A History of the Burns Family
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PART TWO: Ada's Path to the Dance  

Chapter One: Blizzard

White Lake, Dakota Territory
January 12, 1888

1 - Blizzard
2 - Prairie
3 - Willoughby
4 - Rescued
5 - Grandfather Stowe
6 - The Seamstress
7 - Christian Endeavor
8 - Growing Up
9 - Dance
10 - Mucher
11 - Bonesteel
12 - Topsy

More Information

Addy is used to the plink-plunk of water dripping into pans she places on the floor to catch leaks from the cabin’s sod roof.  On this winter morning she hums to the rhythm as she sweeps up scraps from last night’s meager supper. Out the two small windows she can see a vast rolling sea of glittering white.  Until today, it has been fiercely cold, too cold to take Captain out, even though on a good day it’s just a few minutes’ ride past Mr. Bassett’s grain elevators [1] south to Main Street.

          Description: Priarie Homestead
                                Prairie Homestead, Badlands, South Dakota [2]

But now the family’s supplies are desperately low, and when they awoke at dawn to suddenly warmer air, [3] Will had quickly dressed, saddled Captain, and headed off to town in the pale light, leaving a welcome peace and quiet in his stead.

A glance around the room is sufficient to take in its contours and contents.  Back wall papered with yellowed editions of the White Lake Dispatch, [4] a stopgap measure until they can afford real paper with roses and lilacs. [5]  The hard-packed earthen floor and tattered braid rug.  A cast-iron cookstove, Addy’s pride and joy, and the wooden washstand with its porcelain bowl.  The white muslin curtains she’d sewed to add a homey touch. Will’s handmade table and chairs tucked under the front window, with the checked oilcloth from Caulum’s Hardware, [6] bringing cheer to the wintry gloom.

Ada Marian is taking a late-morning nap bundled in flannel and wool on the small cot beside her parents’ corner bed.  She’ll be two years old on St. Patrick’s Day, and her mother cannot imagine loving anyone or anything as much as this beautiful child.  Little Ada’s one small flaw, the two partially fused toes on one tiny foot, [7] serves only to highlight her other delights.  Lively, intelligent, with an easy giggle and an intense curiosity about the world around her, she loves to hear her mother sing sea shanties [8] and tell stories of long ago and far away.

Addy stoops to fetch a log for the fire, just as Nero [9] stirs from his pile of blankets by the stove and gives a soft woof.  She pats him gently and straightens, bracing her palms against the small of her back.  In the spring there will be another one.  It’s a good thing, she knows, and yet there’ll be even more work to do, and her cough has been aggravated by another winter in a cramped cabin that fills with woodsmoke when the flue won’t draw.  In the cracked mirror over the narrow dresser, she can see her cheekbones sharply defined, and worries about the baby coming.

A muffled whine from Nero.  She bends again to scratch behind his ears.  “Hush now, you’ll wake the baby,” she scolds with a smile. Why isn’t Will home already? He was planning to stop only at Tryon’s Flour and Feed, and then Griffith’s harness shop [10] to see if Captain’s bridle has been repaired.  Has he gone to Oppel’s again? [11]   She hopes not; they have too little money to waste any on drink.  She’s got applebutter simmering on the stove, and biscuits cooling for dinner. But the milk’s gone, now that the neighbor’s cow has died, and they’ve had no meat for months. They still have last summer’s preserves in the root cellar out back, and a sack of potatoes, but it will be so good to line the shelves with fresh provisions.  She can cook stews and bake bread and make Will’s favorite pies again -- and try to heal the rift that’s come between them.

Snippet from Ada's 1-page memoir (click image for full transcript)

When they’d left Ohio in April of 1884, [12] she and Will had been bursting with the optimism of newfound love.  Such big plans they'd hatched! They would start life together as homesteaders on the frontier – a place where they could raise a family without the constraints and judgments of home. [13]  

She still remembers how her heart sank when they arrived in White Lake, which was about as far west as the northern Iowa branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad tracks went. [14] Life in Ohio hadn't been easy, but this was the end of the world, home to 500 people living a hardscrabble game of cat-and-mouse with the elements. [15]

The completed lines of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul RR lines in 1893
(arrow points to White Lake)

Main Street White Lake
Main Street, White Lake, SD early 1900s

She and Will never have filed a claim, but they found a place to rent that first summer, a log cabin tucked into a hillside and encased in sod – the preferred prairie building style. [16] And with Will’s carpentry skills and her own youthful energy, they made it warm and comfortable in preparation for winter.  But life has been difficult ever since, with summer droughts baking the sod into an unplowable crust, and crushing winter blizzards cooping them inside for weeks on end. [17] They’ve hung on -- barely. 

