The Deep Snow

Winter of 1830-31 has legends that Chicago's records fail to shake

The pioneers stopped cold

Travelers snowbound for months as drifts piled up to four and six feet

When 23 inches of snow fell on Chicago in less than a day and a half in the late winter of 1967 it not only paralyzed the economic life of a great city, but also stopped grandpa cold in his tracts in his boats about the horrible winters he endured as a boy. Weather Bureau records showed definitely that there had been no such snow for more than 80 years.

There had been nothing like it since the Winter of the Deep Snow. That was in 1830-1831, before there was a Weather Bureau, so we can speak freely. In tradition and reminicence, the snow was the deepest, the coldl the most intense, and lasted the longest, since the retreat of the last glacier - with the possible exception of the bitter winter of 1777-1778 that tested the endurance of General Washington's soldiers at Valley Forge. In 1831, there were still Revoluntionary War veterans around who could remember Valley Forge.

Before making comparison, some of the records shattered in 1867, might be rounded up. The Great Snowstorm started at 5:02 a.m. January 26, 1967. It ended at 3:05 p.m. January 26, at 23 inches. The previous record for one snowfall was 19 inces March 25-26, 1930. Since 1886 in Chicago, 15 inches had been exceeded only three times. The depth for the first 24 hours was 19.8 inches. The previous 24 hour record was 14.9 inches Janaury 30, 1939. By Februrary 6, a depth of 28 inches was reached. This brought the 1966-67 total to 59.6 inches, close to the all-time record of 66.4 inches in 1951-52.

The Great Snowstorm was not a "blizzard," according to some purists, because it was not accompanied by zero temperatures. It was not a part of a consistently cold winter. The month's low of 10 degrees below zero January 18 was eight days before the Great Snowstorm, but the month's high of 65 degrees Janaury 24 - a record for that date - was only two days before the downfall. By Feburary 15, that month's high of 47 degrees was reached. Thawing was slow, however - 22 degrees was Feburary's average temperature - but Chicago had no appreciabele new snow to move. Snow shoveled up into heaps hardened into ice, and was still around in March, but much had been bulldozed and trucked away, and some of it was shipped in freight cars to Florida and Texas. Illinois pioneers would have liked that idea.

The Winter of Deep Snow blanketed southern Illinois and perhaps the entire state to a depth of three feet on the level, drifts of four to six feet. Storms with high winds continued for 60 days; many families were snowbound in their homes and travelers remained wherever they happened to be when the havey snow started.

The Winter of the Deep Snow became a dating point in pioneer legendry. Residence in the Illinois country before that date was qualifiactaion for members in Old Settlers associations and special designation as a "Snow Bird." One pioneer wrote: "I have my Snow Bird badge which was given me at the Old Settlers' meeting at Sugar Grove. I prize it very highly and would not trade it for a hundred wild turkeys runing at large in Oregon."

Among those who quality was Abraham Lincoln. He came from Indiana with his family in 1830 and tells of spending the "celebrated 'deep snow' of Illinois" at a spot 10 miles southeast of Decatur in Macon Conty.

One of the most detailed accounts was written by Dr. Julian M. Sturtevant, who had come from New England in 1829 to Jacksonville to help in the beginnings of Illinois College, of which he was afterwards president for 20 years. A cold rain started December 20, 1830 occasionally changing to sleet or snow until the day before Christmas, when large soft flakes fell to a depth of six inches. This was followed by a furious gale and a driving snow that piled up to three feet. Then came a rain that froze as it fell, forming a crust, "Nearly, but not quite, strong enough to bear a man" and over this a few inches of light snow. John Buckles described this icy crust in Logan County as "Strong enough to bear the weight of team and sled."

"The clouds passed away and the wind came down from the northwest with extraordinary ferocity," says Sturtevant. "For weeks, certainly foor not less that two weeks, the mercury in the thermonmeter tube was not, on any one morning, higher thatn 12 degrees below zeor. The wind was a steady, fierce gale from the northwest, day and night. The fair was filled with flying snow, which blinded the eyes and almost stopped the breatyh of anyone who attempted to face it. No man could, for any considerable length of time, make his way on foot against it."

The wind drove snow through chinks in Sturtevant's log cabin, filling it so that he had to move out and take refuge in a partly built college building. Dates were impressed on his mind because of worry of Dr. Edward Beecher, president of the college who had gone to Vandalia seeking its charter from the legislature, and was expected back during the Christmas holidays. Beecher was stormbound at the Tillson home in Hillsbuoro. There he met Charles Holmes, who had a powerful horse. They improvised a sleigh, and during a mid-January lull in the storm, plowed through the 40 mile prairie to Jacksonville. it was the only such journey recorded that winter. Buckles, returning from a hunt with a friend, had a wagon load of game drawn by oxen. Within two miles of home they had to cut loose the wagon, and reached safety by clinging to the tails of the oxen.

There is also a story of "Cold Friday," when a man, his wife, and six children froze to death, huddled about their half-burned wagon on the Prairie. The story of this "winter's horror" was widely printed, but names, place and time are missing. The Illinois Intelligencer of February 26, 1831, reported that "several travelers have perished nearby," but again no names or details. However, John Carroll Power's History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County records that William Saxton of Lick Creek, near Loami, and Samiel Legg of Sugar Creek were lost in the snow and later were found frozen to death.

Many settlers had depended on going into nearby woods for firewood. Corn and wheat, food for man and beast, had been left stacked in the fields. At first the tract behind a team of any number of teams, would fill in a few minutes. Says Sturdevant, "The only way in which snow paths were made was by going as nearly as we could in the same place until the snow was finally trodden hard and rounded up like a turn pike." The sharp hoofs of deer cut through the crust, and they were easliy caught by hunters - and by wolves who could glide across the snow. Herds of buffalo also floundered in the deep snow and starved. It has been said that the Winter of the Deep Snow took the last of the buffalo from east of the Mississippi River.

There are some records to back up tradition. At Fort Armstrong, Rock Island, four inches of snow was recorded December 10, and from December 15 to February 25 there was no day without freezing temperature. Fort Snelling at Minneaspolis recorded 28 degree below zero December 21. William Clark kept records at St. Louis, and Dr. Samuel P. Heldreth kept records at Marietta, Ohio, from 1804 to 1859 for the United States Government Survey. All are in agreement that the snow and cold were widespread over the priod of time recalled by the pioneers.

The preceeding article was printed in the January 28, 1968 issue of The Illinois Intelligencer as part of Illinois' Sesquicentennial Celebration.

Back to the Southern Illinois History Page
Created July 13, 1996 by Jon Musgrave