The Summer that Never Was
As anyone who gardens knows, we're NOT enjoying one of the coolest, cloudiest and wet years in memory. I've talked to some experienced gardeners who've been gardening for over fifty years and even they agree that there hasn't been a growing season worse than this. Well, there WAS a worse year nearly two hundred years ago that produced snow and frost in June, frost in July and another killing frost in August. The year was 1816, also known as “The Year There Was No Summer” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death”.
It seems that a volcano called Tamora explosively erupted in Indonesia in April of 1815. This eruption is regarded by many as the largest eruption in recorded history. On the Indonesian archipelago the impact was, of course, devastating with estimates of up to 90 million deaths. The size and violence of this eruption forced an estimated 100 CUBIC MILES of dust, ash and sulfuric acid into the stratosphere. Many scientists feel that this dust and ash was responsible for “The Year There Was No Summer”. Other theories involve sunspot activity and still other theories revolve around larger cycles of warm and cool climate conditions that occur every 210 years or so. Regardless of the reason or reasons, the tribulations of the summer of 1816 are legend and had a hand in, among other things, the migration of many New Englanders and New Yorkers out of those areas, and a wave of migration out of central Europe and England to the United States.
Let's take a look at what they endured. The winter of 1815-1816 was a cold one that started early and lingered late. This was not uncommon and these northern farmers had endured many long winters and late spring cold. April and May were cold but most managed to get their crops in. By early June, the leaves were out on the trees, the corn was up and vegetable gardens were in and growing. It looked like the long winter was over at last. Then things began to go terribly wrong. On June 5th in Williamstown, Mass., the temperature was a balmy 83 degrees, warm for that early in the season. By the next morning, the temperature was 45 degrees and still falling. This cold arctic air wasn't isolated to Williamstown. From Canada to Virginia cold arctic air caused killing frosts to occur June 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th. Thousands of birds that had recently migrated into the area from the south froze to death. Sheep, recently shorn, froze to death even though they were brought inside. Farmers built bonfires around their fields to try to save the crops but all to no avail. The important corn crop was virtually wiped out along with most other crops. Even the leaves on all the trees froze, blackened and fell to the ground. There was light snow on June 6th in New York and New England and on the 7th and 8th, more snow was reported as far south as the Catskills. In Danville, Vermont the newspaper reports: “On the night of the 7th and morning of the 8th a kind of sleet or exceedingly cold snow fell, attended by high wind, and measured in places where it drifted 18 to 20 inches in depth. Saturday morning (8th of June) the weather was more severe than it generally is in the winter.” Standing water froze as far south as Philadelphia and in northern Vermont the ice was an inch thick. Even the ground started to freeze!
Remember that this is 1816. No one knew about a huge volcano. Even if they did they had no reason to believe that it should have any effect on them. All they knew was that their crops were dead and, if they couldn't get more in right away, starvation the following winter was a real possibility. Talk of famine and the wrath of God were widespread.
By the 12th of June, the outbreak of cold ended. The hard work of planting was repeated. Farmers knew that, in spite of the late start, they still had enough time to get a decent crop of corn and beans and such….if the weather cooperated for the rest of the season. For four weeks the weather held. The second planting sprouted and was growing well. Folks felt a bit foolish about their earlier fears and chalked it up to their renowned New England weather. Their good cheer was not to last.
At the end of the first week in July another, although less severe, outbreak of arctic air spilled over New England and eastern New York. All the crops in the valleys (where most of the farms were) were again killed or badly damaged. There was no snow in July of 1816 but most felt that a widespread famine was inevitable. Those who could procure seed again replanted and everyone prayed. It seemed that God himself had turned against them. Many wondered what they had done to incur His wrath.
After the first week of July, things returned to normal for a few more weeks. In addition to the cold in 1816, it was a dry year as well. In spite of their earlier failures, the farmers (which, at that time, was just about everybody) were optimistic that, if they got a break in September, things would be all right. You've got to remember that the only food they'd have the following winter would be what they could grow that summer.
Alas, another killing frost on August 20th visited much of New England and New York as far south as East Windsor, Conn. From Albany to Boston most of the crops again succumbed. Whatever survived that frost was finished off by an even colder spell during the last week of the month. As if that weren't enough, temperatures dipped below freezing again September 11th and 12th. A more widespread frost at the end of September dashed any hope for crops that had managed to escape until then.
The winter of 1816-1817 was indeed a winter of despair; especially for the poor and sustenance farmers who were isolated and depended on their crops to survive. Many tried to survive on milk and bread but bread was in short supply. It was a blessing that the ocean off New England's coast was so bountiful. The task of feeding New England fell to the fishermen. Many landlubbers who had never eaten fish became very familiar with the taste of mackerel during 1817.
Beginning in 1817, there was a mass migration out of New England to the newly tamed (Indians finally killed or driven out) Ohio valley. The temptations of level ground and an easier climate were too much for many who managed to survive that terrible summer of '16 and winter of '17.
“The Year There Was No Summer” wasn't strictly a Northeastern North American event. England, France, Germany and most of Eastern Europe endured a similarly disastrous season. It wasn't as cold as New England in Europe but they had flooding and wet weather that resulted in crop failures of similar proportions. Food riots erupted in England, France, Switzerland, and Scotland as famished people broke into warehouses and took whatever they found edible. For many of these starving Europeans, the lure of the bountiful life in the United States was irresistible at that point. Unaware that conditions were the same on the western side of the Atlantic, they arrived in the New World only to suffer more privations. Many continued their exodus into the interior to begin settling the mid-west alongside recently displaced New Englanders.
Our modern transportation system would prevent famine if another “Year There Was No Summer” occurred now. When the rain and the cold get you down remember, it could be a lot worse. It's disappointing and frustrating trying to get a ripe tomato in 2000 but it's nothing when compared to the trials the weather of 1816 put our forefathers through. Thanks for the read.