Think of winter for Iowa’s pioneer settlers

The last few weeks have produced some extreme cold across Iowa, enough to create dangerous wind chill conditions and a few serious snowstorms.

Think about this unpleasantness — then think what those conditions were like for Iowa’s first settlers.

Diaries, autobiographies, and newspaper articles create a picture of hardships unlike anything we’ve undergone in recent weeks.

We live in pretty comfortable homes, with highways and roads providing escape routes to shelter if we need them. Utility companies furnish us with dependable heat, and if it goes out because power lines are snapped, it’s restored in a few days at most. We can sit in our living rooms and watch TV coverage of the storms that rage outside.

Now picture winter conditions on the Iowa prairie 160 years ago.

Early settlers put up log cabins as they moved northwestward across two-thirds of Iowa. When they reached the northwest third of the state — pretty much north and west of Greene County — there was not enough timber to provide cabins, so they built sod houses instead.


Early cabins were extremely small for families, most of which had at least three or four children. Dimensions of a standard-sized log cabin were generally 16 feet by 18 feet, and seven horizontal logs high with wooden shakes for a roof.  The dirt floor froze in the winter, and a woman would often stand on a block of wood while she did household chores.

Most cabins had only one room with one bed, where the parents and maybe the youngest child slept. Other kids slept on straw mats in front of the fireplace in winter. Pioneer homes were described by one historian as “crowded, noisy and unclean.”

One pioneer family in the Waterloo area that had built a log cabin in the fall was unable to obtain a door for the structure. They fastened a quilt across the opening to keep out snow and as much cold wind as possible.

“The wolves came right up and howled around the cabin at night,” a family member later recalled.

A Wright County settler who ventured out during a snowstorm to check his trapline tried to return to the family cabin when the blizzard picked up strength. He called out to his anxious family as he wandered around in the storm, but walked right by the cabin, blinded by the howling blizzard. Shouts from both him and his cabin-bound family members finally resulted in reunification.

(The word “blizzard” was coined by the editor of the Estherville newspaper in the 1870s.)

In bitter conditions in winter, people stayed in bed as much as possible in order simply to stay warm. “Cabin fever” was widespread during long snowstorms.

A contemporary diary notes that one man suffered a frozen big toe when it poked out of the covers one winter night.

A cabin’s fireplace, the center of attention of the structure, generally smoked up the interior and provided relatively little heat. There was no privacy for any of the occupants.

Such conditions gave rise to chronic illness among the pioneer population.

Standard fare during the winter months consisted of salted or smoked meat and cracked corn or corn meal, prepared in various ways. The lack of vitamin C in the form of fruit or vegetables led often to scurvy, which weakened people to the extent that other diseases, such as chills and fever (a form of malaria), would often prove fatal when warmer weather rolled around.

Not surprisingly, such challenges produced high rates of infant and child mortality. It wasn’t uncommon for parents to refrain from naming a new baby for the first year or so, waiting to see whether the infant would survive.

But Iowa actually fared better than states farther west. The tallgrass prairie, once tamed, would support several times more families than a comparable area on the Great Plains, so farming neighbors could help each other during times of need.

There were usually several families living on a single section of land across Iowa, unlike the lonely vastnesses of Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and states farther west.

Iowa farm families, once the prairie was settled, developed a strong sense of community that has continued to define what we have come to think of as the Midwestern lifestyle.

That’s an added comfort when the cold wind and stinging snow try but fail to invade our sturdy homes today, far removed indeed from those inhabited by our Iowa great-great-forebears.

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Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161