Climate and Mastery of the Wilderness in Seventeenth-Century New England

OF all the preconceptions English people brought with them to New England, perhaps none was so important or so mistaken as that about the American climate. Colonists came with the common sense idea that climate would be constant in any given latitude around the world. New England, whose latitude is the low forties, was expected to have the climate of Spain or southern France. The debilitating effect of excessive summer heat on English character was the promoters’ main fear in the early years. What they found, of course, was that New England was in fact very hot in summer but that it was also extremely cold, much colder than England, in winter. Colonists were forced to make sense of their actual experience of America’s climate, explaining why New England deviated from the “normal” European climate, as well as trying to understand what would grow and how life should be constituted here.

The physical challenge may have been made more severe by the fact that much of the northern hemisphere, probably including northern North America, was in the grip of the Little Ice Age, during which the growing season was shortened by as much as three weeks to a month in northern England and Scotland, and some areas in Europe went out of cultivation altogether. The coldest period of the Little Ice Age was from 1550 to 1700. Greatest winter cold and least summer warmth occurred in the 1590’s, the first decade of the seventeenth century, the 1640’s and the 1690’s, and, especially in these decades, there were times of famine in northern England and in Scandinavia. The Thames froze for extended periods four times in the sixteenth, eight in the seventeenth, and six in the eighteenth centuries, something which had rarely happened before.13

This paper offers a reconstruction of the seventeenth-century New England climate from letters, diaries, and histories, and an analysis of how colonists perceived and explained weather phenomena.14 There were several major shifts in weather patterns in the course of the century. The first determinable pattern was established during the 1630’s and 1640’s, the first decades of Massachusetts Bay’s settlement. Another held sway during the 1650’s, 1660’s, and 1670’s, and a third during the final decades. Because colonists saw weather phenomena, like all other natural events, as providential and therefore meaningful, these shifts contributed to changes in their self-perceptions and feelings about their mission in the New World.

Early English experience of winter cold in New England was dramatic. In 1607, when the London Virginia Company planted the colony of Jamestown, the western merchants’ Virginia Company founded a colony at Sagadahoc in Maine. Partly because of the death of its major sponsor, Lord Chief Justice John Popham, and other reversals, but also because of the severe winter, “fit to freeze the heart of a Plantation,” that colony lasted less than a year. The winter of 1607–1608 was one of the landmark severe winters of the seventeenth century, when the Thames froze solid. After this failure New England was “esteemed as a cold, barren, mountainous, rocky Desart,” and interest in colonization there was retarded.15

The Plymouth colonists wrote little about their early experience of the weather. They complained about the first winter, but this was apparently one in which the late November–early December weather was hard and the rest of the winter mild and rainy.16 The summer of 1623 saw a long and nearly disastrous drought, which was ended by a day of prayer and humiliation.17 William Wood of Massachusetts Bay repeated Indian lore that every ten years there is no real winter; to confirm this he pointed to the winter of 1620–1621, “no Winter in comparison,” and the winter of 1629–1630, which he said was “a very milde season, little Frost, and lesse Snow, but cleare serene weather.”18 Wood came in the vanguard of the Great Migration. The main body faced a much harder winter in 1630–1631. The weather was gentle until the beginning of the new year, when it turned violently cold, and remained so through January and February. The frost broke on 20 February and both Wood and Winthrop recorded that it had done so on that exact date for many years. Therefore, Wood argued, the winter, though sharp, was not too long to bear.19 The cold, wet spring and summer of 1632 were followed by an extremely cold winter, with an “extremity of … snow and frost.” The summer of 1633 was hot and dry.20 The mild but very snowy winter of 1633–1634 was followed by another hot summer in which a September hurricane spoiled the maize harvest. Winter in 1634–1635 came early and carried with it much snow and frost. In November of 1634 Winthrop recorded that no courts can be expected to meet in the three winter months, and many times during that winter people were forced to stay away from lectures because they could not travel.21

The winter of 1635 opened with a great hurricane in late August, which was so devastating that William Bradford wrote that “signs and marks of it will remain this hundred years,” and dearth resulted from its harm to the harvest.22 November and December were recorded as extremely cold and snowy. In the following April, Winthrop said the people who had moved into Connecticut had lost most of their cattle and were in “great straits for want of provisions.”23 June of 1637 was so hot that newcomers died of the heat, and Winthrop was forced to travel at night.24 This hot summer was followed by the very hard winter of 1637–1638, in which the snow lay up to three feet deep from mid-November until early April. In January, the bay was frozen except for a small channel. Winthrop wrote to his son that in Connecticut “they were shutt up with snowe above a month since: and we at Boston were almost readye to breake up for want of wood.”25 The spring of 1638 was so cold that the seed rotted in the ground and had to be replanted several times, but then a warm season provided a good harvest.26 An earthquake in June was thought by many to be responsible for an extremely rainy and stormy fall in 1638 and, according to Bradford, for several successive cool, wet summers, though May of 1639 was very hot and dry.27 The period of 1639–1640 was another extremely sharp winter in New England “with very bitter blasts.”28

