Cruel and Unusual

You think winter in Minnesota sucks? Friend, you don't know anything about winter in Minnesota.

But the most persistent hazard of the Minnesota winter was not cold per se; it was starvation. Famine's specter haunted not just the trappers and frontiersmen who stumbled ill-equipped into this forsaken territory, but also the native inhabitants who knew it best. In the course of especially brutal winters, the Indians sometimes found themselves without adequate rations or game to pursue. Thomas G. Anderson, a trader and captain in the British Indian Service, observed the phenomenon firsthand while traipsing around western Minnesota at the start of the 19th century.

In his account of the experience, Personal Narrative of Captain Thomas G. Anderson: 1801-1810, Anderson told of one winter in which he holed up near the headwaters of the Minnesota River in the company of a band of Dakota Indians led by a Chief Red Thunder. The weather was especially harsh, and the Indians "were soon reduced to subsist on the old buffalo hides they used to sleep on." Ultimately, Anderson, who shared his stores of corn with Red Thunder, was himself scrounging for animal carcasses to eat.

One day one of [Red Thunder's] men found the head of an old buffalo, which some of his race had lost last summer, and with difficulty brought it home. We all rejoiced in our straitened circumstances at this piece of good luck. The big tin kettle was soon filled and boiling, with a view of softening it [the buffalo head] and scraping off the hair.
Photo by Elmer and Tenney of a snow blockade in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881
Photo by Elmer and Tenney of a snow blockade in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881

But boiling water and ashes would not stir a hair. We dried it in the hopes that we might burn the hair off; but in vain. We felt sadly disappointed, as we were on short rations, our corn supply drawing near an end...[After finding another dead buffalo--"dead but not quite stiff"] we managed to take his tongue and heart to our camp, which was in some old trader's wintering house. A groundhog was ready for supper.

[The next morning, after Anderson awoke for breakfast, the cook asked,] "Which will you have, Sir, tongue or heart?" This directed my eyes to the kettle, boiling over with a black bloody froth, with a sickening putrid smell. I bolted out of the house, leaving the men to smack their lips on heart and tongue, while I took the remnant of the groundhog to the open air.



The official keeping of weather records in Minnesota began in October 1819. Just a few months earlier, 118 soldiers from the U.S. Army's Fifth Infantry had traveled up the Mississippi River to Pike Island, so named after a Lieutenant Zebulon Pike "purchased" it from the resident Dakota 14 years earlier. Now, after a long delay, the soldiers had at last arrived with plans to build the first permanent military outpost in the Minnesota Territory, Fort Snelling.

From the outset, it was as though the weather gods had fired a warning blast across the prow of the invading hordes. The message: This place is not fit for human habitation. While November and December temperatures were typical, weather historians say, by January it turned "abnormally cold." That month, average temperatures hovered around zero degrees. By the end of winter, about 40 soldiers had perished, mainly from scurvy.

As it turned out, the 1820s proved to be among one of the nastiest decades for weather in Minnesota history. December 1822 remains the coldest December on record. Between February and March of 1826, there were two and three feet of snow on the western prairie. The bad weather hit the Sioux Indians particularly hard. E.D. Neill--the Presbyterian clergyman, founder of Macalester College, and author of the first history of Minnesota--provided an account of some of the most vivid horrors in his narrative, Occurrences In and Around Fort Snelling: 1819-1840.

Especially harsh, wrote Neill, was the winter of 1829. "At the time the buffaloes had gone far west, and so the Sioux pursued them to the west. Many of the Indians perished in a severe winter of starvation." In another passage laced with stark detail, Neill relates the experiences of one party of Sioux who found themselves stranded in a sudden blizzard:

The storm continued for three days, and provisions grew scarcer, for the party was 70 in number. At last, the stronger men, with a few pairs of snow shoes in their possession, started for a trading post 100 miles distant. They reached their destination half-alive, and the traders, sympathizing, sent for Canadians with supplies for those left behind. After great toil they reached the scene of distress and found many dead; and what was more horrible, the living feeding on the corpses of their relatives. A mother had eaten her own dead child, and a portion of her own father's arms. The shock to her nervous system was so great that she lost her reason. Her name was Tash-u-no-ta, and she was both young and good looking.

One day in September 1829, while at Fort Snelling, she asked Captain Jouett if he knew which was the best portion of a man to eat.... He replied with great astonishment, "No," and she then said, "The arms." She asked for a piece of his servant to eat, as she was nice and fat. A few days after this, she dashed herself from the bluffs near Fort Snelling into the river. Her body was found just above the mouth of the Minnesota, and decently interred by the agent.

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