Global Cooling: 1815-1817 in New Hampshire

In April 1815 Mount Timboro erupted in the East Indies. A vast layer of volcanic ash soon encircled the earth, cooling the northern hemisphere by an average five degrees Fahrenheit for the next several years. In 1816 the mean temperature in London was fifty-six degrees; plays and books were written about the new weather pattern by Lord Byron and other famous authors of the day.

On the farms of the former British North American colonies, and in New Hampshire, agricultural production was particularly hard hit by climate cooling. New Hampshire farmers had already been hard hit by the loss of export markets during the British Navy’s blockade of Portsmouth and New England ports during the War of 1812, and with Virginians Thomas Jefferson and then James Madison in the presidency, New England’s economic recovery efforts moved slowly. On New England farms there was talk of secession from the new United States: with New Englanders at the head of a new alliance of New England states New England farmers’ and merchants’ needs might be more promptly addressed than with southern plantation owners at the helm of government.

How bad were weather conditions in New Hampshire from 1815 to 1817? Leavitt’s Genuine Improved New-England Farmer’s Almanack and Agricultural Register for the Year 1817, published in Meredith, attempted a summary of the preceding two years in “Observations on the Weather and Seasons,” as follows: …in February, March, April and May [1815] the snow fell in such quantities that, by accurate measurement of every snow that fell, the whole quantity from December 1814, till June 1815, was between seven and eight feet….May the 19th In the morning it began to snow, and continued to do so with every appearance of a December storm…[T]he trees were covered with green foliage, having newly leaved out, but the apple trees had not blossomed, by reason of the remarkable backward spring….This was a very singular instance, the like not having happened before for forty-six years, and never but twice before since the settlement of New-England.”

The bad growing season grew even worse for New Hampshire farmers during 1816. Nathaniel Bouton, author of a 1725-1853 history of Concord, quotes an 1816 diarist, Benjamin Kimball, of Kimball’s Ferry: “June 6-12. Six days very cold weather; snow fell, ground froze, corn killed….July 7.A hard frost; cold for six days….September 23.A hard freeze; ears of corn froze through.” And at Meredith, Leavitt’s Almanack and Agricultural Register reported: “June 6th day, frost, and ice ½ inch thick!...June 8th day, cold and squally; frost at night which cut down beans, potatoes, and even corn….”

The year 1817 saw the cold weather continue. Benjamin Kimball recorded that on April 1, 1817 there was “Good passing on the ice with horses.” A month later the Exeter Watchman, a four page newspaper dated May 13, 1817, saw some good coming from the hard frosts that froze the marshy ground at Concord where the new State House was being built: “…all doubts of the surety of the foundation [of the State House] are dissipated, since, although exposed to the very severe frosts of the last winter, no stone has deviated a hair’s breadth….” [There was no mention of the condition of the State Prison’s work gang, men who cut the granite foundation blocks by hand with chisels, from boulders brought over from nearby Rattlesnake Hill.]

On June 1, 1817 Robert B. Thomas, editor of The Farmer’s Almanack…for the Year of Our Lord 1817, reported: “…cool at night, water froze an eighth of an inch thick – vegetation backward for the season….[Note: The Farmer’s Almanack continues today, as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, published in Dublin.] And on Sept. 30, 1817, Benjamin Kimball reported another “killer” frost at Concord, this time during the harvest season.

This three-year period of agricultural disasters 1815-1817 saw New Hampshire farmers begin to move west in large numbers. Chittendon County in Vermont was advertising in the Exeter Watchman and in other New Hampshire newspapers that good farmlands were available at reasonable prices; the Exeter Watchman of Oct. 21, 1817, reported on news from the Springfield Federalist, via the Newport (NH) Herald that: “…140 souls passed through that town last week for the western country, and that the present week 18 or 20 waggons [sic], laden with men, women and children had followed them. – On Thursday 16 waggons passed through Haverhill on their way to the State of Indiana….” An 1841 history of Hillsborough reported that the town had reached its population peak in 1820, and that the émigrés had gone to “the valley of the Mississippi.” New Hampshire farm families were moving on.

Climate change has brought changing economies to the Granite State, and it will continue to do so if our past history is a guide. The Monadnock region was a region of small farms during the hard times of the 1920s-1930s and during World War II, and small farms will come back again, if our past history is any guide. So keep your scythes and swayback saws sharpened for the future.

Russell Bastedo of Dublin was the NH State Curator from 1997 to 2009.

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