Updated: May 8
"Storm Horses" on the Prairie
The earliest written mention of tornadoes in North America came from explorers in the 1500s. But the first specific documentation of a tornado was on July 5, 1643, when John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, wrote of a violent wind that blew down many trees, lifted up the Newbury meeting house, and killed an Indian with a flying tree. Although tornadoes have been recorded around the globe, North America has the most tornadic activity by far, especially the Great Plains.
Plains tribes have a long and rich mythology of tornadoes. (See a later post about Native American tornado lore. Very interesting!) James Mooney, an early 1800s white ethnologist, recorded stories and drawings from Kiowa and Cheyenne "storm horse" accounts. One very old Kiowa named Iseeo told Mooney of the great winged, god-like medicine horse they called Mankayia, that had a swirling black tail so powerful, it swept up a herd of buffalo into the sky, until they were "wiggling black specks," then trees, rocks and people.
Pioneers in the West traveled primarily during tornado weather and lived in fear of the ominous black funnels. One of the earliest accounts was October 25, 1844 in Mission, Kansas, in which numerous pioneer farms were flattened. A 1879 Texas "green-rimmed cone-shaped tornado rose and fell like a monster," carrying a covered wagon and homes two miles away. One of the earliest major documented North American tornadoes, and still considered the second most deadly SINGLE tornado in U.S. history, was in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1840 that killed 317 people.
On August 25, 1877 a twister destroyed the wrought-iron bridge over the Missouri River at Omaha, leaving twisted metal in its wake and traveled down the river, sucking up massive amounts of water. An injured lineman, boated, then swam across the roiling Missouri River, to warn oncoming trains that the bridge was out.
From May 15-28, 1896, a series of massive tornadoes hit the mid-section of the nation-including THREE F5 and numerous F4 tornadoes-killing more than 500 citizens in Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas and obliterating large areas of St. Louis.
The deadliest tornado was yet to come on March 18, 1925. The Tri-State Tornado was a series of 12 known major tornadoes across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, killing nearly 700. The worst funnel, an F5, left a 235-mile long path of devastation, still the longest recorded in the world.
PHOTOS: In May 1898, this tornado touched down in Waynoka, Oklahoma. A version of this photograph was soon published in national newspapers. But, years following, other versions were published claiming to be tornadoes in other states! Many years later, the Monthly Weather Review deemed four versions of this photograph "composites," probably created by frontier photographer, North Losey. (Second row) The earliest photographs of North American tornadoes. (Left) Howard, South Dakota on August 18 1884.(Right) April 26, 1884 at Garnett, Kansas. Kansas Historical Society. (Third row, left) St. Louis's Purina Mills brick buildings obliterated by F5 tornado in 1896. (Right) 1895 North Dakota. Library of Congress. (Bottom row) Two 1800s Kiowa drawings of the killer "storm horse" they called "Mankayia,” with a deadly tail. Smithsonian Institute.
"Frontier Tornados" was originally posted May 30, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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