With major winter storms and arctic blasts crossing the nation, it seems a good time to learn from some brutal seasonal weather events that plagued our forefathers.
Harsh winters threatened pioneers with countless dangers-cold, illness, starvation. Surviving on the frontier depended on preparedness and treating winter as a formidable obstacle.
For many people today, the biggest challenge of winter is setting aside enough time to scrape snow and ice off cars or reducing skyrocketing heating bills. However, history teaches us that you and your family should be prepared for a winter crisis.
Whether you live in a warmer climate or face the threat of arctic blasts and blizzards each year, the experiences of pioneers surviving such rough winters offer important insights into preparing for a coming crisis.
A winter storm crossing the nation
4 essential survival tips from winters past - including 1888
Winter is coming. Again.
For pioneers on the American frontier, the winter posed a particularly difficult challenge. For example, as brutal cold and heavy snowstorms swept through the mountainous terrain of Appalachia, families could find themselves cut off from the community, even their closest neighbors. In this isolated setting, these brave and resourceful people had to survive using the supplies and food they had spent the previous seasons preparing.
The first lesson we can learn from pioneers is to treat a crisis as something that is not a matter of if, but when. On the frontier, winter was certain and its coming gave an urgency to the preparations. Even if you can't predict what crisis could threaten your family's access to food and other vital resources, treating your preparations as a matter of when, not if you need them keeps you vigilant in your efforts.
The Children's Blizzard Killed in Hours.
When settlers were caught unprepared, winter storms could prove deadly. Perhaps the biggest toll came from Minnesota's "Children's Blizzard" in January of 1888. The storm gets its name from the tragic deaths of children who were dismissed from school and caught in the sudden snowstorm, freezing to death as they tried to make their way home. The destruction reached further than that, however, as reports indicated that between 250 and 500 people died that weekend, as the settlers were not warned about and not ready for the storm.
The Children's Blizzard struck in the middle of the day, and during an unseasonably warm stretch of the winter. In addition to hitting without warning, the storm also caught settlers in Minnesota under-prepared for the harsh cold. The state had just experienced a population surge. Many of the homes were built quickly and not properly insulated against a bitter Minnesota winter at its worst.
Settler communities in Minnesota suffered from lasting effects of the Children's Blizzard for years to come, as they struggled to bounce back from the loss of life and livestock, as well as to deal with the physical scars of frostbite and illness. Often, however, settlers were ready for winter and their vigilance offers insights into building a plan for preparing your family for survival.
The Chidlren's Blizzard of 1888
1. To everything, there is a season.
In Appalachia, families carved out time over the cycle of a year to prepare for the winter season. During the spring and summer, they planted their crops and tended to them. Over the course of the growing season and into the fall, they harvested, preserved and canned food.
They also turned attention to preparing other resources for the coming winter. A couple of days would be devoted to making candles, and many settlers also made their own clothing and rope cord.
Autumn was also a good time for hunting and stocking up on meat and other animal products for the winter. Although hunting was still a viable option during the colder months, having supplies ready acted as a safety net in case of a blizzard or a bad hunting season.
Breaking out the work in this way gave a rhythm to the tasks and made it all manageable over a year's timeline. Similarly, you can set aside certain times of the year to prepare different aspects of your family's survival plan.
Like the pioneers, you can dedicate a weekend over the summer to canning your own preserves, or a few days in the fall to preparing candles, batteries, and other supplies you might need if you lose power. You can even tie the preparations to certain times in the calendar that serve as natural triggers for the work. For example, as you get ready for the school year to start, make sure your summer canning projects are done. Or, take advantage of fall and winter sales to stock up on clothing, candles, and other items.
The changing seasons provide a natural rhythm to preparing your family for survival, but no matter what climate you live in, you can create a timeline for your family's prepping activities, built around your regular calendar.
Making candles if you lose power
2. Consider all necessities.
The preparations for winter on the frontier had to account for all a family's needs. Heat. Light. Fuel. Food. Water. Clothing. These necessities had to be ready if a family wanted to survive and be comfortable through the winter.
Cold winters were especially hard on the young and the old, as the harsh weather made people more susceptible to fever and illness, as well as to the aches and pains of arthritis and rheumatism. Part of preparing for the winter meant preparing for illnesses, setting aside the remedies and resources needed to care for an ailing family member.
Take a lesson from the preparedness of these pioneers and consider what your family would need, beyond food and water, in the event of a crisis or disaster. How would you fare if you lost power? Would you be able to keep warm or cool? What would you do for light and communication? If you had no access to currency, do you have items to barter with?
In addition to an emergency food supply (we recommend starting with a 3-month supply for each adult in the family), remember to consider your other needs. As you prepare to keep yourselves fed, have you also prepared a first aid kit, complete with the medicines your family might need? Do you have warm clothes and blankets set aside? Strive to be ready to be independent, and resilient to whatever challenges come your way.
Make a list of essential items
3. Make prepping a team effort.
In the year-round effort to prepare the family's resources, each member of the family took part in the work. From tending the crops to hunting, making candles to sewing clothing, each member of the family had everyday tasks that made the work manageable. Like the pioneers, you can get your whole family involved in your preparations. Make the effort family bonding time, or work it into your seasonal chore schedule. Including your kids in the preparations provides teachable moments about the importance of self-reliance and hard work to them, too.
Even your animals can be part of the team. During the Easter Storm of 1873, a Clay County, Nebraska family survived the cold by gathering eight people in the same room as their hog, dog, chickens, and four cows. Although the chickens probably weren't good company, having the animals and people together ensured plenty of body heat, as well as easy access to fresh milk and eggs. This example may be extreme, but don't discount the help that animals can provide in a crisis, even if they are just warming your feet.
Preparations are a family effort
4. Turn a challenge into an opportunity.
Although the winter brought hardship, it also made some things easier. American Indians in Northern Michigan and other parts of the Midwest, used the winter for hunting, as the bare trees and hard-packed snow made it easier to spot and track animals. Similarly, pioneers used the winter break from farming to focus on hunting.
Winter also provided a time to test and fix a home's efficiency. When the cold wind revealed cracks in the home's insulation, settlers got to work patching these cracks. You can use changes in weather to catch drafts or leaks in your home's energy efficiency. Use the break from busy summer or fall activities to spend more time preparing your resources and survival plan.
Is your home prepared for winter and cold?
Preparedness Beyond the Winter
The challenges of winter on the frontier may still be relatable to some when the extreme cold weather sets in. Certainly, much about life has gotten easier since the settlers faced treacherous winters and sudden blizzards. Nevertheless, their determination, teamwork, and ingenuity, provides many lessons on the importance of preparedness, no matter where you live.
Make a plan that keeps you vigilant throughout the year. Involve the whole family. Consider all your needs - food, water, shelter. View the challenge as an opportunity to grow in self-reliance and character. These are the lessons early patriots and pioneers have handed down for us to learn from.
We wish you a Merry Christmas as we head into the holidays and the unknown of a what is sure to be an interesting new year!
Elizabeth Anderson, MPS Preparedness Adviser