I read this because of the Laura Ingalls Wilder link: I re-read The Long Winter every year, just before Christmas. It’s a look at the primary sources from the time – such meteorological records as exist, newspaper articles from the local press which played a crucial part in the settler communities, railway records, diaries of railway workers, etc – and a comparison between that and what Laura wrote. I think the accepted wisdom is that, yes, it was a very hard winter, but that Laura slightly exaggerated the number and frequency of the blizzards and also the distance which Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland had to travel on their brave journey to get food for the community of De Smet.
As a historian, I do like to know how historically accurate books are, even if it means accepting that not everything in my beloved Little House books is spot on. However, much of this book was about fuel shortages, reasons for trains being cancelled and the technicalities of clearing the blockades (rather confusing for British readers, the word “blockade” is used for a blockage due to heavy snow), which are not exactly the most engaging of topics. Even when these things happen today (which unfortunately is rather often, especially as regards railway cancellations), the papers tend focus on human interest stories about how John Smith nearly missed his brother’s wedding or Mary Jones was late for a hospital appointment.
The dry facts didn’t always make for riveting reading – whereas Laura’s accounts of how she and Carrie nearly got lost coming home from school in a blizzard, Pa’s hands were so cold that he couldn’t play the fiddle, and usually serene Ma launched into a tirade against the railway companies *do*.
Having said all that, this book certainly gave a broader picture of events than Laura did. The railway companies didn’t just abandon the settlers. They did their best to clear the lines and get trains through, but it was all but impossible in such difficult conditions.
As we saw with you-know-what in 2020, when there’s a situation beyond human control, different groups of people busily blame each other, and animosity can arise between different regions. The Ingalls family were typical of Western settlers in blaming the superintendents of the railway companies, who were seen as living the high life whilst other people were struggling to put food on the table. In reality, the railway companies had teams of staff and volunteers trying very hard to clear the lines, but it wasn’t easy to battle 50 foot drifts, or the floods they brought when they thawed; and snow blindness was also an issue. And the railway companies were losing money hand over fist whilst all this was going on.
The worst of the weather was in Minnesota, but, to the frustration of those in Dakota Territory, no efforts seem to have been made to bypass that area; but the tracks ran where they ran, and couldn’t just be moved. Meanwhile, everyone accused everyone else of not doing enough to prepare for a bad winter. And newspapers in the East claimed that the Dakota Territory wasn’t suitable for settlement, much to the fury of those who’d already settled there – but they don’t seem to have dissuaded people from going west, because migration resumed apace once the winter was over.
And there was a big underlying problem in that, even apart from the issues with the weather, settlement had expanded very quickly, and the infrastructure to cope with it hadn’t kept pace. There wasn’t enough coal and chopped wood available to fuel the trains, not helped by a series of miners’ strikes. Grain from the west had been loaded on to carriages, which were just sitting there, so there weren’t enough carriages available to transport postbags or paper needed for local newspapers. Flour mills ceased production because the fuel couldn’t be carried to them and the flour couldn’t be carried away from them. It was all just a case of too many problems overlapping.
And it’s fascinating how laissez-faire it was. The political authorities had very little involvement until the April of 1881, when the territorial government and, via the military, the central government attempted to provide supplies to communities affected by flooding. Prior to that, it seems to have all been up to the railway companies, dealers of suppliers, and settlers to cope as best they could. It was quite a contrast to the huge efforts made to provide relief to Lancashire during the Cotton Famine of the 1860s, but then we didn’t have to cope with 50 foot snowdrifts.
The book only made brief mention of Almanzo and Cap’s trip to get wheat – which was disappointing, because, although a trip made by two men to feed one town may not have been that important in the general scheme of things, it was very important in the scheme of Laura’s writings. It does make the point that there were large quantities of wheat to be had, due to the problems with transporting it east, but that no-one seems to have managed to set up a system of getting it from the wheat-producing areas to the towns.
In summary, no-one was prepared for such a harsh winter, but it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. And, as the author concluded, the effects of living through such a difficult time would have had a lasting effect on Laura, her family and the rest of the townsfolk. But they weren’t just abandoned, which seems to have been how they saw it. Mother Nature just had everyone beat. I hate to keep bringing up the subject of Covid, but sometimes nature is just too strong for us. I can’t see myself re-reading this book, but I’m glad that I’ve read it the once.