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. “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.
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.
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.
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 2023 with thanks to Thomas Wickman, The Great Snow of 1717: Settler Landscapes, Deep Snow Cover, and Winter’s Environmental History, in Northeastern Naturalist, 2017.