1. Why does Laskin state that the horrible blizzard of 1888 “hit the most thickly settled sections of Nebraska and Dakota Territory at the worse possible moment”? Describe the dramatic change in temperatures that accompanied this storm. Why were the humble people of this raw region of the prairie prone to take risks, even in the face of devastating blizzard?
2. In the post-Civil War years, what factors encourage the stampede of settler into America’s heartland, which earlier had been thought to be a worthless desert? Compare the lifestyle of these “sodbusters” to the luxuries enjoyed by the wealthy industrial tycoons back East?
The blizzard came at a bad time that day and also had bad timing for farmers and their family. The storm that shaped so many lives hit such a hopeful peoples; people that were hoping that this new land would be their new beginning. When the blizzard hit in 1888, most settlers hadn’t yet perfected their homes due to the urge to sow the fields and obtain live stock. The settlers “were vulnerable and exposed. There hadn’t been time to set up fences. Infections flourished in the primitive, unsanitary claim shanties (Laskin 41). Some pioneers didn’t even have sufficient housing to stand up to a windy day much less a historic blizzard. No doubt that many of the dead were ill and would not weather the storm. The pioneers had just gotten to their destination and barely settled when the blizzard ripped their family apart again, just like the Civil War had done or the hard journey in disgusting boats had done.
The blizzard came to Southern Dakota and Nebraska when school children were being dismissed for the day. Unlike today’s world, those children would have had to walk a couple of miles to get home safely, not just ride in the heated car for ten minutes. In fact “the blizzard of January 12, 1888, [became] known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because so many of the victims were children caught out on their way home from school” (Laskin 44). The teachers dismissed these children not knowing their fate because the weather that day was the first break in the coldness of winter and the first sight of spring.
The blizzard landed upon the territories so fast that there were no predictions or signs in the sky of a history altering storm brewing. The school children didn’t even need coats on their way to school, which became a reason for the untimely death for them. The fathers of these children were also affected while out in the fields attending to their crops. Many of the farmers stayed out too late to return home to see to the livestock. They didn’t care about the animals so much as they care about the animal’s value.
Value of the livestock is just one example of the many risks that the peoples who took advantage of the Homestead Act and settled in the prairies. Everyone that moved to the prairie took a big risk moving to an undomesticated area in the first place. They wanted and needed to succeed in this risk. They needed to stay and take care of the cattle, because that was the only investment that they could potentially save. The crops were already done for with the quick drop in temperature and the blizzard. However if the cattle could be rounded up in the barn there was hope.
Farmers like Robert Chambers “thought that he and nine-year-old Johnny could drive the cattle into the barn themselves… but father and son were overtaken and bewildered” and eventually Chambers died trying to save what little hope of keeping their land they had (Laskin 45). The last thing the settlers wanted was to have their land taken away or have to give it up because they didn’t succeed in their five year farming contract with the government and came away with nothing.
The migration of people to a land which was thought to have been a desert was mainly driven by the Homestead Act of 1862. This act was the main reason for the expansion and settlement of the West because it gave people an incentive to go settle there. The act “gave every comer 160 acres free and clear in exchange for the investment of a small filing fee and five years of farming” (Laskin 41). People moved from the South to get away from the war torn communities. Immigrants also took a chance on this land and escaped the cruelty of the urban citizens rejecting them because they were thought to be inferior. It was an escape and new beginning for some families while it was a financial gain for others. Many people took this opportunity for different reasons but all of them rushed to the West like no other migration in history.
The pioneers, “sod-busters” didn’t have luxuries in their life. Even the schoolchildren affected didn’t have luxuries. Most of them worked as hard as their fathers to help the family out before and after school. “A safe and carefree childhood was a luxury the pioneer prairie could not afford” (Laskin 47). Not only were the luxuries that moguls had back East not affordable, but they didn’t exist in the harsh, unknown West. Pioneers lived a life of constant physical labor whereas rich Easterners could lay back and had no financial or survival concerns whatsoever.