Trader Seth Ward’s Blizzard of a Lifetime

By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming


                Wyomingites generally consider two winters during the state’s history as “worst of the century.”  For many 19th century residents, the epic winter was 1886-87.  The state was buffeted by strong storms that produced extremely cold temperatures and deep snow.

The bad weather started on November 1, 1886, with temperatures plummeting and snow falling statewide.  The waves of storms finally came to an end in late April, 1887—an unusually long period of constant snow, wind and cold.

The winter of 1886-87 became legendary, not for the measurable snows or record low temperatures, but because of the extraordinary damage it caused to livestock producers in Wyoming Territory. The prairies, already nearly barren from the preceding extremely dry summer, provided insufficient grass for hundreds of thousands free-ranging cattle on the open ranges. As a result, losses for many cattle companies were so severe that the firms, many organized by absentee owners, had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

In the 20th century, the great snowstorm of 1949 is often the one long-time residents use as a measure of blizzard strength. That storm started on New Year’s Day, 1949. Central and Eastern Wyoming were especially hard hit with raging winds piling the snow into gigantic drifts, leaving many rural residents marooned for weeks.

Livestock losses from the 1949 blizzard were considerably less than from the bad winter of 1886-87.  Historians attribute the greater losses in the 19th century to open-range conditions. By 1949, few cattle in Wyoming grazed on “open range” and most ranchers had contingency feeding as backup. 

These two winters became legendary, but residents in various parts of Wyoming have memories of other less “celebrated winters.”  In at least one case, it was a “stormy spring.” 

The year was 1844, 46 years before Wyoming became a state and 15 years before it was even organized as a territory.  Trader Seth Ward was only 24 years old at the time, but he was already a veteran of trading along the Santa Fe trail and of trapping for Lancaster P. Lupton’s fur company near Fort Laramie. Fort Laramie had been established just ten years earlier—the first permanent Euro-American settlement in Wyoming.

Under contract in the spring of 1844 for hauling furs for a couple of other fur companies, Ward and two Indian companions accumulated “so many furs that there were not enough ponies to move them over to the Platte.” En route south to obtain more horses from Lupton’s fort in present Colorado, the three men camped for the night with a group of about 25 Arapahoes.

During that night, May 1, a huge snowstorm descended on the campers.  The deep snow and high winds made it impossible for Ward’s party to move. The Arapahoes eventually made their way to sheltered valleys to the West, but Ward and companions decided to stay put until the weather cleared. The storm didn’t let up for more than two weeks. 

They had packed lightly, assuming that with the arrival of spring, they would have no weather obstacles.  With each passing day, their meager food supply dwindled.

Ward had commented to his colleagues before the storm that he’d never seen so much wild game as they encountered along the trails south. Nonetheless, in camp for those two weeks, the strong storms made it impossible to hunt and the party was reduced to eating their two dogs, just to stay alive.   Finally, after reaching Fort Lupton and returning north with the extra horses, Ward commented on how the wildlife lay dead everywhere.

After successfully getting their valuable fur cargo to St. Louis that summer, Ward became acquainted with Robert Campbell, a co-founder with William Sublette, of Fort Laramie.

After a decade’s association with Campbell’s company, Ward gained the lucrative contract as “post sutler”—the merchant given trading exclusive trading privileges—at Fort Laramie.  Appointed in 1857 by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy during the Civil War), Ward stayed on in that post until 1871.

The following year, 1872, Ward and his wife left the “frontier” and returned to Missouri where he operated a farm on land that later became a residential neighborhood (and golf course) in Kansas City.  After holding numerous prominent civic posts and directorships of banks and corporations, Ward died there in 1903.

Wyomingites throughout history have established “bench-mark” winters—ranging from 1886-87, 1949, or particularly for Cheyenne residents, 1979, when the state capital dug out from more than 120 inches of snow that season.  But for pioneer trader Seth Ward, the “blizzard of a life-time” remained that spring storm during two weeks in May, 1844, when he and two colleagues ate dogs to survive.


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