The Mullan Road

The Wicked Winter of 1861-62

Contemporaty Accounts of the Weather

Compiled by Briana Mullendore

Winter Landscape, Laval, oil on canvas painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1862, National Gallery, Canada

Throughout the land during the winter of 1861-62, there were reports of an unusually cold winter. These accounts focus on cold in the West and especially the Pacific Northwest. But lacking a colorful illustration from the immediate vicinity, we have selected another image to set the mood for this historical excursion. In 1862 Cornelius Krieghoff painted this wintry scene in Laval, north of Quebec. As the following accounts show, however, the terrors of a Canadian winter in 1862 were no more daunting than wintry scenes of the American West.


John Mullan -- a "citizen" whose legs were frozen during the winter of 1861-62.

I here mention with regret a sad accident that occurred to a citizen in passing from one to another of our camps, and which will tend to show the degree of cold we experienced during January. He had left one of the camps with the intention of going to the Deer Lodge valley. Night and severe cold overtaking him before he could reach another camp, he halted to build a fire, and being wet endeavored to slip off his moccasins, when he found them frozen to his feet. He became alarmed, and retracing his steps reached the point he had started from, late at night, but with both feet frozen, and on their being thawed in a tub of water all the flesh fell off. The poor fellow suffered intensely, and his life was only saved by his suffering the amputation of both legs above the knees; the operation was preformed by Dr. George Hammond, United States army. A purse of several hundred dollars was raised for him, and he was left to the kind charity of the fathers at the Pend d'Oreille mission, where he remained up to the date of our leaving the mountains. Mullan Report, 1863, 32-33


James W. Watt -- thousands of cattle die:

Colonel Althouse and I continued on back to Oro Fino with the pack train.  Early in the winter I left that camp and returned to Oregon.  I spent the winter of 1861-62 in Yamhill County, Oregon.  This was one of the worst winters ever experienced in this country.  Between The Dalles and Walla Walla thousands of cattle perished, dying for lack of food and water.  There was a very heavy snow that winter, and the break did not come until February.  In Eastern Oregon the cattle would come down from the snow-covered hills seeking water, but the streams were frozen over.  Hundreds died along these streams, and in the spring the dead bodies were washed away by the spring floods.
  That winter many careless and improvident miners in the Florence and Elk City Mining district perished.  One party, setting out from Lewiston for Portland was caught in a blizzard and froze to death on the sage brush flat at Butter Creak, near Umatilla.  Navigation on the Upper Columbia had to be suspended, and for a time even mail and express was held up.  The middle of January, 1861, my brother Alex Watt, carrying the express and some mail on his back, got out of the upper country and came down the river on the Brother Jonathan to Portland.

Watt, James W. Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860s. Fairfield, Washington:Ye Galleon Press, 1978.


Washington Statesman -- "The severest runneth the memory"

Again the weather furnishes us a theme for comment.  It has been the all-engrossing topic of conversation during its protracted continuance, by all the good people of town and country.  It has been confessedly the severest season ever experienced here-at least so runneth the memory of the “oldest inhabitants,’ and they are proverbial in all latitudes for sticking to the truth.  Its extreme severity has been a source of mingles emotions of consternation and most positive dislike.  It found the most of us entirely unprepared for a New-England winter siege-the previous history of the country furnishing no intimation that our lamps should be kept trimmed and filled for an emergency like the present.  To the town folks, the almost entire suspension of business, the absence of communication for weeks with important points below and above, and the extremely high price of firewood-provokingly occurring just at the time huge fires or accept the alternative of freezing to death-have been fruitful themes of converse and speculation.  To the country folks, the great loss of stock has been a serious misfortune, and given them just cause to lament the severity of the season. It has marked a new era with us-weather-osmetrically speaking-and bidden all prepare for like visitations from the storm-king in future.

We deem it important that the history of the present winter season should be put on the record, both by way of reminding those resident within the valley what kind of weather we have had, that they may prepare for its recurrence; and also to give a truthful impression to those who are contemplating removing hither for the purpose of permanent settlement, that they may know what kind of climate they will be liable to find, and shape their actions accordingly.

For four weeks past, the weather has been constantly cold, continuing almost uniformly so even though the middle of the day-the thermometer ranging from a freezing point down to as low as twenty-nine degrees below zero! This was on Thursday of last week, at five o’clock of the same day, the thermometer stood at twenty degrees below, and at six in the evening it was twenty-four.  This was the coldest day we had by several degrees; the average cold was probably about ten degrees below zero.

This may be regarded as very cold weather for this coast, and as cold perhaps as in many places where they are accustomed to severe weather on the eastern side.  It should be remarked in this connection that this is an unusual winter.  Those who have resided here during the past four or five years, uniformly tell us that the present winter is far more severe than any which has preceded it, both as regards the cold weather and the depth and long continuance of the snow.  Last winter there was but three or four inches of snow at any time on the ground, and it remained but a very short time.  During that season all kinds of stock lived upon the open plain, and in the spring were in good condition.  We are satisfied that this has been an unusually severe winter, else we should be inclined to immigrated to a more temperate climate.

During the past three weeks, the snow has been from a foot to a foot and a half in depth in the valley, and from two to three feet; on the hills and bench-land.  In some places, it has been drifted to the depth of four and five feet; obstructing travel for a few days until a trail could be beaten out.  It is evident that more snow has fallen below than above this place, from the fact that most of the time persons have passed between here and Lewiston, while for several weeks we had no communication with the Dalles.  This is confirmed also by the fact that the stages have not succeeded in making the connection at the lower end of the line even when regular trips were continued on this end of the route.  The snow was deeper at the old Fort than here, and the thermometer indicated colder weather by two or three degrees.

