THE YEAR WITHOUT A SUMMER

1816, IN MAINE

By Lee-Lee Schlegel

MONTHS THAT SHOULD BE SUMMER’S PRIME

SLEET AND SNOW AND FROST AND RIME

AIR SO COLD YOU SEE YOUR BREATH

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FROZE TO DEATH

(An old rhyme)

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1771 REUBEN WHITTEN 1847

 

SON OF A REVOLUTIONARY SOLDIER,

A PIONEER OF THIS TOWN, COLD SEASON OF

1816 RAISED 40 BUSHELS OF WHEAT ON THIS

LAND WHITCH KEPT HIS FAMILY AND

NEIGHBOURS FROM STARVATION

( Tombstone in an Ashland, N.H. cemetery)

 

Imagine! It’s June. Or July. Or perhaps August in Down East Maine. In Milbridge. That’s easy enough to do, isn’t it? We’ve all experienced enough summers around here to know what typical summers are like.

But imagine, if you will, June and July and August with a foot of snow covering the ground, and the temperature, day after day, well below freezing.

That’s what it was like in Milbridge in 1816. Not only in Milbridge but also in most of New England and much of Western Europe. The summer of 1816 was the coldest ever experienced by any person then living, according to the old Portland Eastern Argus newspaper. It was also known as the Year Without a Summer. In fact, the wording “…eighteen hundred and froze to death” is a genuine colloquial expression commonly found in historical literature about the summer of 1816. In that year, frost was reported in every month.

Over the millions of years that our earth has existed, there have been several periods called Little Ice Ages. During the most recent one, our planet experienced a very cold climate between 1560 and 1850, but during those 290 years there was only one recorded “summer that wasn’t”, that of 1816.

What happened that year in Maine to take away the summer? Well, actually nothing unusual. But something cataclysmic did happen half a year’s travel away from New England, in 1815. On April 10 th - to be exact. It was a Wednesday, James Madison’s last year as President and five years before Maine became a state, that Mount Tambora, a volcano east of Java in the Dutch East Indies, in today’s Indonesia, erupted. It produced the loudest sound any human being had ever heard; it was the most powerful explosion in the past 10,000 years. The 1815 eruption, heard 1,000 miles away, left an indelible mark on the world, with great human and environmental costs. It is a story of cause and effect that underscores the devastating power of nature and the delicate balance between climate and life.

Mount Tambora erupted continually from April 10 th to July 15 th, 1815, sending 400 million tons, and 400 cubic miles, of sulfurous gases and ash into the atmosphere. It took a year for the winds to blow the debris across the world and for Maine to feel the affects of the veil of dust blocking out the sun.

A diary kept by an unknown person near Fryeburg, Maine, described the 1816 weather as follows:

“January was so mild that most persons allowed their fires to go out and did not burn wood except for cooking. There were a few cool days, but they were few.

“February was not cold. The first of March was windy, but the month went out like a very innocent sheep.

“April came in warm, but as the days grew longer the air became colder and by the first of May there was a temperature like that of winter, with plenty of snow and ice. In May the young buds were frozen dead, ice formed half an inch thick on ponds and rivers. By the last of May in this climate the trees are usually in leaf and birds and flowers are plentiful. When the last of May arrived in 1816, everything had been killed by the cold.

“June was the coldest month roses ever experienced in this latitude. Frost and ice were common and every green thing was killed. All fruit was destroyed. Snow fell 10 inches in Vermont and there was a 7-inch snowfall in Maine.”

The Eastern Argus newspaper in Portland printed that on June 5 th and 6 th, 9”-12” of snow fell over Down East. Newly shorn sheep froze to death, crops failed. Birds died. People were not far from starvation. Throughout New England it snowed during five days in June. Wild temperature swings throughout the area were common. In some places, the high temperature on June 6 th was 27 degrees lower than it had been on June 5 th.

Because Milbridge is on the coast, we probably got less snow here than inland. The heavy snow line was east of Bangor, about midway between Bangor and the coast.

Our unknown Fryeburg diarist goes on to say:

In June “…there were only a few moderately warm days. Everybody looked, longed and waited for warm weather. All summer long the wind blew steadily from the north in blasts laden with snow and ice. Farmers who worked out their taxes on the county roads wore overcoats and mittens. On June 17 th, there was a heavy fall of snow. The morning of the 17 th dawned with the thermometer below the freezing point. A farmer, searching for a lost flock of sheep, was out all day in the storm and failed to return at night. He was found three days later lying in a hollow on a side hill with both feet frozen.

“July came in with ice and snow. On the 4 th of July, ice as thick as window glass, formed throughout New England, New York, and some parts of Pennsylvania.

“August proved to be the worst month of all. There was great privation and thousands of persons in this country would have perished but for the abundance of fish and wild game.”

Another source confirms this, telling us that throughout August, morning temperatures were always in the low 30’s. On a few afternoons that were warm, people tried to plant crops in sheltered areas, tucking rags and old shawls around the seeds, only to have them destroyed by more frost and snow.

Newspapers of the day all suggested that people continue to replant fodder crops on nice days. They gave many solutions for feeding the farm animals, many of which were dying for lack of food, but seemed to have no suggestions for feeding the people.

Not only were domesticated animals starving, but wild animals were, too. Packs of wolves, made so hungry by the unseasonable summer, were attacking farmer’s sheep and chickens. It was so bad in 1816 that four Maine townships voted bounties on wolves up to $40.00.

