Deep Snow



Excerpted From the History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County


The two most important natural events took place in 1830 – 1831 and was referred to as the “deep snow” and the “sudden change.”

The Deep Snow

What is here spoken of as the “deep snow” must be taken relatively.  Snows fall almost every winter much deeper in New York, the New England States, Canada and in the northern latitudes generally.  This, however, is distinguished from all others as the “deep snow,” because, in this latitude, the like of it was not known before, and has not been known since.  A description of it by Rev. J.M. Sturtevant, President of the Illinois College, in an address before the Old Settler’s Society of Morgan county, at Jacksonville, a few years ago, is the best authority I can find.  Having been brought up where such snows were nothing unusual, he would be less likely to be deceived in his judgment than one who had never witnessed the like before. 

President Sturtevant says:

“In the interval between Christmas, 1830 and January, 1831 snow fell all over central Illinois to a depth of fully three feet on a level.  Then came a rain, with weather so cold that it froze as it fell, forming a crust of ice over this three feet of snow, nearly, if not quite, strong enough to bear a man, and finally, over this crust of ice, there was a few inches of very light snow.  The clouds passed away, and the wind came down upon us from the northwest with extraordinary ferocity.  For weeks, certainly not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher than twelve degrees below zero.  This snow fall produced constant sleighing for nine weeks.”

The recollection of some of the early settlers is that rain fell for some days, until the earth was saturated with water, and the day before Christmas the rain turned to snow and the flakes were so large that in a few hours it attained a depth of six inches.  I have, time and again, heard this snow described as much more than three feet deep, and no doubt the experience of those making the statements justified them in it.

The situation was rather alarming, even to a New England man.  There, a few hours of wind blows all the snow from exposed places, and deposits it in valleys and behind hills, where the wind cannot reach it.  It is only where the roads cross these receptacles that it is necessary to break a track.  It is made the occasion for a frolic with New England people to turn our with ox teams and sleds to break a road, and then there is no more trouble until the next snow storm. Such work here would have been useless. In this level country the drifting never ceases as long as the snow lasts.  Any number of teams might break a track, but it would fill behind them in a few moments.  The only way they finally made roads here was by wallowing through it, and going as near the same place as they could, until the snow was trodden hard and rounded up like a turnpike road.

(Turnpike in this connection is synonymous with tollgate or tollbar. It refers to a horizontal barrier, such as a pole or pike turning on a vertical pin, set up along a road to halt vehicular or other traffic until ‘the toll is paid. Thus a turnpike road is merely a road that has, or formerly had, turnpikes for the collection of tolls. Since the turnpike roads were usually the main roads, the term was extended in’ popular parlance to any important highway.)

Many instances have been related where teams, attempting to pass each other on these raised roads, found it too narrow, and the result was that one if not both the vehicles would be upset, leaving the occupants and teams floundering in the snow.  To regain the proper position on the road was not always an easy task. Long after the great body of the snow melted off, these roads remained.  One man, describing them, said they looked like silver threads, stretching over the prairies as far as the eye could reach.

Railroads were not then dreamed of, but they would have bee, for several weeks, as utterly useless as though they were sunk out of sight in the earth. Snow plows would be of no avail in such a storm as that, for the track would fill, in less than an hour, behind any train that might force its way through.  Quoting again from President Sturtevant, he says: “It is a consolation that such a winter has never occurred but once in the memory of man.  But what has happened once may happen again. If it does we shall get a very definite idea how important our railroads are to us, and we shall be very glad that the snow is not over the telegraph wires.”

That snow come so early in the season that it caught nearly all their corn in the fields, and it was very difficult to obtain enough of it to keep stock from perishing.  Few had any milling done, and the devices were numerous to reduce the grain to a condition fine enough to be baked into something resembling bread.  Some of them will be described.  I will here give a few incidents illustrating some of the straits the people were put to in order to preserve life and property.

Among the earliest settlers on Sugar creek was a man by the name of Stout – no relation to any of that name now in the county.  He had raised a family, but his wife had died, and his children had married and left him alone.  He built a small cabin in the woods, and in that he did his own cooking, slept, and worked at making bread trays, wooden bowls, rolling pins, wooden ladles, and such other implements as every household was in need of.  He traded the products of his labor for something to eat or wear, seldom receiving or expecting any money.  He lived very comfortably until the “deep snow” come.  Then his open cabin and scant supply of  bedding was not sufficient to keep him warm.  He went around among his neighbors and tried to obtain some addition to his bedding, but found them all deficient in that respect themselves.  He finally solved the difficulty by felling a large tree near his cabin, took a cut from it of suitable length, and made a trough inside, the full length of his body, and hewed it off on the outside until it was light and thin enough for him to handle easily.  He would then make his bed on some chips or shavings, as he had done before, first bringing his trough along side, and when snugly covered up, he would take the trough and turn it over himself for covering.  As soon as the warmth of his body filled the space he would be comfortable, and could lay snug and warm until morning.  There was neither floor nor chimney to his cabin, so he made the fire on the ground.  When the weather was extremely cold he would move his fire just before retiring, scraping the coals and ashes carefully away, and then make his bed where the fire had been during the day.  This is a new proof of the oft repeated adage, that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Deaths in the snow:

Very many cases occurred of persons being lost in the snow, ending in death.  I will mention a few here, but other will be referred to in the succeeding pars of the work.

A man named William Saxton lived on Lick creek, above Loami.  He went hunting, and failing to return, his friends and neighbors went in search of him, and found his body about one mile from his home, where he had sunk down, and appeared as if asleep.

Samuel Legg started from Sugar creek, not far above where the C. and A. railroad now crosses, intending to go to Richland timber, near where Pleasant Plains now stands.  He was not hear of until the next April, when the remains of himself and horse were found, nearly consumed by wolves.  He had gone but a few miles, as the body was found on what is now the farm of John B. Fowler, a few miles west of Chatham.  A bottle with a small quantity of whiskey was found near his remains.

A man started from the timer on Horse creek to chase a wolf while the snow was falling.  He was not seen nor heard of until the next spring, when his body was found at a place called Willow grove, in Shelby county.  His horse and dog were found with him, and all had perished together.  The distance was about forty miles from where he started.  It was thought that he became bewildered by the falling snow, and continued his efforts until his horse, dog and himself sand down to die.

William Workman went hunting in the Lick creek timber, south of Loami.  He walked on the crust of the snow, and was approaching a deer for the purpose of shooting it.  Without being aware of it, he was over a ravine of considerable depth.