And this winter has been particularly bad, with her own chronic bronchitis [18] and Will’s rheumatism [19] flaring. And the difference in their ages – she's 27 and he's almost 50 – is becoming more noticeable all the time.  Recently their quarrels, once lighthearted and easily doused, have become more heated. With another glance in the mirror at colorless cheeks, she picks up the photograph on the dresser. Can it be less than a year since it was taken? She sees now, in her own expression -- unsmiling and taut -- the shape of things to come.

Addy, Will, and Ada in White Lake

Nero barks sharply now, and Addy, startled from her reverie, peers out the window across the empty road to the blankness beyond.  At least it’s not Indians, she thinks, remembering the last time.  She’d been outside, taking the laundry off the line behind the house.  Little Ada was tottering and babbling happily beside her on a crisp, clear fall day.  All at once they heard Nero’s deep growl, and looked up to see a small band of Sioux riding over the hill from Lower Brule, [20] shouting and waving their arms.  Addy had simply frozen.  She Description: Sioux Riderhated to leave the washing, because the intruders often helped themselves to anything left unguarded, especially dogs.  But Will had been away, helping build one of the new saloons in town, and she knew she must get her daughter to safety.  With Nero tugging at her skirts, she'd scooped up the baby in the sheets, run inside, and barred the door. [21]

But there will be no Indians today, even with the hint of a thaw.  Addy dons her shawl and opens the door a crack.  After days of subzero temperatures, the air feels almost balmy, the icicles melting fast.  There’s even a hint of blue above that lifts her spirits.  She steps outside, and leaving Nero to keep watch, crunches through the ice-encrusted snow to the road, where there’s a clear view south toward town.  Savoring her freedom and the open air, she ventures a little way in that direction.  But there is still no Will to be seen. 

A sharp bark from Nero snaps her attention back toward the house.  And what she sees looming behind it takes her breath away.  The darkest and most menacing band of snow clouds she has ever seen is barreling her way. Snatching up her skirts, she dashes back to the cabin, back to her daughter, and yanks the door shut.  A half hour later the Children’s Blizzard of January 12, 1888 slams into White Lake. [22]

Author's Note

The timeline of events here is spotty, but here is what we know:

Willoughby Howe entered Dakota Territory in April of 1884, and was living in Aurora County (where White Lake is located) in 1885, according to a transcript of that year's South Dakota veterans' census. Where he and Addy together already? We don't know.

Click to enlarge

Ada was born in March, 1886 probably in White Lake. Her aunt Alida signed an affidavit in 1954 claiming White Lake was the birthplace, to her "personal knowledge." But Ada's 1904 marriage certificate lists her birthplace as Bonesteel, North Dakota. There is a Bonesteel in South Dakota, but not in North Dakota, so it's likely this is simply an error.

But it's not impossible she was born in Bonesteel, Gregory County, although it was a lawless mess in 1886. Did she not know exactly where she was born? Did she misunderstand the question? Willoughby was living in Bonesteel in 1904, so maybe she thought she'd been asked about his place of residence.

Snippet from Ada's 1904 marriage license (click image for larger view)

Ada's sister Zoe was definitely born in Aurora County, Dakota Territory, in June of 1888. A transcribed list of county births on the Genealogy Trails website for Aurora County has this:

Zoe Claire Howe 13 Jun 1888 Aurora Willoughby Howe Oda Genevieve Stowe

Interestingly, no Ada Marian Howe appears on the Aurora County list, even though it includes many names of children born before 1885.

Were the parent even married? A close up of the family portrait shows no wedding rings, just a pinkie ring on Will.