In 1816 there were no railroads. There were freight-carrying wagons but limited roads. Bulk cargo could be transported economically only by water. This meant that inland towns & farms were very much on their own as nothing could be imported.

Isolated as they were, accustomed to the privation caused by subsistence farming, 90% of the population of New England was essentially self-sufficient. Without public utilities or access to markets, most people were probably quite capable of surviving for a season on shortened rations. They knew how to improvise. Each family was an economic unit, though neighbors depended on one another for many things and trading goods & services was common.

One of the farmer’s biggest problems came in the spring of 1817, when there was no seed for new crops and no money with which to buy it. The May 18 th 1817 edition of Portland’s “Eastern Argus”, records a town meeting authorizing “…the Overseers of the Poor to furnish seed of various descriptions to those individuals who are unable to procure the same from his own resources – the advances to be paid for either in labor on the highway, or in kind at the harvesting of crops. We sincerely hope that this example may be generally followed in other towns.”

Tight-fisted, ornery & independent, the Yankees gained a reputation as jack-of-all-trades. Their independence was largely a matter of necessity & it would stand them in good stead when they were faced with the scanty harvest of 1816.

But the real disaster in New England in the summer of 1816 was the lack of the staple crop of Indian corn. No corn survived. This was no minor matter. Corn fed people and animals, it was a cash crop and it sustained cattle for the urban market. The loss of the corn crop was a bonafide disaster on the small isolated farms, where self-sufficiency & survival was a delicate balance between people & the plants and animals they raised.

Although corn was non-existent and in many places potatoes and hay weren’t available, some grains did quite well but prices rose dramatically due to the scarcity. Oats, for example, rose from 12 cents a bushel the previous year to 92 cents a bushel in 1816. By June 19 th, 1817, the New York Post protested, “…the high prices which meats, vegetables, butter, milk, and in short everything in our market continue to bear can be viewed in no other light than the greatest of impositions on our citizens… and call…for some general measure of redress.” That year in New Hampshire, hay was selling for $180.00 a ton, its general price being $30.00. In Maine, potatoes were 75 cents a bushel, the price in the spring of 1816 having been 40 cents.

The people did have some food but probably no fresh vegetables & fruits. Without good nutrition, there was a lot of sickness. The lowered temperatures and particularly moist conditions played a pivotal role in the rampant spread of disease. Scientists frequently blame Ireland’s rainy cold summer for the typhus epidemic of 1816-1819. The epidemic later spread to Europe and ultimately claimed the lives of 200,000 people.

The 1816 experience was a disaster in Maine. It was the primary motivation for the rapid settlement of what is now the American mid-west. So many people migrated to Ohio that in Maine the migration was referred to as “ Ohio fever.” One diarist wrote: “Many left Maine because of loss of crops and fear of starvation. There was much sickness.” In his ­­History of Maine Agriculture, Clarence Day devotes a whole chapter to the flight of Maine farmers westward in 1816. He tells us that on a single day a train of 16 wagons with 120 men, women & children from Durham, ME passed through Haverhill. They were headed for Indiana. Another day, there were 20 wagons & 116 people on their way westward, all from Maine.

The loss of population became so alarming that letters began to appear in newspapers arguing the merits of Maine, and defects of the western country. Every conceivable argument in favor of Maine was offered; the absence of malaria, the nearness of Europe – even good sledding in winter! However, true to the feelings of Down Easters, both natives and those from away, later it was written that “The weather had improved in the summer of 1817, and many people had returned to Maine, finding no better place to live.”

Although, at the time, no one understood the reason for the lack of a summer in 1816, a few scholars of the day suggested that an outbreak of sunspots had caused the chill. It was a guess. They really had no way of determining the actual cause of the oddly extended winter, but the crackpots of the day presented explanations without hesitation. One theory was that witches were responsible as weather making was thought to be among the traditional abilities of witches. Others blamed it on the displeasure of the Deity.

Another suggested that Benjamin Franklin was to blame, citing his newly invented lightning rods. They felt the rods interrupted the earth’s process of releasing heat into the atmosphere. This, they felt, resulted in cooling of the air which resulted in the missed summer of 1816. Not all thinkers of the day accepted that theory, but a runner-up explanation also blamed Franklin. This group felt that since lightning is heat, it must follow that the lightning rods had taken the heat from air - hence no summer.

The ironic part of this is that Benjamin Franklin himself, thirty-two years before, had speculated that dust from volcanic eruptions could affect climate by blocking out sunlight. And he was right.

Today, scientists have identified two causes of the Little Ice Ages our earth has experienced; decreased solar activity and increased volcanic activity. If during a Little Ice Age period we also have a cataclysmic volcanic eruption (like Tambora in 1815), we then will experience episodes like the year without a summer.

Beginning around 1850, the world’s climate began warming again and the last Little Ice Age may be said to have come to an end at that time. However, if this unseasonable drop in temperature had continued for just a few more years, continental ice sheets would have started to form and the earth could have slid into a new true Ice Age.

Many scientists predict that such wintry summers could occur again. Nature’s volcanism and human industrial activity have caused a steady build-up of dust in the atmosphere over the last few decades. If this trend continues for 75 years or so, it could produce an effect opposite to that of the greenhouse. World temperatures would be lowered significantly and an age of ice would return.

The preservation of our world – and indeed our survival – may depend on a precarious balance of two not totally understood mechanisms, one tending to increase global warming and the other to decrease it. That each of these mechanisms is strong enough to drive the climate beyond tolerable limits suggests how important it is to continue trying to understand the scientific basis of these processes. This will help us to gain the wisdom needed to rationally manage our world.