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.
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.
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.
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