Since moving to Chenango County, New York in 2001, I have tried to do a bit of studying on the history of the area. My father lived in Fulton – North of Syracuse – as a boy and I spent the first 12 years of my life in Rhode Island with trips to the Upstate region for camping, family visits, etc. so I was not completely unfamiliar with the area. However, I had never really studied the history of the region and some of the things that I have found surprised me. I have always been fascinated by the catastrophes of the past – wars, epidemics, natural disasters, etc. and tend to study them. They can teach us about ourselves and of things to come. As they say, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. What I have found is one of those things.
Many people may not be aware of it, but there was a summer here – shortly after settlers first moved to this area – that was no summer at all. That summer had a killing frost every month of the year. The cause of this calamity was located practically on the other side of the earth from New York – Mount Tambora, on the Island of Sumbawa in what is modern Indonesia. This volcano erupted from April 5th through April 18th of 1815. During that time it ejected anywhere from 25 to 43 cubic miles of debris into the atmosphere. Only 25 of the island’s 12,000 inhabitants survived. As you will soon see the eruption of Tambora had worldwide effects.
For comparison, the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 ejected 0.67 cubic miles of debris – a piker! I was living 1,200 miles away from Mt. St. Helens – near Denver, Colorado – at the time and we had a fine layer of ash on everything and were informed that we should rinse things off before scrubbing them as the finish on a car – for example – could be ruined if one tried to scrub the ash off because it would act like sandpaper as it is essentially small particles of glass and stone. People with allergies and lung conditions were advised to avoid breathing the dust as it could aggravate their condition.
In any case, back to our story. The year 1816 started out to be a pretty easy one. The winter was slightly warmer than normal and fairly dry by most accounts I can find from New England and New York. When spring arrived, the temperature dropped somewhat, but nothing too severe and it remained dry. It was so dry, in fact, that local papers began to report on it. The Albany Advertiser stated they had ” …no recollection of so backward a season…the length and severity of drought checked progress of vegetation, grass withered.”
The dry, cold weather pattern continued until early May which delayed the start of planting in some places and the growth of crops that had been planted in others. However, the people suspected nothing because – as we all know – strange things can happen in springtime.
On May 12th a wave of cold air rolled down over the region – the northeast from coastal Connecticut down into Pennsylvania and Virginia was gripped by a frost. This weather lasted until around May 18. Then it moderated and with the increase in temperature came rain – soon farmers began their yearly ritual of planting. However, the warmth was only passing and on May 29th came a blast of cold arctic air – so cold that there was an inch of ice on many bodies of water. This too passed and those that hadn’t already started began their planting in early June.
On the 5th of June New England was basking in temperatures in the high 70’s and low 80’s. However, the weather was changing again. At the same time – from Quebec to Pittsburgh – another cold front began to move in. This one brought frosts with it as well. June 6th brought snow and cold to most areas. It snowed for hours in Elizabethtown, NY and many places had killing frosts. Wild birds roosted inside barns to try to stay warm and many died where they sat. Newly shorn sheep died in the fields from the cold. Crops were killed by the frost, most fruit trees lost their blossoms and many trees lost their newly formed leaves. It was beginning to look very bad for the farmers of the region. In fact, the Quebec Gazette warned: ” . . . nothing which may provide sustenance for man or beast ought to be neglected…”
After this cold front passed farmers rapidly began planting crops such as Barley, potatoes and beets that could make it to maturity by the usual fall freezes.
Remember that this was before hybridized and genetically engineered crops that mature more rapidly.
The rest of June brought warm temperatures. July started off well but on the 6th of July another cold front came that brought frost to many areas. Lake and river ice was observed as far south as Pennsylvania and huge temperature fluctuations accompanied the front. Some places experienced temperatures of 95 degrees during the day and dropped to below freezing within hours. Overall it was a disaster for local farmers.
August had more of the same. On the 13th, frost returned again to central New York and most of the crops that were growing were killed off. Even pastures and hay were doing poorly. August 28th brought more frost and the drought continued.
By September farmers had all but given up, although some planted winter crops to have them ready as soon as possible the next spring. Corn and other grain prices soared. Oats, for example, rose from a high of 12 cents a bushel during 1815 to 92 cents a bushel in 1816! In the spring of 1817, the worst of the shortage appeared. For example in DeRuyter, a farmer was forced to dig up some of his newly planted potatoes to get food on the table. The town sent an agent to Onondaga County to look for wheat and corn. When he returned and it was learned that he had been successful, it brought a “great rejoicing to the citizenry and tears to strong men’s eyes.”
The spring of 1817 brought some very high prices indeed. Corn was four to five dollars per bushel (prices not seen again until the 1970’s – over 150 years later!), and in some places wheat sold for any price that was asked. Many people barely survived and this brought about the great western migration toward Ohio and Indiana as farmers sought places with better weather conditions.
The strange weather brought about all around the world that year also brought us two classics of fiction. A woman named Mary Shelly and a man named John Polidori were both vacationing at a literary gathering that summer on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and were forced inside by the cold and dreary weather. The group huddled around the fire and told each other stories to pass the time. Both ended up publishing their stories. Mary Shelly’s was entitled “The Modern Prometheus” which is better known as “Frankenstein” and John Polidori’s was entitled “The Vampyre” better known to many as the modern Count Dracula. Both have been immortalized in film a number of times.
These days we do sometimes see some strange weather, but nothing like this. In my experience, people tend to believe that weather and famines of this type are things of the past and cannot happen any more, but we are not immune. In fact, modern farmers support many more people per acre of land than those farmers did in 1816 so we would, in fact, be in worse condition. How well will we fare when God sends the next year without a summer our way?