Few, if any, winters in the written history of the West were as devastating as the winter of 1886.
The summer preceding it was unusually hot and dry. Some areas received no more than two inches of rain all summer. Others received less and the range was parched and overgrazed. At the time, there were over a million head of cattle grazing in the state. The ranchers prayed for a wet autumn and an easy winter.
On December 24th it began to snow and the temperatures plummeted. By the 27th, the temperatures had dropped below zero and the Missouri River was frozen at Fort Benton.
The cattle couldn’t break through the snow to feed. The cowboys, in what was mostly a futile attempt, worked round the clock in temperatures reaching -55º F with wind chills approaching -95º to get feed to the cattle.
The storm continued into March when it finally broke. The ranches were so devastated, many didn’t recover.
The toll was significant. Almost 60% of the million head of cattle perished. A cowboy could walk from carcass to carcass and never touch ground. Food was in such short supply that a bag of flour sold for $7 in 1886 prices.