It’s still cold here in northern Illinois, and likely to get quite a bit colder. Next Monday, the low is predicted to be -20° F., which is cold in anyone’s book.
There’s quite a bit of snow on the ground, too, with more predicted during the next few days. So far, this has been the snowiest winter around these parts since the big snow of 1978-79.
But when it gets cold like this, most of us are fortunate enough to live in homes with central heat, even if it is costing us an arm and a leg to pay every time the furnace or boiler kicks on.
This year’s weather invites comparisons with some of Illinois’ past memorable winters. And while it’s been cold and snowy, it hasn’t held a candle to the winter of 1830-31, known forever after by the unlucky few pioneer families living in the Fox Valley back then as “The Winter of the Deep Snow.” It was so memorable, in fact, that it became definitive. As historian Jon Musgrave wrote: “The Winter of the Deep Snow became a dating point in pioneer legend. Residence in the Illinois country before that date was qualification for members in Old Settlers associations and special designation as a ‘Snow Bird.’ One pioneer wrote: ‘I have my Snow Bird badge which was given me at the Old Settlers’ meeting at Sugar Grove. I prize it very highly and would not trade it for a hundred wild turkeys running at large in Oregon.’”
According to one account, the really bad weather began with a cold rain on Dec. 20, 1830 which then changed to sleet and snow until a six inch snowfall on Christmas Eve. Then the wind blew, creating huge drifts. Then came more rain and then sub-zero weather, forming a crust atop the snow that in places would bear the weight of men and anilmals In other places, it wasn’t quite thick enough for that and made extremely slow going across the prairie.
Dr. Julian M. Sturtevan of Jacksonville, Ill., kept a journal during the winter and noted that: “For weeks, certainly for not less that two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher that 12 degrees below zero. The wind was a steady, fierce gale from the northwest, day and night. The air was filled with flying snow, which blinded the eyes and almost stopped the breath of anyone who attempted to face it. No man could, for any considerable length of time, make his way on foot against it.”
As 1830 turned from summer to autumn and then early winter, there were still relatively few hardy pioneers living in the Fox and DuPage River valleys. And none of them were really prepared for the harsh winter that was coming.
Bailey Hobson rode horseback from his home in Orange County, located in southwestern Indiana, to northern Illinois in May 1830, prospecting for land to settle. Armed only with a pocket knife, he looked at land between the Fox and DuPage rivers, eventually selecting a site in the timber below Newark. He cut trees to mark his claim and then headed back to Indiana to get his wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson, and his children.
Hobson was adventurous, but wasn’t particularly wise about settling during the frontier era. The family didn’t leave Indiana until Sept. 1, 1830, well along in the season. They arrived at Holderman’s Grove in what would one day become Kendall County 21 days later and then traveled to his claim where he built a rude camp for the family while he completed their log cabin.
The family’s supplies were running low, and it was far too late in the season to plant any crops, so Hobson climbed aboard his horse and headed west looking to buy flour. He crossed the Vermilion River and went all the way to the Oxbow Prairie near modern Hennepin, finding no flour to be had, but did find some pork to buy. He promised to return for it later and headed back home, where, although supplies were running low, there was sufficient food for a while.
Even though the food situation was nagging, Hobson continued to prospect for better land. And he found it to the east along the DuPage River. He and his brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, traveled there in early December and staked a claim with the intent of working on a new cabin. But that night—Dec. 20—the first of what would be a nearly unending string of snow and windstorms struck. The DuPage froze over and Stewart and Hobson had to break the ice and lead their oxen across. It took a few days, but the two exhausted men finally made it back to the Hobson claim where his wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson was looking after the children and the family’s livestock.
It was nearly Christmas, the time Hobson had told the Oxbow people he would return for his pork, and so once again Hobson left his family to head west, leaving Stewart to look after the wife and children. He was gone 19 days, and was nearly lost on the prairie during a blizzard, but finally made it back to the cabin with the pork only to find that his family was down to the last of their corn meal.
It was clear to Hobson that the family needed more provisions or they’d starve. So he and Stewart determined to head off to get provisions elsewhere, leaving Clarissa home to look after the children and livestock. They took a yoke of oxen to break a trail through the snow, leaving 13 head of cattle and three horses for Clarissa to look after, as well as the children.
Two days after the men left, a two day storm dumped three feet of snow on the Hobson claim, followed by a three day windstorm and freezing temperatures. Immediately after the snow fell, Clarissa bundled up and trudged to the nearby spring to get water, but then the hurricane force windstorm hit, and she was forced to dump the water and sprint to safety at the cabin through the wind. The children opened the cabin door for her and then it took all their strength to close it again against the force of the storm. They didn’t go out again for three days.
When the wind finally stopped, the livestock were nowhere to be found, but they slowly straggled back to the lonely cabin, ha
ving weathered the storm in the lea of the grove where the Hobson cabin stood.
The firewood that had been stockpiled in the cabin had now been exhausted, so Clarissa made her way to the family’s wood pile, only to find it a solid mass of ice. Using a pickax, she was able to free enough wood to keep the cabin’s fire burning. The spring was buried in drifts, but Clarissa was able to melt snow for drinking water.
On the 14th day after he left, Bailey finally returned with part of the provisions he and Stewart had procured. And it was just in time. Clarissa and the children had burned all the wood he and Stewart had stockpiled and Clarissa was in the process of tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for firewood.
Eight days later, Stewart arrived with the rest of the food, the oxen pulling the sledge limping and bleeding from breaking through the crust on top of the snow.
That spring, the Hobsons moved east to their new claim on the DuPage River becoming some of the first settlers in modern Naperville, and some of its most respected residents, having survived The Winter of the Deep Snow.