear, hunger, and loss of life.

by Catherine Renschler

blizzardThe great plains has long been known for the ferocity of its winter storms. To modern-day Nebraskans with their central heat, cellular phones, cable TV, and four-wheel drive vehicles, blizzards are little more than an inconvenience, but to the pioneer living in his dug out, sod house, or rough hewn claim shanty, a blizzard, when it descended without warning, often brought fear, cold, hunger, and loss of life. The blizzard of 1888, also know as the School Childrens Blizzard, is the most well known early blizzard, but it was not as severe in Adams County as it was elsewhere and no lives were lost here. In terms of lives lost, the most disastrous winter storm to hit this area was the Blizzard of 1873, known as the Easter Sunday Blizzard.

The winter of 1872-73 was very open, mild, and dry; homesteaders broke sod in each of its months, and by April the prairie grass was already green. In 1873 there were very few well built houses in Adams County. During the mild winter and early spring, new arrivals had constructed dugouts in hillsides, or thrown together claim shanties of up and down boards, ment to be temporary housing until a soddie or frame house could be built. Most of the new settlers had not endured a plains winter storm and were totally unprepared. Fuel was scarce on the treeless prairie, many settlers having only a days supply of buffalo chips, and having just come through their first winter, or just arrived from the east, most families had a meager food supply. While the settlers' shelter and food supply was inadequate, shelter and food for livestock was even poorer or nonexistent. During the warm weather, some livestock had been turned out on the prairie to find food. Thus the stage was set for the blizzard which would cause the greatest loss of life in south-central Nebraska.

Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, dawned bright and clear, with hardly a cloud in the sky. About noon, the air changed.  Some pioneers would later remember the eerie stillness. Not a breath moved, not a sound was heard; the stillness was both audible and impressive. Soon rapidly rolling clouds appeared in the northeast, and in the southwest a dark line of clouds appeared, moving forward rapidly without any internal movement. As the two fronts met a terrific wind blew from the northwest. A.D. Williams of Kenesaw gave this description of the storm's beginning. "Two storms came together, just over head, and then the tempest struck us with terrific force from the northwest. Everything movable hurried away most unceremoniously. The air became immediately filled with dust, so thick and whirling and blinding, sight could not penetrate half a rod away, and persons in the house could not see each other even before the window. The roar of the elements was almost deafening. People rushed to their north windows to keep them from blowing in, keeping them in place by their hands and bodies. In some instances they were not kept in and the house filled with wind and the roof and sometimes the whole structure went before the storm like feathers. Ed Moore's house was moved from its foundation, turned partly around and unroofed.  The roof of Mrs. Norton's house, just finished, went kiting towards Florida and not much except splinters was afterwards found. The house was probably saved by being soded up on the north and west sides. The three other houses, (the four were the first to be built in Kenesaw), only a few rods distant, blew down into kindling wood. Mrs. Norton was still living in one of the [town site] company's  houses at the station, but was out of fuel and the family kept warm by going to bed and staying there.

"When the storm began, Capt. and Mrs. Knapp were sitting by the stove, on the tool chest. The next they remembered they were sitting unharmed on the reversed underside of their roof--stove, tool chest, and house altogether having deserted them. Chairs, bedstead, clothing, everything suddenly started on a journey, much of which was never found. One bed quilt struck the west side of our house, a pair of pants was afterward found in our woodpile, and a feather bed in the ditch on the south side of the railroad, a quarter mile east of the residence of L. W. Parmenter. A large quantity of shingles and boards from the wreck struck our house.

"D.R.Rockefeller's house near Mrs.Osler's homestead was blown to smithereens. He was at our house when the storm began and during the subsequent lull, tried to reach his own. But he had not proceeded far, before the storm returned accompanied by a sand storm stinging and cutting every exposed portion of skin, until he was compelled to lie down flat on the ground, and hold on to the tufts of sod with his fingers."

The two storm fronts must have met in the Kenesaw area, possibly causing a tornado. High winds were also reported at Juniata where one house was blown down. The reminiscence of Hastings pioneers do not mention high winds preceding the blizzard. They tell of the rain which began about noon, changing to sleet in the afternoon. The sleet soon became ice, making it  almost impossible for man or beast to travel about the streets of the county's two population centers, Juniata and Hastings.  Business ceased and only the most daring ventured out. Homesteaders who were in town had to remain until the storm ended, causing great worry and hardship to the family left at home on the claim. As the temperature dropped families gathered up what fuel they could and prepared for a long cold night, not dreaming the storm would last three days. Sometime in the night of the first day the sleet turned to snow. As the night wore on the snow laden wind increased in ferocity. Snow began to sift through the smallest cracks in houses and stables. The snow was later described as so wet that within a few minutes a person's clothes were wet through as if by rain.