The winter of 1640–1641 was cold and snowy, but it was far surpassed by the “intollerable peircing winter” of 1641–1642, of which Thomas Gorges wrote, “the like was never known by Inglish or Indian. It is incredible to relate the extremity of the weather. Fouls & fish lay frozen Flotinge thicke on the waters in the sea.” John Winthrop also reported the winter cold was unprecedented in the Indians’ experience, and he stressed that not only was Massachusetts Bay frozen out “to sea so far as one could well discern” and so thick that “horses and carts went over in many places where ships have sailed,” but Chesapeake Bay, too, was similarly ice-covered. The snow in New England was very deep. The summers of the early 1640’s also brought their distresses, for these hard winters were followed by the short, cold, wet summers which Bradford thought were caused by the earthquake of 1638. Thomas Gorges in Maine wrote of scarcity there in the spring of 1642, and by the following year scarcity was also being felt in Massachusetts, where dearth was compounded by hordes of corn-devouring pigeons.29 The winter of 1642–1643 was the snowiest yet, but mild, and it was followed by the mild and dry winter of 1643–1644, which brought its own problems in the form of house fires.30 Except for a late cold snowy period, the winter of 1644–1645 was also mild and dry until February, but the mildness and freedom from snow were paid for in the form of summer drought in 1644 and 1645.31

The season of 1645–1646 was another landmark hard winter, “the earliest and sharpest winter we had since our arrival in the country,” according to Winthrop. As in 1642, he stressed that the extraordinary cold was felt to the south as well. “At New Haven a ship bound for England was forced to be cut out of the ice three miles. And in Virginia the ships were frozen up six weeks.” John Winthrop, Jr., reported that the Connecticut River was frozen above Windsor.32 The sudden onset of spring caused great floods, and the summer crops were attacked by swarms of caterpillars, which Winthrop thought were a quasi-meteorological phenomenon, as they had fallen, according to “divers good observers,” in a “great thunder shower.”33 The mild winter of 1646–1647 was followed by a summer drought severe enough to produce scarcity the following summer and an embargo on exports of grain until the harvest of 1648. In March of 1648 the Massachusetts Bay General Court decreed a day of humiliation in order to ward off another punishing summer. Winthrop attributed scarcity of corn in the summer of 1648 mostly to excessive exports, though he noted that corn was also scarce in Europe that year, indicating the possibility of a more widespread climatic effect. We know little about the weather in the rest of the 1640’s, except that January of 1649 was unseasonably cold.34

By 1650, then, New England colonists were well aware of the extreme physical challenge posed by the harsh and turbulent New England climate. Cold had contributed to the failure of one colony, that at Sagadahoc, and the sources record much suffering, both from cold and famine, as a result of the extreme weather of the 1630’s and especially of the 1640’s. The American climate also presented an extreme intellectual challenge, one which colonists were quick to take up. The problem, simply stated, is that New England should not have been so cold. London is north of fifty degrees of latitude; New England lies between forty and forty-five degrees. Common sense told settlers that New England, being closer to the sun, by which they meant nearer the equator, must be warmer, winter and summer, than England. When they were forced to face conclusive evidence that New England was actually colder in winter than England, the possibility loomed that America was fundamentally defective.

Early reports reflected extreme confusion, some colonists affirming that New England was warmer winter and summer than England, others saying it was colder in all seasons. Bartholomew Gosnold thought the problem was that the seasons were displaced, with spring and fall both beginning later than in Europe.35 Everyone was puzzled, as was, for example, Edward Winslow of Plymouth in 1624:

Then for the temperature of the air, in almost three years’ experience I can scarce distinguish New England from Old England, in respect of heat and cold, frost, snow, rain, winds, &c. Some object, because our Plantation lieth in the latitude of 42 degrees, it must needs be much hotter. I confess I cannot give the reason of the contrary; only experience teacheth us, that if it do exceed England, it is so little as must require better judgments to discern it. And for the winter, I rather think (if there be difference) it is both sharper and longer in New England than Old.

Winslow thought it might have been lack of the comforts of home which made colonists feel colder than they should.36 Confusion continued into the 1630’s and 1640’s, and the stumbling block remained the latitude of New England as compared to Europe. John Smith wrote that New England was at the mean for heat and cold, because it lies near forty-five degrees, midway between the pole and the equator. Thomas Morton similarly said New England was at the “golden meane” and “doth participate of heate and cold indifferently.” He affirmed that though it was ten degrees south of England, its climate was similar to England’s. The appeal of the old assumptions can be seen in the fact that later in the same book Morton said New England was warmer in winter than some parts of France and neerer the Sunne.” In 1630 John Winthrop wrote home that the climate of New England was “very like our own,” and he allayed fears of excessive heat by noting that only two days had been hotter than in England. By 1634 he said the winters were “sharp and long,” and the summers “more fervent in heat” than England’s. As late as 1641 Thomas Gorges was still puzzled about the discrepancy between Maine’s latitude and the climate he experienced there.37

By the 1630’s and increasingly in the 1640’s, though, it was becoming important that a realistic picture of the American climate be available so that practical plans could be made and realizable expectations generated. By the early 1630’s, fear of the debilitating effect of excessive heat had been replaced by fear of extreme cold: “It may be objected that it is too cold a Countrey for our English men.”38 Francis Higginson, who was an enthusiastic promoter of New England and its healthfulness, nevertheless affirmed that this part of America was both colder and hotter than England, and he put the two months’ winter snow cover on his list of the discommodities of the country. William Wood wrote in detail of the heat of the summer, which was so great that he felt colonists should come in the fall, as well as the winter’s cold, of which he told many stories. But he also assured his readers that he preferred New England’s climate to the “Summer Winters and Winter Summers of England.”39 In the 1640’s, Thomas Gorges wrote home of the dread with which his colonists anticipated the coming winter, and told his uncle at home, “you must looke uppon us as prisoners from the end of 9ber till the beginning of Aprille.” In 1642, Thomas Lechford wrote of the extremes of both summer and winter, but especially of the cold, and went so far as to say that America was thought to be “not habitable” sixty leagues to the north.40

