In November 1796, surveyor Andrew Ellicott’s journey by flatboat to Natchez was halted by ice in the upper Mississippi Valley. Ellicott had been commissioned by President George Washington to mark a new boundary between the newly created Mississippi Territory and Spanish West Florida.
“The day we arrived at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers (at present day Cairo, Illinois), they were both so full of ice, that it would have been impossible to navigate either of them with any degree of safety,” Ellicott wrote in his journal. “On the 22nd both rivers closed, and made a romantick appearance, from the piles of ice which were thrown up in a variety of positions.
“We now became alarmed for the fate of our store boat, which we left behind on the 11th, and otherwise found our situation very disagreeable; not expected to be overtaken by such extreme cold weather, we were not prepared to meet it … For a number of days the cold was so intense we had to keep up large fires both day and night, to prevent our being frozen…”
On the 26th “the ice gave way … it continued to move the whole day in so great a mass, that the water was not to be seen: the rivers made the same appearance, and as our boats were now safe, we were enabled to contemplate the prospect which was grand and awful, with some degree of pleasure and composure. The concussion of the ice at the junction of the two rivers produce a constant, rumbling noise, for many hours, similar to that of an earthquake.”
Seven years later, during the extra cold winter of 1804 to 1805, the Ouachita River Expedition shivered against the frigid wind as the crew broke ice on the Red River along the southern border of Concordia Parish.
According to Dr. George Hunter of Pennsylvania, who along with William Dunbar of Natchez led an exploration up the Ouachita River to the hot springs in Arkansas, the temperature stood at 24 degrees on January 27, 1805.
The party, in route back to Natchez on a keelboat, set out at 7 a.m., rowed and then hoisted the sail "when the wind served." At 11 a.m. nine miles "above the mouth of the Red River (we) found the ice formed quite across half an Inch thick, thro which we forced our way by sailing & rowing." Four men stood at the bow of the vessel "breaking ice as we went."
Once on the Mississippi, Hunter observed ice in the mighty river, too: "The ice in this latitude is rather uncommon & shews that this winter has been unusually severe."
That same month on the most famous of the four explorations of the Louisiana Purchase, Captain William Clark and Meriwether Lewis encamped their expedition for the winter among the Mandan Indians along the Missouri in present day North Dakota.
On Jan. 10, Clark wrote in his journal that"last night was excessively Cold the Murckery this morning Stood at 40 ° below 0 which is 72° below the freesing point, about 10 oClock the boy about 13 years of age Came to the fort with his feet frosed and had layed out last night without fire with only a Buffalow Robe to Cover him, Customs & the habits of those people has them to bare more Cold than I thought it possible for man to endure.”
The winter of 1804-05 was so cold that newspapers in the northeast reported many deaths due to the frigid temps both on land and at sea. There were many shipwrecks due to blizzards. Chickens were found dead in their coops, their feet frozen to their perches.