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Remembering the Great Snow of 1717 in New England

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, capped off by a series of storms that started in late February, that the Puritans in Boston held no church services for two successive weeks, reported Cotton Mather. The events were so unusual that he and other contemporary diarists made note of how exceptionally harsh it was throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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.

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.

Great Snow of 1717 - Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

Throughout the region snow totals from the back-to-back storms were recordedatf four, five and six feet, with drifts as high as 25 feet. Entire houses were covered over, 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 at risk of freezing to death. It wasn't uncommon for them to lose their bearings and not be able to find the houses. Sometimes they were found burning their furniture because they couldn't get to the woodshed.

Countless numbers of livestock perished in the storms, and many stories recounted farmers spending weeks digging out cows, sheep, chickens and pigs, often reporting that 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 was reduced tremendously, some estimated 90 percent of it was lost. Some towns made clearings where the animals could seek shelter to avoid the wolves and other predators.

Though life slowed to a crawl, it did not stop. The mails were delayed, but they were delivered by post boys who got around on snowshoe throughout New England, still using them late into 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 who managed to escape through a window of his house and walk three miles on snowshoe to visit Abigail, his new wife since December of 1716. The newlyweds were apparently separated by the storm and she was holed up with her family. He 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 was updated from the 2015 version.

38 comments

  1. Brad Willis

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

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

  3. Cynthia Melendy

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

  4. Christina Rolsma

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

  5. Tora Sterregaard

    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.

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

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

      • 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

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

    • 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

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

  9. Molly Landrigan

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

  10. Karen Bogue

    Always thankful to be living in these times during storms

  11. Marc Nedboy

    What kind of shovels did they have?

  12. Leslie Radcliffe

    We have had nothing compared to the 1700s!

  13. Melissa Mills Moniz

    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 :)

    • 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.

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

  14. Sue Lavoie

    Guess he was glad to see her !!

  15. Jennifer Napoli

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

  16. William Burgess Leavenworth

    Love this sort of information.

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

  18. 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.

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

  20. 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

  21. 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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