Cruel and Unusual

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



In his 1880 tome, Dakota Life in the Upper Midwest, the Minneapolis missionary Samuel W. Pond shed some light on the elemental questions raised by any historical consideration of the Minnesota winter: How the did Native Americans, without benefit of polypropylene long johns, survive the deep freeze? And, just as important, what did they think of their rugged way of life? Pond gets to the answer through a story from Cloud Man, or Maripa-wichashta, a nonhereditary chief who resided on the west shore of Lake Calhoun.

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

Cloud Man told Pond how he and a small party of fellow hunters had once traveled west in search of winter buffalo when they were suddenly overcome by "a storm so violent that they had no alternative but to lie down and wait for it to pass over." With nothing but scraps of dried buffalo meat and blankets, the hunters let themselves be covered by snow, and waited for the storm to pass. "In the meantime," Pond wrote, "Cloud Man could hold no communication with his buried companions, and knew not whether they were dead or alive." While he lay and suffered, Pond added, Cloud Man "had the leisure to reflect on the vicissitudes of a hunter's life." Just a year earlier, a Major Taliaferro at Fort Snelling had urged Cloud Man to take up farming as an alternative to the hunter-gatherer life.

When the blizzard cleared, he "extricated himself from his prison," and, one by one, located his hunting buddies. Miraculously, all had survived, although some were unable to walk. Shortly afterward, Cloud Man discovered the cruel irony of the experience. Without knowing it, he and his party of his hunters had hunkered down just a short distance from a camp where they could have taken shelter. For Cloud Man, that settled the matter. It would be best to take up the white man's ways, and so he set about trying to convince his fellow chiefs to abandon the chasing of game for the ho-hum life of farming.

His agrarian proselytizing was ill-fated. Despite Pond's estimation of the chief as a man of "superior discernment and of great prudence and foresight," Cloud Man failed to persuade his fellow chiefs. He was killed in the great Dakota uprising in 1862.

As to Pond, he himself managed to endure the privations of Minnesota's winter, relying on his grit and stoicism. On one missionary trek to Lac qui Parle, Pond traveled through storms by day, and slept at night with nothing but the clothes on his back and a buffalo skin. "We did not expect to be comfortable," he wrote. "If we could avoid freezing, it was all we hoped for."



In 1836, Martin McLeod, an adventurous 23-year-old from Montreal, set out on a journey across the Great Plains as a foot soldier in one of the strangest crackpot ventures in 19th-century American history: "General" James Dickson's scheme to recruit an army of mixed-blood soldiers from Red River Valley, lead them into battle in a war for Texas independence, and ultimately form an Indian kingdom in California. Naturally, according to the plan, Dickson would preside over the new kingdom.

Not surprisingly, his grandiosity ran smack into the harsh, unromantic reality of the northern plains winter. McLeod, who proved to be one of Dickson's less hapless recruits, provided a harrowing account of his experiences traveling with a small contingent of Dickson's men (referred to as Mr. P and Mr. H) in the vicinity of Lac qui Parle:

March 7. Last night excessively cold. Today unable to leave camp. So stormy that it is impossible to see the distance of 10 yards on the plain...such are the disadvantages encountered by the traveler in this gloomy region at this inclement season.

March 14. Last night so cold could not get a moment's sleep. Today in camp, guide unable to go on, with sore eyes.

March 17. Suddenly, about 11 o'clock, a storm from the north came that no pen can describe. I perceived [Mr. H, one of my three traveling companions] to stoop, probably to arrange the strings of his snow shoes. In an instant afterwards, an immense cloud of drifting snow hid him from view and I saw him no more.

Saturday 18. Never was light more welcome to a mortal. At dawn, I crept from my hole and soon afterward heard cries. Fired two shots; soon after guide came up; he escaped by making a fire, and being a native and a half blood, his knowledge of the country and its dangers saved him. Mr. P was found with both his legs and feet frozen. All search for Mr. H proved ineffectual.

Sunday 19. ...Left Mr. P with all our blankets and robes except a blanket each (guide and myself), also plenty of wood cut, and ice near his lodge to make water of. Out of provisions. Obliged to kill one of our dogs; dog meat excellent eating.

April 2. This morning the two men [who were sent to retrieve Mr. P] returned. Poor P is no more. They found him in his hut, dead. He had taken off the greater part of his clothes, no doubt in a delirium caused by the excruciating pain of his frozen feet. In the hut was found nearly all the wood, his food, and a kettle of partially frozen water.

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