An interview with David Laskin
What exactly was the children's blizzard and why is it still remembered
The event known as the school children's blizzard was a powerful winter
storm that swept down on the Upper Midwest on January 12, 1888. Even settlers
who had lived in the region for years insisted that they had never seen a
storm come down so quickly (many compared it to an explosion or a wall of
ice), drop temperatures so rapidly, and reduce visibility so dramatically. The
storm hit today's South Dakota (still part of the undivided Dakota Territory
at the time) and Nebraska in the middle of a school day (between 11 AM and 2
PM depending on location) -- and many frightened teachers dismissed their
one-room country schools. Hundreds of children become lost on the prairie on
their way home, hence the name the school children's blizzard.
How did you find the stories of individual families? Are there still
descendants of storm victims living in the region?
Families still talk about the 1888 blizzard to this day, and all who had
ancestors living in the region have family stories. Through local archives,
old newspapers, country cemeteries, ads in local papers, and plain old
networking I was able to get in touch with scores of descendents of storm
victims -- the great niece of two girls who froze in central Nebraska, the
grandson of a young man who narrowly escaped death that day, and in one case
the daughter of a distinguished South Dakotan who was an eight year old school
boy on the day of the storm. This man's daughter, now in her eighties, had a
batch of memoirs written by her father -- one of which described his narrow
escape from death that day.
Why were so many people caught out in the storm? Wasn't there a national
weather forecasting operation back then?
Back in those days, the nation's weather forecasting was the responsibility
of the US Army Signal Corps. Weather forecasting was in its infancy, and the
government had only been in the weather business then for 18 years.
Coincidentally, just four months before the storm hit, the Chief Signal
Officer Adolphus Greely ordered a young career officer named Thomas Woodruff
to open up an experimental forecast office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Woodruff
was charged with the task of forecasting "cold waves" and intense
winter storms, like the January 12 blizzard. As for the story of whether or
not he got the forecast correct, and why so many people ventured out in the
storm -- you'll just have to read the book.
How were you able to recreate the actual formation and evolution of the
blizzard? Are you a professional meteorologist?
I have no background in meteorology, though I have been obsessed with
weather all my life and have written about it extensively in previous books
and articles. Luckily, I was able to assemble extensive data about the storm
-- temperature change and wind shift, the track of the low pressure system,
the timing of the cold front. I have close working relationships with some of
the top meteorologists in the nation, and several of them agreed to sit down
with me and examine the data and maps I had assembled. These experts
"walked" me through the storm, explaining how the dramatic
temperature contrast fueled a sharp pressure gradient, which in turn whipped
up vicious winds and blowing snow. These experts, many of whom work for the
National Weather Service, love weather, and I tried to capture their
What was your favorite part of writing the book?
Aside from the excitement of the actual storm itself, the best part was
getting into the backgrounds and stories of the people I wrote about. I focus
on five families from very different backgrounds -- Swiss-German Mennonites
who emigrated together in 1873, a Yankee family who moved to Dakota when the
railroads first opened the land, an extended Norwegian family who came from a
lovely village in the Telemark region, etc. By the end of the book, I really
felt that these people were members of my own family -- indeed I knew more
about their backgrounds and genealogy that about my own.
What was the hardest part of writing?
Many children died in the storm, and it was heartbreaking to describe the
final hours of children I had gotten to know and come to love. I tried to
describe exactly what happens to the human body as it freezes to death -- as
well as the processes that result in frostbite. I learned from the medical
literature and interviews with doctors that many of these children could have
been saved today -- that in fact a person can seem to be dead of hypothermia
with no brain function or detectable heartbeat but if properly rewarmed, they
can be restored to life with no brain damage. But of course given the
primitive state of medicine at the time, there was no hope.
I'm hoping to write another book drawing on the great themes of American
history, emigration, struggle with adversity -- and of course weather. Stand
David Laskin talks more about The Children's Blizzard
I first heard about the storm known as the children's blizzard when I was
writing Braving the Elements, a book about the intersection of
weather and history in America. I was working on a chapter called "Weather
in the West" -- about the droughts and tornadoes, dust storms and howling
winds that we Americans marveled at when we crossed the Mississippi and began
to settle on the great open prairie that stretches to the Rocky Mountains. For
those who live in this region, the so-called children's blizzard of January
12, 1888, was the storm, the catastrophe they never forgot or got over, the
one they wrote about in their memoirs, talked about to their grandchildren,
grieved over for the rest of their lives. It was the wide-eyed, open-mouthed
quality of the survivors' stories that grabbed my attention -- the shock that
even veteran pioneers experienced when this terrific winter storm descended
literally out of a nowhere on an unseasonably warm January day and changed
their lives forever.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them children on their way home from
one-room country school houses, were caught out on the prairie and wandered
helplessly in the hurricane force winds and blowing snow. Those who escaped
with their lives did so by sheer luck. Hundreds who failed to find shelter
died that night of hypothermia when temperatures plunged below zero and winds
blew at 60 mph.