The immediate practical question was, what did this all mean for the future of these English colonies? How would plans have to be changed, and what practical steps would have to be taken? Early colonists agreed that movement would be somewhat restricted in winter, as Thomas Gorges’ image of the colonists as winter prisoners shows dramatically. Gorges warned his uncle not to expect the mills to operate, and both Winthrop and Gorges said the court system did not meet during the winter months. Moreover, cattle would require winter feeding and perhaps even shelter, making them expensive on early colonial farms.41

Even while colonists were still puzzling over the reasons for the European/American difference, however, they were looking ahead with an experimental air to the problems the climate posed for them. They asserted that English people could live well in America. As John Smith pointed out, “the French in Canada, the Russians, Swethlanders, Polanders, Germans, and our neighbour Hollanders, are much colder and farre more Northward; [and] for all that, rich Countreyes and live well.” John White reminded his readers of the greater snow and cold of Germany, implying a rebuke to those who excessively feared the cold of New England. Surely English people were as tough and flexible as other Europeans!42

Colonists pointed to the abundance of wood, in contrast to England’s shortage, and said New Englanders could have “Christmas fires all winter.”43 John Eliot said both the heat and cold were tolerable, even by the weakest, in their warm houses.44 Though few went so far as John Smith in his ridicule of the “silly” people, “infirmed bodies or tender educats,” who complained about the cold, many early colonists wrote fervently of the healthfulness of the country. Of all parts of America, they believed New England was closest in environment to England, and therefore most suited to English constitutions. Agreement between climate and the individual constitution was considered the single most important underlying condition of good health. Therefore, the very cold of New England recommended it, for, as William Hubbard put it, “the salubriousness of the air in this country depends much upon the winter’s frost.”45

What was required was to work hard, build sound houses, and realize the opportunities presented by the country. As Hubbard assured his readers, though agriculture was impossible for six months of the year, November to April, the fruitfulness of the hot summer abundantly made up for the cold winter.46

The primary task was organization of agriculture. It is in this area that the experimental spirit shows itself most clearly. Maize was the first grain in the colonies, and continued to be an important staple even after English grains were well established. There was some controversy over the healthfulness of Indian corn, as it was called, and some people did not like the taste, but it helped get them over the early difficult period, and many people were lavish in its praise.47 Gerard’s Herball of 1636 said maize was much less nourishing than English grains, that it produced a very hard and dry bread, which was constipating. This allegation was answered by John Parkinson, who said in his Theatricum Botanicum of 1640 that maize was indeed nourishing and pointed to the nations of Indians and Christians which fed on it and thrived. John Winthrop, Jr., attempted the definitive answer in a communication to the Royal Society in 1662 in which he wrote that Europeans in America continued to grow and eat maize even though wheat and other grains were by that time plentiful: “It is now found by much Experience, that it is wholesome and pleasant for Food of which great Variety may be made out of it.”48

The real issue was whether Indian corn was not better suited to the climate and soil of New England than English grains. The Plymouth colonists reported poor success with English corn in the early years and stressed that maize was their chief grain, as did the Massachusetts Bay settlers in the first decades. They pointed to the dryness of the New England summer as compared to England and argued that maize, which requires heat and dryness to mature, was naturally suited to the climate. Edward Winslow even wrote that New England could never produce Indian corn as abundantly as Virginia did, because of the grain’s great requirement for heat.49 John Winthrop, Jr., argued that maize was protected against all the possible extremes of the New England weather, as the thick husks wrapping the kernels protected them from too much moisture and from too early frosts in September.50

Colonists stressed the tremendous yield of corn and its great variety of uses. Letters home in the early years again and again referred to the wholesomeness of the puddings and bread made with this “very precious grain.” John Winthrop, Jr.’s communication to the Royal Society gave detailed directions for making beer from cornbread. There was also the sense, implicit in the letters of men such as Thomas Graves, the “Engineer” sent by the Massachusetts Bay Company before the main body of settlers, that New England’s economy would have to be built on its natural products, especially fruits and grains, and that an open and experimental attitude was therefore required. Edward Johnson praised the great yield of maize, which in the early years was their “chiefest Corne,” and indignantly went on: “and let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content.”51

However wholesome and plentiful the native products of New England were, promoters knew prospective settlers needed confidence that English plants would grow there. Not only would this assure any colonists they would not be cut off from the familiar diet and routines of home, but it would also quiet fears about the alien quality of the new land. Every party that came to New England, even those which were here only a few weeks, respected the instructions of their backers to plant and experiment with English seeds. Bartholomew Gosnold’s expedition of 1602 planted wheat, barley, oats, and peas or pulses, and found they grew six to nine inches in fourteen days.52 Martin Pring reported success with the same crops in 1603, even though they were “late sowne,” which he said gave “certaine testimonie of the goodnesse of the Climate and of the Soyle.” The native grasses also gave him hope of growing oats, hemp, flax, and rape-seed.53 George Waymouth’s company in 1605 planted garden seeds, peas, and barley, which grew eight inches in sixteen days and one-half inch daily thereafter. This experiment was highlighted in a marginal note: “Corne sowed.”54 Years later Samuel Maverick saw evidence of the failed Sagadahoc colony’s attempts to grow English seeds in the roots and garden herbs growing by some old walls on the site.55

