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As the first blast of winter hit this week, the memories of past winters – when we had mounds of snow – came to mind. This year, according to the persimmon seed, with its telltale spoon, we should expect to have our snow shovels at the ready.
The winter of "eighteen hundred and starve-to-death" in 1831, was not the first big freeze experienced in Illinois. An earlier freeze, about 1813, was known as the "year without a summer."
First-person accounts of these events are priceless, such as the memories of Hughea L. Davenport, great-grandfather of the late Berle Mattes.
In 1824, the Davenport family came from Kentucky and settled six miles west of the hamlet of Springfield, which Hughea described as having “eight to 10 houses, several stores, including one with a whiskey barrel, owned by a man named Herndon, and the Capps’ brothers hardware and shoe shop.”
In May 1876, Hughea sat down to record his memories of his life in Illinois.
Hughea and wife, Joanna Watt, married in the spring of 1831, and the following year moved to Macon County, where he bought an improvement, a log cabin built by an earlier settler.
“And now, I will tell you something about the deep snow that fell in the winter of 1830-1831," Hughea said. "I was then living in the Big Grove on Kickapoo.
“It began to snow, I think, on the 8th of December, and fell until it was about a foot deep. It was fine sleighing for a week. Then there came another fall of snow, about a foot deep on a level in the timber. Around the outer edge of the groves, it was from 4 to 20 feet deep, and turning very cold at times.
“Several settlers from the vicinity of where Clinton now stands were over to a mill about two miles west of where Waynesville is now located. The weather was mild, and it was snowing fast. They got their grists ground and started for home. At that time, there were no houses from the timber on Kickapoo to Ten-Mile Creek, near Clinton, a distance of 12 miles.
“When they were about three miles from Kickapoo timber, it snowed so fast that they could not see any distance before them. Their team (two yoke of oxen) gave out. The wind changed, and they got lost. The snow was from two to three feet deep, and it began to get very cold and their clothes were frozen on them.
“They could not see any timber and did not know which way they were going. Finally, they unyoked the oxen and let them go their own way. One of the oxen started on a straight course and they followed him until one of the party, John Clifton, gave out and laid down. The other two dragged him through the snow and cuffed him about to keep him awake.
“About sunset, it quit snowing and they could see the timber and a house about three miles away. Their ox was going straight toward it, but it was still getting colder and their pilot gave signs of giving out.
“They drove the oxen in front of them, following in his trail and dragging their comrade, the ox going a few rods and then stopping to rest while they rubbed their comrade and cuffed him to keep him and themselves from freezing.
“The sick man was the first to get to the house, he being the lightest, while the others would occasionally break through the crust into four feet of snow, causing them hard labor to regain their footing on the crust so that they were nearly frozen to death by the time they got to the house.
“The home was that of John Robb, who lived on Rock Creek, four or five miles east of the site of Waynesville. The men involved in this adventure were Josiah and John Clifton and David Noflet.
“Our corn was generally out in the field and we had to wade through the snow up to our waists, gather it in sacks and carry it on our shoulders to feed our stock and make hominy or pound it in a mortar.
“The wolves grew fierce and attacked men, killed calves and sheep, carried off small hogs, came close to our houses in daytime and killed our dogs.”
Thousands of unprotected cattle, pigs and chickens perished, and many kinds of small game were nearly exterminated. The following spring, the prairies were littered with their carcasses.
Frenchmen living near St. Louis said they remembered a winter nearly 50 years earlier that had similarities to the winter of 1831. During this earlier event, the bison that had roamed the Illinois prairie, died from starvation and exposure.
Learning of these events is interesting. But the first-person accounts from men and women who lived through it are invaluable.