Perhaps the most dangerous weather in the Midwest is the blizzard.
Temperatures plummet, and the wind not only drives that cold through a person, but blows the snow so hard that they can hardly see. Many lives have been claimed by Iowa’s winter storms over the years, and H.V. Morrill was almost among them.
Morrill lived in Lyons, which is now the north end of Clinton, during the 1850’s. He was a lawyer, and for him, travel was essential in those days.
The Clinton County Courthouse in DeWitt, several miles to the west, was where the majority of legal proceedings would have taken place. Not only that, but Morrill’s law firm also served the area surrounding the town of Elvira, requiring him to regularly travel there.
The winter that bridged the gap between late 1856 and early 1857 was harsh. Like many other people of the era, Morrill travelled by sleigh, which was both easier and faster in the winter months.
One day, he and his wife visited a friend’s farm about four miles west of Lyons. As they sat, a blizzard began to howl across the fields outside. For whatever reason, Morrill decided that he needed to return home that night instead of waiting out the storm.
His friends provided a room for Mrs. Morrill to sleep in while Mr. Morrill went out and got his sleigh and horse team ready for the short journey home.
Morrill was no stranger to winter travel. In addition to what he would have normally worn in winter, he also had thick buffalo and bearskin robes to keep him warm and block out the harsh winds. His sleigh would have travelled effortlessly across the snow, pulled by a good team of horses that he knew and trusted.
Full of confidence, Morrill bid his wife and friends farewell and set out for Lyons at about 8 p.m. that evening.
Through the driving wind and blowing snow he went, expecting to see some sign of civilization at any moment. But there was nothing. No city lights, no streets, no rows of houses. It was just the prairie and the storm, howling unchecked across the open ground.
Soon enough, Morrill determined that he must have driven off course. He thought that he was north of town, close to the steep bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Between the blinding snow and the dark, Morrill became afraid that he would ride his team right off the edge and fall to his death.
So, he decided to camp for the night. Stopping at what looked like a decent place, Morrill turned his sleigh over on its side, and settled in to make camp for the rest of the night.
The temperature dropped low, and even his buffalo robes were no match against it and the wind. Morrill often became so cold that he had to stand and walk around, forcing his freezing limbs to move.
Finally, dawn broke. The storm had subsided, and everything was now clear. Looking around, something else was especially clear to Morrill. He had spent the better part of the night driving his sleigh in a circle, not even one-hundred feet from the farm house he had left!
Probably feeling somewhat sheepish, Morrill went inside to his friend’s home, who graciously invited him to stay for breakfast. For sometime after, his circle of friends gave him a hard time about the incident.
However, Morrill probably never forgot how dangerous driving in a blizzard can be, and learned to stay indoors when he could!
“The History of Clinton County, Iowa.” Chicago; Western Historical Company, 1879.
5 thoughts on “Once Upon an Iowa Blizzard – The Journey of H.V. Morrill”
I’m a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, so I am fascinated by prairie blizzards (since that’s what like 90% of The Long Winter is about. Well that, and twisting hay and grinding wheat in a coffee grinder). Morrill’s story sounds similar to what happened to the fictional version of Pa near Plum Creek, when he survived for three or four days in a snow bank (also thanks to his buffalo coat; they must have been pretty warm!) and only realised he was within sight of his house when the blizzard stopped. Based on Wilder’s books, I’m going to assume the reason Morrill rushed home was because he had a cow to take care of – seems like people were always rushing around back in the day because they had livestock to feed and milk. But what did he do with his horses while he was camped there? I would have thought he’d probably try to snuggle up against them for warmth, but I doubt they’d fit under a sleigh! He was very lucky to have lived through it; blizzards are no joke, and he could very easily have frozen to death!
You know, when I was originally reading about this, I kind of wondered what he did with the horses, too. I guess they just stood there? And I like the cow theory! Most things dealing with the law moved at a snails pace back then (well, I guess some things haven’t really changed all that much), so I wouldn’t have thought it was work bringing him home, but who knows? Maybe he couldn’t stand his wife and had to run back up to Lyons to see his girlfriend. Personally, I think that I’m just going to combine the two and say that he was having a committed relationship with his cow and couldn’t wait to see it. Not that I’m judging….
Laura Ingalls Wilder is really a fount of knowledge on pioneer life; she may have fictionalised events in her life when it made a better story, but the basic details of pioneer life ring true. And there are multiple examples in her books of people rushing home in terrible weather because they have to care for their livestock, so it seems a likely explanation (though I like your “committed relationship with the cow” theory!). Even a lawyer would probably keep a cow or two on hand when living on the prairie to ensure a supply of milk and butter (maybe not milk so much in winter, but the poor thing would still need feeding and watering).
It makes sense. There were the everyday chores, such as taking care of the livestock, as well as the possible duties of his own profession to attend to. With the weather coming in, he might have been afraid to have his wife out there with him. Even today, that is a very wide open area of prairie, and the city has grown out quite a ways from where it was in the 1850’s. In my opinion, he should have stayed, too, then broken across the prairie when the weather broke. Though it wouldn’t have been ideal, the animals could have survived for a day, and you can’t do anything about them at all if you’re dead. I’ve always been a big fan of Wilder myself. She’s still – in my opinion – the best one to introduce anyone of any age to frontier life in the 19th century, regardless of how certain things were embellished on her part. My favorite was always the locust swarm that they experienced, when a line of them marched in a straight line through the house. I just love the imagery. And I prefer her accounts of the blizzards to some others, if for no other reason than she was able to describe how rough they were without being too horrible. I read a book about the Children’s Blizzard in the 19th century that about broke my heart. I had to stop reading it. I’ll take Wilder any day!
I read that Children’s Blizzard book too. Really depressing! There’s a book called Locust too, about the swarms. I seriously am kind of obsessive about LIW.