Thursday, May 26, 1921
THE SUMMER OF 1816
“I haven’t heard much else but talk about the weather since I came to New York,” said nonagenarian James Winchester, of Vermont, who is visiting his daughter in this city, “and you have had a pretty snug winter for here, I suppose, but I remember the year that was winter from one end of it to the other, and when the weather was so severe in June that a terrible snowstorm prevailed on the 17th of that month, and people froze to death in the month of roses. I don’t think there are many people who have as vivid a recollection of the year without a summer as I have, for various reasons, one being that there are few surviving who were as old as I was in that year, and another is because a near relative of mine was frozen to death in Vermont on June 17th of that year, which was the year 1816.
“I was 14 years old then, and I lived in Vermont, where I always lived and where that memorable season was at its very worst. As in the other New England States in June, snow fell, but five inches deep, and New Jersey, it was nowhere deeper than three inches. In Vermont, it was 10 inches on the level. I mean the great snow of June 17th. Snow fell several times during that month, and ice froze every day in the month. In fact, there was snow and ice in every month of 1816.
“That snowstorm of June 17th was one of the severest ones I ever saw, even in the depth of winter in that locality of severe snows. An uncle of mine had some sheep in a back pasture lot. To get to that lot he had to go through a piece of woods for nearly a mile. The weather had been very cold all through June. The big storm of the 17th began along about noon, and my uncle started after dinner to go to the sheep pasture to fix up a shelter of some kind for the sheep. No one had an idea, cold and eccentric as the weather had been up to that time, that we could have a fall of snow that would amount to anything at that time of year. I was at my uncle’s when he left home to go to the sheep lot, and as he went out of the door he said to his wife in a jocular way:
“‘If I’m not back in an hour, call the neighbors and start them after me. June is a bad month to get buried in the snow, especially when it gets so near the month of July.’
“Nothing more was thought of the matter. The snow increased in fury and by night had drifted so that the roads were almost impassible, but even then, and when it grew dark, none of us felt uneasy about uncle. The weather had become bitter cold. When night set in in earnest, and there was no sign of my uncle’s return, his wife sent me and my cousin, who was two years younger than me, to alarm the neighbors and tell them that we believed uncle had been lost in the snow and had perished.
“We had a hard time getting to the nearest neighbor’s less than a mile away and there gave the alarm, but could go no further. The neighbor summoned others, and, in spite of the severity of the night, they searched the woods until morning, but no sign of the missing man could be found. The search was taken up by others the following day and all of the next night, without any trace of him being discovered, except that he reached the pasture and built a shelter of boughs in one corner of the lot, under which the sheep huddled. On the forenoon of the third day, the searchers found my uncle buried in the snow a mile from the pasture in almost an opposite direction from home. He was frozen stiff.
He had evidently become bewildered in the blinding storm and had wandered about until he succumbed to fatigue and cold. It seems a most improbable thing that a person ever fell a victim to a snowstorm in the middle of June in this latitude, but I have the sorrowful knowledge of one instance, at least, where such a thing was only too true.
“The wind during June, July and August of 1816 was continuously from the north, and it blew fiercely and cold. Farmers wore heavy overcoats and mittens while about their work every day during those months. There was but little use of planting anything, nothing grew to speak of, but they did plant corn as usual, and planted with mittens on.
“There was very little rain during the entire season. The great piles of firewood that always accumulated during the summer months at the farmhouse back doors in readiness for winter didn’t accumulate in 1816. They were needed for current use. July was colder even than June, and August was colder than July. Ice, half an inch thick was formed in July, and in August it froze an inch more. There was a heavy snowstorm on August 30. The whole summer was as bleak and dreary as November. There was not a green thing to be seen anywhere. The first two weeks in September brought the first real warm weather there had been during the year. The thermometer went up to 70 degrees, which was 25 degrees warmer than it had been since May.
The general opinion had been that the cause of the cold summer was a sudden and rapid cooling of the sun by some violent disturbance, and many believed that the end of all things was at hand. The appearance of the warm spell in September, though, dispelled that fear for a time but on the 16th of the month, the cold weather returned suddenly, and the calamity believers were once more made miserable by their old fear. One old man, James Gooding by name, was so hopeless over the prospect, that he killed all his cattle and then hanged himself, after vainly trying to induce his wife to make away with herself also, to escape the terrible and gradual death by freezing and starvation, which he believed was to be the common doom.
“Cold increased from the middle of September until winter returned, and it may truly be said that, in Vermont at least, the year 1816 had neither spring, summer nor autumn. There wasn’t grain enough grown that year to seed the next year, and those who were lucky enough to have more of the crop of 1815 on hand than they wanted for their own use had no difficulty in selling it for $5 or more a bushel.”
~ New York Sun