Cruel and Unusual

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

14 April. Embarked at sun rise in a canoe with Indians and squaws who are going to...Fort Snelling. Have for company 10 Indians and squaws in three canoes. These people have in one of their canoes the bodies of two of their deceased relatives which they intend to carry to a lake near the Mississippi more than 100 miles away.

1837 entry: I am the most unfortunate of human beings.

Unlike General Dickson, who vanished from history not long afterward, McLeod went on to lead a life of distinction. He became a prominent leader in Minnesota's territorial legislature. He had a county named after him. Still, he died an alcoholic wreck. Today he probably would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder--a classification that likely would have applied to almost anyone who survived those hellish winters on the frontier.

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



If you page through 19th-century Minnesota newspapers, you will routinely encounter tales of blizzard survival--and, of course, tales of death. They are curious in tone, sometimes full of awe, sometimes utterly stoic and matter-of-fact. Take Kate E. Sperry's recollection of an 1865 blizzard in Martin County, originally published in the Fremont Sentinel. "All the old settlers will remember this one, as it was the one the Presslers were caught in, coming home from school. One of the boys had both legs and arms taken off by Dr. Winch, the famous Blue Earth Surgeon."

Or consider Lt. Charles Stewart Peterson's straightforward recounting of the grim toll exacted by "the Historic Minnesota Blizzard of January 7 and 8, 1873." The blizzard, which the St. Paul Dispatch described as "unparalleled in our recent history," took many people by surprise, as it was immediately proceeded by unusually pleasant January weather. Peterson's characterizations of how people perished in the tempest are presented in staccato manner. Mostly, they consist of single sentences, devoid of any overt sentimentality or emotional comment. Taken together, though, they convey the horror of the storm with a brutal, if artless, efficiency:

A person named Wolverton froze to death in Mankato. Eight persons froze to death between Madelia and St. James. At St. James a man and a boy were victims. At Madelia, a woman went in search of her husband and both succumbed to the cold. At New Ulm, a man sought a doctor for his wife and newborn baby boy and all three froze to death. Seventeen coffins were used at New Ulm to bury those frozen dead. Thirteen were frozen to death at Lake Hensky six miles from Lake Crystal. Six school children froze to death between Fort Ridgely and Beaver Falls. Thomas Johnson, a farmer, froze to death near Evansville in northern Minnesota. A man froze to death near Stony Brook ten miles from Pomme de Terre....

In Otter Tail County, five persons near St. Olaf froze to death, mostly Norwegian farmers. Four miles west of Granger in Fillmore County, Reverend Evans was returning home with his wife and two children and came within three fourths of a mile of his home and was stranded in the snow. He carried one child home and returned for another and left with it. They were both lost, and the child at home and the mother left in the sleigh were both frozen to death.

One of the more compelling newspaper stories from 1866 concerned a Captain Fields, who was the commander of a cavalry detachment. In late February, Fields set out from the Coteau Prairie--a bedrock formation that straddles South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota--destined for Sauk Centre. On the Coteau, Fields and his men encountered another company of soldiers, who were led by a Lieutenant Stevens and bound for Fort Wadswoth. Shortly after the two groups split, a severe storm set in. Stevens followed Fields's tracks for a spell, before conditions became so brutal he was forced to set up camp. That night, Stevens reported, fives mules perished in the cold and twelve of his men were "so badly frozen as to be unable to stand or walk."

After the storm cleared, soldiers located three of the horses from Fields's company. The bodies of the men, however, wouldn't be found for nearly three months, and their fate became a source of running concern in the Minnesota newspapers. As described in the May 10, 1866 issue of the St. Cloud Democrat, it didn't take long for the recovery crew--which included Fields's father--to piece together the doomed detachment's final episode of suffering:

"Within sight of timber where they knew was shelter, and possibly friends, they fell exhausted, frozen, into the cold embrace of death," the newspaper reported. "They were somewhat consumed by wild animals. Mr. Fields identified his son by his clothing, and it was heart rending to witness the anguish of the bereaved parent."


Thanks to Alan R. Woolworth and the Minnesota Historical Society for assistance in researching this story.

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