Science  /  Vignette

The Monster Blizzard That Turned Kansas Into a Frozen Wasteland

The 1886 blizzard imperiled settlers and left fields of dead cattle in its wake.

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.

Lack of Grain Meant Cattle Grazed Through Winter

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.

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.

Kansas Settlers Also Became Storm Casualties

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.