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2/1/2014 4:20:00 PM
Year of the Deep Snow set standard for winter in Illinois
by Tom Emery
Breeze-Courier Guest Writer

CARLINVILLE — With record-setting cold and heavy snow, the winter of 2013-14 has been one of the worst in recent memory. Still, it’s nothing compared to the Year of the Deep Snow.

That fateful winter, also called the “Big Snow,” in 1830-31 was so severe that it became a defining moment in the early history of Illinois. Over 180 years later, it remains a standard by which other winters are judged in the state.

“The pioneers who lived through the Deep Snow never forgot the experience,” said Dr. Samuel Wheeler, a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. “It was almost a badge of honor to say you lived through it.  They measured time based on that winter.”

Remarkably, the fall of 1830 was unseasonably warm, as were several previous winters.  But the winter of 1830-31 packed a wallop. On December 20, a cold rain began to fall and lasted for four days, sometimes changing to an icy mix.  On Christmas Eve, however, the conditions began to deteriorate.

Accounts of that winter vary, but most agree that the snow never stopped for as many as sixty days. Some reported only two sunny days during that stretch as snow piled over three feet deep. Coupled with high winds, blizzard-like conditions became routine.

The snow layer was topped by freezing rain that left a hearty crust on the ice. John Buckles, a Logan County settler, remembered the crust as “nearly, but not quite, strong enough to bear a man.”  

The snow beneath was so deep that men actually became trapped when the crust broke. They became easy prey for wolves, who also feasted on deer and other game that struggled in the suffocating snow.  

The trapped animals, though, became easy marks for hunters, who desperately scrambled for sustenance. But thousands of deer, wild hogs, and other game were lost in the horrid conditions.  Enormous numbers of cattle and other stock were lost, along with herds of buffalo.

The massive loss of game was a serious threat to the settlers’ sources of food. Some farmers tried to dig through the snow to search for corn that was left unharvested.

Those that managed to stay atop the crust faced dangerously cold temperatures. In Jacksonville, Julian Sturtevant, a transplanted New Englander, wrote that the “for not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher than twelve degrees below zero.”

While those like Sturtevant with northeastern backgrounds were used to harsh winters, Wheeler notes that other settlers were less prepared. “In central Illinois, a lot of settlers were from Kentucky and Tennessee,” he remarked. “They didn’t know how to deal with that kind of winter. If they had just arrived in Illinois, they may not have had an adequate stockpile of supplies.”

Weather records from Fort Armstrong in Rock Island show that only five days did not have freezing temperatures between December 14 and February 13. There were six straight days with lows below zero from Feb. 3-8. The daily weather report on January 17 reported “two feet of snow on a level.”

In drafty log cabins across the state, snow blew in through cracks, under doorways, and down chimneys. Many settlers awoke not only to find their hearths extinguished, but also a coating of white that covered their beds.

At their homestead near Decatur, the family of Abraham Lincoln was also affected by the “Deep Snow.”  Lincoln’s father Thomas had moved to Macon County from Indiana in 1830, found it not to his liking, and intended to leave. However, the winter conditions delayed their departure and dramatically reduced their food supply.

Abraham, then 21, worked as best he could that winter, remembering that he produced “a thousand rails” for a neighbor, William Warnick. Young Lincoln periodically visited the Warnick cabin, two miles away across the Sangamon River, during the “Deep Snow” to ask for spare food for his family.

On one trip, Lincoln broke through the ice on the river, soaking his feet in frigid water. Mrs. Warnick treated his frozen feet by reportedly rubbing them in a concoction of “goose grease, skunk oil, and rabbit fat.” The Lincoln family left Macon County after that season, settling near Charleston.

The winter finally broke in late February, with a high at Fort Armstrong on February 21 of 39 degrees. Poor weather continued for an extended period, as the summer of 1831 brought deluges of rain. That fall, a hard frost in mid-September that damaged the corn in the fields, reducing its value as bread or seed. The winter of 1831-32 was harsh as well, though nothing like the “Deep Snow.”

There are no definite casualty figures from that winter. However, there are multiple accounts of bodies uncovered by the spring thaw in 1831, lost in the blowing snow of months before.

Decades later, settlers still recalled the horrors of that winter. Wheeler said that in 1859, the formation of an Old Settlers Society in Sangamon County was based on the Winter of the Deep Snow.

“To join the society, you had to have been present for the Deep Snow,” he said. “Even that many years later, they were still affected by it. It was a shared experience, and they never forgot it.”


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