Massachusetts

Remembering the Great Snow of 1717 in New England

little-ice-age-great-snow

The worst winter ever in New England was probably not 2015, but 1717, when staggering amounts of snow fell in what became known as the Great Snow of 1717.

great snow of 1717So much snow fell that year that the Puritans in Boston held no church services for two successive weeks, reported Cotton Mather.

The events were so unusual that Mather and other contemporary diarists made note of how exceptionally harsh it was throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The heavy snow was capped off by a series of storms that started in late February,

Though the dates varied, the storms are most commonly cited as having occurred between February 27 and March 9, though others include storms of February 18 to the 24th as being part of the Great Snow of 1717.

The Great Snow

Regardless of dates, for generations after it became common in New England to refer to events as having occurred either before or after the great snow. Writers including Henry David Thoreau made reference to its historical significance in their work.

"The Indians near an hundred years old affirm that their fathers never told them of anything that equalled it," wrote Thoreau.

Great Snow of 1717 - Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

weather history

Throughout the region snow totals from the back-to-back storms were recorded at four, five and six feet. Drifts reached 25 feet. The snow covered entire houses, identifiable only by a thin curl of smoke coming out of a hole in the snow.

In Hampton, N.H., search parties went out after the storms hunting for widows and elderly people who might freeze death. Sometimes they lost their bearings and could not find the houses. Sometimes they found people burning their furniture because they couldn't get to the woodshed.

Countless livestock perished in the storms, and farmers spent weeks digging out cows, sheep, chickens and pigs.  Often they reported they had miraculously found animals alive under the snow and restored them to health. A couple of pigs worked their way out of a snowbank 27 days after the storm ended, having survived on some tansy. Hens lasted as long as a week under the snow, turkeys as long as 20 days.

The deer population fell tremendously. Some estimated 90 percent of deer died.  Some towns made clearings where the animals could seek shelter to avoid the wolves and other predators.

Life Goes On

Though life slowed to a crawl, it did not stop. The great snow delayed the mails, but post boys delivered them on snowshoes. They still used them into late March. People maintained tunnels and paths through the snow from house to house.

Joshua Coffin’s history of Newbury, Mass. recounts the charming tale of Abraham Adams. He escaped through a window and walked three miles on snowshoes to visit Abigail, his wife since December of 1716. The storm apparently separated the newlyweds, and Abigail holed up with her family. Abraham managed to enter their house via a second-story window.

They had their first child, if you’re curious, on Nov. 25, 1717, almost nine months to the day after the great snow.

If you enjoyed this story, you might want to sign up for free and stay up to date with all New England Historical Society articles. Click here to sign up now! This story about the great snow of 1717 was updated in 2018.

42 Comments

42 Comments

  1. Brad Willis

    Brad Willis

    February 27, 2014 at 8:20 am

    and yet with all the comforts we have today, people think we have it so rough…those were some TOUGH folks

  2. Molly

    February 27, 2014 at 8:35 am

    I guess this is why New Englanders are known as survivors!

  3. Cynthia Melendy

    Cynthia Melendy

    February 27, 2014 at 8:38 am

    The folks who made me. I often remind myself of this these days lately.

  4. Christina Rolsma

    Christina Rolsma

    February 27, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Wow, that’s tough for them compared to us.

  5. Tora Sterregaard

    Tora Sterregaard

    February 27, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Harvesting ice required 8 plus inches of ice thickness and the best (clearest) ice was harvested before Christmas. When have we had that much ice before Christmas? Ice skating now done on rinks because not enough ice on ponds for safe use??? Animals herded across frozen rivers also.

  6. Robert Plumer Jr.

    Robert Plumer Jr.

    February 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    For the Puritans to call off church service, twice in a row, is huge.

    • Michelle

      March 7, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Self reliance, yes, but also true community, people relying on each other. They helped the animals, too.

      • Michelle

        March 7, 2015 at 2:34 pm

        Oops. I meant to reply to William’s comment. I do agree that for Puritans to cancel church is almost like hell freezing over. 🙂

  7. William Smith

    William Smith

    February 27, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    It was called self reliance. And it sure seems to be needed badly today.

