Winter in the Midwest can be miserable. As a recent acquisition proves, this has always been the case; but 1836 may have seen one of the worst.
The Newberry Library recently acquired just the second known copy of the travelogue of Joseph Bedell, titled A Tour through the Western States. This publication, printed by Star Book & Job Printing on Long Island, New York, was most likely produced in a very small run meant for friends and family.
The travelogue, though printed in 1867, details Bedell’s trip from New York to Illinois by steamboat and foot beginning in August 1836 and the subsequent return journey beginning on December 26, 1836, with John Magoun (the original owner of the Newberry’s copy) and Chester Foster.
Among his descriptions of life and travel on the prairie, Bedell offers his own personal experience braving the apocalyptic natural event known interchangeably as the “Great Freeze,” “Sudden Freeze,” or the “Sudden Change” of 1836.
In December of 1836, either on the 16th or 20th (accounts differ), the day began very wet. The day before had been mild, causing the previously fallen snow to begin to melt; rain began in the afternoon and continued into the morning of the freeze. But then, around 10 am on the Illinois-Iowa border, a reportedly ominous, dark, and roaring cloud appeared that caused temperatures to drop dramatically.
This storm front would race to Springfield, Illinois, by 2 pm; by 6 pm the front had moved to the Illinois-Indiana border; and a less severe version of the front finally made it to Cincinnati around 9 pm. Bedell was in Bloomington, Illinois. As he describes the event, it sounds like something out of a Hollywood natural disaster movie.
Bedell was returning from the shoemaker when,
at the instant of placing my feet upon the sidewalk, a tornado of wind came up out of the west-boards from a lumber yard flying wild and high in the air. The moment it struck my person my hat took a speedy flight, landing into the bottom of a well. It was undignified on the part of my hat to forsake my company in such a style, leaving my head exposed to the elements, disarranging the locks of my hair with great confusion. It was attended with difficulty to keep my equilibrium from being carried off my feet. Before reaching the opposite side of the street, the snow and ice cracked under my feet, the surface freezing hard by the force of the storm as it swept over the horizon. Several persons, horses and cattle, froze to death by the intense severity of the weather. It was the most sudden and severe change that I had ever experienced… (Bedell, 40-41).
Other accounts throughout the Midwest describe similar experiences due to the storm front hitting so quickly. Men froze to their saddles; frogs froze, petrified with their mouths open. The morbid tales proliferate once you start looking for them.
To confirm the anecdotal stories that have been recorded about the “Sudden Change,” temperature records in Augusta, Illinois, show that the morning temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and by 2 pm it had dropped to 0 degrees.
So the next time you feel the winter blues, remember that it could be worse: you could be frozen to your saddle. Our Special Collections reading room can provide some shelter from the storm, and this travelogue can take you away to the prairie.
By Nora Gabor, Senior Program Assistant
Bedell, J. A Tour Through the Western States. Long Island City: Star Book and Job Printing Office, 1867.
Cunningham, J. O. "The Cold Tuesday." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 4, no. 3 (October 1911): 324-27. Accessed December 13, 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40193726.
Kemp, Bill. "December 1836 'Sudden Change' a Dangerous Event for Early Settlers." Pantagraph, December 13, 2008. Accessed December 13, 2016. https://www.pantagraph.com/news/december-sudden-change-a-dangerous-event-for-early-settlers/article_da3e0625-7630-53c1-9dd8-cab25b89d9e7.html.
"The Sudden Freeze of 1836." Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1880. Accessed December 13, 2016. https://chicagotribune.newspapers.com/.