The subzero temperatures that descended on the Midwest this week reminded me of an obscure historical weather event that blew through central Illinois in the 1830s. It was known as the “Sudden Freeze,” and appeared without warning on December 20, 1836. The weather had been relatively warm in the proceeding days, and a light rain turned the snow to slush. In the early afternoon, a dark cloud traveling about 25-30 mph descended from the northwest “accompanied by a roaring noise.”
What happened next was described by William H. Perrin in his History of Coles County, Illinois (1879):
As it passed over the country, everything was frozen in its track almost instantly. Water that was running in little gullies or in the streams was suddenly arrested in its career, blown into eddies and small waves by the wind, and frozen before it could subside. Cattle, horses, hogs and wild animals exposed to its fury were soon chilled through and many frozen in their tracks. Where a few moments before they walked in mud and slush, was now frozen, and unless moving about they were frozen fast.
In some instances where individuals were exposed to the fury of this wave and unable to reach shelter, their lives were lost. One man was found afterward standing frozen in the mud, dead, and still holding the rein of his horse in his hand. He had apparently become bewildered and chilled, and freezing fast in the mud and slush, remained standing. (pages 339-340)
There are several stories of pioneers who were unfortunately caught outside and instantly froze to death. According to History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois (1876) by John C. Power, in the western part of Douglas County near the border of Piatt and Moultrie counties, “two brothers by the name of Deeds had gone out to cut a bee tree, and were overtaken by the cold and frozen to death. Their bodies were found ten days later, about three miles from home.”
Others resorted to extreme measures to survive the cold snap. Jack Moore Williams, in his History of Vermilion County, Illinois, Vol. 1 (1930), related the following two incidents. In the second incident, several men disemboweled one of their horses and used its body as shelter:
That day [Alvan] Gilbert started to Chicago with a drove of hogs and as he and his helpers reached Bicknell’s prairie, the temperature lowered, accompanied by a strong wind and dark masses of clouds from the northwest.
Within ten minutes the cold became so intense that Gilbert realized he and his men would soon freeze if they remained on the prairie. They hurriedly started for the nearest point of timber, seven miles distant with the team and wagon. Their hands and feet were badly frozen before they reached this refuge. That night eighteen of the hogs were frozen to death on the prairie and many of the survivors were frozen to the ground.
Two men named Frame and Hildreth were caught the same night between Bicknell’s Prairie and Milford. A creek, too deep to ford, prevented their reaching a pioneer cabin, and they killed one of their horses, disemboweled the animal and crowded themselves into the aperture to keep from freezing. During the night Frame froze to death, his companion managing to reach the nearest house the next morning, although badly frozen. (pages 156-157)
John C. Power, author of History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois, tracked down relatives of the man who survived that incident and pieced together a more detailed account.
On the second day out, December 20th, they entered the border of a large prairie, and the next timber was many miles distant, on Hickory creek, a tributary of Iroquois River, and now in Iroquois County. It rained all the forenoon, and the earth was covered with water. They encountered a slough containing so much water they did not like to attempt passing through it. In order to head the slough they rode some miles in a northeast direction, and having crossed it, turned northwest to regain their course. That was about the middle of the afternoon.
It suddenly ceased raining and the cold wave came in all its fury from the northwest, striking them square in the face. They were then out of sight of any human habitation, and their horses became absolutely unmanageable, and drifted with the wind, or across it, until dark closed in upon them. How long they were discussing what to do is not stated, but they finallv agreed to kill each the others horse. They dismounted and Hildreth killed Frame’s horse. They took out the entrails, and both crawled into the carcass as far as they could, and lay there, as near as Hildreth could judge, until about midnight.
The animal heat from the carcass having become exhausted, they crawled out, intending that Frame should kill Hildreth’s horse, and both crawl into it. Just then the one having the knife dropped it, and it being dark, they were unable to find it. Being thus foiled in their purpose, they both huddled about the living horse as best they could, until about four o’clock in the morning. Frame by that time was so benumbed with the cold that he became sleepy, and notwithstanding Hildreth used every exertion to keep him up, he sank down in a sleep from which he never awakened. (page 68)
Power also related this story of a man who barely escaped the sudden freeze on his way to obtain a marriage certificate in Springfield, Illinois.
On the morning of December 20, 1836, [Washington Crowder] started from a point on Sugar Creek about eight miles south of Springfield, to the latter place, for the purpose of obtaining a license for the marriage of himself and Miss Isabel Laughlin… There were several inches of snow on the ground, but rain was then falling slowly, and had been, long enough to turn the snow to slush. Every time the horse put his foot down it went through the slush, splashing it out on all sides. Mr. Crowder was carrying an umbrella to protect himself from the rain, and wore an overcoat reaching nearly to his feet.
When he had traveled something like half the distance, and had reached a point about four miles south of Springfield, he had a fair view of the landscape, ten or twelve miles west and north. He saw a very dark cloud, a little north of west, and it appeared to be approaching him very rapidly accompanied by a terrific, deep, bellowing sound. He thought it prudent to close his umbrella, lest the wind should snatch it from his hands, and dropped the bridle reins on the neck of his horse for that purpose. Having closed the umbrella and put it under his arm, he was in the act of taking hold of the bridle rein, when the cold wave struck him.
At that instant water was dripping from every thing about him, but when he drew the reins taut, ice rattled from them. The water and slush was almost instantly turned to ice, and running water on sloping ground was congealed as suddenly as molten lead would harden and form in ridges if poured on the ground. Mr. Crowder expressed himself quite sure that within fifteen minutes from the time the cold blast reached him his horse walked on top of the snow and water, so suddenly did it freeze.
When he arrived in Springfield he rode up to a store at the west side of Fifth street, between Adams and Monroe, a few doors south of where Bunn’s bank now stands. He there attempted to dismount, but was unable to move, his overcoat holding him as firmly as though it had been made of sheet iron. He then called for help, and two men come out, who tried to lift him off, but his clothes were frozen to the saddle, which they ungirthed, and then carried man and saddle to the fire and thawed them asunder.
After becoming sufficiently warm to do so, Mr. Crowder went to the county clerk’s office, obtained his license, and by driving his horse before him, returned to where he had started in the morning. (page 65)
Anecdotal accounts put the cloud near Springfield, Illinois around 12:00pm, and Lebanon, Ohio (in southwestern Ohio) around 9:00pm, covering that distance in nine hours. Its width reportedly stretched from Ottawa, Illinois to a short distance below Coles County, or about 140 miles. The freezing storm cloud exhausted itself somewhere over Ohio. To this day, there is no explanation for this strange event.
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