    • Elijah Perry

      February 16, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      Actually, all species function and survive better when members rely on one another. Community is a beautiful thing. Learning to love and support all of your neighbors and not just your family is how we will survive the coming challenges to our race. Self reliance is what brought us to destroy the only world we live in, through wasteful capitalist behavior that creates mass poverty and pollution in the name of innovation and progress. There’s more that we can do together than the elite can do alone.

  8. William Smith

    William Smith

    February 27, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    It was called self reliance. And it sure seems to be needed badly today.

  9. Heidi Ann Hooper

    Heidi Ann Hooper

    February 27, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    love this drawing

  10. Molly Landrigan

    Molly Landrigan

    February 28, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    Yes, we had lots of snow years ago but this winter’s extremely cold weather day after day is something I can’t remember.

  11. New England Genealogy

    New England Genealogy

    March 2, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    shared

  12. Daniel C. Purdy

    Daniel C. Purdy

    January 27, 2015 at 11:24 am

    Mini-Ice Age.

  13. Karen Bogue

    Karen Bogue

    January 27, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Always thankful to be living in these times during storms

  14. Marc Nedboy

    Marc Nedboy

    January 27, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    What kind of shovels did they have?

    • Patrick

      February 17, 2015 at 6:46 pm

      What type of shovels did they have on the farms back then? Same ones…

    • Charlie P.

      February 19, 2015 at 9:01 pm

      I wanted to say Ames, but the oldest company in America didn’t start until 1774!!

  15. Tim Boorman

    Tim Boorman

    January 27, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    Great story thanks

  16. Leslie Radcliffe

    Leslie Radcliffe

    January 27, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    We have had nothing compared to the 1700s!

  17. Melissa Mills Moniz

    Melissa Mills Moniz

    January 28, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Fascinating. I have this book about Native American and early settlers. On more than one occasion, in the middle of winter, they walked from the village of dunstable (nashua) to the Indian village by love well pond. ThAt is between North Conway nh and fry burg maine! No gortex boots or north face jackets!! Walked! The Native Americans from there to Andover one February for a raid! Walked! I don’t even like going to the mail box from oct to March, never mind leaving tomorrow for a walk to North Conway! These people were hearty folk. Amazing! (I guess they chose winter often so they could cross the Merrimack river on foot. No bridges then) thankful for my boots and car and furnace 🙂

    • Anon

      February 17, 2015 at 10:34 am

      But keep in mind they wore fur and animal hide which is a huge no no today because it’s “animal cruelty”. If fur and animal hide was still more common in winter clothes you’d see less North Face or Gortex products because fur and animal hide are the best to keep people warm.

    • Ed

      February 21, 2015 at 7:58 pm

      Walking time from Fryeburg, ME to North Conway, NH without snow: 3 h 38 min (11.1 miles) Not too bad.

  18. Sue Lavoie

    Sue Lavoie

    January 28, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Guess he was glad to see her !!

  19. Jennifer Napoli

    Jennifer Napoli

    January 29, 2015 at 1:33 am

    Hearty folks back then, makes us look like a bunch of wimps !!

  20. William Burgess Leavenworth

    February 13, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Love this sort of information.

  21. BobJohnson

    February 15, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Did anybody try to blame the storm on gas guzzling automobiles….but wait….there were no automobiles.

  22. jr

    February 16, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    Yeah, if you look at the actual history it was a total of 5 feet not back to back five foot storms. Another words we’ve had more in the past three weeks.

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  24. mike mskars

    February 19, 2015 at 11:38 am

    We had it easy in the70 and 80 s kids today wouldn’t last 5 minutes in those conditions

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  26. j

    March 1, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Those people werent distracted by stuff like internet and TV like we are so many of them could more acutely focus on the task of survival. Also, no one was obese back then

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  28. James Bourn

    March 15, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    Found this page and wonder if I might be related to any of the bourne’s from that area of the country I am in north al

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