This is an excerpt of an article written by Jon Musgrave and was printed in the
January 28, 1968 issue of The Illinois Intelligencer as part of Illinois' Sesquicentennial Celebration.
The Winter of Deep Snow blanketed southern Illinois and perhaps the entire state to a depth of three feet on the level, drifts of four to six feet. Storms with high winds continued for 60 days; many families were snowbound in their homes and travelers remained wherever they happened to be when the heavy snow started.
The Winter of the Deep Snow became a dating point in pioneer legendry. Residence in the Illinois country before that date was qualification for members in Old Settlers associations and special designation as a "Snow Bird." One pioneer wrote: "I have my Snow Bird badge which was given me at the Old Settlers' meeting at Sugar Grove. I prize it very highly and would not trade it for a hundred wild turkeys running at large in Oregon."
Among those who qualify was Abraham Lincoln. He came from Indiana with his family in 1830 and tells of spending the "celebrated 'deep snow' of Illinois" at a spot 10 miles southeast of Decatur in Macon County.
One of the most detailed accounts was written by Dr. Julian M. Sturtevant, who had come from New England in 1829 to Jacksonville to help in the beginnings of Illinois College, of which he was afterwards president for 20 years. A cold rain started December 20, 1830 occasionally changing to sleet or snow until the day before Christmas, when large soft flakes fell to a depth of six inches. This was followed by a furious gale and a driving snow that piled up to three feet. Then came a rain that froze as it fell, forming a crust, "Nearly, but not quite, strong enough to bear a man" and over this a few inches of light snow. John Buckles described this icy crust in Logan County as "Strong enough to bear the weight of team and sled."
"The clouds passed away and the wind came down from the northwest with extraordinary ferocity," says Sturtevant. "For weeks, certainly for not less that two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher that 12 degrees below zero. The wind was a steady, fierce gale from the northwest, day and night. The fair was filled with flying snow, which blinded the eyes and almost stopped the breath of anyone who attempted to face it. No man could, for any considerable length of time, make his way on foot against it."
The wind drove snow through chinks in Sturtevant's log cabin, filling it so that he had to move out and take refuge in a partly built college building. Dates were impressed on his mind because of worry of Dr. Edward Beecher, president of the college who had gone to Vandalia seeking its charter from the legislature, and was expected back during the Christmas holidays. Beecher was stormbound at the Tillson home in Hillsboro. There he met Charles Holmes, who had a powerful horse. They improvised a sleigh, and during a mid-January lull in the storm, plowed through the 40-mile prairie to Jacksonville. It was the only such journey recorded that winter. Buckles, returning from a hunt with a friend, had a wagonload of game drawn by oxen. Within two miles of home they had to cut loose the wagon, and reached safety by clinging to the tails of the oxen.
There is also a story of "Cold Friday," when a man, his wife, and six children froze to death, huddled about their half-burned wagon on the Prairie. The story of this "winter's horror" was widely printed, but names, place and time are missing. The Illinois Intelligencer of February 26, 1831, reported that "several travelers have perished nearby," but again no names or details. However, John Carroll Power's History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County records that William Saxton of Lick Creek, near Loami, and Samuel Legg of Sugar Creek were lost in the snow and later were found frozen to death.
Many settlers had depended on going into nearby woods for firewood. Corn and wheat, food for man and beast, had been left stacked in the fields. At first the tract behind a team of any number of teams, would fill in a few minutes. Says Sturdevant, "The only way in which snow paths were made was by going as nearly as we could in the same place until the snow was finally trodden hard and rounded up like a turn pike." The sharp hoofs of deer cut through the crust, and they were easily caught by hunters - and by wolves that could glide across the snow. Herds of buffalo also floundered in the deep snow and starved. It has been said that the Winter of the Deep Snow took the last of the buffalo from east of the Mississippi River.
There are some records to back up tradition. At Fort Armstrong, Rock Island, four inches of snow was recorded December 10, and from December 15 to February 25 there was no day without freezing temperature. Fort Snelling at Minneapolis recorded 28 degree below zero December 21. William Clark kept records at St. Louis, and Dr. Samuel P. Heldreth kept records at Marietta, Ohio, from 1804 to 1859 for the United States Government Survey. All are in agreement that the snow and cold were widespread over the period of time recalled by the pioneers.
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