P.O. Box 364
(Condensed from “The Story of Early Clayton, New Mexico” by Albert W. Thompson)
The Great Snowstorm of 1889
October, 1889 found a dozen roundup wagons camped around Clayton’s rainwater lake. Clayton was a new town of about 250 population with its main street lined with scattered false front buildings and tent houses. Surrounding the new railroad town was unfenced prairie where thousands of sheet in the care of herders grazed upon the public domain and thousands of cattle wandered at will, except during roundup season.
Nearby, awaiting shipment, the New England Live Stock Company had 2,000 head of cattle in command of Jack M. Potter; Carlisle Brothers had about the same number; Sam Doss outfit with James W. Wiggins in charge and the Fort Sumner Cattle Company had also just finished a long overland drive and local outfits were still at work rounding up beef steers for shipment to Kansas City. Wagons of the Prairie Cattle Company (Cross L’s), the 101’s, Dr. Owen’s Pitchforks, the Muscatine Cattle Company’s (ZH’s) and other resident companies were scattered over Union County (present).
Until then the fall had been mild with no warning of sudden or severe storms. Business in Clayton was good. Roundup wagons were starting on their long journeys to Puerto de Luna, Ft. Sumner, and Roswell, loaded halfway to the tops of their wagon bows with winter supplies. Orders had been placed with the station agent for 100 cars. The afternoon of October 30th brought falling snow, which became heavier the next morning turning into a blizzard that raged for several days. The wind piled the falling snow into deep drifts and drove it in cutting, blinding clouds across the prairie, and through the town. Cowboys on guard around their cattle held out against the onslaught for some time, but blinded by the blizzard which increased in fury, finally abandoned their cattle and sought whatever protection they could reach. Some found shelter in ravines and canons, others were left at their wagons, their horses gone before the gale, Before the storm broke solid whiteness covered the area of several hundred miles of northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Communication with the outside world was cut off. In the streets of Clayton communication was established house to house by digging as the drifts reached the top of the porch in front of the Clayton house. In the valley north of the town a homesteader had a pasture of several hundred acres. A cattle outfit had gotten its saddle horses into this pasture but snow soon covered the fences and the horses drifted on south before the storm. For eighteen days Clayton was without train service. The following is a copy of a telegram sent out from Denver to the eastern press a week after the storm:
“Denver, Colorado. November 7, 1889. ‘A special from Clayton, New Mexico says unless the snowstorm which has been raging for eight days soon comes to an end, next summer will show a country as thickly covered with dead animals as the old Santa Fe Trail in the fifties. The depth of the snow is not less than twenty-five inches on a level and in many places is drifted seven feet high. When the storm struck this section seven large herds of cattle numbering from five hundred to two thousand each, were being held near this place awaiting shipment to eastern markets. The rain a week ago was followed Thursday morning by a blizzard of snow and sleet, which sent the herds drifting off in a southern direction. In vain did the half frozen cowboys try to check the drift of the cattle through the increasing storm, until, finding it utterly impossible to hold their charges, they let them pass and rode their exhausted horses into canons and sheltered places, to spend many hours without food or fire. Two cowboys drifted through the storm into a deep gulch where they found a tree in which was a rat’s nest. They made a fire of this. During the second night of their horses died from cold. Having no food, the men cut pieces from the dead animal, which they roasted and ate without salt. … Five cowboys are known to have perished in the storm, Henry Miller, John Martin, Charles Jolly, and two men whose names are unknown. Two Mexican sheep herders have been found frozen to death. … In many of the drifts horns of cattle which have died were seen protruding through the snow. In a bank of snow several head of steers were seen which, though alive, were unable to move or free themselves. Bands of sheep are completely wiped out. At Texline, nine miles south of Clayton, two passenger trains have been snowbound for several days. … The storm is by far the worst ever known in north eastern New Mexico, where the loss of life cannot at present be estimated.”
Mr. Thompson relates further that southern trail men made no attempt until the following spring, to gather their lost livestock. Flockmasters told of digging out sheep that had been buried in snow for more than two weeks and herders felled cottonwood trees and dragged them to the hungry animals, which ate them bark and twigs, and thus kept alive until the snow melted and grass was again exposed.
WPA Files, Exp #25, Folder #238, Union County-History, Courtesy of the State Reocrds Center and Archives.