As the stage coach drove up to Camp Supply, its passengers must have felt relieved. They’d been caught in a storm, and the coach’s horses had lost their path in the Kansas snow. Finally, the coach arrived at Camp Supply, a military outpost in Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.
When the passengers got out of the coach, they realized they were many miles away from their original destination—and that they’d been riding in a coach without a driver. He was still sitting on top of the coach. His stiff, frozen body, that is. As the passengers had huddled for warmth inside the bumpy stage coach, he had died in the storm.
It was January 1886, and the passengers had just lived through the worst blizzard Kansas had ever seen. Trains filled with hogs had frozen solid, along with their living cargo, as they sat idle, prevented from moving forward by drifting snow. People who had been outdoors on the prairie when the storm struck were found frozen, killed while searching for shelter. And then there were the cows—more than 100,000 of them, dead in the storm. All in all, the January 1886 blizzard killed at least 100 people and wiped out about 75 percent of the state’s livestock.
The first indicators that there might be a monster storm in the works came not with snowflakes, but high temperatures. Previous winters had been mild, and late December had been warm, too. But on December 31, 1885, settlers noticed a strange purple-yellow color on the horizon, and soon temperatures were plummeting. Rain quickly turned to fierce winds, driving snow and sub-zero temperatures. Between January 1 and 3, Kansas experienced 36 hours of continuous blizzard conditions. Then, a second, even more severe storm developed. On January 7, the temperature plummeted even further, with wind chills of up to 40 below zero.
The mild temperatures of previous winters had fooled settlers. So had the abundant grassland of the Kansas prairies. Despite failing crops, more and more settlers had invested in cattle, lured by rising beef prices. Between 1866 and 1885, Kansas had become a shipping center for cattle driven north by Texas cowboys looking for grazing land and a place to prepare beef for market. As more than 5 million cattle came north from Texas to Kansas, “cow towns” sprang up to accommodate the cows and cowboys.
But there was competition for prairie grassland. After the Civil War, tens of thousands of people flocked to claim land in Kansas and work the land as homesteaders. As grazing land became more desirable, land owners increasingly tried to restrict cattle on their land; in 1885, Kansas put a quarantine into effect that banned Texas cattle from the state between March 1 and December 1 each year.
By then, though, plenty of Kansas farmers had their own cattle, but due to light crops that year, they had not laid in sufficient grain to feed them during the winter. Instead, they sent the cows grazing on open prairie land, trusting that the light winter would bring enough food to get them through to spring.
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The farmers lost that gamble. As the blizzard raged, the cattle, which were spread all over grazing land, had little chance against the elements. They walked along with the storm until they either froze or died of starvation and exhaustion. The cattle that did survive were found hundreds of miles away from home, but most piled up on top of other starving, freezing animals after falling into ravines or being pressed up against fences. The cattle weren’t the only animals to die: rabbits, antelope, birds and other animals froze to death all over the prairie. They were found frozen solid, huddled together to try to keep warm.
Meanwhile, Kansas’ settlers didn’t fare much better. Most homes had been recently built from cheap materials to claim possession of land, and the wind and cold forced people to quickly deplete their fuel and eat their available food. Some died within their claim shanties, while other perished while trying to care for their livestock or find shelter.
After the blizzard, the Topeka Daily Capital made daily reports of the most harrowing of the snow stories: people who died within feet of their own homes, which were obscured by snow, men and women who froze to death along with their horses, people whose frostbitten limbs had to be amputated after they got stuck in the storm.
Another casualty of the storm was rail traffic. Kansas depended on the railroad for food and other supplies, but railroads were completely blocked by the snow. Trains froze to the rails and could not move; drifts as high as 12 feet formed around them. The railroad stoppages led to a food and supply shortage in Kansas.
“Old engineers who had for years passed along the same track daily became lost before they had gone five miles from their starting points,” recalled O.P. Byers, a Kansas man who lived through the blizzards. “In numerous cases they ran by the stations, unable to see the depots twenty feet away.” After the snow finally stopped, crews of men had to dig out the engines by hand. It was a grueling task.
The 1886 blizzard ended up being just the beginning. Even more cows died the next year, in a series of storms across the Great Plains that killed so many cows they were known as the “Big Die Up.” Soon, the concept of the open range and the cowboy would become obsolete.
It all started with the blizzard of 1886—a storm so terrible, it created a grim new business. “For several years afterward it was a matter of common remark that one could have walked from Ellsworth to Denver, a distance of more than four hundred miles, on the carcasses,” wrote Byers. “Skinning those animals for their hides became an industry the following month.”