The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter V
A Winter of Want

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton

 

THE WINTER OF WANT.

Any historical record of the early days in this township of Genesee would be incomplete without reference to the hard winter of 1842 and 1843. This was a record breaker in the annals of the old inhabitants, and we may judge something of its severity from the fact that snow fell on the 18th day of November, 1842; as late as April 1 the depth of snow was recorded as three and a half feet on the level, while snow squalls were noted on the 17th of that month. Over one hundred and fifty days of sleighing were had during the year. It is difficult at this time to realize that want could come to the people of this fruitful county, with its bountiful harvests of wheat now being garnered and its crops of all kinds that make for plenty. But then the land had recently been taken up. The great tide of immigration that poured into Michigan and into Genesee county came in 1836, and the swamps and forests had hardly been opened in most favorable localities when the winter of '42 and '43 set in. cattle, hogs, horses, sheep and poultry had become rather plentiful, and the hay of the swales and scanty grain that could be raised in the small clearings were all the fodder. Hay in the fall of 1842 was six dollars a ton. In April, 1843, it was twenty dollars, and twenty dollars represented a big sum at that time. When the early spring came, even the best provided for of the settlers were coming to be without fodder and with little or no grain. Silas D. Halsey, the living in Grand Blanc, and one of the most prosperous farmers of the time, records in his diary these hard times and the fact of fodder being exhausted and cattle starving. Wheat in the fall had been three shillings and oats a shilling per bushel; in the spring the prices were one dollar and three shillings, respectively.

These prices nominally as stated do not, however, represent their real value, as their scarcity made them cash articles and only a few of the settlers had any money, so the prices asked and the cash payment exacted made them utterly unobtainable by the great majority of the people of the county. Add to this the fact that the market was at Pontiac, and that the transportation to Flint involved a three or four days trip, with a team which must be fed by the way, and the difficulties appear.

On March 18, 1843, Mr. Halsey in his diary says: "A very gloomy time. Fodder almost all gone and many cattle already dead and dying. Some have had to browse their cattle for six weeks already, and many people are destitute, and no prospect of winter breaking yet. What we are going to do I do not know. It looks gloomy. The only hope we have is that it will soon come around warm. If not, we are all gone." Later he records the continuance of the cold, and even as late as March 24, the coldest day of the year is recorded, and the freezing of the well twenty-four feet deep, and potatoes in the cellar lost by the cold. He goes out in the woods around, and with his son cuts down bass woods; the cattle eat their twigs, and by this process of "browsing" they ward off starvation after the hay has been all consumed. A neighbor comes to report that his family are reduced to the point of starvation. Potatoes are all that is left; flour has been gone for a considerable time. He asks that his better provided neighbor, who has some money, shall go to Pontiac and get flour to save the lives of himself and others similarly situated. These appeals are not to be turned aside. Mr. Halsey takes his team and cash and after four days returns from Pontiac with five barrels of flour, and men and women come from the surrounding region with pillow cases and other improvised receptacles, and the five barrels are distributed among the needy according to their wants and as near as may be; so famine is averted in the town of Grand Blanc, and many children live to bless the benefactor. All unconscious of any merit, he had done his pioneer duty and, although he religiously kept a diary of the events of each day, yet he modestly refrained from any mention of this act, leaving it to be told by those who had been saved. Add to the fears of loss of their cattle, upon whose preservation so much depended, the religious excitement caused by the "Millerite" prophecy of the coming end of the world which was devoutly believed in by many and which was cause of anxiety to many who doubted, and the extreme condition of the men and women of this county may be imagined. Not only did the people of this county face want, but the people of the entire state were similarly situated. In Washtemaw county, Mr. Halsey records, the same conditions prevailed, and even those who had money and wanted to buy, went out with their teams throughout the state and came back to report failure, as there was no wheat to be bought. "Help, Lord, or we perish," records the pious man. The middle of April saw a changed condition of weather and the songs of the birds cheered the people; the snow melted away; the grass springing before its usual time, for the snow had kept the ground from freezing, soon brought back the pioneer hope, and the hard winter became a reminiscence.

 

History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

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