Monday morning the sun was not visible, the entire world was a mass of swirling snow and howling winds. At noon the sun could not be located in the sky. Men, worried about their livestock, or the dwindling supply of fuel for the fire, went to the door, but could not see a few feet ahead. Some men ventured to their stables, but were driven back or failed to find them.  Others found the stables and had to remain there as they could not determine the location of the house only a hundred feet away.  Many of those who ventured out did so attached to a rope. An unfortunate few who did not take this precaution, were lost in the swirling whiteness and perished. As the second night approached, houses shook with the force of the wind. Many feared it was their last night upon the earth.

By Monday night, some houses had snowdrifts inside, and some families had run out of fuel and survived by huddling in bed.  Livestock had to be cared for and some people led their horse or milk cow into their houses. Much of the livestock that was left outdoors perished.

The blizzard raged without letup throughout Tuesday and Tuesday night.Wednesday morning the winds began to lessen and by noon the sun was barely visible. By four p.m. Wednesday it was comparatively calm. People began to venture out, searching for family members, checking on neighbors, looking for lost livestock. Many dugouts were completely covered over with snow and the occupants had to dig themselves out or were dug out by neighbors.

Those who lived through the Easter Sunday Blizzard talked of it their entire lives and were quick to remind later generations that no blizzard since has been so ferocious or claimed so many lives of men and beasts. The following incidents are typical of the hardships endured during the blizzard.

Peter and Susan Schifferns with their seven children and Mr and Mrs. John Busch and their two children left Aurora, Illinois by train for Lincoln, Nebraska in April, 1873. They had intended to travel down into Kansas to look for   homesteads.  At Lincoln they met a priest who advised them "If you don't have a lot of money, don't go to Kansas [which was more settled], stay in Nebraska." So they took the train on to Juniata, the county seat. From Juniata they hired a drayman to take them out into the country to scout for a homestead. He drove them west. It was a beautiful spring day, sun shining, birds singing.   The men went back to Juniata where they purchased lumber to construct a temporary shelter on vacant land just south of the village for all thirteen to sleep in until claims could be located. Easter Sunday dawned bright and clear. The women walked out over the prairie and filled their ticks with fresh prairie hay. Later that day rain began to fall, it turned to sleet and then to snow.  The little shack leaked, first rain, then snow, blew in, soaking the inhabitants clothing. There was no stove in the shack for heat.  One of the girls was sick with typhoid fever. Little Johnny Schifferns, only one year old, nearly froze to death.Thirteen people, wet to the skin, huddled together in an unheated shack with the snow blowing through, survived for three days. When the storm abated the Juniata drayman came out to check on the newcomers. He found them nearly frozen and took them to the Juniata school house where they built a fire and dried their clothes. The men later located homesteads southwest of Juniata and the Schifferns and Busch families were the first settlers in what would become the Assumption neighborhood.

The Juniata Herald carried the following on January 16, 1890.
"Seventeen years ago John M Jacobson operated a hotel and livery stable at Juniata. Jim Laird was then practicing law. One Sunday about the middle of April, 1873, Joe Cramer, now chief clerk of the railway service, arrived at Juniata. Young Cramer wanted to go to Red Cloud, in those days reached by wagon from Juniata. The three started out in a spring wagon, the day was almost sultry. About 3 o'clock the wind was from the south and gradually changed to the southeast. Suddenly, and with little warning rain began to fall in torrents.This was followed by hail, and by 5 o'clock the wind veered to the northwest and a heavy cloud spread over the sky, while great flakes of snow fell thick and fast. Nearly all the houses in that section were sod, but we reached a two-story frame just as the situation promised to prove serious. The house was vacant and we afterwards learned that when the wind came up the owner had taken refuge in a cyclone pit. We entered and made ourselves at home. For three days we were caged up while great banks of snow piled up over the land. I shall never forget the meal preparations, Jim Laird, now dead, then a jolly, brilliant youth, just on the threshold of fame, pulled a couple of gingham aprons from a drawer. One of these Laird donned himself, and the other Joe Cramer put on.

Then Jacobson made a fire and Laird proceeded to get supper. Laird was in the act of laying several good sized bacon slices in a skillet when the door opened and a voice exclaimed: "Company by jingoes." Laird looked up calmly from his task and coolly responded: "Welcome, pardner, we never turn a hungry man away. Make yourself at home." The newcomer was the owner of the ranch who had emerged from the cyclone cave.

