The Little Ice Age

Sure, It's a Little Chilly in Here, but...

by Jay Sharp

OK, so it can get pretty nippy in the desert basins of the Southwest in the wintertime.  Temperatures fell to nearly 10 to 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in western Texas and southern New Mexico – the northern Chihuahua Desert –  in 1962.  Temperatures dropped to zero in southern Arizona – the northern Sonoran Desert – back in 1913.  The thermometer fell into the mid-twenties in the southern tip of California, in the northwestern Sonoran Desert, in 1971 and again in 1990.  The temperature even got down to eight degrees at Trona, a community near Death Valley, in the Mohave Desert, in 1990.  Occasionally, a foot of snow may fall in some parts of our Southwestern deserts. 

Typically, however, winter temperatures in the northern, comparatively high-elevation Chihuahuan Desert range from the mid-50's to the low 60's during the daytime and hover around freezing at night.  The day- and nighttime temperatures average a few degrees higher in the relatively lower-elevation Sonoran and Mohave deserts.  Snowfalls, if they come at all, usually amount to no more than a few inches.  That's no more than mere sweater weather for someone from, say, Minnesota.

South-central New Mexico's Organ Mountains with a blanket of snow, a reminder of the colder times of the Little Ice Age.

Little Ice Age

However, if you think it's cold here in the Southwest now, you should have been around back in the days when the Spanish, Mexicans and Anglos settled in the region, during the period scientists call the "Little Ice Age."  A world-wide phenomenon that lasted from the 15th  century well into the 19th century, the Little Ice Age brought frigid winter weather and powerful storms to many parts of the world.  In Europe, England's Thames River and the Netherlands' canals and streams often froze over, setting a tableau for ice skating.  Europe's Atlantic coast suffered winter storms of violent and bone-chilling winds and torrential rains.  In Iceland, miles of sea ice surrounded the shorelines of the island like a massive collar, shutting down marine traffic.  In New York City in 1780, the harbor froze over, offering residents a frigid walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.  In our Southwestern region, the icy winters and substantially foreshortened and drier growing seasons may have forced the Puebloan Indians to give up agriculture in many areas.


The Little Ice Age inflicted fearsome consequences in many regions across the worlds.  In Europe, the long cold winters caused crops to fail, plant parasites and fungi to flourish, farmers to abandon higher-elevation cropland, livestock to starve, fisheries to disappear, famine and disease to increase, and purported weather-controlling witches to pay a terrible price In Iceland, half the population perished.  In New England, Native American peoples had to relocate their homes to escape the fierce winters. 

In the Southwest, suggests Steven A. LeBlanc (well-known archaeologist with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, Harvard University), the Puebloan Indians of the Four Corners region, the northern Chihuahuan Desert and the northern Sonoran Desert had to abandon old homelands and migrate to more favorable locations, such as the better-watered upper Rio Grande drainage basins.  In some areas, Pueblos fought each other over control of the substantially reduced arable land, water, game and firewood. 

Firsthand Accounts

From the time the Europeans and their descendants began arriving in the Southwest in the 16th century, they would often speak of the icy winters. 

In December, 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's conquistadors had to halt their march to wait out a winter storm near the New Mexico/Arizona border, not far from the Zuni pueblos.  "...during the ten days that the army was delayed," said chronicler Pedro de Castañeda, "it did not fail to snow during the evenings and nearly every night, so that they had to clear away a large amount of snow when they came to where they wanted to make a camp...  It was a dry snow, so that although it fell on the baggage and covered it for half a man's height it did not hurt it.  It fell all night long, covering the baggage and the soldiers and their beds, piling up in the air, so that if any one had suddenly come upon the army nothing would have been seen but mountains of snow.  The horses stood half buried in it..."

On December 9, 1775, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza led a caravan of Spanish colonists across the desert sands of southern California into the teeth of a fierce winter storm.  "...the sierras through which we had to travel were more deeply covered with snow than we had ever imagined would be the case," said Anza in his diary.  The weather "had been very hard on our people, especially the women and children...  ...several persons were frozen, one of them so badly that in order to save his life it was necessary to bundle him up for two hours between four fires," he said.  "...several persons were frozen to the point of being in danger of death." 

A decade and a half-century later, Lieutenant José Cortés of the Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers rode across his nation's "Interior Provinces" (the Spanish Southwest) to survey and assess the state of the region.  In his report, Views from the Apache Frontier: Report on the Northern Provinces of New Spain, he described the winters as cold, snowy and icy. 

In 1841, two decades after Mexico's successful revolt against Spain and several years before the war between the United States and Mexico, the Mexicans captured a sick and exhausted Texas expeditionary force in eastern New Mexico and, during the following winter, sent it under guard in a tortuous trip down the famed Chihuahua Trail through southern New Mexico and to imprisonment in Mexico City.  At the caravan's encampment beside the trail where it entered the Chihuahuan Desert, the winds grew "biting and chilly," according to George W. Kendall in his Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, "but at midnight the weather moderated, and then commenced a violent fall of snow... 

