Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Year Without a Summer

It is possible that an event - horrific and deadly to so many - that happened half a world away impacted some of my ancestors and lead to their migration from Vermont to Ohio.

The year 1816 has been called "the year without a summer" and according to various online sources has been attributed primarily to the eruption of Mount Tambora - the largest observed eruption in recorded history - in Indonesia in April of 1815. The death toll of that eruption and it's aftermath exceeded 70,000 souls as well as the destruction of all habitable areas and all vegetation on the island. Although the volcanic explosions ceased in July 1815, flames and rumbling aftershocks were still being reported in August 1819, four years after the event.

It took several months for the effects to be felt but temperatures fell worldwide because the ash caused less sunlight to pass through the atmosphere. This caused a global climate anomaly and catastrophic effects worldwide, which were especially noticeable in the Northern Hemisphere, specifically the northeastern portion of the United States, Canada and Northern Europe.

With the coming of spring in 1816 there also came erratic temperatures. The soil did not warm up enough so that crops could grow properly. Late spring and early summer saw frost that killed off many of the crops that had been planted. In June, two large snowstorms in eastern Canada and New England resulted in many human deaths and consequent loss of most of the remaining crops. Destruction of the corn crop forced farmers to slaughter their animals. Soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry. Prices skyrocketed, and with food stuffs unavailable, the result was regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.

In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F to near-freezing within hours.

Winter hit with a vengeance beginning September 27. Snows began during early October and stayed on the ground until April, 1817. During that period much of the New Englander’s livestock perished, either because there was nothing to feed them with, or because they were slaughtered for food. Tens of thousands of people also perished in what became the worst famine of the 19th Century.

Article from The Decatur County Journal, June 9, l892 as quoted in Brethren Life: Frontier Journal
On August 20, 1816, the temperature again plunged and any remaining crops were destroyed. Sept. 27 saw the start of winter with another killing frost. ... Snows started early in October, and stayed on the ground until April 1817. The snows were two feet deep with a terrible ice crust on top. Many survived only because the deer were trapped by the snows and ice and could not escape the hunters. Following that winter, deer were so scarce that they could not be depended on as a source for meat, nor was the common deerskin britches and jacket any more available ..."
Many New Englanders were wiped out during those two years, and tens of thousands struck out for the richer soil and better growing conditions of what was then the 'Northwest Territory' of Ohio and Indiana. Among those who migrated to Ohio (in 1817 or 1818) were my (presumed/probable) Joslin ancestors, Jonas, along with his wife Ruth, their son James, and their other children. I can only wonder if they would have remained in Vermont if the 'year of no summer' had not happened… As Craig Manson has stated "all history is personal" and one result, if they had remained in Vermont, would be that I (most likely) would not be here writing this!

Three Excellent Articles:
Other resources on the subject:
And finally, from Vermont Only, a poem. Source: Eileen Marguet, as quoted in B.B. Woods and Bernice Barnett, Green Mountain Reflections: Stories of the Green Mountains, Halifax, VT, 1995.
It didn't matter whether your farm was large or small.
It didn't matter if you had a farm at all.
'Cause everyone was affected when water didn't run.
The snow and frost continued without the warming sun.
One day in June it got real hot and leaves began to show.
But after that it snowed again and wind and cold did blow.
The cows and horses had no grass, no grain to feed the chicks.
No hay to put aside that time, just dry and shriveled sticks.
The sheep were cold and hungry and many starved to death,
Still waiting for the warming sun to save their labored breath.
The kids were disappointed, no swimming--such a shame.
It was in 1816 that summer never came.
This post was written for the 77th Carnival of Genealogy: Disasters Our Ancestors Lived Through - to be hosted by Miriam at AnceStories. Hopefully, she will include it with the others even though it is a little late...


Janet Iles said...

Becky - This was very interesting account of events in 1816.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

We joke here about our short summers but ice in July must have been devastating.