“The Severe Season,” Washington Statesman, January 25, 1862, p. 2

Walla Walla Statesman
-- Musings on why the local winters are usually (if not always) mild

Messrs. Editors:-Having been frequently asked why it is that we, in this high latitude and altitude, have such mild winters, I have concluded to give you my reasoning upon the subject-passed upon several years acquaintance in this valley, together with a careful and diligent study of the causes of this peculiar climate.

The dryness of the climate will be the first point to notice: (And I will admit that the present “spell of weather” is rather an unfavorable time to consider this subject.)  Lieut. Maury it his works on Navigation, Climate, &c., says it is a fixed principle that all ranges of mountain have a wet and a dry side, governed by the _____ and source of the prevailing winds which blow over the range.

Every one familiar with the country and the direction of the wind on the western side of the Cascade mountains is aware that the wind in the winter season blows from off the ocean.  The result is that an immense amount of dampness is collected about the western side of said range, while the elevation of the range guards us from experiencing its unpleasant, dreary presence.  Now, we can readily perceive why we have so little “falling weather;” and I will here assert, from actual measurement, that we have but a little over a one-hundreth part as much rain east of the Cascades as falls upon the western side; consequently our country must be more or less free from cloudy weather.  You will then naturally expect long, cold, dry winter; and why don’t we have them? To understand this properly, we must be made acquainted with the location and quality of the land on this side: The Blue Mountains, branching off from the Cascades-or rather taking rise near the Cascades, nearly opposite the Klamath lake country-run northeast, or nearly so, to Snake river, near the mouth of Clearwater.  Nearly all the country north and west of this range, between it and the Cascades and north to the Simcoe mountains, is low and sandy, covered in the most part, with grass.  But what, say you, has this do with the warmth of this climate?  It has a vast deal to do with it: for you must remember that it is over this plain that we have our prevailing winds; and I will here remark that we always have warm weather when the wind blows.  This vast plain of sandy soil and sand deserts is kept warm by the almost continual presence of the sun, and the short duration of cloudy weather is not sufficient to allow the earth to become entirely chilled, and consequently when we have a breeze from over these plains it is warm and melts everything before it.  Such a wind would melt, by warmth, (not by force) two feet of snow on the tops of the Blue mountains in 24 hours. Now is it not evident to anyone that if the country west and north of the Blue mountains was covered with timber, or subject to much cloudy weather-the sun not having a chance to warm the earth, that this whole region would be no better off than the frozen parts of Michigan and the Canadas?

Washington Statesman, Walla Walla, Dec. 10, 1861, p.1


Washington Statesman -- too cold for winter sports

The weather during the past two weeks has been excessively cold.  Snow has been lying on the ground to the depth of eight or ten inches. Hugh icicles hanging a pendant from the caves and water freezing into solid ice.  On Saturday morning last, the thermometer stood at ten degrees below zero, which as the coldest day we have had, and we think quite cold enough.  Whew! how the cold frost bites, and the snow creaks under foot! Sunday the weather moderated a little, but up to within a day or two, it has been unfortunately so cold since the storm set in as to render out-door life extremely disagreeable.  It is delightful sleighing so far as the snow is concerned; but so far as the weather is concerned, it is not so delightful.  It is really too cold to enjoy a sleigh ride.  An half hour’s riding will furnish a man a complete coast of white-the breath congeals almost as rapidly as in the Arctic regions.  Everything hereabouts is decidedly frigid. Well, we can't have sleighing, and hear the jingling sleigh-bells, the merry shout of joyous revelry, the life and zest of winter sports, without plenty of snow; neither can we to an enjoyable degree, with such confessedly cold weather.  Why in the world can't a moderate temperature of atmosphere being us the season of winter sports, without restricting us to in-door life to escape the freezing cold?  It is fortunate that such weather is of short duration in this locality, for we can see but little use of it.  Sleigh-riders can't enjoy it; business certainly receives no impetus through its continuance; the mail coach is obstructed in its course; cutting off even the stray glimpse of the world around us which we have heretofore enjoyed; the teamsters can’t propel a loaded wagon through a foot of snow, nor can they cross the creeks with sleds; the farmers are surely not infatuated with the weather, and the laundry-women cant dry their clothes.

Some friend, possessing the admirable quality of being resigned to all things, may suggest that “it isn’t half so cold as it use to be back in the States,” but what if it isn’t?  We don’t run on cold weather here.  We don’t wear overcoats, mittens, muffs, furs and shawls, and bundle up with a dozen appliances in order to escape the dear life.  We don’t have all these appliances to render a eigh-ride agreeable, nor an adequate preparation for the procession of business persuite through a long winter season.  Our thermometers don’t have capacious barns, with sample sheds all round them and stalls inside, for their horses and cattle; they don’t have a big hay-move and granaries, with an everlasting store of provisions for winters; and our laundry-folks don’t have old-fashioned garret to dry their clothes in.  We don’t live in houses constructed for the purpose of keeping the cold out, but to shelter us from the heat and secure at all times a free and healthy circulation of air.  Our buildings are not latlod and plastered and celled, and stuffed with wool and bating to make them warm.  Either our style is at fault in every essential particular or else the weather is at fault.  There is too much friction; and we insist that we have no use for such weather in the particular locality.

“The Weather,” Washington Statesman, January 10, 1862, p. 2


Washington Statesman -- Grass in the Mountains

About two weeks since, most of the stock that had survived the winter up to that time, was driven into the foothills of the mountains, where they are subsisting chiefly upon grass and we learn are doing well.  It is a fact peculiar to this country, that the snow disappears from the mountains a long time before it leaves the valley.

“Stock in the Mountains,” Washington Statesman, Feburary 22, 1862, p. 3