Henry David Thoreau and the Coldest Winter Ever in New England

To Henry David Thoreau, the Cold Friday of 1810 was a well-known phenomenon that came to mind in January 1857, the coldest winter of the 19th century. That New England winter featured heavy snow, brutal cold and violent winds from mid-December until late April.

Winter in the Country by Currier and Ives

Thoreau was 39 years old, and his mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, remembered the Cold Friday of Jan. 19, 1810. The weather had been warm on the preceding day, but then a snow squall came up and the temperature fell as much as 55 degrees in 24 hours. The piercing wind made the cold unbearable.

Coldest Winter

About a month into the coldest winter, on Jan. 11, 1857, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Began snowing yesterday afternoon–& it is still snowing this forenoon–

Mother remembers the Cold Friday–very well–She lived in the house where I was born–The people in the kitchen Jack Garrison–Ester–& a Hardy girl drew up close to the fire–but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.

Henry David Thoreau had as good an eye for the telling weather detail as his mother. He described the coldest 10 days in January in his journal.

32 Snowstorms

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau described New England’s coldest winter in detail.

The weather in New England remained mild until mid-December, though plenty of snow had fallen. Then on December 17 the temperature plummeted to 12 below zero in Massachusetts and 16 below in Maine. For the rest of the winter, violent wind and 32 snowstorms buffeted New England. Railroad tracks were blocked, ships were wrecked and poor people suffered because food and fuel were so expensive.

January 17 and 18 were the two coldest days recorded in New England, and the period from the 17th to the 26th was the coldest week ever. On the night of Jan. 17, the temperature plunged to 20° below zero in Salem, Mass., with a cutting northeast wind. The cold didn’t let up much, and the next day, a Sunday, snow began to fall.

On Jan. 18, Thoreau wrote in his journal:

A very cold day– Thermometer at 7 1/2 Am 14° (Smith’s hanging on same nail 20°) at 1 1/4 Pm 3° 2 1/4 Pm 4° 3 3/4 Pm 0°. It is cloudy & no sun all day–& considerable wind also. There was no sabbath school on account of the cold–could not warm the room… 3 little pigs were frozen to death in an Irishmans pen last night at the Green Store–

Began to snow in the evening–the thermometer at 0°.

On Jan. 19, he called the snow intolerable:

A snow storm with very high wind all last night & today– Though not much snow (perhaps 7 or 8 inches) falls it is exceedingly drifted–so that the first train gets down about noon & none gets up till about 6 Pm! There is no vehicle passing the house before 2 Pm– A fine dry snow–intolerable to face.

Boston Harbor Freezes

The next day, Jan. 20, he wrote the snow blocked the roads and the cold froze Boston Harbor.

There probably is not more than 12 to 18 inches of snow on a level–yet the drifts are very large– Neither milkman nor butcher got here yesterday–& to-day the milkman came with oxen partly through the fields. Though the snow is nowhere deep in the middle of the main street–the drifts are very large especially on the N side–so that as you look down the street it appears as uneven as a rolling prairie…I hear that Boston harbor froze over on the 18th down to Fort Independence–

The river has been frozen everywhere except at the very few swiftest places since about Dec 18–& everywhere since about 29 Jan 1st….

On Jan. 21st:

The river is now so concealed that a common eye would not suspect its existence– It is drifted on it exactly as on the meadow–i.e. successive low drifts with a bluff head toward the wind.

It is remarkable how many tracks of foxes you will see quite near the village–where they have been in the night– & yet a regular walker will not glimpse one oftener than once in 8 or 10 years. The overflow, under the snow, is generally at the bends, where the river is narrower–& swifter—

More Snow

It snowed the next day, Jan. 22

Snows all day–clearing up at night—a remarkably fine & dry snow, which looking out you might suspect to be blowing snow merely–yet thus it snows all day—driving almost horizontally—but it does not amount to much…

I asked M. about the cold Friday– he said “It was plaguey cold–it stung like a wasp”– He remembers seeing them toss up water in a shoemaker’s 3 shop–usually a very warm place–& when it struck the floor, it was frozen & rattled like so many shot…

Jan. 23 was the coldest day Thoreau could remember as he checked the temperature on his neighbors’ thermometers:

Ink froze–had to break the ice in my pail with a hammer

The coldest day that I remember recording–clear & bright–but very high wind–blowing the snow– Thermometer at 6 3/4 Am 18°…Walking this Pm I notice that the face inclines to stiffen–& the hands & feet get cold soon– On first coming out in very cold weather I find that I breathe fast, though without walking faster or exerting myself any more than usual.

Jan. 25

Still another very cold morning– Smith’s thermometer over ours at 29°- ours in bulb–but about 7 ours was at 18°- & Smith’s at 24- ours therefore at first about 23°–

Jan. 26

Another cold morning– None looked early–but about 8 it was 14°

Saw Boston Harbor frozen over (for some time). Reminded me of, I think, Parry’s Winter Harbor–with vessels frozen in. Saw thousands on the ice–a stream of men reaching down to Fort Independence where they were cutting a channel toward the city– Ice said to reach 14 miles. Snow untracked on many decks. Snow At 10 Pm 14 plus. Ice did not finally go out till about Feb 15th

Finally, on Jan. 27, the coldest winter started to warm up. On that day, Thoreau wrote:

Thawing a little at last Thermometer 35 degrees plus.

With thanks to Historic Storms of New England: Its Gales, Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Showers with Thunder and Lightning… by Sidney Perley.

This story about the coldest winter was updated in 2022.

Image: Currier & Ives. (ca. 1863) Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning. , ca. 1863. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

To Top

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!