Skip to Content

Monthly History Article

  • February 2017-The Long Winter of 1880-1881

    February 2017-The Long Winter of 1880-1881

    The Long Winter of 1880-1881

    The first storm blew in in mid October.

    “A terrible snow storm, probably the worst that Southern Dakota ever witnessed, passed over this region of country, commencing on last Friday with thunder and lightning, and continuing until Saturday at midnight,” read an article in the Oct. 21, 1880, Canton Advocate. “It caused a general suspension of business, blowing down telegraph wires, blockading railroads, the snow drifting to the depth of from fifteen to twenty five feet in cuts along the line of roads.”

    This storm would have been among the first of many blizzards that hit Dakota Territory in the winter of 1880-81.

    In De Smet, Dakota Territory, Charles Ingalls was trying to keep the nine people in his house from starving. The nine people consisted of himself; his wife Caroline; his daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace; and George and Maggie Masters and their infant son who were staying with the Ingalls.

    Supplies in town were short even before a blizzard in January buried the railroad tracks and suspended the running of trains west from Tracy, Minn., according to Laura Ingalls Wilder in “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography.” “Pioneer Girl” was published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press in 2014.

    “There was no meat to be had, no butter, the potatoes were nearly gone. The only fruit there had been in town was dried fruit and that was long gone from the stores. We had a little yet and a little bit of sugar. Coffee was gone and tea,” Wilder wrote in “Pioneer Girl.” Wilder wrote “Pioneer Girl” in the late 1920s as a historical recounting of the pioneer era and the Ingalls family’s journey through it. Unable to find a publisher for the manuscript, Wilder rewrote her story for children. The resulting “Little House in the Big Woods” was successful, and more Little House books followed. “The Long Winter” is Wilder’s fictional account of the winter of 1880-81.

    The Ingalls twisted slough hay into sticks and burned that after their coal was gone.

    When flour was gone, the Ingalls ground seed wheat in a hand coffee mill and used the flour to make bread. Grinding enough wheat to make flour was slow work, and whoever was not twisting hay for fuel was grinding wheat for bread.

    With supplies of wheat in town running low, Laura’s future husband Almanzo Wilder and his friend Cap Garland volunteered to travel 12 miles south of De Smet to purchase wheat from a farmer who had raised some the year before. It was a dangerous trip, but necessary if people in town were going to live until spring, Wilder wrote in “Pioneer Girl.” The trip was dangerous because it had to be made in one day between snow storms, and because it could be slow going. Wilder and Garland each took one horse and a sled for hauling the hay. Horses could break through the hard crust on the snow into a pit of soft snow. Snow would have to be shoveled out in front of the horse, steps cut in the hard snow bank and the horse helped out. The sled would be drawn around the hole. Wilder and Garland arrived back in De Smet with 60 bushels of wheat in tow, just before another blizzard hit.

    The trains came in May, and with them food and supplies. “The Long Winter” ends with the Ingalls family enjoying a belated Christmas dinner with friends, singing to Pa’s fiddle playing.

    “The Long Winter” concludes: “And as they sang, the fear and the suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.”

    If there is a lesson to be learned from “The Long Winter,” it is that life can be tough, but good times will come again.

    Wilder turned 14 on Feb, 7, 1881. The 150th anniversary of her birth will be celebrated at a program at 7 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Feb. 7, originating at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre and broadcast to the De Smet Middle School using the state’s Digital Dakota Network. People in other communities who want to join in the program through this video conferencing network may call (605) 773-6006 for more information.

    This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at www.sdhsf.org. Contact us at info@sdhsf.org to submit a story idea.