January 9, 1887 – "The Great Die Up"

M. Timothy Nolting
Bushnell, Neb.

Some say that the winter of 1887 was the worst winter in the west. In Nebraska, there may be those who would dispute that claim and counter with, “The blizzard of 1888 was the worst.” Many know that blizzard as ‘The Children’s Blizzard,’ so named because of the many school-aged children that died during that terrible storm. Out of that blizzard comes the remarkable story of Minnie Freeman, a 17-year-old schoolteacher who saved a group of 13 children in Ord, Neb. She managed to keep her young students together during a half-mile trek through whiteout conditions and sub-zero temperatures.

Still others might argue that it was the ‘Blizzard of ’49 that was the worst. If we ask, we can still hear the stories and first hand accounts from the survivors of that terrible blizzard, right here in the Panhandle. Many of those stories have been collected and recorded in a series of books edited by Loretta Jewell.

My wife Deb’s father and his brothers were young men on the family ranch in the northern panhandle during that historic blizzard. There are stories to tell and pictures to show of the incredible hardships to men and livestock that suffered during that storm. The lessons learned have been passed along to the children and grandchildren of those survivors. For example, Deb would not dream of leaving the house in winter without extra warm clothes, a pair of snow boots, a blanket, a shovel, a compact emergency kit and a full tank of gas.

We may be tempted at times to declare ourselves masters of our own destinies but it takes only a sudden, unexpected 360 degree spin on ice-covered roads for us to be quickly humbled. I have had some close calls with the fury of Mother Nature in flash floods, tornadoes, blizzards and bitter cold. I have shivered so violently from the cold that my muscles ached for days afterward. And I will never forget the burning sting as my mother rubbed snow on my hands and fingers, my toes and face to gradually thaw the freezing flesh.

I remember several blizzards in my past, especially during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Although they were not of the magnitude of the great ones I’ve already mentioned, they were none-the-less memorable. I can remember snows that lasted for days while the wind blew constantly, building sculpted drifts that buried everything except the peaks of the barns and the house. During those storms there was livestock to be fed, water tanks to be kept clear of ice and firewood to be cut and stacked. The kids in town might have rejoiced at school being closed, but I think I would have rather been in the classroom.

I can recall the stress on the cattle from the prolonged days of bitter cold, howling winds and swirling snow. We tried to keep a path cleared between the shelter of the barn and the water tank under the windmill. I remember a storm where we just couldn’t keep up with the rate of snowfall. After the blizzard passed, we found two cows frozen to death in the narrow channel that the cattle had cut as they traveled back and forth from the barn to the tank. The two died, facing each other, one heading back to the barn the other heading to the tank. The snow was so deep and solidly packed and the path so narrow that they could not pass. And so they stood, head to head, unable to move as the cold burrowed deep in their bones and they literally froze in their tracks.

But, let’s go back to January 9th, 1887. They called it ‘The Great Die-up’ in mock recognition of the annual ‘great round-ups’ of cattle on the Wyoming, Montana and Dakota open ranges. That historic date marked the beginning of the end of the great cattle empires, the end of millions of acres of open range and free grazing controlled by eastern speculators. The end of European nobility who played at being ‘cattle barons’ yet knew nothing of the cattle industry. It was largely their ignorance and greed that resulted in the starving and freezing deaths of more than half the cattle on the northern plains.

A series of past mild winters had lulled the moneymen and the inexperienced barons into believing it was unnecessary to lay by extra feed for the cattle during the winter months. The market for beef had continued to build almost exponentially and more cattle meant more money for the investors back east. The dollar signs in their eyes blinded them to the reality of an equally long series of dry springs and summers that left the ranges nearly stripped of forage as the numbers of cattle who grazed those depleted ranges continued to increase. By the fall of 1886 the ranges were nearly barren of grass and cattle were already starving. Then came winter.

From early on, the snow and cold came with a ferocity that had seldom been seen on the northern plains. Record snowfall covered the range by early January and cattle, already weak from lack of forage became weaker as they trudged through the deepening snow in search of dry brittle grasses. Hope was briefly extended when a warm westerly Chinook began to melt the snows but too soon an arctic blast swept across the plains and temperatures plummeted to as much as 63 degrees below zero. The melting snow became a thick, solid layer of ice that sealed any possibility of cattle reaching even the most meager portions of forage that lay locked beneath the ice. Ranch managers that had failed to store winter feed, watched helplessly as their herds slowly died.

Not until spring was the full extent of the devastation known. I have read accounts from cowboys, who worked for those outfits, tell of the stench of rotting beef that filled the air. Many of them noted that they knew it was the end of the ‘cowboy’ as they had known it.

Author Andy Adams, described the awful realities of that storm in his book, ‘Reed Anthony, A Cowman.’

“The morning after the great storm, with others, I rode to a south string of fence on a divide, and found thousands of our cattle huddled against it, many frozen to death, partially through and hanging on the wire. We cut the fences in order to allow them to drift on to shelter, but the legs of many of them were so badly frozen that, when they moved, the skin cracked open and their hoofs dropped off. Hundreds of young steers were wandering aimlessly around on hoofless stumps, while their tails cracked and broke like icicles. In angles and nooks of the fence, hundreds had perished against the wire, their bodies forming a scaling ladder, permitting late arrivals to walk over the dead and dying as they passed on with the fury of the storm. I had been a soldier and seen sad sights, but nothing to compare to this; the moaning of the cattle freezing to death would have melted a heart of adamant. All we could do was to cut the fences and let them drift, for to halt was to die; and when the storm abated one could have walked for miles on the bodies of dead animals.”

Winter is not particularly my favorite time of year. But when I find myself complaining about the snow and the cold, I always think, “It could be worse.”