Blue Northers by
only weather forecasting in early day Texas came from experience.
understood that it could get very cold in winter, stormy in the spring, hot in
the summer, and cool in the fall. But they never had the advantage of knowing
in much in advance when the weather would change.
These days, thanks to
the National Weather Service, Texans are apprised days ahead of time that artic
air is pushing its way south. They have plenty of time to wrap their pipes against
freezing, protect their plants and animals and lay in a supply of firewood, chili
meat and both the external and internal varieties of anti-freeze.
when, a traveler could leave home in warmth only to soon find himself shivering
in a strong north wind, the mercury dropping faster than a boulder off a cliff.
Nor did Texans yet know the term "chill factor," the affect wind speed
has on making the actual temperature feel even colder. All they knew was that
Texas could turn colder than a bill collector's heart in a matter of hours.
"It is understood by many persons at a distance that the Texas 'northers' are
dreadful winter storms, which come on so suddenly and are so severe and extremely
cold, that man and beast, caught out on the open prairies a few miles from shelter,
have often been known to freeze to death in a very short time," W.J. Blewett wrote
for D.W.C. Baker's 1875 "A Texas Scrapbook."
Not only could northers not
be predicted, 19th century Texans did not enjoy the luxury of merely needing to
flip a switch or turn the dial on a thermostat to get warm. Back then, they did
whatever they could not simply to be comfortable, but to survive.
Foot Wallace told of a force march while a Mexican prisoner. To stay warm
at night, he and his fellow Texans covered their camp fires with dirt and slept
Rev. Z.N. Morrell, a traveling Methodist preacher, got caught
on the road (though it wasn't much of a road back then) when a spring-like March
day reverted to winter.
"A blue Texas norther whistled around my ears,"
he wrote, "and appeared almost to penetrate my quivering limbs, as I mounted my
horse, at four o'clock in the evening, with 25 miles lying stretched between me
and [his] destination."
The minister got soaked riding his horse across
a stream and might have died of hypothermia had he not wandered up on a recently-built
cabin. The occupants had not had time to chink the cracks between the logs of
their new home, but they had a hearty fire going and a pot of coffee on.
In exchange for their hospitality, Morrell went out and shot a turkey that soon
roasted on the fire.
Buffalo hunters caught on the open plains by a blue
norther sometimes sought shelter inside the steaming carcass of a freshly-slain
bison. Occasionally, they got frozen inside the dead animal, unable to emerge
until the weather moderated.
Northers could kill the unprotected, but
one pioneer Texan claimed a blue norther saved his life.
As Blinn College's
Star of the Republic Museum noted in its fall newsletter, a DeWitt colony pioneer
named Nathan Boone Burkett attributed his longevity to a vicious cold front swept
into South Central Texas in the first week of December in 1838. At the time, Burkett
and several other volunteers rode hard on the trail of a party of Indians who
had abducted some of his neighbors' children.
"We followed this trail
for three days," Burkett recalled. "On the fourth day an old fashioned 'blue norther'
hit us right in the face. It was sleeting in a short time, and the ground was
soon covered with sleet and ice."
Despite the miserable conditions, the
Texans stuck to the trail. But soon, because of the ground cover, they could no
longer see the tracks of the Indian ponies.
"It was then nearly night
and I had only some summer clothes, so I came close to freezing that night," Burkett
No matter the cold, someone had to stand guard against the
possibility of the Indians circling around to catch their pursuers by surprise.
"Immediately after we stopped I was detailed to go on guard," Burkett remembered,
"but a friend kindly loaned me a gray saddle blanket which I used around me in
Indian fashion. In a short time the blanket was frozen as stiff as a board, but
it offered me some protection."
Sleet kept falling throughout the night.
In the morning, the men agreed the only sensible thing to do was head back home.
the children gained their freedom. One of them later told Burkett it had been
a good thing the weather forced the Texans to return, because they had been trailing
a war party of some 500 braves. If the Texans had managed to catch up with the
Indians, they probably would have been killed.
7 , 2006 column
by Mike Cox