The Year There Was No Summer–200th Anniversary

(An abridged version of this essay was published as “The Year Without a Summer” by the Newport Daily News on June 21, 2016.)

In recent decades we have become accustomed to hear how an event in a far-off place may affect us in Rhode Island—politically, economically, demographically, security-wise, and also environmentally. This was not the case two hundred years ago. However two centuries ago this summer, a volcanic event halfway round the world had a dramatic impact on weather in the United States. It became known by such names as the “Year There Was No Summer,” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” Happily southern Rhode Island was spared its worst effects.

On April 5, 1815, British forces at a fort in Jakarta, Indonesia, heard what appeared to be cannon fire. It was actually the beginnings of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa about 750 miles away. The full eruption came on April 10, killing some 60,000 people with many others dying later from disease and famine. The ash cloud spread across the globe carrying an estimated 140 billion tons of volcanic matter, sulfur particles and sulfur-dioxide gas, substantially decreasing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth. When the gas reached the stratosphere, it mixed with hydroxide gas and created a massive cloud, which the jet stream transported around the globe.

That spring and summer were both unseasonably cold and wet. Napoleon and his forces at Waterloo in mid-June struggled with weeks of rain, their cannon sinking into the mud.

Napoleon at Waterloo, Hulton Archive, Getty Images, 6-13-16

Napoleon at Waterloo

(Getty Images)

The following year, 1816, proved to be Great Britain’s coldest year ever recorded, causing bread riots, famine, and disease. In France the starving rural peasants swarmed southward for survival. Lord Byron’s social group, on holiday at a lake in Switzerland, were trapped indoors by the heavy rains, thunder, lightning, and cooler temperatures. Mary Shelley, a 19-year old member of the group, conceived and wrote her classic horror novel, Frankenstein. Jane Austen, declining in health in England, described the summer of 1816 as one in which “the gloom, darkness and rain was an extraordinary and dismal affair ….”

Frankenstein, doctormacro.com, 6-13-16

(www.doctormacro.com)

In North America, frosts occurred throughout the spring. On June 6-7 it snowed in New England with freezing temperatures continuing afterward. There was snow also in upstate New York, and sheep began dying for lack of forage. The uncanny weather continued all summer with drought and high winds, causing streams to dry up and wild fires to increase. August felt like October with low temperatures and frost killing crops from Maine to South Carolina, causing many farms throughout New England to fail.

Happily Aquidneck Island and southern Rhode Island appear to have been spared the worst effects of the bad weather. The local newspapers reported the severe weather from other parts of the country, but not much about ill weather here.

In mid-summer, reports about the weather were optimistic. On July 27 the Newport Mercury (precursor to the Daily News) reported: “Fears have been entertained that the coldness and backwardness of the season would produce an alarming scarcity. But these fears we believe were premature.” … “In the Southern States it is stated there is an unusual plentitude of wheat; so that notwithstanding the gloomy appearances, which have passed before us, we may now anticipate the blessing of Providence, in a sufficient supply of the fruits of the earth.”

On August 10, it gave an August 5 report from Albany, NY: “We are much gratified to hear from various parts of the country … the crops of grain are more promising than was expected.” It went on to predict sufficient harvests to supply the people.

However, by September, the tone of the reports had changed. On September 11, the RI Republican newspaper (printed in Newport) gave an August 20 report from the Norfolk Herald [VA]: “The cool (we may say cold) and dry weather … will have a serious effect upon the crops of every description; in the upper country we fear the effects will be most severely felt.”

On September 28, the Mercury gave a report from the Richmond Enquirer [VA]: “the communications on the subject of the crops from all parts of the State, are more than gloomy, and the mischief occasioned by the drought has been increased by the torrents of rain.” A writer in that paper called for action from the U.S. Congress.

On October 12, the RI Republican gave an October 5 report from Windsor, Vermont. Referring to the weather, it stated: “Never perhaps in this vicinity appeared more gloomy and cheerless …. It is extremely cold for the time of year, and the drought was never before so severe.”

The diary of Thomas B. Hazard (“Nailer Tom”) of Kingstown, RI, also suggests that southern RI was not hit as hard as the rest of New England. He reported snow and rain on May 14, rain September 11-16, and heavy frost on September 28. On June 21 and September 21, the first day of summer and of fall, he reports only commonplace activities and uneventful weather. Both days were clear. On June 21 he bought 7 lbs of Bass for 28 cents, worked in his shop, and dined with Reynolds Barber. On September 2, his son Benjamin killed four lambs and a yearling ram and Hazard, with his daughter Hannah, visited John Congdon.

In a letter to a former colleague, 73-year old Thomas Jefferson in Virginia summarized the year: “We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America.”

(The author would like to thank Bert Lippincott of the Newport Historical Society for his help with this essay.)

Fred Zilian (www.zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.

 

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