That was the first time I ever experienced a snow storm in April and it was the biggest storm I ever went through. We spent our three days confinement merrily and what I saw made me know in after years why so many people loved Jim Laird".

In Collection of Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences General A.V. Cole of Juniata wrote the following: "I had a home of my own and was delighted with the wilderness of Nebraska, yet my heart went out to Mrs. Cole. The wind blew more fiercely than now and she made me promise that if our house ever blew down I would take her back to Michigan. That time very nearly came on April 13, 1873. The storm raged three days and nights and the snow flew so it could not be faced. I have experienced colder blizzards but never such a storm as this Easter one. I had built an addition of two rooms on my shanty and it was fortunate we had that much room,  for it was the means of saving the lives of four friends who were caught without shelter. Two of them, a man and wife, were building a house on their claim, one half mile east, the others were a young couple [Ed Janes and friend] who had been taking a ride on that beautiful Easter day. When the storm burst, black dirt filled the air, and the house rocked. Mrs. Cole almost prayed that the house would go down so she could go back East. But it weathered the blast, if it had not I know we all would have perished. The young man's team had to have shelter and my board stable was only large enough for my oxen and cow, so we took his horses to the sod house on the girl's claim a mile away. Rain and hail were falling but the snow did not come until we got home or we would not have found our way. There were six grown people and one child to camp in our house three days and only one bed. The three women and child occupied the bed, the men slept on the floor in another room. Monday morning the snow was drifted around and over the house and had packed in the cellar through a hole where I intended to put in a window some day. To get the potatoes from the cellar for breakfast I had to tunnel through the snow from the trap door in the kitchen. It was impossible to get to the well so we lifted the trap door and melted fresh snow when water was needed.

The shack that sheltered my livestock was 125 feet from the house and it took three of us to get to the shack to feed.  Number two kept within hearing of number one and the third man kept in touch with number two until he reached the stable.   Wednesday evening we went for the horses in the sod house and found one dead. They had gnawed the wall of the house so that it afterwards fell down."

The Kenesaw Progress ran the following stories on May 31, 1928.
"At the beginning of the storm two Stonehocker families were camped beside the house. At the first approach of the storm they fortunately staked down their prairie schooner with log chains and hurried into the house. There they all stayed the storm out. Early in the storm Mr. Rockefeller, whose house had blown down, returned, making twenty-three persons in a small three room house. In order to reach the stable, less than a hundred feet distance, the well rope was drawn, and with it in hand the stable could be found--we could not see the stable.  It was Wednesday that the storm abated. W.Z. Parmenter and L.C. Parmenter came in from Thirty-two Mile Creek on Wednesday night to see what had become of us. We went to the depot and found Mrs. Norton and her children safe.   Returning, a relief party was formed to see what had happened to the Knapps. We took along a shovel and some food and coffee. We found Captain and Mrs. Knapp and Mr. Miller banked up in the sod hen house with the hens. They had gone there when their house blew down. So cramped were the quarters that they could neither stand erect nor recline at length. During their stay there from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday afternoon, they had a can of peaches, a raw potato, and what eggs the hens laid. When rescued, neither could stand alone. The rescuers formed a seat with their clasped hands and carried Mrs. Knapp, the two men walked by leaning on another man's shoulder.

One of the Stonehockers teams was cut loose and drifted before the storm towards Red Cloud, but fortunately was found alive on Thursday. The train passed the Kenesaw station without observing it. It had gone to Kearney on Saturday the 12th, stayed in Kearney until the next Saturday, when it dug its way with difficulty through the hardened drifts in the cuts.

The snow packed so solid in the draws that a team could be driven over it. The snow covered the grass in the draws upon which many settlers depended for food for their cattle so that for a time they were deprived of this supply, and this after effect was a hardship that continued after the storm had cleared. A number of persons perished, though none in the vicinity of Kenesaw."

The following story was run in the Hastings Democrat December 22, 1932.
"The family of Jonas Pickerson lived in a dugout one-half mile south of   the present village of Inland in Clay County. They remained snug and comfortable throughout the storm, obtaining air through the stove pipe. When the storm abated they were astonished to find the doorway was packed with snow, and it was impossible to open the door which opened outwards. Things were really serious, visions of being buried alive confronted them. On the morning of the fourth day, a neighboring homesteader, George Ablott, walked over to see how the Nickersons had weathered the gale. It took several hours of hard shoveling by Mr. Ablott to liberate the family.

