Home Massachusetts Remembering the Great Snow of 1717 in New England

Remembering the Great Snow of 1717 in New England

'Never such a snow in the memory of man'


The worst winter ever in New England was probably 1717, when staggering amounts of snow fell in what became known as the Great Snow of 1717.

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. “Never such a Snow in the Memory of Man!” wrote Mather.

Heavy December snowfall was capped off by four storms in 11 days. They started on February 18, continued on the 21st and 24th, and then walloped New England a final time on February 28th. Then over the next six weeks, the deep snow got packed down very hard. The combined efforts of snow shovelers and the wind left drifts as high as 30 feet in Cambridge, Mass.

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.

“The Indians near an hundred years old affirm that their fathers never told them of anything that equaled it,” wrote Thoreau.

On Sunday, February 24, New London farmer Joshua Hempstead wrote in his diary, “it Snowed Smartly last night & this morn windy & cold. No meeting.”

Boston was one of the few places that could hold Sunday meeting that day. Judge Samuel Sewall noted the poor attendance at Old South Church. noted, “Violent Storm of Snow, which makes our Meeting very thin especially as to Women,” he wrote in his diary.

Then after the final storm, the Puritans in Boston held no church services for two successive weeks, reported Cotton Mather.


Samuel Sewall

Throughout the region snow totals from the back-to-back storms were recorded at four, five and six feet. The snow covered entire houses, identifiable only by a thin curl of smoke coming out of a hole in the snow. “All communication between houses and farms ceased,” wrote Sidney Perley in his classic book, Historic Storms of New England. “Down came the flakes of feathery whiteness.”

The poor especially suffered from want of food and heat. 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.

The deep snow prevented people from bringing firewood into the cities, and students began to leave Harvard because they had no wood, according to the diary of Thomas Paine.

Harvard College engraving, 1726

The Poor Animals

The snow buried many cattle, where they either smothered or starved to death. “Some were found dead weeks after the snow had melted, yet standing and with all the appearance of life,” wrote Perley. “The eyes of many were so glazed with ice that being near the sea they wandered into the water and were drowned.” One farmer lost more than 1100 sheep, he wrote.

Farmers spent weeks digging out cows, sheep, chickens and pigs.  Mather reported they often found animals miraculously 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.


Cotton Mather

The great snow of 1717 robbed the wild animals in the forest of their means of subsistence. “Bears and wolves were numerous then, and as soon as night fell, in their ravenous state they followed the deer in droves into the clearings, at length pouncing upon them,” wrote Perley.

The deer population fell tremendously. An estimated 90 percent of deer died.  Some towns made clearings where the animals could seek shelter to avoid the wolves and other predators. To protect the dwindling deer population, Massachusetts then banned deer hunting for nearly four years, and Connecticut stiffened hunting restrictions as well.

Bears, wolves and foes came to sheep pens every night. Cotton Mather claimed that their attacks frightened so many ewes about to give birth that most lambs born that spring had the color of foxes.

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.

With thanks to Sidney Perley, Historic Storms of New England. Updated in 2024 with thanks to Thomas Wickman, The Great Snow of 1717: Settler Landscapes, Deep Snow Cover, and Winter’s Environmental History, in  Northeastern Naturalist, 2017.


Brad Willis February 27, 2014 - 8:20 am

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

Molly February 27, 2014 - 8:35 am

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

Cynthia Melendy February 27, 2014 - 8:38 am

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

Christina Rolsma February 27, 2014 - 8:55 am

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

Tora Sterregaard February 27, 2014 - 10:49 am

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.

Robert Plumer Jr. February 27, 2014 - 12:36 pm

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

Michelle March 7, 2015 - 2:33 pm

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

Michelle March 7, 2015 - 2:34 pm

Oops. I meant to reply to William’s comment. I do agree that for Puritans to cancel church is almost like hell freezing over. 🙂

William Smith February 27, 2014 - 6:13 pm

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

Elijah Perry February 16, 2015 - 5:23 pm

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.

William Smith February 27, 2014 - 6:13 pm

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

Heidi Ann Hooper February 27, 2014 - 8:55 pm

love this drawing

Molly Landrigan February 28, 2014 - 7:55 pm

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

New England Genealogy March 2, 2014 - 4:32 pm


Daniel C. Purdy January 27, 2015 - 11:24 am

Mini-Ice Age.

Karen Bogue January 27, 2015 - 11:31 am

Always thankful to be living in these times during storms

Marc Nedboy January 27, 2015 - 6:13 pm

What kind of shovels did they have?

Patrick February 17, 2015 - 6:46 pm

What type of shovels did they have on the farms back then? Same ones…

Charlie P. February 19, 2015 - 9:01 pm

I wanted to say Ames, but the oldest company in America didn’t start until 1774!!

Rose May 23, 2016 - 12:37 am

Could you write about Phsciys so I can pass Science class?

Tim Boorman January 27, 2015 - 7:53 pm

Great story thanks

Leslie Radcliffe January 27, 2015 - 9:15 pm

We have had nothing compared to the 1700s!

Melissa Mills Moniz January 28, 2015 - 7:54 am

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 🙂

Anon February 17, 2015 - 10:34 am

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.

Ed February 21, 2015 - 7:58 pm

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

Sue Lavoie January 28, 2015 - 11:06 am

Guess he was glad to see her !!

Roby May 23, 2016 - 12:53 am

An answer from an expert! Thanks for cougiibntrnt.

Jennifer Napoli January 29, 2015 - 1:33 am

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

William Burgess Leavenworth February 13, 2015 - 1:18 pm

Love this sort of information.

BobJohnson February 15, 2015 - 5:50 pm

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

jr February 16, 2015 - 11:54 pm

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.

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mike mskars February 19, 2015 - 11:38 am

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

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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

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Jack Lynch March 21, 2019 - 10:08 am

I wonder if some of the discrepancies in dates for the storms could be due to confusion between the Julian Calendar (old Style) & Gregorian (New Style) Calendar. When England and her colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, 11 days were skipped. Also, New Year’s Day was fixed at Jan 1 instead of March 25. For example, Washington would have celebrated his birthday for his first 20 years on its anniversary, Feb 11, 1731. With adoption of the New Style, his birthday became the generally recognized Feb 22, 1732.

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