"When morning light came I raised my head and surveyed the scene.  Far as the eye could reach the face of nature was clothed in white, the snow having fallen to the depth of five or six inches.  My companions were lying thick around me, their heads and all concealed, and more resembled logs imbedded in snow than anything else to which I can compare them..." 

As the Mexicans herded the Texans southward down the trail during the following night, Soaptree Yucca "were at once set on fire by the Mexicans to warm their benumbed and half-frozen hands and feet.  We, too, crowded around them," said Kendall, "and as one would burn down to a level with the ground we rushed hurriedly to the next.  Our line now extended nearly a mile along the road, and the blazing clumps, which flashed up like powder on being ignited, gave a wild and romantic appearance to the scene..." 

As they approached the hamlet of Doña Ana, along the Río Grande, "The early morning hours of the morning were colder than any which had preceded them, as the biting winds from the mountains appeared to have a more open sweep across the desert plain..."

In the winter of 1846, during the run-up to the Mexican/American War battle at El Brazito, south of the New Mexico community of Las Cruces, "...the Rio Grande was running with ice," said Robert Selph Henry in The Story of the Mexican War, "the bare elevated plain...was swept by piercing winds...  'No food—no fire—no sleep—very cold' " was one soldier's description of a night's halt.

The following winter, 18-year-old new bride Susan Magoffin, who accompanied her husband down the Chihuahua Trail, reported in her classic diary Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico, that "...everyone complained bitterly of cold."

In 1858, a San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin Special Correspondent, who rode John Butterfield's stage from San Francisco to St. Louis in 1858, said that as his coach approached western Texas' Guadalupe Mountains on a cold November day, "...we were informed by the driver that we were near a lay of sand four miles in length, and that we must walk through if we expected ever to arrive at our next station...the Pinery...  Scarcely had we commenced our tramp on foot, before the young moon was veiled in a fleecy mist, which came down upon us poor devils and continued to play away upon our dusty hats and blankets until we had plodded our weary way four miles through the deep and heavy sand..."

In February of 1862, during the Confederate force's march northward up the Rio Grande from Fort Thorne, north of Doña Ana, to the Civil War Battle of Valverde, in central New Mexico, Private William Randolph Howell noted in his journal, published by Jerry D. Thompson in Westward the Texans, "Ice floating down river.  Water almost too cold to drink."  Rebel trooper Ebenezer Hanna said in his journal that a sleet and snow storm blew "so hard as to almost pelt the skin off our faces," according to Don E. Alberts in Rebels on the Rio Grande. 

It was in the darkest corner of the bitterly cold night of January 19, 1863, at Fort McLane, a few miles south of Silver City, that military guards tortured and shot a prisoner to death, then took serene refuge in the warmth of their blankets, their souls utterly untroubled by their murder of perhaps the greatest of the Chiricahua Apache chiefs, Mangas Coloradas. 

A year later, Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson and Captain Albert W. Pheiffer each led columns through heavy snows into northeastern Arizona's Canyon de Chelly in a scorched-earth, pincer campaign to bring the Navajos to heel.  Carson, describing Pheiffer's march through the canyon from east to west, said, "...he killed three Indians (two men) and brought in ninety prisoners (women and children).  He found the bodies of Indians frozen to death in the canon [sic]."

Wintertime during the Little Ice Age became so embedded in the human psyche that the season sometimes served as a venue for folklore.  A good many years ago, an Hispanic man told me that, back in the late 1800's, his great grandfather, a young vaquero at the time, had ridden out into the sagebrush up in the Four Corners area one cold winter day to check on some cows.  As he rode through the shrub brush, a dense cloud cover and fog drifted across the land like an icy shroud, rendering the day gray, damp, gloomy and profoundly silent. 

Failing to find a single cow, the young man, shivering now and a little disoriented, began to feel as if he had entered a strange world in which he was the only living creature.  He was yearning for the comfort of home and a warm fire when he thought he may have heard a faint sound—the urgent squall of a distressed infant.  The cry rose, then fell, ethereal, haunting, more like a dream than a real sound.  Concerned and anxious, the young man rode through the fog and brush, first this direction, then that, trying to trace the rising and falling sound to its source. 

Finally, with darkness gathering, he discovered, lying in the desert sand, a newborn baby carefully wrapped in a blanket, crying piteously.  The vaquero dismounted.  He looked around him.  Not a soul.  Had the infant been simply abandoned on the desert floor?  He picked up the small bundle, gathering it into his arms.  He pulled back the blanket to examine its face.  The infant immediately ceased crying and said, in a fully adult voice, "Señor, mira a mi.  Yo tengo dientes."  "Mister, look at me.  I have teeth."  As the infant drew back its lips, the vaquero saw that the baby did indeed have teeth: adult teeth dripping with blood.  The vaquero laid the infant, carefully wrapped in its blanket, back on the desert floor.  He mounted his horse and rode away, through the brush and fog, the cries of the infant fading behind him into the darkening wintry day. 

The End of the Little Ice Age

About the middle of the 19th century, the Little Ice Age began to fade, and by the beginning of the 20th century, our climate in the Southwest had evolved into the pattern we know today.  Still, when you go out into the desert on a winter evening, I would suggest that you wear at least a sweater, even if you are from Minnesota.



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