How did the American Indians cope with winter weather?

Winter Weather

This column is dedicated to Angela Mann, editor of the Comstock Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia City and outlying areas. She posed to me the question of how the Indians who inhabited the Great Basin region hundreds and thousands of years ago were able to cope with the severe winters we have in Western Nevada. She wondered about the Indians of old and where they went to hunker down when these unpredictable winter storms set in.

People who live here today and complain when the Nevada Department of Transportation hasn’t plowed the road in time or when their heating bills are too high should look back in time a few hundred years to see just how winter weather affected the earliest inhabitants, the Indians.

Winter Weather 2

The first people to enter our region came here at least 12,000 years ago, just after the last Ice Age. They had no horses or other means of transportation except walking. They were hunters and gatherers who lived off whatever they were able to forage from the land. Over the years, they were able to develop a seasonal traveling lifestyle that took them to the best places to hunt and fish, and to gather berries, roots and nuts for their sustenance. As winter approached, they knew they had to have a stockpile of preserved foods and a relatively sheltered place to “hunker down” when the really severe weather set in.

Because these people lived a nomadic existence, few of them had any permanent home. They usually returned to a familiar place each winter to seek shelter. Some of the favorite places used by the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone Indians and their predecessors to spend the winter were near the many natural hot springs found throughout the region.

Most of these are located in a lower elevation than the surrounding mountains, and archaeological evidence shows that they were used extensively by the Indians. Simple shelters were set up using sagebrush, willows and stone. Food was placed in baskets and stored in grass-lined pits. Even in winter, some fresh fish, small game and waterfowl could be hunted.

Another favorite place for winter habitation was the thousands of small caves and rock shelters that could be found throughout Nevada. Whenever you see a cave or rock shelter in the nearby mountains, chances are it was used for human habitation at some time in the distant past. These caves include Lovelock Cave, Hidden Cave, Spirit Cave and hundreds of others found along the shore of ancient Winnemucca Lake and in the Grimes Point area just east of Fallon. The openings of these shelters often were covered with a wall of brush to keep the wind out. Small fires helped to break the chill, but the smoke was almost intolerable. Many of these caves have been found with well-preserved weapons, tools, artifacts, food-storage pits and even human remains in a mummified condition.

The people suffered greatly when the extreme cold weather set upon them. Frostbite was a common occurrence. Living in cramped quarters with nothing to break the chill but a smoky sagebrush fire and nothing to sleep on but a bed of branches covered with matting or hides surely made the long winter months miserable. The most severe condition happened when there was “pogonip.” The Indians called this condition the “White Death.” It occurred usually after a severe snowstorm followed by extremely low temperatures. The high humidity created an icy fog that clung to trees, sagebrush and other flora. Anyone breathing the icy crystals was exposed to a terrible respiratory ailment that sometimes caused death.

A woman having a child during the winter months had to be able to care for the child and travel with the clan when spring came. A shocking reality happened when twins were born: The woman was expected to kill one of the children in order to be able to care for the other. When the first white explorers came into the region, a common remark seen in their diaries was the fact that the Indians wore very little clothing, even in the winter. The natives had become so accustomed to the severe conditions that they simply did not need the amount of clothing their white counterparts did.

All this and more is described in detail in my book about the Spirit Cave Man, titled Legends of Spirit Cave. In this exciting prehistoric novel about the ancient Nevadans, you can get a true feeling of what life was like for these people thousands of years ago.

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