While researching stories for my weather website, Wild West Weather, I read about a similar mile-wide tornado in a book by Rod Beemer called The Deadliest Woman in the West: Mother Nature on the Prairies and Plains. Beemer tells the story of a young man, Ely Moore, Jr., who traveled into the Kansas Territory during the summer of 1854.
Ely Moore, Jr. was 21 years old that year. His father, Ely Moore, Sr., was a special agent for the confederated Indian tribes, which included the Miamis, Weas, Peorias, Kaskaskias, and Piankeshaws. Moore was asked to deliver a packet of letters from Washington to deliver to his father. The first stop on his journey was at the Miami Mission, 65 miles south of what is now Kansas City, and he arrived just before the annual buffalo hunt, which the tribes used to stock up on meat and robes for the winter months. Moore was invited to join the tribes on their hunt and he eagerly accepted.
The Miami and four other tribes joined together in a group of 400 men and 50 women. They had 100 wagons with two oxen each and 200 pack ponies in addition to their hunting horses. They were headed for southwest Kansas, a place called "Blind River," where they expected to find vast herds of buffalo. The group was well-armed to protect themselves from any hostiles during their journey. I suspect they did not consider that hostile forces might come from the skies!
Nevertheless, three weeks into the hunt the weather turned unbearably hot. Even the buffalo seemed reluctant to move. Humans and animals alike slowed their movements to a crawl as they struggled with the slightest activity, including breathing. The description sounds very similar to what cowboys in the Old West referred to as a Blue Norther, a sudden rise in temperature followed by a quick drop in temperature and a severe storm.
The Indian chief called for the hunters to return to camp and Moore joined them. The chief pointed to a swarm of grasshoppers. Rather than stopping to devour everything in their path as grasshoppers will do when they transform into locust, this swarm seemed to be fleeing. The chief told the group he suspected a "Devil Wind" was coming and instructed everyone to prepare.
This is the part that fascinates me. Clearly, these men and women had experienced this type of weather before. They knew exactly what to do to prepare for the coming storm and it took them nearly five hours to complete the process.
The prairie land was silent. Not a sound from the birds and bugs--they had all moved on. The sky turned an eerie black, purple and green color, and anyone who has experienced a storm with tornadoes knows that color of green. It is something you never forget. The cloud moved forward and a faint rumbling sound could be heard. Moore looked around the camp at his companions who stood silent, confident and brave, prepared for the worst.
As the cloud grew closer, Moore explained, a strange electrical current whipped through the circle. According to Moore, "As electric sparks snapped from the tips of our horses' ears, the moaning, shivering creatures pressed close to their masters. The wheels of our wagons were circled by the electric fluid, and many bolts were drawn from our wagon-beds. Then came the wind, and with it hail of irregular shape and great size." The hail caused great harm and pain to the cattle and ponies, and undoubtedly to the men who were trying to protect them, as well. The hail also shredded many of the wagon covers.
When Moore looked up at the main tornado cloud moving toward them he estimated it to be a mile wide. At first, it appeared as if it would miss the wagons, then Moore noticed a second tornado, which he referred to as a "feeder of the parent dragon." The second tornado was set to hit the wagons head-on when it was suddenly sucked back up into the clouds and instead dropped sand, earth, grass and trees from the sky in large enough quantities to break a few of the wagon beds.
Moore does not report any human fatalities, though a few of the cattle and ponies where injured severely enough that they were put down. The men and women repaired what they could and left the camp to continue their journey in the morning. They found the path from the tornado was more than a mile wide. They also found a few buffalo that had apparently been picked up by the tornado and crushed when thrown back to the ground.
The experience did not discourage Ely Moore, Jr. In fact, it inspired him. He fell in love with the great power of nature as displayed in the Kansas prairies and made his home there. He lived in Lawrence, Kansas until 1918 and died at the age of 84.
- Beemer, Rod. The Deadliest Woman in the West. Caxton Press. Caldwell, Idaho: 2006.