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1816: The Year Without a Summer

The year 1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in New England because six inches of snow fell in June and every month of the year had a hard frost. the year without a summer

Temperatures dropped to as low as 40 degrees in July and August as far south as Connecticut. It was also known as ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’ and the ‘Poverty Year.’

The Year Without A Summer had a far-reaching impact. Crop failures caused hoarding and big price increases for agricultural commodities. People went hungry. Farmers gave up trying to make a living in New England and started heading west.  Politicians who ignored the melancholy plight of their constituents found themselves out of office.

And to this day, scientists don’t agree on what caused the bizarre weather in The Year Without a Summer.

Year Without a Summer

There were warm days in the spring of 1816, but they were followed by cold snaps. In Salem, Mass., for example, it was 74 degrees on April 24. Within 30 hours the temperature dropped to 21 degrees.

Thomas Robbins, the East Windsor, Conn., bibliophile, noticed the late spring. He wrote in his diary, ‘the vegetation does not seem to advance at all.’

On May 12, strong winds and freezing temperatures from Canada killed the buds on fruit trees. Inch-thick ice formed on ponds and streams from Maine to Upstate New York. By the end of May, corn plants froze in central Maine.

Then on June 6, 1816, six inches of snow fell on New England. Clockmaker Chauncey Jerome wrote in his autobiography that he walked to work that day in Plymouth, Conn., wearing heavy woolen clothes, an overcoat and mittens.

weather history
Chauncey Jerome

Chauncey Jerome wore mittens in June during the Year Without a Summer.

Flurries fell in Boston the next day, the latest ever recorded. The snow was 18 inches deep in Cabot, Vt., on June 8.  On June 11, a temperature of 30.5 degrees was recorded in Williamstown, Mass. Frozen birds dropped dead in the fields. Some Vermont farmers who had already shorn their sheep tried to tie their fleeces back on, but many froze to death anyway.

Benjamin Harwood, a Bennington, Vt., farmer, wrote in his diary that it rained all night then began to snow from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The heads of all the mountains on every side were crowned with snow. The most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen.

And then it got warm again.

More Cold

Temperatures seesawed up and down throughout the Year Without a Summer, bringing hope on warm days that the crops could be harvested after all. Then sharp cold spells brought despair.

On June 22, for example, temperatures reached 101 degrees in Salem, Mass. But July 4 was cool. Chauncey Jerome wrote it was hard to feel patriotic while watching men play quoits in overcoats.  Then a northwest wind brought a three-day cold spell, with 30-degree temperatures in northern New England, 40 degrees in Hartford and New Haven.

Gov. William Plumer

Gov. William Plumer blamed God for the Year Without a Summer.

The frost destroyed the bean crop in Franconia, N.H., and bean, cucumber and squash crops in Kennebunkport, Maine.  Young plants grew so slowly they were vulnerable to frost, and farmers harvested so little hay they had to slaughter their livestock or feed them oats and corn.

As depressing as the second severe cold spell was the drought that enveloped most of the United States, including New England. "I never saw our street so dry," complained a minister in East Windsor, Conn.

Gov. William Jones of Rhode Island issued a proclamation designating a day of public 'Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving,’ noting the ‘coldness and dryness of the seasons’ and the ‘alarming sickness.’ New Hampshire Gov. William Plumer believed the weather was God’s judgment in the earth and urged people to humble themselves for their transgressions.

Fear of famine began to grow during the Year Without a Summer.

Hard Frost in August

Early August was sunny and warm. Farmers planted new crops hoping the growing season might last beyond the first frost in October. On Aug. 13th and 14th, a cold spell froze the corn crop north of Concord, N.H.

weather history

On Aug. 20, a short, violent storm struck Amherst, N.H., signaling a steep drop in temperature: 30 degrees within a few hours. It snowed in Vermont. In Maine, farmers wrapped rags around their plants to protect them.

At least the wheat, rye and potatoes were holding up, staving off famine. In Ashland, N.H., Reuben Whitten was able to grow wheat on his south-facing farm. He shared it with his neighbors. After he died in 1847, his neighbors paid for his gravestone and later erected a monument that read:

A pioneer of this town. Cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushils of wheat on this land whitch kept his family and neighbours from starveation.

Hopes of salvaging what remained of the corn crop were dashed by a severe frost on Aug. 28.  Maine and New Hampshire farmers cut up whole fields of corn for fodder.

Rev. William Fogg of Kittery, Maine, summed up the Year Without a Summer: 'Crops cut short and a heavy load of taxes.'

There were reports of people eating raccoons, mackerel and pigeons.

It warmed up again in September, as usual, but then at sunrise on Sept. 26 in Hanover, N.H., it was 26 degrees. Snow fell throughout the region, and a killing frost froze crops in the field and apples on the branch.

Nettles and Hedgehogs

The drought caused wildfires to break out in the woods throughout New England. Fires in western New York produced so much smoke that sailors were blinded on Lake Champlain.

The Year Without a Summer was especially hard on the poor. The New Hampshire Patriot reported on Oct. 22, 1816, that ‘Indian corn, on which a large proportion of the poor depend is cut off. ‘ Vermont farmers lost much of their livestock, and Vermonters foraged for food such as nettles, wild turnips and hedgehogs.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster lost his bid for reelection during the Year Without a Summer.

