The year 1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in New England because six inches of snow fell in June and every month of the year had a hard frost.
Temperatures dropped to as low as 40 degrees in July and August as far south as Connecticut. People also called it ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’ and the ‘Poverty Year.’
The Year Without A Summer had a far-reaching impact. Crop failures caused hoarding and big price increases for agricultural commodities. People went hungry. Farmers gave up trying to make a living in New England and started heading west. Politicians who ignored the melancholy plight of their constituents found themselves out of office.
And to this day, scientists don’t agree on what caused the bizarre weather in The Year Without a Summer.
Year Without a Summer
There were warm days in the spring of 1816, but they were followed by cold snaps. In Salem, Mass., for example, it was 74 degrees on April 24. Within 30 hours the temperature dropped to 21 degrees.
On May 12, strong winds and freezing temperatures from Canada killed the buds on fruit trees. Inch-thick ice formed on ponds and streams from Maine to Upstate New York. By the end of May, corn plants froze in central Maine.
Then on June 6, 1816, six inches of snow fell on New England. Clockmaker Chauncey Jerome wrote in his autobiography that he walked to work that day in Plymouth, Conn., wearing heavy woolen clothes, an overcoat and mittens.
Flurries fell in Boston the next day, the latest ever recorded. The snow was 18 inches deep in Cabot, Vt., on June 8. On June 11, a temperature of 30.5 degrees was recorded in Williamstown, Mass. Frozen birds dropped dead in the fields. Some Vermont farmers who had already shorn their sheep tried to tie their fleeces back on, but many froze to death anyway.
The heads of all the mountains on every side were crowned with snow. The most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen.
And then it got warm again.
Temperatures seesawed up and down throughout the Year Without a Summer, bringing hope on warm days that the crops could be harvested after all. Then sharp cold spells brought despair.
On June 22, for example, temperatures reached 101 degrees in Salem, Mass. But July 4 was cool. Chauncey Jerome wrote it was hard to feel patriotic while watching men play quoits in overcoats. Then a northwest wind brought a three-day cold spell, with 30-degree temperatures in northern New England, 40 degrees in Hartford and New Haven.
The frost destroyed the bean crop in Franconia, N.H., and bean, cucumber and squash crops in Kennebunkport, Maine. Young plants grew so slowly they were vulnerable to frost, and farmers harvested so little hay they had to slaughter their livestock or feed them oats and corn.
As depressing as the second severe cold spell was the drought that enveloped most of the United States, including New England. “I never saw our street so dry,” complained a minister in East Windsor, Conn.
Gov. William Jones of Rhode Island issued a proclamation designating a day of public ‘Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving,’ noting the ‘coldness and dryness of the seasons’ and the ‘alarming sickness.’ New Hampshire Gov. William Plumer believed the weather was God’s judgment in the earth and urged people to humble themselves for their transgressions.
Fear of famine began to grow during the Year Without a Summer.
Hard Frost in August
Early August was sunny and warm. Farmers planted new crops hoping the growing season might last beyond the first frost in October. On Aug. 13th and 14th, a cold spell froze the corn crop north of Concord, N.H.
On Aug. 20, a short, violent storm struck Amherst, N.H., signaling a steep drop in temperature: 30 degrees within a few hours. It snowed in Vermont. In Maine, farmers wrapped rags around their plants to protect them.
At least the wheat, rye and potatoes were holding up, staving off famine. In Ashland, N.H., Reuben Whitten was able to grow wheat on his south-facing farm. He shared it with his neighbors. After he died in 1847, his neighbors paid for his gravestone and later erected a monument that read:
A pioneer of this town. Cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushils of wheat on this land whitch kept his family and neighbours from starveation.
Hopes of salvaging what remained of the corn crop were dashed by a severe frost on Aug. 28. Maine and New Hampshire farmers cut up whole fields of corn for fodder.
Rev. William Fogg of Kittery, Maine, summed up the Year Without a Summer: ‘Crops cut short and a heavy load of taxes.’
There were reports of people eating raccoons, mackerel and pigeons.
It warmed up again in September, as usual, but then at sunrise on Sept. 26 in Hanover, N.H., it was 26 degrees. Snow fell throughout the region, and a killing frost froze crops in the field and apples on the branch.
Nettles and Hedgehogs
The drought caused wildfires to break out in the woods throughout New England. Fires in western New York produced so much smoke that sailors were blinded on Lake Champlain.
The Year Without a Summer was especially hard on the poor. The New Hampshire Patriot reported on Oct. 22, 1816, that ‘Indian corn, on which a large proportion of the poor depend is cut off. ‘ Vermont farmers lost much of their livestock, and Vermonters foraged for food such as nettles, wild turnips and hedgehogs.
Three-quarters of the corn crop was lost during the Year Without a Summer. Prices soared for wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk and flour. In Maine, the price of oats tripled and potatoes doubled. Hay was 180 a ton in parts of New Hampshire, six times its usual cost.
The Year Without a Summer brought widespread famines in Europe as well. The bad weather forced a group of poets to remain in their rooms in Switzerland. To avoid boredom and entertain the group, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
At least the Year Without a Summer had been good for producing maple syrup. Vermonters traded syrup for fish, which is why they called 1816 the Mackerel Year.
Members of Congress seemed insensitive to the suffering of the people and voted to double their own salary. It didn’t go over well. Nearly 70 percent of incumbent U.S. representatives were voted out of office – including Daniel Webster.
After the Year Without a Summer, Josiah Meigs, commissioner general of the Land Offices, in 1817 began a more systematic approach to observing weather phenomenon. He ordered the 20 Land Offices to take thrice-daily recordings of the temperature, winds and precipitation.
The Frigid Zone
Author Samuel Goodrich visited New Hampshire, observing:
At last a kind of despair seized upon the people. In the pressure of adversity, many persons lost their judgment, and thousands feared or felt that New England was destined, henceforth, to become part of the frigid zone.
The next year started out cold as well, convincing Northeast farmers to migrate to the Midwest.
Rev. Samuel Robbins in East Windsor, Conn., wrote, ‘We have had a great deal of moving this spring. Our number rather diminished.’
At the time, many reasons were given for the weird phenomena: sunspots, deforestation, great fields of ice floating in the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments and, of course, the wrath of God.
Many people believe the Year Without a Summer was caused by a massive volcanic explosion on Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, killing 15,000 instantly. Soon after, another 65,000 perished of disease and starvation. The volcanic ash and debris thrown up into the stratosphere is thought to have blocked the sun and caused a gradual lowering of temperatures.
Lee Foster, NOAA meteorologist, notes that climate data shows 1816 was part of a mini ice age lasting from 1400 to around 1860. The era had unusually harsh winters, short growing seasons and dry weather.
With thanks to The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman. This story was updated in 2023.