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Cassius Sherman Freezes to death in 1873

Cassius Sherman stepped from his cabin door January 7, 1873 and was greeted with a soft wind that held the promise of an early spring. Drops of water trickled from the shingled eave of the roof onto the back of his head and neck. He could hear the distinct metallic pings of a maul as it hit a splitting wedge. The sound carried through the air from more than a mile away. His Mormon neighbor was already at his wood pile. The only other sound in this unexpected mild morning was the scarcely audible cough of his bedridden mother wheezing through the cracks of the door planks.

This was as good a day as any you could hope for in mid- winter in the middle of Minnesota. He would fetch his mother some cough and fever medicine from the withered old Ojibwe herbalist in Maine, Minnesota. Some renowned remedy she concocted from Black Gum Bark and slippery elm, mixed with other native botanicals she wouldn’t disclose. On his way to Maine he might stop at the blacksmith shop in Clitherall and see when one of the Whiting boys could attend Nestor, the fickle old plough mule had turned up lame again.

It was nearly twenty miles to Maine, Minnesota, so he would saddle up Bender, his best horse. When he got there he would visit Isaiah, a friendly freckled youth he had befriended during a stint with the Maine Volunteers a decade ago, when they were both barely fifteen years old. He might have a meal at the Maine Hotel, where Isaiah’s pretty sister waited tables.

It was halfway to noon when Cassius left the cabin. He was dressed sensibly for unpredictable Minnesota weather, wool undergarments, a coarse cotton shirt, buckskin pants, woolen socks, heavy leather boots, a fur lined cap and a thick sheep skin coat.

This far west edge of Minnesota is mostly flat and slightly rolling like Nebraska. It has the added water feature of thousands of lakes that filled in the depressions left when the glaciers receded. This morning Cassius could see the far horizon as clearly as one of Willa Cather’s pioneer characters looking out over the Nebraska Prairie. The sky was a uniform light gray. An odd dark band laid on the horizon like heavy sediment, a darker shade of molten gray than that above him. The contrast was out of the ordinary but Cassius wasn’t overly troubled by it, determined to take advantage of this January thaw.

Cassius was familiar with this land and his neighbors. They were a tight band of obscure believers,  uprooted and chased out of the Midwest for their Book of Mormon beliefs. About twenty families made up the core of the community. They shared their resources and labor according to scripture and prophecy. They had followed Brigham Young for a while and then parted over polygamy and other beliefs. They called themselves "Cutlerites."

Cassius saddled and mounted Bender. He decided to save time by taking the Chippewa prairie trail through the edge of government land, then cross over the Murdocks homestead to Clitherall. After sorting out a time for the Whiting Brothers to attend Nestor, he would then head west to Battle Lake, and then turn north for the long stretch through unsettled Indian country to Maine.

All was working according to plan until he was about mid trip in his long trek to Maine. He found himself in the middle of open prairie inhabited by the few remnants of Sioux and Ojibwe who hadn’t been relocated to the Leech Lake Reservation. It wasn’t Indians he was worried about. He had a fast horse and his U.S. Springfield rifle, from his days with the Maine Volunteers. It was the changing weather.

The wind had picked up and the heavy gray line on the horizon was growing thicker. He pulled the flaps of his fur lined cap down around his ears and tied the leather strap beneath his chin. The Indian trail was not well marked here. He reached in his pocket for a strip of pemmican he had purchased at the General Store in Clitherall. He chuckled to himself, thinking he should have brought along “Walking Much,” the old Ojibwe outcast who had been sitting silently on a pickle barrel in the store when he left. That old Indian knew this territory from childhood, but his walking days are long over.

It was definitely getting colder. There were no good landmarks out here in the prairie. The temperature had fallen far below the 32 degrees this morning when he stood outside his cabin door. The air from his mouth instantaneously formed a cloud of frosty fog. He could tell Bender had lost the path by his slowed pace, ears and head down, confused by the blowing snow erasing the trail. The entire canopy of sky above them was now sullen and ominous, laden heavily with peril for those caught out in its grip.

When it came, it was hard and fast. If he were nearer the trees lining the Otter Tail Lake, the bare limbs would be whirling like dervishes, but this was all frozen bluestem and Indian grass as far as the eye could see. In the summer it was a mesmerizing sea of waving prairie grass and flowers. Now the sudden erratic wind swept across the frozen brittle grass, laying it low in one direction, releasing it, then sweeping it in another direction.

A half starved dog fell in behind them, his bony rib cage showing his dire predicament. He followed for a ways. A small tan and white visage barely visible amidst the swirling snow as it trotted hopefully behind. Cassius tossed him a slice of pemmican. The dog wolfed it down and seemed to consider the consequences and advantages of joining them on their journey in such weather. He chose wisely, and with tail lowered to half mast, reluctantly headed back to some unseen Indian camp for shelter. Cassius could have used the company.

