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WILLMAR — The storm blew in after a handful of mild winter days with temperatures above freezing and calm winds. That would all start to change by midday Jan. 7, 1873, when the beginnings of a massive blizzard entered western Minnesota and began streaking toward counties in the central portion of the state.
By the end of the three-day storm, at least 84 people lost their lives — including 11 in Kandiyohi County, three in Chippewa County, two in Renville County, two in Meeker County and one in Yellow Medicine County.
“These are important stories to tell,” said New London native Carolyn Mankell Sowinski. “I don’t want these victims to be forgotten.”
Sowinski tells those stories in her latest book, “The Great Storm: Minnesota’s Victims in the Blizzard of January 7, 1873.” She will hold a book talk at 6:30 p.m. April 13 at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar.
“I can tell the stories,” Sowinski said. “I’ve told family stories, I can tell other people’s stories.”
Born and raised in Kandiyohi County, Sowinski has written several books on the history of her family and the county. One of her first books, “Almost Saved, But Lost,” published in 2017, was about the blizzard victims from Kandiyohi County.
In her own family genealogy research , she uncovered that her great-great grandfather had survived the blizzard at a family member’s farm while his wife and new baby waited out the storm at home. While her ancestors survived, Sowinski started thinking about all those who didn’t and what stories they might have to tell.
“There are many, many people who did not have that happy reunion,” Sowinski said.
After the first book published and as the blizzard’s 150th anniversary neared, Sowinski decided to revisit the storm and its victims. This time, her goal was to tell the stories of as many victims as she could find. For more than two years she researched and pulled “The Great Storm” together.
Sowinski, a professional archivist and historian, did most of the research for the book during the pandemic, which required a lot of internet research and emails to county historical societies. At the time, Sowinski was also living near Washington, D.C., and had easy access to the National Archives. She was able to use newspaper accounts, land records, census data and homesteading documents to pull each victim’s story together.
“Those homestead records held a lot of information,” Sowinski said.
One of the most helpful archives were the records from Gov. Horace Austin and the Minnesota Relief Fund. Austin was Minnesota’s sixth governor.
The fund was set up to provide financial help to those who were facing significant financial hardships due to death, disability or lost animals caused by the blizzard. To receive the aid, people had to apply and prove they were nearly destitute because of the storm. That means many of the applications outlined what exactly happened in each family.
Each impacted county also had its own liaison acting as a go-between for the victims and the state. In Kandiyohi County, that was Albert E. Rice, who served as a state senator, lieutenant governor and eventual namesake of Rice Memorial Hospital.
“I kept doing research and the list kept growing and growing,” Sowinksi said, adding no one knows exactly how many people died in the January 1897 storm, because some might have perished alone and unmissed. “I settled at 84 people. Are there more? Probably.”
The stories those records told were heart-wrenching. Sixty-eight of the deaths were adult men, but there were also seven women and nine children who perished in the storm, caught outside. Many were recent immigrants, looking for a better life. Most died out in the storm, but a few initially survived only to succumb to injuries days later.
The families the dead left behind faced many ongoing challenges and struggles. Not only did they have to deal with the immediate aftermath of the storm and the deaths of family members who in many cases had been the primary breadwinner,, but they also had to figure out how to keep the farms going. For some widows, it was even harder.
“There were 12 widows who were pregnant at the time of their husbands’ deaths,” Sowinski said. “Sad, sad stories. One additional complication to an already tragic story.”
Writing about so much death and tragedy was difficult, so Sowinski added a chapter all about the people who survived the blizzard, even though some of those survivors did suffer from life-changing injuries. Probably the strangest survival story is of Henrik Nelson of Kandiyohi County. He lived through the storm by burrowing into a muskrat nest.
“It was important to lighten the mood, just a little bit,” Sowinski said.
While most of the stories Sowinski uncovered in her research were tragedies, they also showed how resilient the pioneers were. And, she believes they have a lesson to pass along to modern generations.
“I hope one of the secondary stories people get is how families helped each other” during challenging times, Sowinski said. “People were taking in strangers. People helped people.”
With the book completed, Sowinski has scheduled several book talks across the region. A few, fittingly enough, had to be rescheduled due to near-blizzard conditions in the area in early March. In addition to her talk in Willmar, she’ll be making stops in St. James, Worthington, Windom, Slayton and Marshall. She also has a few talks scheduled in August and October.
“I’ve connected with so many people” at talks, Sowinski said, and she has been able to hear even more family stories of those who have survived blizzards on the prairies.
As a self-published author, Sowinski doesn’t write these books for the money. Instead, she hopes to share these important stories with a larger audience and to preserve them for future generations.
“People have stories in their lives that should be told,” Sowinski said.