- Sue Devick
The "Winter of the Deep Snow"
Updated: Feb 2
The extremely brutal weather in much of Illinois during the winter of 1830-31 had a significant widespread effect on many aspects of life in the state. Written accounts of the deep snow and frigid temperatures document the miserable conditions facing inhabitant of Illinois, who had experienced several consecutive mild winters. A drastic change began in the fall of 1830, however, which impacted the white settlers, Native Americans, livestock, game, and plant life.
A deep frost occurred in September of that year, affecting crops to be used for food. By late December, much of the upper Midwest faced wintry weather. Around December 20, cold rain turned to snow, which soon accumulated to 6 inches. Intermittent snowfall continued for over a month. The snow depth measured about 42 inches in sheltered areas. Steady gale-force winds then began from the northwest, and the snow drifted to depths of 6 to 10 ft. The snow was topped by an icy crust which trapped people, cattle, wild game, and herds of buffalo. Entire families perished, as did travelers who could not find adequate shelter from the elements.
The cold temperatures were also pervasive throughout much of Illinois. In Rock Island between Dec. 14 and Feb. 13, only 5 days registered temperatures above freezing. In the central Illinois town of Jacksonville, a new settler from New England wrote that "'for not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher than twelve degrees below zero.'" Abraham Lincoln endured a weather-related incident near Decatur as a 21-year- old, falling through ice on a trek to his neighbor's home to seek spare food. The deep snow remained on the ground in many parts of Illinois for about three months.
The rough log cabins constructed by the pioneers offered limited protection against the blizzard-like conditions that endured for much of the winter; interiors of the cabins had to be shoveled out, as snow blew through the spaces in the logs. Some settlers sought refuge in more suitable structures. Those who were traveling when the snow began sought shelter where they were. Eventually, those who survived the winter formed associations which designated their honorary status as "Snow Birds."
While documents relay the pioneers' experiences during the harsh winter of 1830-31 in Illinois, how did these conditions impact the Native Americans, who do not have many written sources of information? Game and other food sources were decimated; one historical source states that herds of buffalo, which were important to indigenous people, "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." The autobiography of the Sauk leader Black Hawk, who had inhabited land between the Rock River and Mississippi, tells of a poor hunt before he declared war on the white settlers in 1832, which could be linked to the harsh winter of 1830-31. Food shortages occurred; suitable land for his tribe's mainstay crops was an issue between the Sauk leader and the U.S. Government. While speculative, one can logically ask if the "Winter of the Deep Snow" was a contributing factor to the Black Hawk War and the subsequent (and controversial) Treaty of Chicago in 1833. (Quotes courtesy of Illinoishistory.com and The Life of Black Hawk, or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak at https://www.gutenberg.org.)
Sue Devick, M.A.