My account of the children's blizzard took up a page or two in Braving
the Elements, but the storm and the vividness of the accounts stayed in
In 1993 I moved from New York to Seattle, taking ten days of a cool rainy
summer to drive across the country. I remember joking with friends in New York
about how when we drove through North Dakota we would roll down the windows
and blast our hip calypso tapes just to shake up the locals. Then we got to
North Dakota. For long long stretches of highway there was no one around to
shake up -- the few widely spaced houses were set back miles from the
interstate, the back roads stretched empty to the horizon. The land was not
flat and featureless as I had expected but subtly rolling and shelving in ways
impossible to describe or capture on film, textured in endless gradations of
rough tawny grass, naked and open to the sky. One of my kids needed to go to
the bathroom and we took the next exit and drove down a side road.
"Where's the bathroom?" she demanded. "How can I go -- there's
no privacy." I told her to look around. No sign of human habitation for
miles in any direction. No cars. No houses. Not even livestock.
This was the landscape where a hundred years earlier scores of children had
frozen to death. I was totally overwhelmed by the beauty and the emptiness of
the land -- and by the sense of the past, of families and communities that had
come and gone, struggles endured, promises kept and broken. Even in the towns
that survive and in some cases flourish, the prairie is a presence just beyond
main street or the railroad tracks or the strip malls. It's like the
subliminal murmur of the ocean in a beach town.
That prairie landscape haunted me. Someday I knew I had to write about this
land and the people who had tried to farm and settle it and survive its
The Children's Blizzard was born of that haunting. As the book gelled
in my mind, I realized that it had all the elements of the books I most love
to read and write: history, weather, religion, science, heartbreaking stories
of struggle against the elements, intense faith, bitter disappointment. What
made it especially compelling to me was the fact that people confronted this
storm as families: the white settlers had only been this region for five or
ten years, most of them immigrants from Europe or East Coast cities. They were
just getting established, paying off debts, replacing sod huts with their
first frame houses -- and then the blizzard came and destroyed them. On an
early research trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, I filled a notebook with scores of these family stories -- sisters who shared a single cloak as they spent the
night out in windchills of 80 below zero; a deeply religious Mennonite
community stunned by the loss of five boys; a teenage teacher from Nebraska
who endured 78 hours in a haystack. I read of wives who froze to death while
looking for husbands; a handsome young Norwegian farmer who returned home to
find his wife and toddler dead of hypothermia while their newborn daughter
miraculously survived. A father kept his son alive by huddling with him in a
snow drift but froze to death himself just minutes before a rescue party
arrived. Children watched their siblings rise from the snow after enduring a
night of frigid temperatures on the prairie, stagger a few steps in the
dazzling light of morning and drop dead.
My major challenge in writing the book was choosing which stories to tell
-- and which to leave out. Strangely, it was the internet and my cell phone
that helped me decide. Through the internet I found a way to place ads asking
for blizzard stories in every newspaper in Nebraska and South Dakota, the
states hardest hit by the storm. The responses were phenomenal, and in the
course of a series of research trips I met with descendants of storm victims
-- daughters, nieces, second cousins several times removed -- and got to know
their family history and background. As the stories grew in depth and
complexity, I came to see that the backbone of my book would be the history of
the settlement of the prairie. The blizzard itself would become the frame and
the climax of a series of detailed textured narratives about the hardships the
pioneers endured, the hopes they brought with them -- and how these hopes and
dreams came to bear on that single day of January 12, 1888.
The cell phone came in handy in tracking people down while I was on the
move. I found myself prowling through tiny country cemeteries, searching out
the graves of storm victims and the nearby graves of their descendants. Some
of the headstones bore the name of a person with the date of death left open.
That's when I reached for my phone. Literally standing by her future grave, I
placed a called to Diane Woebbecke and learned that she had married into the
family of one of the most celebrated storm victims, a little German girl
abandoned by her parents and raised by distant relatives. I'd read
contemporary newspapers accounts of Lena Woebbecke's night alone on the
freezing prairie, her terrible suffering and the eventual amputation of her
legs. But I never expected to discover that the fifth generation of the
Woebbecke family was living on that same farm, just two miles from the
schoolhouse that Lena had left on that fatal day.
By the time I finished writing the book, Lena Woebbecke, the Kaufmann
brothers, the young teacher Etta Shattuck, the small and scrappy boy Walter
Allen -- all of them victims of the blizzard -- were precious parts of my own
life. Writing the scenes of their deaths -- or miraculous rescues -- made the
awesome, unpredictable power of America's weather almost unbearably real to
me. It's that sense of naked vulnerability to the sky that I hope my readers
will experience as they turn the pages of my book.