Plymouth colony reported early failures with English grains; they tried peas and barley first, neither of which did well, apparently because of hot, dry weather. By 1624 they reported that though “the chiefest grain is the Indian mays, or Guinea wheat,” they believed English grains would do even better once they had cattle to till the ground. Wheat, rye, barley, peas, and oats were specifically mentioned.56 The Massachusetts Bay colonists similarly experimented with English grains and other plants while relying on maize in the early years. Many wrote home in the first two decades of the fruitfulness of the new colony and their success in growing familiar grains and in raising animals, which were said to grow bigger and healthier in this environment. Thomas Morton said the herbs in America were more masculine than the same species in England and others said the environment increased female fecundity. William Wood attributed the great number of twins born in New England to the healthfulness of the climate and its agreement with English constitutions. Others noted that American animals were more apt to have multiple births.57

Experimentation continued at an accelerating pace. The Massachusetts Bay Company arranged to send wheat, barley, and rye for planting to the vanguard party of colonists. These were to be followed by fruit stones and other seeds and even “Tame turkeys.”58 Planters asked, as did Edward Trelawney of his brother Robert, for many kinds of seeds and “any other things that you may conceive may conduce to the furtherance and future benefit of the plantation, for I would let no probable thing slip, but without trial, which is the true settling and furthering of a plantation to future posterity.”59 By the end of the first decade there seems to have been general agreement that barley, oats, and rye did well in New England, though the evidence on wheat was still inconclusive. John Josselyn said summer wheat often changed into rye.60 Many of the same people also said that garden herbs, fruits, and peas and beans thrived here. The emphasis throughout was on testing and examining. Edward Johnson, for instance, wrote of the joy of the people, when rye was first grown in 1633, “to see the land would beare it.”61 The importance of these experiments can be seen in the case of John Pratt, who was hauled before the General Court in 1635. Pratt had written a letter to England critical of the prospects of Massachusetts Bay and saying that English grains did not prosper there. He was acquitted only when he dictated a long letter of apology, explaining his mistaken thinking. He said he had now seen in his own fields that rye and oats prospered, but he still had doubts about whether other English grains would flourish to the same height of perfection as in the country of which he and they were native.62

Experience also taught that some adjustments would be necessary. William Wood suggested that wheat and rye would do better if winter-sown, so the snow could keep them warm through the winter, but this practice was found to render the crop too vulnerable to extreme winter temperatures and was abandoned until after the onset of wheat blight in the middle of the century. Since the blast or blight appeared in mid-summer, winter wheat had a better chance of resisting it than that sown in spring.63 Samuel Clough’s New-England Almanack for 1703 mentioned July as the month when mildew threatens English grains. In practice throughout the century and beyond, a two-tier farming pattern continued, with English corn and maize equally occupying the farmer’s attention. The 1723 Almanack of Nathaniel Whittemore headed July’s page with a poem on the English harvest and the September entry with one on the Indian. Above all, the two types of farming, with their very different climatological demands, offered insurance to the farmer and the economy in general that there would be a sufficient harvest.64

By the end of the 1640’s, then, the truth about New England’s climate had been assimilated, and people were adjusting their expectations and practices to it. The European/American difference had been accepted and to some extent accounted for, and colonists were prepared to admit that New England was both colder and hotter than England. But this does not mean that they saw this difference as permanent or fundamental. Many colonists believed that European technology would have such a profound impact on America that it would completely change the environment, including the weather.

Early modern English people believed that human beings are responsible for the environment, and that this responsibility entails taking an active role in perfecting and shaping it. Raw, unfinished nature was not beautiful and only accidentally bountiful. John Brereton’s party had been so overcome by the “beautie and delicacie” of the land that he said it was “as if Nature would shew her selfe above her power, artificiall.” John Smith answered charges that other parts of the world in the same latitude were superior by pointing out that: “They are beautified by the long labour and diligence of industrious people and Art. This is onely as God made it, when he created the worlde.” He argued that as settlers moved inland and as the land was “cultured, planted and manured by men of industrie, judgement, and experience,” it would soon equal any in the world. The “artificiall” impact of human beings on the environment is both more powerful and more salutary than nature left to itself. Nature requires the effect of people’s labor, and all places are better for “humane culture.”65

In New England this meant, most especially, hope for an improved climate. Philip Vincent asserted that New England would be as temperate as northern Spain and southern France, in the same latitudes, “if managed by industrious hands.” John Mason and Richard Whitbourne argued that habitation by Europeans would make even Newfoundland warmer. Whitbourne wrote that cutting down the woods would let in the sun’s beams, which would not only make the country warmer, winter and summer, but would lengthen the growing season. Mason asserted that lands not “manured” are “more naturally cold,” and, furthermore, the smoke and heat of peoples’ fires in towns “much qualifieth the coldnesse of the Aire.”66 Some people in the early decades believed the American climate was already changing as a result of cultivation by Europeans. William Wood thought he saw evidence as early as 1634 that rainfall patterns were changing, and he argued that New England’s weather was as England’s had formerly been. He reported Indian testimony that the weather was better since the arrival of the English: “the times and seasons being much altered in seven or eight yeares, freer from lightning and thunder, long droughts, suddaine and tempestuous dashes of raine, and lamentable cold Winters.” In 1654 Edward Johnson wrote that cutting down the woods and breaking up the land for agriculture had caused a marked change in “the very nature of the seasons, moderating the Winters cold of late very much.” Elsewhere he also argued that the summers were becoming more temperate.67

Colonists’ belief in the transforming power of European technology was crucial to their perception of the American environment and their place in it. As it happened, experience was for a time strongly confirmatory of this presumption. The harsh 1630’s and harsher 1640’s were followed by the more temperate and controlled 1650’s and 1660’s. Much of the 1670’s was also moderate. For people accustomed to believing that their agricultural methods were part of God’s plan to complete nature, and that their lives were lived in accordance with God’s wishes, this improvement must have been powerful reinforcement. The short-term experience set the settlers up for a profound disillusionment in the 1680’s and 1690’s just at the time when their other concerns were also creating anxiety and doubt.

