Some of my long-term research projects require paying attention to local and regional weather and climate patters, often going back several hundred years if possible. When you start digging that far at that level of detail, interesting things appear, the sort of thing that makes you sit back and go, “huh. I’m kinda glad I wasn’t there then,” or “Geepers, no wonder they [action]. If both those rivers went dry, I’d [action] too.” As more and more historians are pulling more and more climate data and weather observation into their work, it’s becoming apparent that while we certainly cannot, and should not, credit or blame climate events for all human actions, the weather has played more of a role than we’ve previously given it credit for. Geoffrey Parker’s book about the 17th century is probably going to become one of the classics in terms of that, up there with Le Roi Ladurie’s Times of Feast, Times of Famine. On a local scale, reading ranch records and military reports, and local newspapers reveals just how tough things were in the High Plains at the end of the Little Ice Age.
A ranch manager rode from about 20 miles west of modern Amarillo, TX, across the High Plains to Las Vegas NM one winter on business. If you follow the Canadian River, then jog north a little, and climb a 400′ cliff onto the Canadian River Plateau, you are not that far from Las Vegas. And then he rode back. He was on solid snowpack the entire time. Look at the area on the map and think about that – at least 6″ deep and stayed that way, or was refreshed, over the course of three weeks. The guy who came back with him went snow-blind for several days.
The Rio Grande River near Albuquerque, NM froze over about once every four years, some times more frequently. That is, it did not just get a skin of ice: it froze hard enough for newspapers to report people driving loaded wagons across the ice. People could cut ice from Palo Duro Creek, between the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers in far northern Texas, as early as November some years, although they usually waited until December or January. People also cut ice from the Canadian later, to cool the drinks at the bars in Tascosa, TX. And these were not unusual occurrences, but were noted in the regional newspapers as “oh, yes, just like last year, a group of people went and cut ice.”
Snow drifts that covered fences? Almost every other year, although not across the entire area, usually, unless you count the winter of 1877-78, 1886-87 (or 87-88 on the northern plains), two or three times in the 1890s, the early 1900s, and the infamous winter of 1917-18 (which also bracketed one of the worst droughts in TX-NM since homesteading began and depopulated the Trans-Pecos and eastern NM). Ten to fifteen foot drifts were not rare, and twenty-foot drifts noted from time to time. Tens of thousands of head of cattle and thousands of sheep died, some not found until April when things thawed. In the 1870s, cattle from Kansas drifted with the wind, walking as far south as the plains near Wichita Falls and Colorado City, those that survived. The most recent bout of that, not counting the folks still digging out down in Friona and Clovis, was in the 1970s, when Perryton, in the northeastern TX Panhandle, was buried up to the 2nd story windows of some houses.
The end of the last round of the Little Ice Age brought an end to those kind of winters, although I recall it getting below 0F several times per winter when I moved here in the early 1980s. I’m not looking forward to what the next 16 years or so hold, if the solar weather and historic climatologists are correct. We forget that cold is deadlier than warm.