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.
Mittens in June
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.
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.
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 streets of Montreal. Lambs died from exposure in Vermont.
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.
Temperatures seesawed up and down all 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 on July 6, a northwest wind brought a three-day cold spell, with 30-degree temperatures in northern New England, 40 degrees in Hartford and New Haven.
As depressing as the second severe cold spell was the drought that enveloped most of the United States, including New England.
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.
Fears of famine began to grow.
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.
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 it up: '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 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.
Three-quarters of the corn crop was lost. 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.
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:
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 were: 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.