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Blizzard! The Weather and Our Ancestors

Blizzard! The Weather and Our Ancestors

I just finished a book for my book club by Melanie Benjamin titled The Children's Blizzard. This historical fiction account of the January 12, 1888 weather event, referred to as the "children's blizzard" or the "schoolhouse blizzard," struck the Great Plains (Territories of North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho; and the states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota), resulting in at least 235 deaths. What started as a warm day quickly changed as residents were caught off guard by a sudden and deadly blizzard that struck while children were in school. The sudden change of weather was especially fatal since it had seemingly come out of nowhere as communities were going about their day, trapping them unprepared and away from home in a bitterly cold and dense storm. School children were part of the casualties as they tried to make their way home only to be overcome by the cold and the inability to see through the snow.

The book focuses on school teachers and their charges. I won't go into a plot summary here, but what struck me as I read it was how the author describes that day and how it impacted her fictional characters. She brings to life the characters by describing the

  • "look" of weather
  • feel of the weather
  • what severe weather does to the human body
  • how severe weather kills

As I read the book, I was struck by how it could easily describe an ancestral experience, even though it is historical fiction. 

Have you considered how the weather impacted your ancestors? That isn't a topic we consider very often, but as I read this book, I quickly realized how the weather impacted everything from our ancestor's homes to their gardens and livestock to their family and friends. Severe, long-lasting injuries and death could have resulted from the weather.

How can you learn about severe weather where your ancestors lived? The newspaper is one place to search. Weather reports and disasters are found in the newspaper. Make sure to look at the newspaper for the days following the event for any reports of damage or death. It's also possible that nearby newspapers also carried reports, even if they weren't impacted. One website with historical weather information is the Weather Underground. Searching online for historical weather will provide other relevant websites as well.

If you're interested in reading more about the blizzard, the book The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin is a non-fiction account. The Wikipedia page about the blizzard that can serve as an introduction.

Have you written about your ancestors and the weather? I'd be interested to hear about your experience in the comments below.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.




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This is an excellent book! A part of history not many of us knew about, especially the lack of weather forecasting.

I have that book and have read it. It is a wonderful read and so believable for the area. I grew up in North Dakota and am well aware of the weather changes in the different season.

In researching my husband’s family, I found a Library of Congress memoir by O.W. Meier. He related his journey home from school that day with his brothers and 3 other boys. My husband’s grandfather and great uncle were listed by name as two of those others. All safely reached home.

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