The Deep Snow of 1830-’31

Jacksonville, Morgan county, Illinois–1830/1831:

“Quite a number of persons had settled in the county during this interval, and population and improvements had largely increased. This fall of snow was indeed a remarkable event. Nothing like it had ever occurred in the annals of the northwest. The Indians relate that years before the discovery of the Mississippi River, a great snow fell to the depth of a man’s waist. Wild animals perished in great numbers, and the suffering among the Indians, which followed the loss of so much game, was severely felt.

No meteorological events of this century are so deeply fixed in the memories of “the oldest inhabitants” as “the deep snow” of 1831, and “the quick freeze” of 1886. Dr. Sturtevant says of the first named:

In the interval between Christmas, 1830 and new year, 1831, snow fell over all Central Illinois to the depth of fully three feet on a level. Then came a rain, with weather so cold that it froze as it fell, forming a crust of ice over this three feet of snow, nearly, but not quite, strong enough to bear a man, and finally over this crust of ice there was a few inches of very light snow. The clouds passed away and the wind came down from the northwest with extraordinary ferocity.

“The thermometer was not higher than 12° below 0”

For weeks, certainly for not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not on any one morning, higher than twelve 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 any one who attempted to face it. No man could, for any considerable length of lime, make his way on foot against it.

We were dependent chiefly for keeping warm on having plenty of wood, for our houses were certainly far enough from being warmly built; and yet our supply of fuel for the winter was not, as is more commonly the case now, piled at our doors before winter. It was in the forest, and must be brought us, through snow, and by people who were quite unaccustomed to it. Could it be done?

This snow-fall produced constant sleighing for nine weeks, and when at last warm rains and sunshine prevailed, about the first of March, melting the snow from fields and untrodden places, the roads remained as lines of ice which disappeared but gradually. The New Englander has scarcely any such experience of winter as this, certainly not unless it be quite in northern New England. We had no railways then, nor indeed any dream of having them. But our mail communications with the rest of the world were interrupted for several weeks continuously. We, in those days, had only one mail a week, and that on horseback from Springfield, and to bring that through that snow required more energy than mail boys in those days were masters of. Some varieties of wild game were nearly exterminated. Deer were entirely unable to protect themselves from the dogs and the huntsmen.

“The Quick Freeze—Death To Man And Beast.”

Mr. Anderson Foreman another living resident of Jacksonville at that time writes to the Courier, as follows:

The famous historic “deep snow” occurred in the winter of 1830-’31. On the 20th of December, 1830, sleeting and snowing began and continued throughout December. Through January and February, 1831, snow fell and in many places drifted to the depth of six feet and more. The snow, on an average all over the country, was three feet deep. It was indeed a season of great hardships and suffering to men and beasts and birds throughout the country.

In 1836, the cold wave and quick freeze occurred. The cold wave traveled at the rate of 10 miles an hour. Before the wave came it had been thawing and raining, and the geese and ducks, swimming and bathing in the ponds and puddles of water, when struck by the cold wave, froze, and were taken into the house and their wings, feet and feathers relieved of the icicles. The wagon wheels, when they ceased to roll, froze to the ground; and all the animals, and birds of all kinds froze to death far and near. Men killed their horses, and after disemboweling them, crawled in and thus saved their own lives

“Mr. John W. Lathrop describes the sudden freeze thusly:”

During the previous night snow fell to the depth of about eight inches, and at sunrise the next morning it was raining and very warm and foggy, and continued raining until nearly noon. The snow was completely saturated with the rain, so that in walking my feet went to the bottom of the snow until I passed the Female Academy; then the cold wave struck me, and as I drew my feet up the ice would form on my boots until I made a track that looked more like that of a Jumbo than a No. 7 boot. When I reached the square the ice bore me up, and when I returned to Mr. Turner’s, a half hour afterwards, I saw his chickens and ducks frozen into the ice—some on one leg and some on both.

Two young men who were traveling for Philadelphia merchants were frozen to death not far from Rushville. One of them was found sitting with his back against a tree with his horse’s bridle over his arm and his horse frozen in front of him. The other young man was partly in a kneeling position, with a tinder box in one hand and a flint in the other—with both eyes open, as though attempting to light the tinder in the box—that being the usual mode of lighting a fire before the days of friction matches These young men were here only a few days before, calling on the merchants, and, as was the custom then, traveled on horseback. The only other person who was frozen to death, who was known here, I think was a minister known as Father Birch, then living near Galena.” Excerpts from; Historic Morgan & Classic Jacksonville; 1884-’85; Charles M. Eames.


“It is very common, as we all know, to hear people complaining of the weather, asserting that it is the coldest or the hottest, the wettest or the driest they ever saw. Then the “oldest inhabitant” so often confidently states that this is the coldest winter ever known. The news reporter interviews him, and out comes the announcement: Coldest winter on record,” and probably the information that the climate has greatly changed since the first settlement of the country, and very likely assign reasons for the change, when, in fact, if we had a record of rainfall and temperature for the time covered by the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and his father before him, we would find that things had remained substantially as they were ages before.”–Arthur Armstrong Denny; 1888.

“The ill opinion which men entertain of the Divine direction, peculiarly appears in their murmurs about the weather, though the whole result of the year proves the folly of their complaints. Believers should avoid this; no days are bad as God makes them, though we make many bad by our sins.”–Matthew Henry; 1662-1714.

The truest definition of Climate Change: ”The weather often changeth without notice, and is constant almost in its inconstancy!”—William Penn; 1683.

Read more about ‘climate change’ here.