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On the Prairie

by Ellen P. Allerton

Out on the prairie—a shrieking storm!
How the pitiless cold, driven from homes and firesides warm,
In its terrible hold,
Here grapples and grips with strength untold!

Miles and miles, and nothing in sight,
Only sweeps of snow—
That under the dust of the gathering night,
Now dimmer grow—breasting the winds that fiercely blow.

Not a friendly light, not a sheltering tree,
On the prairie's breast.
And my failing feet shrink under me!
I am heavy—oppressed
With a drowsy weight; I must stop and rest.

No, I can not go on! Here I lay me down,
While the storm sweeps by;
Press on, if you can, to the sheltering town;
In peace let me lie.
I am not cold . . . only sleepy . . . good-by.


What is a blizzard?

A blizzard is a snowstorm that meets the following specific conditions:

1. The storm must last for at least three hours.
2. Winds of over 35 mph must be reached. (Winds greater than 35 mph cause a large amount of snow to blow around which decreases visibility.)
3. There must be reduced visibility from blowing snow to the point where it is difficult to see an object more than 1/4 miles away.[1]


Did You Know?

Most sources reference an 1870 printing of the word blizzard in the Estherville, Iowa, Northwest Vindicator newspaper as being the first confirmed usage of the word blizzard to describe a snowstorm. The entymology of the word is unconfirmed, but it was most likely derived from the German word blitzartig, which means "lightninglike," - a good adjective to describe the fierceness and suddeness of a blizzard on the Great Plains.

Blizzards on the Great Plains have long been feared, and for good reason. Tragic blizzard stories from the region abound. This story, for example, comes from the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: "In Pierce County, Nebraska, a teacher with three students became hopelessly lost walking 200 yards to her boarding place, and they spent the night huddled in a haystack. The children died and the teacher lost both feet to amputation."[2] In another account, "A young woman in Clark County, Kansas, became separated from her family on a half-mile journey and died within an arm's length of the door of her brother's house, her hands tangled in her hair."[2] A story passed down from Illinois relates the tragedy that befell a man and his wife and three children who were moving to central Illinois by covered wagon in the 1880s and suddenly got caught in a blizzard. In an effort to save his wife and three children, the man killed his horse, scooped out the entrails, and placed his wife and children in the warm horse carcass, then started walking for help. When morning dawned, the man was found dead, frozen stiff and standing waist deep in snow in a snowbank. His wife and children, however, were thankfully found alive inside the horse carcass, which was by then mounded over with snow.

Blizzards were just one of the many dangers that the early settlers and homesteaders of the 1800s faced on the Great Plains. Modern Americans can look to and learn from the great courage, resourcefulness, and self-reliance that the early settlers demonstrated in their struggle to survive.

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Folk Ways

Today, we often take for granted instant access to weather forecasts that help us plan our lives many days into the future. It's easy to forget how dangerous the weather could be in a time before modern forecasting and weather technology. A simple errand could turn deadly if one was overtaken without warning by a severe storm such as a blizzard.

For most of American history, the only available tool people had for forecasting the weather was their own keen eyes and observational prowess at noticing and interpreting subtle signs from the world around them. Early settlers, for example, became adept at noticing signs such as: clouds and birds high up in the sky, cicadas humming loudly, smoke rising quickly out of a chimney, and heavy dew at night, as indicators of good weather being at hand.[3]

If, however, a settler noticed a halo around the sun, dark cumulus or cirrus clouds, or smoke that tended to curl downward out of a chimney, then they knew to expect wet weather coming soon.[3]

During recess one unusually warm January day in 1888, 19-year-old Nebraska schoolteacher, Minnie Freeman, who taught school in an isolated sod schoolhouse, looked up into the sky and spotted this ominous weather sign: a blue stripe on the horizon. It was a sign of a much feared "Blue Norther" approaching. A "Blue Norther" was winter storm that was much feared on the Great Plains because they struck with much force and often with little warning.[4] Minnie's quick-witted weather observation and her subsequent decisive actions would ultimately save the lives of the schoolchildren in her care. Learn more about this story in the video below.

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Pennsylvania Dutch barn star


  1. Blizzard | National Geographic Society.
  2. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains | BLIZZARD STORIES.
  3. Greenwood, Barbara. A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, p. 141
  4. Cellania. “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.” Neatorama, 18 Aug. 2017,

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