Tales of Survival - Illinois Winters of the 1830s

Levin Stringham

PioneerPhoto byWes WalkeronUnsplash

On December 20th,1836, Mr. Washington Crowder rode into downtown Springfield while completely frozen to the saddle of his horse. Unable to dismount, Mr. Crowder called for help, and two men "ungirded and carried man and saddle to the fire, and then thawed them apart."

Ice StormPhoto byJorge GuillenonUnsplash

The meteorological maelstrom that led to Mr. Crowder's remarkable tale occurred as he rode from Sugar Creek, about eight miles south of Springfield. "Mr. Crowder was carrying an umbrella to protect himself from the rain and wore an overcoat reaching nearly to his feet. When he had traveled half the distance...he saw a very dark cloud north and west. It appeared to be approaching him very rapidly, accompanied by a terrific, deep, bellowing sound. A cold wave came over him. The water and slush were instantly turned to ice." Luckily, both Mr. Crowder and his horse survived.

Dark CloudsPhoto byTengyartonUnsplash

Early Illinois pioneers often recounted a winter during 1831 with storms so terrible that they had "never since repeated." Snow fell for weeks, covering everything, and killing wild game "in great numbers." The deceased animals had been so plentiful that hunters didn't even hunt. They simply followed tracks until they found the frozen game and then took the choice parts, leaving the rest to the wolves.

WolvesPhoto byThomas BonomettionUnsplash

The cold had been so extreme that Mr. Powers, a pioneer living on Sugar Creek in Sangamon County, "felled a large tree near his cabin, cut off a log, and hollowed out a cavity large enough to contain his body." He then climbed underneath the log and the heat from his body warmed the narrow cavity and kept him alive. When the weather dropped to even deadlier temperatures, Mr. Powers "would remove his fire just before retiring, scraping the coal and ashes away, making his bed where the fire had been."

Hollow LogPhoto byArno RyseronUnsplash

According to the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, "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." Although the winters of 1867 and 1967 produced greater snowfalls than the Big Snow of 1831, they failed to produce lower temperatures. Records from Fort Armstrong in Rock Island, Illinois, reveal that "from December 15 to February 25 there was no day without freezing temperature." The total freeze lasted seventy-three days.

Perhaps the most remarkably tragic incident occurred when Andrew Herideth had been herding fifteen hundred hogs across Illinois, heading for St. Louis. The "cold wave overtook him," and he knew "that the men and animals were likely to perish." To save the men, Mr. Herideth abandoned the hogs and the party found shelter. The hogs piled on top of each other to stay warm, but they did not survive. "A pyramid of about five-hundred hogs was thus built."

In a story of survival eerily similar to a scene from the movie Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, James Harvey Hildreth, of Logan County, had been traveling across Illinois in December of 1836 when he and his companion, a young man named Frame, encountered a rain storm that lasted throughout the day. "It suddenly ceased raining, and the cold wave came in all its fury, striking them squarely in the face. They were then out of sight of any human habitation. Their horses became unmanageable, drifted with the wind, or across it, until night closed in upon them. How long they discussed what was best to do is not known, but they finally agreed to kill each other's horses. They dismounted, and Hildreth killed his partner's horse. They took out its entrails and climbed into its cavity, and lay there until about midnight. By this time, the heat from the horse had become exhausted. They crawled out, and just then the one having the knife dropped it. It being dark, they could not find it, and being foiled in their purpose, they huddled about the living horse until about four o'clock in the morning. By this time, Frame became overcome by the cold and sank into a deep sleep from which his companion could not arouse him. He never awakened." Mr. Hildreth survived the ordeal, but "all the toes were taken from his feet, and the bones from all his fingers, except one joint on the thumb of his right hand, which allowed him to hold a pen, or a driver's whip."

Horse in the SnowPhoto byThomas TuckeronUnsplash

The Big Snow led to the formation of the Old Settlers Association, granting membership to those who survived the winter of 1831. These Illinois pioneers earned the title of "Snow Bird." One pioneer confessed, "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." Perhaps the most famous Snow Bird was young Abraham Lincoln, who lived on his father's farm outside of Decatur in 1831. He was only twenty-one years old.

When the rain turns to ice and the snow falls and the winds howl, hazardous roads often prevent travel. Schools and businesses close, and people remain safe within the warm confines of their homes. It is difficult to imagine the contrast of hardships that our pioneer ancestors endured during the deadly Illinois winters of the 1830s. Their struggle was not simply an inconvenience but a battle of life and death.

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Local history, biographies, and fun facts. Central Illinois resident over 40 years.

Springfield, IL

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