Tornado Legend & Lore

Unlike many other aspects of the environment, the frequency and occurrence of tornadoes is little affected by the spread of human population. Long before North America was settled and became a nation, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes roamed the wilderness in much the same way that they do now. Their presence quite often went unnoticed altogether. Even some of the most destructive tornadoes of monumental proportions were poorly-documented and little-understood, and resulted in few casualties (if any at all), due to the Midwest and Great Plains being so sparsely populated. Nonetheless, many Native American tribes were at least aware of the existence of tornadoes. Some called them the “devil wind”, or warned that catching sight of the “dead man walking” within a thunderstorm or tornado would bring death to the viewer. Some meteorologists have speculated that the natives could have been witnessing the characteristic multi-vortex structure within a tornado, which might give it a dancing, spectral, human-like appearance. The Kiowa tribe from the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota had the most elaborate tornado legend. Supposedly, some members of their tribe had petitioned a sorcerer to give them a powerful horse to ride. He conjured up a diabolically fierce stallion named Red Wind, with grey hair and glowing ruby eyes, who resided in the heart of thunderstorms but would sometimes spiral down in a fury and trample the earth with his hooves. Only spells and rituals exclusive to the Kiowa tribe could work to turn Red Wind away from his rampage of destruction.

Dead Man Walking Tornado Besides colorful legends like these, there are many incredible true and realistic accounts of tornadoes in the early United States. On May 30, 1879, a violent twister struck the town of Irving, Kansas, leaving behind a trail of casualties and destroyed buildings. But on the heels of this disaster came something even more terrifying and otherworldly, just as the survivors began emerging from shelter. It lacked the standard funnel appearance of a typical tornado and was described by some as “the broadside of an immense mountain… [moving] with the most inconceivable majesty of force.” It was estimated to be about two miles wide, and brought complete devastation to everything in its path. Most likely it was a massive wedge tornado, despite a leading meteorologist of that day labeling it as a freakish hybrid of a tornado and a hurricane. In the months following, many remaining survivors of Irving exhibited signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, freezing in panic whenever the sky clouded over, and spending one sleepless night after another camped outside in the path left behind by the monster, watching the horizon as though expecting it to return. Even more horrific was the weather catastrophe that struck the woodland town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin on October 8, 1871. Because this was the same date as the occurrence of the Great Chicago Fire, it is relatively unknown to the general public. A long summer of drought and hot weather lasting well into the fall culminated in severe, widespread fires all across the Midwest. West of Peshtigo, one of these forest fires created enough instability in the atmosphere to generate a full-sized thunderstorm containing a tornado made completely of fire.

Artist's Conception of a Fire Tornado This fire twister entered the town after dark and immediately incinerated every tree, building, and person in its path. Some people fled into a nearby river and were drowned or, ironically, perished of hypothermia from the frigid water. Many forest animals nearby were found suffocated, due to the fire tornado consuming all of the available oxygen out of the atmosphere in that area. Survivors the next morning found the entire region of what used to be the town encased in glass from melted sand and soil that had rained down from the tornado, similar to the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. The total human death toll was roughly 1500. A similar but even worse fire tornado struck Tokyo, Japan in 1923, ending over 40,000 lives in a matter of just a few seconds. Besides bringing mayhem and destruction, tornadoes can sometimes influence the course of history itself. In August of 1814, the British Army was in the process of invading and burning Washington, D.C. as part of their effort to take away our recently-won national independence. During the invasion attempt, a powerful thunderstorm swept over the city, complete with what many believe was a significant tornado. This tornado tossed around heavy cannons, uprooted trees and buildings, and killed several troops on both the British and American sides. Rain from the storm extinguished many of the fires that the British had started. Shortly thereafter, the British army gave up the invasion attempt and left the city for good. America went on to win the War of 1812 and maintained its freedom.

Burning of Washington; August 1814 So, does the U.S. really have a tornado to thank for its status as a powerful, independent nation? Maybe not entirely. But regardless, it’s hard to argue with the fact that tornadoes have been and probably always will be an integral part of American history and culture.