No evidence has come to light about the early 1650’s. In the winter of 1654–1655, the bay was frozen for one month; the rest of the winter was normal. February of 1656 was cold, and the rest of the winter “normal.” John Hull said the winters of 1656–1657 and 1657–1658 were very mild, with little snow.68 Planting was delayed by a wet spring in 1658. William Hubbard said that 30 April was the coldest day of the year and reported that two men had been frozen in Maine. Though the early harvest was good, the late was spoiled by rain so heavy that cattle in Massachusetts were threatened.69 The winter of 1658–1659 was stormy and cold in patches, but it was followed by a good summer and harvest despite a cold and rainy April. The winter of 1659–1660 was snowy, and the bay was frozen by the end of December. March was cold, but without much frost, and the worst storm of the winter occurred in mid-April. The winter of 1660–1661 was a mild one with little snow or frost. There was a cold, wet spring with floods in Connecticut and a bad hailstorm in June, but the summer of 1661 was hot and good for agriculture. The winter of 1661–1662 was very snowy, but it was followed by a “very great drought” in the early summer. The harvest was saved, though. The winter of 1662–1663 began mild but saw a deep snow cover from January to March.70

The summer of 1663 saw the wheat blight or blast on crops throughout New England. John Hull attributed it to the series of cold, wet springs and the drought of the preceding year. He said many acres were not worth the reaping. Wheat blast reappeared in the summer of 1664 and there was drought at the end of the summer, but the Indian corn harvest was good.71 The winters of 1663–1664 and 1664–1665 were mild, though there was a cold period beginning in late February 1665. The springs were cold in 1664 and 1665 with no buds on the trees until 11 May in the latter year. The cold winter of 1665–1666 was followed by a cold, wet spring with great floods. The apple trees leafed on 21 May. The summer was hot and dry. The summers of 1665 and 1666 again saw devastating blast or mildew on wheat; other grains were all right except that some were affected by drought in 1666.72 The winter of 1666–1667 was cold and very snowy. Spring was early, with the apple trees leafing on 22 April, and the winter of 1667–1668 was mild, with little frost or snow. The apple trees bloomed on 28 April, but a frost in early June damaged corn and fruit. John Hull said the winter of 1668–1669 was “very temperate,” but other sources note great snows. Simon Bradstreet of New London said that grain was very scarce for years because of the blast. Spring was promising, but in the following summer many children died of flux and vomiting, which was attributed to the wet season continuing through late August. The rest of the summer was then hot and dry, and the blast continued to attack the wheat crop. The winter of 1669–1670 was very snowy, “sharp and tedious.” Thomas Minor of Stonington, Connecticut, counted twenty-nine snowfalls.73

The summer of 1670 was “very droughty,” but it was followed by a winter which was quite moderate, as was the winter of 1671–1672. The spring of 1671 was rainy, while the summer of 1672 began dry. All the crops, except for the hay, were saved in 1672 by timely rain, and the winter of 1672–1673 was again very mild. The spring of 1673 was very cold, so much so that linen hung out to dry was found frozen stiff on the line on the morning of 15 June. Many cattle died because hay was short on account of the heavy rains and an extremely high tide of the preceding fall. In August there were devastating floods “drowning the meadows,” but the ensuing winter was again mild in temperature, though with much snow and wet weather.74

The winter of 1674–1675 seemed almost like a return to the harsh winters of the 1640’s. It began mild, but February saw the coldest weather for many years; it was “so dry and windy that the dust blew like snow.” Increase Mather wrote of such scarcity of grain in New England, Long Island, and Virginia that cattle were dying for lack of food. The spring was also raw and cold until the very end of April. The peach blossoms appeared on 13 May. The summer was hot and dry, “yet pretty fruitful.”75 The winter of 1675–1676 began with a devastating hurricane, which Simon Bradstreet said caused several thousands of pounds damage. The weather was very sharp and stormy in the beginning, creating additional hardships in King Philip’s War, but January and February had spring-like warm spells.76 The circumstances of the winter of 1676–1677 are unknown, but the blast on wheat and barley was again a problem in the summer of 1677. The winter of 1677–1678 was mostly moderate, with several snowstorms. Little is known about the winter and spring of 1678–1679 except that there were storms in April and May.77

During these three decades, then, English colonists could see a pronounced melioration in their weather. There were many very mild winters, and none of the exceedingly cold winters they had seen in the 1640’s. The springs were too often cold, frequently with the addition of too much rain, and this created difficulties in agriculture. The greatest problem was the blast attacking the wheat crop, which colonists saw as weather-related.78 As a consequence, the Indian corn crop provided a safety-valve of the greatest importance. Several times the harvest was saved by the onset of hot, dry weather in the mid-to-late summer. But with the apparent end of the extreme cold that the earliest settlers had known, it is easy to see how New Englanders such as Edward Johnson could believe that European occupation of the land was changing the climate for the better.

