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The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

The Children’s Blizzard

The Children’s Blizzard

More than 120 years ago this week, an unexpected blizzard swept across the prairies and claimed 235 lives, most of them children.

On January 12, 1888, the so-called “Children’s Blizzard,” also known as the “Schoolhouse Blizzard,” blew down from Canada and into areas that are now South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Temperatures dropped from above freezing in many areas to well below zero in a matter of a few hours. At the same time, more than six inches of powdery snow, accompanied by severe winds, blew in, creating whiteout conditions through much of the region.

The storm was especially deadly because it came on without warning during the day, when adults were at work and children were at school. In addition, the morning had started out relatively warm, and many people left the house without adequate clothing for the sub-zero chill they would soon be forced to endure. Thousands of people, many of them schoolchildren, were caught in the blizzard and had difficulty finding their way home in the blinding snow.

Wise teachers kept children in their classrooms until the storm ended, while many others allowed their young charges to try to find their way home, resulting in disaster. One teacher, Minnie Freeman of Mira Valley, Nebraska, became a folk-hero of the age when she safely led 13 students from their schoolhouse to her own home, half a mile away.

Another teacher, Lois Royce of Plainview, Nebraska, wasn’t so lucky. She attempted to lead three of her students to her home, just a few hundred feet from the schoolhouse, and became hopelessly disoriented in the storm. The three children all died, and Royce lost both of her feet to frostbite.

Before the year ended, the storm itself would be dwarfed by the “Great Blizzard of 1888,” which enveloped the East Coast just a few months later, but the impacts of the Children’s Blizzard were just as intense for those who’d experienced it.

12 comments

1 heavy hedonist { 01.13.12 at 3:28 pm }

Very sad story, and a potent reminder– that being prepared for more than what we happening at the moment can save lives.

2 Jaime McLeod { 01.12.12 at 9:06 am }

Hi Mary,
Yes, that’s why I said “more than 120 years ago.” These stories stay on our site for years and years, so I try not to get too specific about timing.

3 Mary { 01.11.12 at 4:56 pm }

According to my calculations, the anniversary of this storm would be 124, not 120.

4 Jaime McLeod { 01.11.12 at 4:35 pm }

Hi charlie123,
I will echo what many others here have said. It wasn’t necessarily the severity of the storm alone that killed the children. Rather, it was the fact that the storm caught everyone off guard, coupled with people not taking the storm seriously enough and staying put until it was safe to venture out. We do have storms this bad, and worse, today, but luckily advanced meteorology allows us to be better prepared for them.

5 Kim { 01.11.12 at 2:41 pm }

his book is in part about my ancestors. This blizzard is the reason my branch of the family decided to head out west and eventually ended up outside of Ritzville at Schrag, WA (named after my great great grandfather).

6 tony mancinelli { 01.11.12 at 1:58 pm }

all i can said, it so sad. i hope it will not happen again.

7 marla { 01.11.12 at 1:24 pm }

I just grabbed an old “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder off my son’s bookshelf the other night and re-read one of my favorite childhood books. In that book, there are 7 months of blizzards. This story takes me back to the THAT story. Hard to realize how hard times were for the pioneers of our country!

8 Chad { 01.11.12 at 12:09 pm }

@charlie13. This type of storm is not uncommon today. The difference today is that we have the technology and knowledge to see it usually coming far enough ahead of time to prepare for it. They didn’t have that back then. Also the teachers that let the kids go during the storm were the ones that did the most damage. Those that kept the students at the school during the storm saved the most lives.

9 Bill Bauer { 01.11.12 at 11:33 am }

This happened to me in Western Nebraska in December 1949. It took my Dad 6 hours to drive 40 miles in the storm. We made it to a small town about 20 miles from home. It took another 3 days to clear the roads before we made it home. The storm killed a lot of lifestock, pheasant and wild animals. The government made food air drops to stranded cattle and deer for months. Very devasting storm.

10 richard smith { 01.11.12 at 10:41 am }

Hi farmers almanac.,i 2 have read this story, I reed every story, HOW SAD. Thank you for what you do.I have always beleaved in u. So did my pepole before me.Ican’t ttype very good, so forgive me.PS-PLEESE DON’t stop. Thank you agine. I want to say more, but i dont know how.

11 Pat { 01.11.12 at 10:22 am }

Charlie123,
Storms like this could happen at anytime. We are now better prepared for this at the schools and notifications from news media, Emergency management, and the weather services. Children are safer now than back then.

12 charlie123 { 01.11.12 at 10:06 am }

Hello farmers almanac , i have read the story about the Childrens Blizzard. i am quite
concerned that children died in this storm , because i have children too. could this type of storm happen again anytime soon. thanks charlie

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