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Blue Northers

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The only weather forecasting in early day Texas came from experience.

Folks 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.

Back 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.

Big 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 above them.

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 continued.

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.

Eventually, 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.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
December 7 , 2006 column
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