Another way we can gain insight into the colonists’ sense of their impact on the land is to see how people from the vantage point of the 1650’s and 1660’s described the period of the pioneers. These writings repeatedly use rhetorical phrases such as “howling wilderness,” “howling desart,” “hideous and desolate Wilderness,” “desart wildernesse,” and “waste and uncouth wildernesse,” to describe the land encountered by the original settlers. They had acquired enough distance from this experience to begin romanticizing it. The modifiers distinguish these from other uses of “wilderness”—the religious connotation of a place of refuge or inspiration, or the English sense of a maze in a formal garden, “in which one may become happily and amusingly bewildered.”79 The psychological distance from the frontier experience after mid-century was due to broad areas of action, such as clearing the land and building towns, but the climate’s apparent melioration must have contributed to a sense of mastery over the environment.80

This sense of accomplishment in changing the climate ended in the 1680’s and 1690’s as New England, along with northern Europe, was plunged into the worst decades of the Little Ice Age. The winter of 1680–1681 was said by Increase Mather to have been the coldest for forty years. Samuel Sewall also said it was the coldest for many years.81 It signaled the return of very cold weather, in fact apparently much colder than had been known before. Coming as it did in decades of profound upheaval and self-doubt, this climatic shift had a very great impact, both psychologically and physically, on the settlers and their situation. It is necessary to describe the changes in weather and the colonists’ understanding of those changes in order properly to understand the socio-economic and psychological realities of the last two decades of the seventeenth century.

Before we look at the weather experienced in these twenty years, it is important to see how New Englanders thought about weather as opposed to climate. The Royal Society, almost from its beginning, had been calling for a scientific approach to the collection of weather data from all over the world “for the making of comparisons, requisite for the raising Axioms, whereby the Cause of Laws of Weather may be found out.” They hoped observers would make daily notes on all kinds of phenomena, using those instruments available in the late seventeenth century.82 Despite the enthusiasm of early colonial members such as John Winthrop, Jr., and Cotton Mather, and the large number of letters on various subjects which they submitted to the Philosophical Transactions, the Royal Society had to wait until the 1720’s for systematic meteorological observations from New England.83 With the exception of John Pike, who noted the date of every snowfall from 1682 through the century, no diarist kept a systematic record of any set of phenomena.84

New Englanders lacked instruments to make precise readings until the eighteenth century, but failure to collect the data necessary for investigation of the underlying laws of meteorology had a more fundamental cause. The outlook of the colonists was completely providential. That is, weather phenomena, good or bad, were seen as sent by God and indicative of his will. To understand the weather, they looked at the society and its relationship to God.85 John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, the English translation of which appeared in 1578, laid down the principle of the providential interpretation of weather: “The intemperature of the aire, yce, thunder, unseasonable raines, drouthe, hailes, and whatsoever is extraordinarie in the world, are the fruites of sinne.” The point was emphasized in the marginal note: “Wether untemperate and such like are the fruites of sin.”86 It was a commonplace in seventeenth-century New England that adverse meteorological phenomena were a result of human failings.87 In fact, much of our information about seventeenth-century weather comes from diarists’ notations about days of fasting and humiliation which were called to bring relief from unfavorable conditions, frequently drought. Virtually every journal contains such information, and most saw the rituals as efficacious: that is, the calling of a special day almost always caused improvement in the weather. John Winthrop noted times when the mere setting of the day was enough; the drought broke before the actual rituals.88 This practice could even elicit divine guidance on specific issues. Samuel Danforth wrote that some people blamed the drought in the summer of 1662 on the calling of the synod, but when the elders met they held a day of prayer and there was then a good rain every week until the harvest, showing that God favored the synod.89

Edward Johnson gave a particularly graphic example of the power of these occasions. He wrote of the drought in 1633 in which the crops were being killed by the “extreame parching heate of the Sun.” The people, “beholding the Hand of the Lord stretched out against them,” held a day of prayer to beg for mercy. The congregation shed many tears and “as they powred out water before the Lord, so at that very instant, the Lord showred down water on their Gardens and Fields.” This is a very complicated example, because, in demonstrating both His concern for the colonists and his power, God won the admiration of the Indians who witnessed these events, making the goal of conversion more attainable. William Bradford recorded a similar occurrence in the drought of 1623.

Johnson claimed more than the breaking of one dry spell. He argued that God was changing the fundamental climate of New England in order to make it hospitable to his colonists. In reporting the incident, he began by saying that “the Country is naturally subject to drought.” He then went on to say that “the Lord was pleased, during these yeares of scarcity, to blesse that small quantity of Land they planted with seasonable showers, and that many times to the great admiration of the Heathen.”90 We have already seen that Johnson believed the climate of New England was changing under the impact of European cultivation. In saying this he combined belief in European technology with his faith in the special destiny of the New England colonists. After he mentioned the theory that cutting down the woods and breaking up the land was changing the climate, Johnson went on, “But Christ have the praise of all his glorious Acts.” Later he simply said that Christ had “altered the very course of the Heavens,” and that this was done for the comfort of “his poor Churches,” “to the wonder of English and Indians, the Winter and Summer proving more moderate, both for heat and cold.”91

Other phenomena also exhibited the hand of God. When blast or mildew or insect pests attacked the crops, this was widely interpreted as a judgment.92 Many diarists recorded unusual episodes of lightning, especially when someone was killed or injured. The death of Captain Richard Davenport at Castle Island in 1665 appeared on many lists of the most remarkable passages in the history of New England. The Indian who scoffed at Hiacoomes, the Mayhews’ first convert, was punished by being struck by lightning, and Simon Bradstreet recorded lightning as evidence of God’s power.93 This being so, one can imagine the consternation of Cotton Mather when he noticed, as he confided to Samuel Sewall, “that more Ministers’” houses “than others proportionably had been smitten with Lightening.” He was “enquiring what the meaning of God should be in it.”94