Three-quarters of the corn crop was lost during the Year Without a Summer. Prices soared for wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk and flour. In Maine, the price of oats tripled and potatoes doubled. Hay was 180 a ton in parts of New Hampshire, six times its usual cost.

At least the Year Without a Summer had been good for producing maple syrup. Vermonters traded syrup for fish, which is why they called 1816 the Mackerel Year.

Members of Congress seemed insensitive to the suffering of the people and voted to double their own salary. It didn’t go over well. Nearly 70 percent of incumbent U.S. representatives were voted out of office – including Daniel Webster.

After the Year Without a Summer,  Josiah Meigs, commissioner general of the Land Offices, in 1817 began a more systematic approach to observing weather phenomenon. He ordered the 20 Land Offices to take thrice-daily recordings of the temperature, winds and precipitation.

The Frigid Zone

Author Samuel Goodrich visited New Hampshire, observing:

Samuel Goodrich

Samuel Goodrich described the despair that seized people during the Year Without a Summer.

At last a kind of despair seized upon the people. In the pressure of adversity, many persons lost their judgment, and thousands feared or felt that New England was destined, henceforth, to become part of the frigid zone.

The next year started out cold as well, convincing Northeast farmers to migrate to the Midwest.

Rev. Samuel Robbins in East Windsor, Conn., wrote, 'We have had a great deal of moving this spring. Our number rather diminished.'

At the time, many reasons were given for the weird phenomena: sunspots, deforestation, great fields of ice floating in the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments and, of course, the wrath of God.

Many people believe the Year Without a Summer was caused by a massive volcanic explosion on Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, killing 15,000 instantly. Soon after another 65,000 perished of disease and starvation. The volcanic ash and debris thrown up into the stratosphere is thought to have blocked the sun and caused a gradual lowering of temperatures.

Lee Foster, NOAA meteorologist, notes that climate data shows 1816 was part of a mini ice age lasting from 1400 to around 1860, with unusually harsh winters, short growing seasons and dry weather.

With thanks to The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman. This story was updated in 2017.

 

 

 

37 comments

  1. Anna Hoyt Lyon

    Climate has been changing ever since the world began. Since cars didn’t exist, I suppose this one was caused by excessive equine and bovine flatulence.

    • The article states “And to this day, scientists don’t agree on what caused the bizarre weather in The Year Without a Summer,” but this is wrong. Scientists generally agree now that the primary cause was the gigantic eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia.

      • What is bizarre is some people can look at this event where (natural) climate change caused massive numbers of deaths round the whole globe from starvation and their taking from this is that we can safely ignore possible man made global climate change.

        It’s like observing frostbite and therefore concluding that it is impossible that someone might be scalded…

      • Laura Marie Garrity-Arquitt

        That is exactly what I thought it would have been!

  2. Sibella DeCarlo

    What unbelievable weather to survive –

  3. Sibella DeCarlo

    What unbelievable weather to survive –

  4. Rob Laughlin

    We know 1816, as we lost a great many in my family that year at Tolland, Connecticut.

  5. Rob Laughlin

    We know 1816, as we lost a great many in my family that year at Tolland, Connecticut.

  6. Cathryn Blackwell

    Actually… The thought it that there was a volcano somewhere and dark summer was caused by the ash cloud floated our way.

  7. Daniel C. Purdy

    During the Little Ice Age, the bays here in Maine froze every winter. That year, though, it froze out to Monhegan, 20 miles out. Lou MacAnally, for his Doctoral Dissertation.

  8. Frank Ross

    Must’ve been all those carbon emissions that humans produce that cause climate change……

  9. Heather Fedrick Pascarelli

    That’s so crazy. I had no idea that could even happen in summer.

  10. Tarek Raslan

    Great article, thanks for posting!

  11. Jean Gillis Vanasek

    I’ve read about the year without summer. Very interesting, I hope it doesn’t ever happen again.

  12. Debbie Ewing Lyons

    Great info. We think we have it hard. Wonder how or why people stayed in these places….and here we are today. Still in the same places.

  13. Debbie Ewing Lyons

    Great info. We think we have it hard. Wonder how or why people stayed in these places….and here we are today. Still in the same places.

  14. Glen Jardine

    Yes, always read that the eruption of Mt Tambora was a major cause of this.

  15. Glen Jardine

    Yes, always read that the eruption of Mt Tambora was a major cause of this.

  16. Glen Jardine

    Yes, always read that the eruption of Mt Tambora was a major cause of this.

  17. I find it interesting that even in these early days of politics that the Congress were already acting like criminals and in the hardships of where so many lost so much they voted to double their salary. They didn’t care about the people then and still don’t care about the people today.

  18. Elizabeth Winchcombe

    Great post. Really interesting stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write it

  19. There are no hedgehogs in the Americas.

  20. Wait wait wait..my Hedgehogs.. what are they talking about.. they never lived in New England

  21. I remember reading a novel about this when I was about 12 or so. I think it’s time to read it again. Patterns on the Wall (referring to stenciling done by itinerant artists) by Elizabeth Yates. She wrote a number of excellent historical novels about rural New Hampshire and New England life.

  22. Wow! This is fascinating to me. It must have been brutal. Even with modern conveniences it would be difficult, can you imagine these poor people back then? I think with any living entity there is change. Humans, Animals, Plants and the Earth. And Mother Nature does right itself but we always want to fix it. Help it maybe but Mother Nature knows best how to move forward. Of course that is only my opinion.

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