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.
So 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.
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.
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