Phenomena such as earthquakes, comets, and eclipses were seen as portents, even in cases where the mechanisms were known. Samuel Clough’s New-England Almanack for 1703 had a scientific diagram demonstrating how eclipses occur, and Clough, like most other almanac makers, was able to predict them with great precision. Nonetheless, he went on to describe the awful calamities which would follow the predicted eclipses. Increase Mather doubted that eclipses involved portents because they happen every year, but his writing on comets, as well as those of his son Cotton, shows a mixture of knowledge of the most recent scientific thinking and the strong belief that comets foretell disasters. As Cotton said of thunder: “And indeed, though the natural causes of the thunder are known unto us, yet, there are those notable voices of the almighty God, often sensible in the directing thereof, which it becomes good men to observe with devout resentments.”95

By 1680, New Englanders had experienced three decades of much milder weather than that of the founding decades. Since they believed that all such phenomena were directly controlled by God, they were able to interpret this melioration as evidence of divine favor for the work they were engaged in. It is the argument of this paper that in the final two decades of the century a drastic deterioration in the weather combined with other events to create the profound disillusionment and self-doubt among the colonists which many other historians have described. To discuss this period without understanding the weather conditions faced by the colonists is to omit a crucial part of the picture.

We have already seen that the winter of 1680–1681 was very cold, the coldest winter for forty years. It was followed by a summer drought in which much corn and grass was lost in Connecticut, though John Hull said there was a “competent harvest.” The next summer’s harvest was plentiful. There were damaging floods in the spring of 1683, and storms with higher tides than anyone could remember in the spring of 1684.96 The winter of 1684–1685 was very cold, with Boston harbor frozen so hard that 900 people went to Castle Island and back on the ice. The winter of 1685–1686 proved even colder. Samuel Sewall said the frozen sacramental bread rattled on the plate as it was being passed. Coaches went to Charlestown and Noddles Island on the ice “for a considerable time together.” The hard winter was followed by a great drought, during which fires in the swamps burned underground to a depth of six feet.97 We know little of the rest of the decade, except that the spring and early summer of 1687 were rainy with flooding, the winter of 1687–1688 was warm and rainy with a dry spring, and December of 1690 was extremely cold. The winter of 1691–1692 was cold in December and January and then warm. The summer of 1692 was visited by drought. The winter of 1692–1693 was mixed, and the summer was again dry and hot. Weather was mixed in the winter of 1693–1694 and in the following summer. The winter of 1694–1695 was marked by repeated great snowstorms and cold weather.98

The worst years of the century were 1696, 1697, and 1698. The winter of 1695–1696 was very cold and windy with great snowstorms continuing until late April when the snow from a storm on 22 April remained on the ground for three days.99 The winter of 1696–1697 was again cold. Thomas Hutchinson in his History said it was the coldest winter since the first arrival, with sleighs able to go on the ice as far as Nantasket. Cotton Mather tried to perform a secret fast on 2 February, “But so extremely cold was the weather, that in a warm Room, on a great Fire, the Juices forced out at the End of short Billets of Wood, by the Heat of the Flame, on which they were laid, yett froze into Ice, at their coming out.” He was forced to give up his exercise.100 The spring was very cold, with a killing frost in late June, and was “a time of scarcity,” with high prices for grain. The summer of 1697 saw a “sore” drought, and in October there were forest fires that burned for more than a week, filling the air with smoke. By the time there were heavy rains in November, water was badly needed for the mills, cattle, and wells.101

Many would have nominated the winter of 1697–1698 as the coldest of the century. The bay was frozen from late January to mid-March, and Samuel Sewall many times crossed on the frozen river to Charlestown in January and February. It was also very snowy, with between twenty and thirty snowfalls. The snow cover lasted from mid-December to late March; in February snow was three and one-half feet deep on the level. On 2 February, Sewall noted that Michael Wigglesworth chose for his text: “Who can stand before his Cold? Then by reason of his own and peoples sickness, Three Sabbaths pass’d without publick worship.” Samuel Sewall began his entries for many days with “very cold” or “extream cold,” and he visited friends in early March whose sheep, “having been so long kept from the ground, are sick, some dye. Others will not own their Lambs.” Sheep continued to die in the wet spring and on 21 May Sewall composed a verse while he was lying in bed:

To Horses, Swine, Net-Cattell, Sheep and Deer

Ninety and Seven prov’d a Mortal yeer.

