The First US Avalanche Death?

Where do you think and when was the first reported avalanche death in the United States (or territories before statehood)?

You might guess the unlucky victim to have been a prospector headed to the gold fields of California or Colorado. Or perhaps earlier, he could have been an unfortunate woodcutter felling trees in New England. Here’s a clue, the death happened in the mid 1850s, and occurred in an area not associated with avalanches. While it seems reasonable that a prospector, hunter or woodcutter would have been the first victim, they weren’t. Wanna take another guess? Give up?

The first reported* avalanche fatality happened in the Minnesota Territory. That’s right, Minnesota, but not in its great north woods. Instead, it was teamster killed in the far southeast corner near a town called Stockton. This is limestone bluff country near the Mississippi River where steep slopes rise 200-400 feet above valley floors.

A blizzard raged across southern the Minnesota Territory on Friday March 6, 1857, as a company of teamsters struggled eastward toward Stockton. With the wind at their backs, the going must have been slow and miserable, but once off the prairies the drivers may have thought they would find easier going in the small canyons just west of the Mississippi River. Though sheltered in the Rollingstone valley, the snow and blowing snow had stopped the company about three miles shy of Stockton. While waiting most drivers fed their teams, but a man named Cook wondered off a short distance to the bottom of a nearby bluff. He wasn’t gone more than five minutes when a fellow driver saw “a tremendous avalanche of snow” release from the top of the bluff. In an instant Cook disappeared, swept up and buried under the mass.

The other teamsters searched and dug for three hours before finding Cook “a considerable distance from where he as last seen.” Poor Cook was dead, “almost within hailing distance of the happy, glowing hearths of Stockton.”

(Source: “Fall of An Avalanche: Loss of Life” cited from Winona Republican in Janesville Morning Gazette, 11 March 1857. Vol. 1 Nos. 71. Page 5.

Though the article states the group was close to Stockton, the accident may have occurred near today’s small town of Rollingstone, which sits right along Rollingstone Creek.

* This is the first “reported” avalanche fatality have found in the United States. It seems reasonable, however, that even earlier that a lone trapper (or two) might have been taken down by an avalanche, or that aboriginal peoples were lost, but I have not discovered any reports. If you know of such a report, please let me know. The first reported avalanche death in Utah occurred in the winter of 1859-60 with two deaths, one a woodcutter (Parleys Canyon) and the other unknown. The first reported Colorado avalanche death occurred in March 1861 northwest of today’s Grant. The first known, reported in December 1829, avalanche accident in the US involved a roof avalanche that involved a Vermont clergyman and his wife. It had a funny ending.

Thanks for reading.
Dale Atkins

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