“One blizzard came just before time for school to close. . . .
At a country school eight miles north of De Smet, the teacher [had] brought his children to school in a sleigh. . . . [Going home,] the teacher, with his load, was lost on the prairie.
When he knew that he couldn’t find his way, he . . . turned the sleigh bottom up over them. Then he crawled underneath the sleigh himself and there they huddled together while the snow blew and drifted over the sled keeping out the wind. . . . No one was frozen except the teacher whose hands and feet were frozen, but not badly.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 315
There were a lot of long shots in the research for Pioneer Girl. We look at Wilder’s life through a double pane of frosted glass, trying to overcome both the shortfalls of her memory and our own distance from the subject. Not all of our long shots hit the target. But today, to tide you over until the book arrives, I’d like to tell you about one long shot—perhaps the longest one of all—that did.
Wilder places the story of the schoolteacher and his improvised igloo in the winter of 1884–1885, but the setup is strongly reminiscent of the “children’s blizzard,” a storm that struck without warning on a warm day in January 1888 and killed more than a hundred schoolchildren as they struggled to get home. Wilder did not always remember events in their true chronological order, and it seemed likely that she misplaced this one. But she does not give the teacher’s name, and the Kingsbury County newspapers that could complete the story have been lost, so there, it appeared, the matter would rest.
The scene: it’s about 10:30 one morning and a deadline looms. Enter Pioneer Girl Project director Nancy Tystad Koupal with a grin on her face and a book in her hand.
“Rodge. See if you can find that schoolteacher in here.”
“Wait, are you kidding me? We don’t even have a name.”
“We have a hunch. We follow it.”
“It’s not like I can look him up in the index. This could take all day.”
“It’s a good book. Humor me. I sign your paychecks.”
It is a good book. It’s The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin, and it is a fantastic and heart-stopping book. I read most of it that day, too quickly, like a man tearing through a haystack looking for a glint of metal, and this is all the glint I found:
“Mr. Stearns, a Dakota schoolteacher, had taken his three children to the school he taught near De Smet the day before and still had not returned home” (Laskin, Children’s Blizzard, p. 218).
Unfortunately, there’s no footnote and no follow-up. We still had laughably little information to work with. What were the odds? Still, the circumstances were tantalizing: here was a schoolteacher, near De Smet, whose own children were among his students. And critically, he had a name. It was federal records time.
Census first. Ready? No Stearns in the area in 1880. 1885 territorial census for the county is lost. 1890 federal census is melting the ice caps. 1895 state records are lost. 1900 federal census—stop!—there’s one.
Orion E. Stearns. Spirit Lake Township, Kingsbury County. Farmer. Born Vermont, August 1847. He and his wife have had five kids, of whom three survive; two are still in the household.
Now we’re cookin’ with Crisco. We have his name and his year and state of nativity, and we can follow this man, whether he’s Wilder’s man or not, wherever we want to. Orion’s daughter Bessie is a schoolteacher; does it run in the family?
Back to 1880.
Back to 1870.
Orion Stearns is teaching school in 1870 in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. It doesn’t prove that he taught in 1888. But let’s say you’re a homesteader and you have teaching experience. What would you do in the winter to earn a little extra money to help prove up your claim?
Maybe this wasn’t a fool’s errand after all. I look at the clock. Between this and other tasks, it’s now 6:30, and I am not going home until this is settled.
But have I gotten ahead of myself? We still don’t know if Orion Stearns was even in Dakota Territory in 1888. But the U.S. General Land Office might.
Guess what: it does. On August 16, 1889, Orion E. Stearns was issued a patent under the Homestead Act for a quarter section seven miles northeast of De Smet. At this point my heart finally says: this is the guy. But that’s not enough. It’s a pretty safe bet that he was there in 1888, but I can’t be absolutely sure unless I order the paper land-entry records, which will take a month to arrive.
Wait. I have other evidence right under my nose. Remember his two kids living with him in 1900? The census shows that his son Sumner was born in Dakota Territory in 1885. Again, I can’t be certain they were in Kingsbury County, but we’re building a strong preponderance of evidence. This is the guy. While we’re at it, what other evidence can we glean from the kids’ census entries?
Little Sumner would have been too young to go to school in January 1888. Orion’s four other kids appear in the 1880 census: Lewis, Guy, Nellie, and Bessie. And then I remember that by 1900, only one of the three eldest kids was still alive. That’s when I start checking grave records.
Ten minutes later I’m in the State Archives library. This started with a book; let it end with a book.
Ten minutes after that, it’s over.
Beyond a doubt, Mr. Stearns was the man Wilder remembered, and I know exactly what happened to him and his kids on January 13–14, 1888. The long shot slams right into the bullseye.
And all I can think is, No. That isn’t how the story is supposed to end.
The story ends with annotations 90–91 on pp. 315–16 of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It’s a book full of long shots, gunshots, schottisches, and everything else from the world of Wilder, and it finally ships out next week. Thanks for your patience, thanks for reading our blog, and stay tuned for more.
Wonderful detective work! I have a copy of The Children’s Blizzard. It is an excellent book and hair-raising to read. In our world today with 24/7 weather coverage it’s difficult to grasp that there was a time when bad weather struck unexpectedly. Can’t wait for my copy of Pioneer Girl to arrive. Thanks for the informative post.
I love this!! Particularly since, as an adopted child, I have been doing similar research to find info on my biological family! It is a tedious yet VERY EXCITING process!
Fascinating! I’m eager for the book to arrive,and I might just flip to annotations 90-91 right off the bat! Thank you. Also, I too have read The Children’s Blizzard and found it full of some of the best descriptions of pioneer/immigrant life out there.
Fascinating! Being an historian is like being a mystery buff. Solve the mystery. Solve the puzzle. Can’t wait to get my book!
Thank you for sharing a glimpse into the research and detective work that went into writing Pioneer Girl. I’m beyond thrilled and excited that it will be at my house, in my hands, waiting to be read next week! Thank you again. 🙂
Very interesting! Can’t wait to get the book!!
This whole scenario chills my heart; as I had relatives also that lived through those years near Miller, SD. I would imagine that some of them may have lived through the blizzards as well. Most of my family history reminisces about fires that injured some of my great- grandparents. I’ve never come across any of the winter stories, so thanks for digging so deep and getting the right information! Awesome work!
We have a DeSmet family story about a baby buggy flipping in the snow and “throwing both children into a snow bank so deep that some of the town people had to come help dig them out”. This would have been between 1884 and 1894 (when Gerald Fullers children we born in DeSmet). Now I wonder if the story isn’t confused with the schoolteacher story! Can’t wait for the book.
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I know all about blizzards and ice storms. I was born and raised in Massachusetts and many a winter we would get slammed with a bad storm. The last winter I lived there in 1975 (January) we go hit by the worst ice storm. Special vehicles were used to get myself and other disabled (I have Cerebral Palsy) kids home from our school for handicapped children. The following Sep my family and I moved to California. I was 13 years old at the time and plopped into a regular school where I got bullied so badly I had to be transferred. But the winters in Massachusetts will always be remembered. Only time I liked winter was snow days and staying home (what kid doesn’t ?)