The winter of 1697–1698 became famous for its severity. The Earl of Bellomont wrote from New York to the Lords of Trade that only the severe weather had prevented the French from taking Albany and Schenectady. The snow at Montreal was said to be higher than a man. In 1750, Peter Kalm found general agreement in America that the winter of 1697–1698 “was the coldest and the severest which they had ever felt.”102 There was great scarcity in the spring, and the summer was hot and wet. Some found this good for husbandry; others not. Sewall remarked that the rivers were very high in August, and in October there were violent storms and the worst floods in memory, according to John Pike.103

The mild winter of 1698–1699 offered some relief from the battering, but the final winter of the century was again very cold. It began with a storm of freezing rain in early December, which caused many thousands of pounds damage. In mid-February the colonists had the coldest three days for many years. “Some say Brooks were frozen for carts to pass over them, so as has not been seen these Ten years. Ground very dry and dusty by the high wind.” March was also cold and dry.104

This reconstituted weather pattern shows very high correlation with the mean temperatures for central England worked out by Gordon Manley. The mid-1680’s and the middle and late 1690’s were among the coldest years of the century, as were the 1640’s. We have already seen that the winter of 1607–1608 was very cold on both continents. The evidence so far seems to indicate that Little Ice Age conditions were being felt in eastern North America as well as in Europe.105

King Philip’s War of 1675–1676, with its devastating toll in casualties and the subsequent shrinking of the frontier, marks the beginning of the Puritans’ loss of the sense that they were on a special mission for God. It coincided with the first of the bad winters of the end of the century. That the Indians attacked the settlements was seen as a judgment of God against them, a rebuke.106 Tensions were continued and heightened by the outbreak of King William’s War in 1689, in which the combined French and Indian enemy kept outlying settlements in constant fear. Cotton Mather attributed that war also to bad living and neglect of New England’s special relationship to God, as did the General Court.107 That war with the Indians created anxiety about fulfilling the founders’ purpose can be seen in the many covenant-renewal ceremonies of March 1676.108 The end of King Philip’s War left the settlers with a truncated mission. It signalled too clearly for any mistake that the Indians had not and would not abandon their own culture and religion wholesale and accept Christianity. The founders’ belief that they were God’s agents carrying Christianity to the heathen and thereby fulfilling a requirement for the consummation of history no longer held. That mission was at best postponed indefinitely.109

Following King Philip’s War, there was increasing talk of the colonists’ being tested or punished to recall them to the path of righteousness set out in the early years.110 The revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Charter was the greatest calamity of the seventeenth century. Not only did it threaten the special relationship of New England to God, but it also called all social, political, and economic relationships into question. The anxiety generated by this blow sent people back into the churches in large numbers.111 There was a feeling of being beset on all sides by uncertainty and misfortune. T. H. Breen sees continuing upheaval even after the new charter of 1692 because of the heavy and novel burden of taxation to pay for King Philip’s War and subsequent continuing warfare. The taxation caused people to question the old leadership and to enter the public arena in unprecedented numbers. There was no turning back to the old ways.112 By the end of the 1690’s, Cotton Mather felt the colonists had strayed too far from the true path ever to return of their own volition.113

It is against this background that we should look at the harsh weather experienced during the 1680’s and 1690’s in New England. The taxation was not just unprecedented in the amounts demanded, but it also came at a time when the colonists were least able to bear it. The agricultural base on which the colonists depended was declining “precipitously,” while they were being asked to provide more in public monies. From 1680 on, the towns studied by David Grayson Allen ceased to produce an agricultural surplus, and the nature of farming changed from mixed agriculture to reliance upon pastures and orchards. New England generally was an importer of corn, wheat, rye, barley, oats, and peas by the 1690’s.114 Moreover, the population had increased dramatically, probably quadrupling from the end of the Great Migration to the end of the century, so the numbers reliant on that food supply were swollen.115 When the end of the century brought several consecutive years of bad harvest, as happened in the mid-1690’s, the spectre of famine was very real indeed. In 1696, 1697, and 1698, there were food shortages which were the result of several years of short harvest even before 1696. The New-England Almanack of 1701 recorded that in the summer of 1696 the price of wheat went up to eight or nine shillings per bushel, and maize was at five to six shillings, prices as much as one and one-half to two times normal. The Almanack further noted that grain was scarce even at those prices and many were reduced to “very great straights.” Some people had no bread for weeks in Boston.116 The food shortage also tested the communal spirit of the New Englanders. During this “terrible Famine” Cotton Mather wrote to the ministers in Connecticut asking them to use their influence to “remitt the Embargo which they have laid upon their Corn unto our exceeding Detriment.”117 The winter of 1696–1697 saw the highest prices for grain and great scarcity of food, according to Hutchinson’s History, along with great losses in trade. Samuel Sewall recorded the summer of 1697 as a time of scarcity.118 The winter and spring of 1697–1698 saw the deaths of many animals, particularly sheep, and there was a great shortage of hay. In 1698 people were forced to give their corn to the cattle despite its scarcity, though it was down in price to four shillings a bushel.119

So the bad weather of the 1690’s and, to some extent, of the 1680’s caused more than just discomfort. It certainly compounded the distress which colonists felt from other causes and increased their sense of being out of control of events. Given the fact that New Englanders interpreted weather phenomena as indicators of God’s favor or disfavor, their experience of this harsh weather, following as it did on the optimistic self-assured middle decades, must have seemed powerful evidence of God’s adverse judgement on them. When combined with their other misfortunes, the message must have been unmistakable. In the natural world, as in the political and social, the evidence that New England had strayed from its special role was clear; the colonists had not fulfilled their mission and even nature had turned against them.

Samuel Sewall’s Verses upon New Century opened with this plea:

Once more! Our God, vouchsafe to Shine:

Tame Thou the Rigour of our Clime.

Make haste with thy Impartial Light,

And terminate this long dark Night.

Let the transplanted English Vine

Spread further still: still Call it Thine.

Prune it with Skill: for yield it can

More Fruit to Thee the Husbandman.120

Karen Ordahl Kupperman is Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut.

Research for this article was supported by a Mellon Faculty Fellowship at Harvard University and by a grant from the University of Connecticut Research Foundation. The author wishes to thank David B. Quinn and Harry S. Stout for their very helpful suggestions.