A freezing sleet began to pelt and sting his exposed cheeks. He wished he had a long beard like some of the older men. For the first time it occurred to him that this was no run of the mill storm. He put his head down and wished he had followed that starving dog to whatever teepee, shack, or windbreak it had come from. He was exposed to the elements on open prairie. What had started as sleet was fast becoming a howling snowstorm driven by winds that would topple trees and rip the shingles from a cabin roof. He worried for his mother.

Temperatures had dropped so far that his cheeks and nose burned as if he had stood too close to a bonfire. He pulled the gloves off his hands and tried to retie the leather thongs of his fur lined cap. He found his numbed fingers were not up to that simple task. He clumsily reinserted his hands into his gloves and pulled them tight with his teeth. He recalled a similar storm in 1867 when he and the Whiting brothers were caught out by Battle Lake while hunting wolves. They had survived a two day storm by bedding down like deer in a thicket of tamarack and waiting out the storm.

The seldom used and poorly marked Indian trail they were on was now completely obliterated by snow. Bender was a seasoned horse and abruptly stopped. Short of actual language his question to Cassius was “what are we doing out here?” Cassius had to compel him with the heels of his boots to get him to move. Shrouded by thick hard driving snow there were no landmarks. Cassius could not see past Bender’s neck and mane. Bender was looking into nothing but a snowy abyss.

Despite Bender’s reservations and horse sense, Cassius was confident. At 27 he was in peak physical condition, a war veteran, a hunter, a trapper and he had weathered similar storms. He was not aware that this storm was a killer that would surpass any in recent history. It would rage on for three days and bury cabins in twenty foot drifts. Hundreds would freeze to death. Some, like him, would be caught out in the open far from home, and some would die only a few feet from their cabin or barn door. No one kept accurate track of the loss of livestock and horses, but the numbers were high.

There is no way to know what thoughts were running through Cassius’s mind when Bender began to founder in the deepening snow. Did Cassius question his decision to make this long journey on a day that started out with such promise? It probably centered on his failing mother left alone in the cabin, possibly too ill to tend the fire, although he had carried ample wood inside before he left. At some point he probably prayed. Then, after he had lost feeling in his arms and legs, he probably thought of William Mason, whose boot was spotted by trappers’ months after he froze to death in the 1867 blizzard. Who would find his own boot sticking up from the snow pack? Probably that half starved dog, or one of the Indians from the camp he had passed. Somehow they survived these killing storms in skin covered tee pees and lean-to’s.

After the biting pain and loss of feeling in arms and legs, some say you fall into a numbing sleep, which is preferable to more painful avenues to death. There are a lot of untold stories beneath the ground here in Mt. Pleasant cemetery. If you are a Sherman, a Gould, a Whiting, a Tucker, or a Murdock, the men, women and children buried here at Mount Pleasant are probably related to you in some way, by blood, by marriage, or by their ties to the "Cutlerite" faith.

There is little factual information on how Cassius froze to death. We know he was on his way to Maine, Minnesota to get medicine for his mother. We know he served with the Maine Volunteers during the Civil War. We know that two brothers, Alex and Andrew Tweeten, found him months later, when the prairie grass was showing signs of life.

Alpheus Cutler, my charismatic great great grandfather, is not buried here but it was his prophetic vision that led a small group of pioneering followers into this remote part of Minnesota when it was sparsely populated by white people. The "Cutlerites" were one of the many breakaway branches of the Mormon based Latter Day Saint religion, following the death of its founder Joseph Smith.

They died here in Minnesota because they didn’t understand the cause or cure of disease, they died from horrendous accidents, and they died from the brutal Minnesota winters where temperatures of 50 and 60 degrees below zero are not that uncommon. The cemetery is ironically named Mount Pleasant.

My great grandfather Cutler Almon Sherman is buried here. He was loading wood from his wagon into a boxcar in New Clitherall when the west-bound freight train came in. It scared his team of horses. They jumped, knocking him from the wagon and crushing him between the load of wood and the boxcar.

A Frederick Sherman is buried here. Nina Gould, sister to my grandmother Lenna Maude Gould, said he was a fur trapper. He was found frozen to death in his shanty with a match in his hand. It appeared that, while visiting his traps, he fell into a shallow swamp. His clothes immediately froze to his body and he died before he could light a fire.

Charles Sherman is buried here; an odd out of touch bachelor who always talked too loud. One day the neighbor’s bonfire got away and set his barn on fire. He tried to save his horses but failed. He was burned so badly that he died two days later.

Many family members and followers of Alpheus Cutler are buried here. They died of pneumonia, typhoid, tuberculosis, whooping cough, cancer, drowning, accidental gunshot wounds, suicide, and Minnesota’s brutal weather. A storm caused the death of the first person buried in the cemetery. It was William Mason, a shoemaker, who was caught in a big blizzard in 1867, and froze to death. He was not found until spring when a company of men headed to Alexandria to purchase flour and saw his boot sticking out of the ground.

Cassius Sherman froze to death and was found in a similar way. Cassius was the son of Jacob Sherman, the son of Edward Sherman, who came to America from Liverpool, England.

The Mount Pleasant cemetery is full of my pioneer ancestors with interesting, often tragic stories.

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