At any rate, Will, Addy, Ada, and Nero all experienced the Children's Blizzard, so-called because many of the victims were schoolchildren trying to make it home.


[1] The grain elevators, built in 1883, still stand north of town.  Contemporaneous details from “Andreas’ Historical Atlas of Dakota,” published in 1884 by A.T. Andreas.

[2] The photo is of The Prairie Homestead, built in 1909 near Badlands, South Dakota.  Daniel, Elizabeth, and I visited there in 1994, and the details in the description of Addy’s cabin, like the newspaper used for wallpaper, are taken from my memory of the place. 

[3] January 12, 1888 started off with a precipitous rise in temperature after days of subzero weather.  From “The Schoolhouse Blizzard,” Wikipedia.

[4] The Dispatch was established in White Lake in 1882, and the Times in 1883. (Andreas, 1884)

[5] A 1956 letter to Ada from her sister Zoe references their mother’s love of roses and lilacs.

[6] Caulum’s Hardware was established in White Lake in 1882. (Andreas, 1884)

[7] Ada’s 2nd and 3rd toes were slightly fused on her right foot, as were, to a milder degree, her son Bob’s.

[8] We don’t know for sure that Addy liked to sing, but her sister Alida later references a favorite song of Addy’s, her niece (and Ada Marian's first cousin) Eva was a singer of some renown, her father certainly loved singing, and so did Ada.  I think it’s a safe bet.

[9] Ada’s one-page memoir references Nero, their dog in South Dakota. 

[10] All real White Lake businesses established in 1882.  (Andreas, 1884). 

[11] Mr. Oppel built his hotel, White Lake House, and attached saloon in 1882. (Andreas, 1884)

[12] The South Dakota 1885 Veterans Census indicates Willoughby Howe arrived in Dakota Territory (South Dakota did not achieve statehood until 1889) in April of 1884. We don't really know when Addy arrived or with whom, but since Ada was conceived in the summer of 1885, it's not unreasonable to assume that these two Ohioans came out west together.

[13] The Homestead Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862, and took effect on January 1st of 1863. The Act offered 160 acres to any citizen free and clear, provided the property was lived on and worked for five years. Twenty years later, the Howes were among thousands of people still riding the rails west on this wave of opportunity.

[14] White Lake was originally called Siding 36, because it was 36 miles west of the nearest significant rail stop, at Mitchell,

[15] White Lake was founded in 1882, having already changed names three times and locations twice.  By mid-decade, according to Andreas' history, the town was growing fast, even though it had no proper railway depot.  Arriving settlers found a Main Street lined with stores – from Brown and Cook’s Drugstore to Swenson’s Shoes – along with two newspapers, the Aurora County Bank, two hotels, a Methodist Episcopal Church, and a one-room schoolhouse.

[16] I recall hearing Ada say that they lived in a sod house in South Dakota.  It is certainly how I always pictured their living situation.  I checked the Aurora County, South Dakota records, and the Howes are not on file there as homesteaders.

[17] During the 1880’s the weather in the Dakotas was brutal, with regular blizzards, drought, and crop failures.  (From Hanson family history, genealogical records).

[18] A 1944 letter from Zoe to Ada references their mother’s chronic bronchitis.

[19] The 1890 South Dakota Veteran’s Schedule lists Willoughby as suffering from rheumatism.

[20] This is speculation.  The Lower Brule Lakota Sioux Reservation, established in 1865, was about 50 miles away as the crow flies – the nearest to White Lake of the many Sioux reservations in South Dakota.

[21] “One of the early memories of my childhood was my great fear of the Indians, who would come riding over the hill on horseback, shouting and waving their arms.  My dog Nero was equally frightened, and would grab me by the dress & drag me to the cabin and my mother.  His fear was due to the fact that he was aware of their ability to steal anything that was lying unguarded, and their specialty was dogs.  My mother later told me they finally captured old Nero.”  From Ada’s memoir written much later.

[22] The advancing cold front caused a 40- to 50-degree drop in temperature in a matter of hours, sweeping through the Dakotas from mid-morning to early afternoon.  Its suddenness caught many unawares, and it is thought that at least 500 people died of hypothermia, among them children trying to get home from school.  (Schoolchildren’s Blizzard, Wikipedia)