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A Somber Winter Read

Dec 27, 2012

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin revisits the deadly blizzard of January 12, 1888, in which more than 200 people lost their lives.


There are few more comforting things than a hot cup of coffee and a good book to read while waiting out a South Dakota snow storm. Those are luxuries the characters in David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard didn't have. They were simply trying to make it through the day alive.

I recently noticed a copy of The Children's Blizzard on our shelves, and was ashamed to admit that I had never read it. Most Dakotans have at least heard of The Children's Blizzard, which hit on Jan. 12, 1888, and know that ranks among our worst natural disasters. More than 200 people died, most of them children walking home from school in southeastern Dakota. So I thought that in advance of the 125th anniversary of the devastating storm that I should read the book, and I highly recommend that if you live here, or grew up here, or have any ties to South Dakota whatsoever, that you read it too. 

I've often seen book reviewers claim that a work of nonfiction "reads like a novel." Then I read the book and wonder if the reviewer and I read the same thing. But Laskin's book honestly fits that description. You can almost feel the harsh wind and subzero temperatures numbing your fingers as he describes the plight of the children caught in nature's ferocity. You find yourself hoping that the children walking blindly through the snow are discovered alive, but in most cases you're left feeling hollow when rescuers find the frozen bodies strewn across the Plains days later.

The day dawned mild for January in Dakota. Some parents took advantage of the unseasonable weather and kept children home from school to help with farm chores. Those who attended that day walked to school wearing light clothing. Laskin traces the cold front as it raced down from Canada, across Montana, Dakota, and Nebraska. Eventually it affected people as far south as Galveston, Texas. The story was the same in every school house: lessons came to an abrupt halt when teachers and students heard the first gust of wind slam into the northwest wall of their tiny schoolhouses. There are stories of teachers who kept students inside. They kept warm by burning everything they could find. They told stories and held recitations throughout the night. But Laskin's stories are mostly about the teachers and students who chose to brave the elements, thinking they could walk a mile or less to the nearest farmhouse or barn.

They nearly all end in tragedy. One exception is the story of 8-year-old Walter Allen, who attended school in Groton. When the storm struck, fathers drove teams of horses pulling sleighs to the schoolhouse just west of town. Students piled on and they headed into the blizzard. But then Walter remembered his prized possession: a tiny glass perfume bottle of water that he kept in his desk for cleaning his slate. Walter knew it would freeze and crack if left in his desk, so he jumped off and headed into the school to retrieve it. When he emerged the sleighs had disappeared. The boy tried walking back into town but soon became disoriented. Only a heroic rescue mission by his father and older brother saved his life.

Also fascinating is the description of meteorology in 1888. Members of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps were responsible for taking daily observations and filing "indications" reports, which were fairly crude forecasts transmitted via telegraph. They had a pretty good idea of how weather behaved, but a combination of errors and laziness on the parts of certain observers resulted in citizens hearing the first warnings of the pending storm just minutes before it struck.

Good writing makes you feel something, and Laskin's work does just that. Back in September we sought help from Watertown bibliophile Donus Roberts in publishing a list of books every South Dakotan should read. Laskin's The Children's Blizzard didn't make Roberts' final cut, but I'd happily add it to the list.



11:40 am - Thu, December 27 2012
Heidi said:
My local book club read this book last summer. We discussed it outside on a patio while drinking cool drinks. I honestly wouldn't suggest reading it during a cold, snowy day, because it is much too sad. But, John is right, it is an amazing book and a very important part of our Midwest history.
01:41 pm - Thu, December 27 2012
Bernie said:
Reading it, oddly, is somewhat like reading accounts of the Newtown shootings, I guess because of the young victims and the horrors they witnessed at the end of life. You just don't want children to have to experience such pain.
02:55 pm - Thu, December 27 2012
Laura said:
I gave this to my brother one year for Christmas, but it was too depressing for him to finish. It makes one grateful for the abundance of weather info out there today.
06:00 pm - Thu, December 27 2012
Ann said:
I read this last summer. I just kept thinking about the fact that my great grandparents' older siblings could've been some of the casualties, but weren't, thank goodness! It seems like so long ago, but in reality it is not! I'm so glad that technology has come as far as it has. Such a tragedy....
08:50 pm - Thu, December 27 2012
Erin said:
Who knew that predicting the weather could be so political? The story is a haunting reminder of the harsh conditions that our ancestors endured to try to tame the plains.
02:39 pm - Tue, April 2 2013
Kay Turner said:
This was a wrenching account of an unthinkable event. Our ancestors dealt with
unbelievable hardship. We should all be terribly proud of our strong heritage.
01:13 am - Sun, December 8 2013
I bought this book several years ago, & have read it at least three times. It is devastating, and interesting, & hard to put down. Heartbreaking in its cruelty. But rivals any best-seller on the shelves today.
12:19 am - Sat, December 23 2017
Scott Kampen said:
In the winter of 1887/1888, my great, great, grandparents Wilhelm and Kate Kampen (Swalve) were living in a small sod cabin in Marion Junction, South Territory. Kate was pregnant with their first child. During the winter months their supplies started running low and they were burning twisted hay just to stay warm. On January 7, 1888 Wilhelm decided to head to the town of Parker some 23 miles away to buy coal and other supplies. He took his two horses with him and headed out. The round trip was going to take him a few days. Unbeknownst to Wilhelm the next day Kate gave birth to a baby boy, my great grandfather Henry Royal Kampen.

While Wilhelm was in town the blizzard of 1888 hit on January 12 and many of the towns folks begged Wilhelm to stay until the storm had passed. He knew he couldn't stay and needed to get home to Kate. Little did he realize she had given birth to their son by herself in their sod home. Meanwhile back home Kate kept her and the baby warm by staying in bed because she had run out of things to burn in their stove. It was bitterly cold.

As Wilhelm headed back home the wind howled fiercely. He stayed with his horses, but they both of suffocation and froze in the storm. The wind and snow were that severe. Wilhelm was able to find some shelter in an old barn that had pigs in it. He crawled in with the pigs to try to keep warm. He was out on the prairie for three days and nights.

Wilhelm was able to make it back home to find Kate and his newborn son cold, but still alive cuddled up in bed. Wilhelm made a fire with the coal he carried back home from town.

This information was passed down from family letters written about the event.

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