Many stories can be told of bodies of men being found after the storm, but one of the most pathetic happened near Red Cloud.  A farmer driving home was overtaken by the storm and took refuge with a neighbor. When he did not return home the evening of the first day his wife became alarmed, and taking her little babe, went in search of him. When the husband came home after the storm, he organized a search party and the mother and babe were found frozen stiff not far from their own door.

Miss Margaret Caton recalls the Easter blizzard which struck a few days after the arrival of her father's family from Illinois and not long after they had moved into a partly built dug out on their homestead three miles northeast of Roseland. There were no trees anywhere and only a few houses between them and Juniata. All during the storm their family of six plus three young men stayed in the little one-room abode and it was pretty close quarters. The young fellows who were batching nearby were Geo. T. Hutchinson, W.P. Davis, later of Roseland, and a young man named Roberts who shortly after went back to Illinois.

Shortly before the storm some trees had been felled and the logs hauled near the dugout. However the wood had not been cut into stove lengths. There was no other fuel and the men dragged the wood into the dugout and chopped it there on the dirt floor, chips flying where they would. Naturally they brought in a lot of snow with them and the floor was soon ankle deep with mud.  The cook stove brought from "back home" stood in a sort of recess in the wall, and the only dry place was behind it.   There the mother sat, during those long tedious nights. The babe in her arms and the other three tots huddled about her on the floor. They couldn't use their bed as it was soaked through by melting snow which had drifted through the chinks in the sod walls. The men took turns feeding the fire, with chips of wood for stepping stones.

The Catons had brought a supply of flour, home cured meat, and canned fruit and vegetables from the old home, so they didn't go hungry. Miss Caton recalls that after the storm her father shot an antelope. The numerous draws had drifted full of snow, packed hard enough to support his weight on a level with the surrounding prairie.

On seeing the approaching storm Mr Caton had turned loose two of his three horses, and the other three men, who had a team apiece, did likewise. The poor beasts kept trying to come in the house whenever the men went out after more wood.   When the storm was over the three men had one horse each and all that remained for Mr. Caton was one, the best of the three which he had tied with his head close to the wall of the dug out. It had escaped smothering, but had pawed and floundered around until it was standing on a ridge of hard packed snow almost as high as the eaves."

At Hastings the St. Joseph and Grand Island railroad depot was crowded with newcomers who had arrived the night before the storm. Their household goods and stock were still in the cars. As the storm raged, many of them feared they had come out onto the prairie to perish. Homesteaders and new arrivals were also trapped at Charley Kohl's saloon and in the hotels. A rope was tied from the Headquarters Store to the public well at the southeast corner of First and Hastings to guide pedestrians. A short distance from Hastings on Pawnee Creek, a farmer named Marshall ventured out to feed his stock, became lost in the storm and froze to death. Bob Norton four miles southeast of Hastings fed his team and was unable to return to the house. He spent two days and two nights in the stable without food, and was found suffering from exposure. George Sanger,living northeast of Juniata, had just paid $150 for a yoke of oxen. On Monday he made his way to the barn where he found one of them smothered by drifted snow.  On his way back to the house he lost his way in the whirling snow and roaring wind and wandered about until he stumbled upon an outbuilding of School District 14. He took refuge in the small building, where he stood up until Wednesday, when he was rescued, more dead than alive.

The Easter Sunday Blizzard had several consequences. Coming, as it did in the spring, the storm's temperature never fell much below 30 degrees, thus sparing the lives of many people huddled in inadequate shelter. Mr. Marshall is the only known casualty in Adams County, although some accounts of the storm mention several unnamed casualties. In the spring of 1873 Adams County's population was very sparse. Had the population been greater, there would have been manymore deaths.  One of the greatest hardships for the settlers was the loss of their livestock. Many suffocated when snow drifted into their shelters. Stock that was outside drifted with the storm until it came to a fence or ravine where it was smothered by snow drifts.  Thousands of head of livestock were lost in central Nebraska, the largest relative amount of any blizzard. Most of the newly planted trees died from the storm causing settlers to purchase new seedlings and replant.

Wildlife was also greatly affected. After the storm the bodies of dead deer, antelope, and other animals were scattered over the prairie. Dead birds were found everywhere. Live prairie chickens were seldom seen in Adams County after this blizzard.

It is not known how many settlers or prospective settlers left Adams County after the blizzard never to return, but there are accounts of newcomers returning back east after the storm. Central Nebraska has had many severe winter storms, but none left so strong an impression on those who endured them as the Easter Blizzard of 1873. In the vocabulary of the pioneers, this storm was referred to as the "Great Storm."

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