Jewell County History continues celebrating 150 Years
February 18, 2021
Jewell County was established in the late summer of 1870. Its first election was held in September. The county was growing as more settlers arrived. Soddies and dugouts were built to house the settlers and their families. Getting the living quarters built happened quickly so farm and ranch work could begin. One can imagine the scene in the Kansas song, “Home, home on the range where the deer and antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.”
Yet, those early settlers had to face a lot of challenges, though they had already had to endure many hard times just getting to north central Kansas. The settlers had formed their county, and had begun to work the farmlands. Most of their funds were spent for seeds and cattle to start their herds. They barely had time to establish their farms. Schools and churches met in homes. The general stores were few as the towns were just getting formed so supplies were limited. Little did they realize one of their biggest challenges was to hit them hard in the early spring of 1873.
The winter of 1872-73 was a mild one, with mild temperatures and little moisture. With the mild winter many, of the homesteaders became anxious and began breaking sod mid winter. Some had even planted their crops. By April the prairie grass was green. The settlers had yet to endure a hard winter in their new surroundings and were unprepared for what they were to face. Knowing winter was behind them, the food supply was almost gone and the firewood and buffalo chips used for the heat supply was also lacking. Preparing for spring, most of the livestock had been turned out to pasture. After all Easter Day was approaching. To the settlers, it meant “new life” and new beginnings with their crops on their new homesteads.
Easter morning arrived on April 13, 1873, and most settlers went to the home where church service was held. The weather was sunny and the skies clear. As the settlers were seated around tables for lunch, the air changed. There was an eerie stillness. Some later reported “not a sound could be heard.” Rolling clouds could be seen in the northeast and in the southwest there was a dark line of clouds. As the two fronts met, a hard wind blew from the northwest. The strong winds blew the dry dust making it hard to see.
Some people moved towards their north windows within their home trying to keep the windows from blowing in. Some shainties lost their roofs, and some houses were blown off their foundations. Later, it was reported when the two fronts met near Kenesaw, Neb., a tornado formed. Rains fell. Thunder and lightning could be seen. Later the rain turned to sleet by the afternoon. The sleet formed ice quickly. At first when the rain was falling, the settlers were happy as they thought the moisture would surely help the soil that had been dry during the winter months.
In the White Rock territory, the blizzard lasted for three days and dumped 18”to 21” of snow on the ground. The cattle moved to ravines to seek shelter but many were covered with snow and died there. In the eastern part of Jewell County, more than 200 head of cattle were killed in the blizzard. Following the storm, eight frozen bodies were found in an old “dilapidated house” east of Burr Oak. Twelve frozen people were found east of Red Cloud. A man and boy last seen heading for their homestead stopped for the night at a hay stack seeking some kind of shelter. They were found frozen to death.
A story in What Price White Rock, tells of a hunting party from the Burr Oak area that had gone to Smith County and on west, when the blizzard struck. It was a party of six men and some of their wives. They reached Long Island, Kansas, and put their wagons together for protection of the storm. They covered the wagons with buffalo hides. In the center they built a fire and took turns standing watch trying to keep the fire burning. They survived but another hunter who was hunting in Smith County lost his team. He losthis fingers and toes because they froze.
Everything was covered with snow and ice including bridges, and the wagon trails. There were no fences then. Trees were scarce so with the plowed fields, there was nothing to stop the blowing snow. It was easy to get lost if a person was caught in the snow storm. It took the Burr Oak area hunting party almost two months to make their way back home. Some people were not located until the snow melted.
April 14, the day after the blizzard began, the strong northwest winds cut visibility to zero and the snow continued. The blizzard lasted until Wednesday the 16th. The storm reached across the top half of Kansas, across the western and southern half of Nebraska and into the Dakotas. The hardest hit was central Nebraska as it was reported 20 people died and thousands of livestock were killed. Tales were told of fastening a rope to a door of the house and the other end of the rope was tied to the people so they could go from the house to the barn or to reach the firewood and find their way back into the house.
Snow was six feet deep in Grand Island, and the winds were said to blow 60 MPH. Telegraph wires were blown down. Train routes were closed.
To save their cows and horses, some settlers brought them into the house. Some people found that when they opened the doors of their homes, the doorway was blocked with snow so solid it made it almost impossible to get out.
According to What Price White Rock, there are three men buried in the Ionia Cemetery who lost their lives in the blizzard; Powers, Whitford and Critchmore.
Everyone who managed to survive had a story to tell about the Easter Blizzard of 1873. The majority of Jewell County homesteaders were determined to stay following the storm but there were some who decided that prairie life was not for them and returned East.