Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death…The Summer that Wasn’t

What famous horror movie was written in 1816, the year without a summer? (Answer at end of post.)

The Poverty Year…The Year Without a Summer…Year of Distress

I’m currently writing about an 1816 wedding in Trenton (now East Lamoine), Maine. Thus, this post will concentrate on Maine.

Imagine, if you will, June and July and August having a foot of snow covering the ground, and temperatures, day after day, well below freezing.

That’s what it was like in Milbridge (not too far distant from Trenton) in 1816—and also in most of New England and much of Western Europe…^ The old people all over eastern Maine remember it as the ‘year of distress.’…”^^ However, there were spectacular sunsets worldwide…*^

1816 followed a discouragingly cold decade. The year began mildly enough, having average to above average winter temperatures and a cool dry spring.

Frost is not an extraordinary occurrence in northern New England into late May. During the first of May In 1816  the temperature was like that of winter. Ice, frost and snow flurries were reported around the state; many areas found it too cold to plant… The season appeared to be running behind time…*** young buds were frozen dead, ice formed half an inch thick on ponds and rivers.^

JUNE 1816

June arrived. it snowed during five days in June…there were only a few moderately warm days. Everybody looked, longed and waited for warm weather.^ Things were undeniably bad. Temperatures in the first few days…were in the seventies or even eighties…sultry… Conditions began to cool rapidly on the 5th. By the 6th… Cold northwest winds and snow squalls were replaced by heavy snows from Ontario and Montreal across upstate New York and Vermont and throughout Maine…*** Snow and hail began to fall about ten o’clock A.M., and the storm continued till evening^^^ Snow blanketed the area …, crops were killed by frost, and rivers remained iced over…^^^ “A well known farmer informs us that…on the 6th day of June 1816, the snow was 6 inches deep in almost all sections of the state. It was so cold that birds froze in June, sheep and cattle died of cold and hunger. No crops were raised. On June 7th rapid and extreme drops in temperature froze bodies of standing water to one-inch thickness… significant snowfall…,^^^ a wash-tub full of rain water was scum’d with ice **^ Portland recorded “a plentiful fall”… Some farmers actually reported that the snow acted as an insulating factor on the field, protecting crops from the bitter cold winds, sleet and ice. But for the most part, the crops and leaves on trees blackened and died; young birds froze in their nests and great numbers of them sought shelter in houses and barns; many fell dead in the fields… newly shorn sheep died of the cold…”All travelers need great coats and mittens. I presume the oldest person now living knows of no such weather the 8th of June.”…*** Then a veritable heat wave occurred later in June…***

JULY 1816

In July and August rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common. Summer temperatures sometimes reverted from normal or above-normal (as high as 95 °F) to near-freezing within hours. Lake and river ice was observed as far south as Pennsylvania. *^

On July 4th ice as thick as window glass formed throughout New England, New York, and some parts of Pennsylvania.^ There was a wide spread frost, after which it was far too late to replant. Cold was not the only problem during this year; drought took its toll as well. Rains in July broke a period of drought and renewed people hopes of harvesting at least a reasonable crop of rye, wheat and other grains. After the brief July respite very little rain fell in the region again until September…***


On August 13th and 14th frost again spread across northern New England—temperatures plummeted on the 20th and frost was reported throughout most of New England… This frost and another on the 28th finished off the corn crop.*** throughout August, morning temperatures were always in the low 30’s.^ Ice was one-half inch thick at times.^^^

Adino Brackett of Lancaster, New Hampshire reported snow. “This is beyond anything of the kind I have ever known,” he said.**^

Ever fickle, Mother Nature finished off the year in almost normal weather patterns.***





(An old rhyme)

In those days, when everybody was living, to use a homely phrase, “from hand to mouth;” when extreme scarcity of crops in one section was aggravated by the facts that there was little money in frontier communities with which to purchase in older towns, and inadequate means of transportation from distant points, then such a season as that of 1816 meant almost if not positive starvation to many who had little or nothing laid by for time of need… starvation as near the doors of many **

There were reports of people eating raccoons, pigeons, and mackerel.*^

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.^

Rev. William Fogg of Kittery, Maine,wrote, “No prospect of crops. Crops cut short and a heavy load of taxes.”… With the failure of the corn crop, starvation, particularly among the poor whose diet depended on it, was a reality. Few if any crops were unaffected by the non-summer. Prices were high, and quantities were low to nonexistent…*** …Instead of bread as we have been used to, we have nothing but cowslips for greens in April without meat or bread. Flour could not be had at any price and the corn was cut off by the frost. We had potatoes tops then pigweeds, All summer was a famine. I recollect my mother went to a Mr. Parks who owned a grist mill and the old lady sent a loaf of bread home to the children. We each had a small piece. It tasted better than anything I ever ate save the sweet liquid of my dream.*

The real disaster in New England was the lack of the staple crop of Indian corn. No corn survived. This was no minor matter.^ Farmers found it necessary to feed their livestock birch twigs.*** …livestock be stall fed with the corn reserves set aside for human consumption because the winter’s supply of hay had been exhausted.**^


One of the farmer’s biggest problems came in the spring of 1817. There was no seed for new crops and no money with which to buy it.^

Mainers were discouraged by the cold decade, and 1816 was the proverbial straw the broke the camel’s back. Many people left the farms for the city and factory jobs. Others were attracted by advertisements for fertile lands and a warmer climate in Ohio and the (old) North West territories. Individuals, families and whole communities packed up and moved out of Maine.*** tens of thousands struck out for the richer soil and better growing conditions of the Upper midwest.*^ 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.^

Thus, we should all be grateful we will not experience the Summer of 1816.

Or will we?

ANSWER: Frankenstein. During the poor weather of 1816 Mary Shelley and her husband-to-be Percy stayed indoors during their vacation at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. With her friends, there was a writing contest to see who could come up with the most frightening short story. Mary’s was A Modern Prometheus, or Frankenstein. *^

Nor’easter’s Tail Whips Ligonier Valley (PA) 3/23/2012

Mapping Intertwined Love’s Geographical Settings



** http://www.mynonurbanlife.com/familyhistory/localhistory/CrownPoint.html

*** http://www.imaginemaine.com/ImagineMaine/Winter.html

^ http://www.milbridgehistoricalsociety.org/previous/no_summer.html

^^ http://www.mainething.com/alexander/community%20life/Making%20a%20living/Farming/A]%20BRIEF%20HISTORY%20OF%20FARMING.html

^^^ A clipping from unknown source, but it was reprinted in the Bar Harbor Times on June 30, 1977

*^ http://www.historylecture.org/yearwithoutasummer.html

^^ http://www.damninteresting.com/volcanic-winter/

**^  http://www.islandnet.com/~see/weather/history/1816.htm


2 responses to “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death…The Summer that Wasn’t

  1. Pingback: Frigid Winter Weather 2014 | CAROLYN'S COMPOSITIONS

  2. I think the winter of 2014 was bad. I watched many depressed people walking around aimless in the streets.

    However, summer eventually came.

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