Cathcart diary entry from June 1816. (York County History Center)
“1800 and froze to death”
Remember last September when the devastating fires in California and Oregon caused hazy skies in Pennsylvania? Every now and then a powerful event, such as the very violent eruption of a volcano, can cause weather problems half way around the world. The present speed of our communications informs us almost instantly of the causes of whatever may be experiencing. That wasn’t the case in 1816 when people in southern Pennsylvania were in awe of summer frost, not knowing why their world had changed and if the change was permanent.
Here is my recent York Sunday News column citing the diary entries of two local community leaders that show the effects of the very far away Tambora eruption were indeed felt in York County.
Was the year without a summer experienced in York County?
“The year without a summer” is an intriguing phrase. I wondered if the strange weather of that year, 1816, affected York County. It did, even though I haven’t been able to find much primary documentation yet on its local effects. You would think that something so unusual would have made enough of an impression to be duly recorded and the stories passed down to future generations. Not many local diaries and letters from that period survive, however, and few copies of 1816 local newspapers still exist. Accounts from further afield do help paint the picture.
First, some background: the event that triggered several extraordinary summer cold snaps in Western Europe, Canada, New England and much of the Mid-Atlantic region during 1816 occurred over a year before. On April 5, 1815 Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in present day Indonesia violently erupted, spewing out a vast cloud of dust and ash. Accounts say that earlier eruptions of Mounts Etna and Vesuvius and later of Krakatoa (1883) pale in comparison to the force and duration of Tambora. The island of Java, three hundred miles away, was covered in several inches of ash. 100,000 people are said to have died soon after the eruption, and the long term effects were horrendous. Crop failures caused widespread starvation and the colder temperatures might have contributed to the development of a new strain of cholera, leading to a pandemic.
Mount Tambora was shortened by 4,200 feet with much of that debris and ash coming down to earth. It was the massive amount of dust and gas in the atmosphere, the most known in recorded history, that altered a portion of the earth’s climate for several years. Trapped in the stratosphere, the particles and gases decreased the heat passing through from the sun; cooling temperatures can also decrease rainfall. These factors, frost and drought, cause crops to fail, resulting in financial ruin as well as starvation.
The dense clouds gradually moved into the higher latitudes, so that by May 1816 cooling temperatures were noted in northeastern United States. As the year progressed the weather fluctuated wildly. A few warm days would be followed by cold, often accompanied by high winds and sometimes a snowfall. Every month seemed to be touched by at least one frost, sometimes more, setting back the crops and even requiring replanting.
The venerable Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture resolved at a special meeting on October 30, 1816 to collect facts and circumstances relating to agriculture and horticulture, “which have occurred through the extraordinary season of 1816; and particularly the effects of frost on vegetation,” to ascertain the best grains, grasses and fruit to resist droughts, excessively wet conditions and frosts. Corn crops were scanty, but cooler crops like wheat and rye were fine, perhaps even benefiting from the insect population being kept in check by the cold. Wheat prices rose with resulting inflation, however, because of the demand for flour to replace scarce corn meal. Hard hit Canada and Western Europe were also clamoring for flour, further escalating prices.
Some farmers could not buy the scarce high-priced corn to feed livestock, and hay was also in short supply because of related periods of drought. Their cattle and pigs would die or have to be sold for very low prices. Some sources say these were breaking points for many northeastern farmers, leading them to pull up stakes and join the migration to new lands opening up for settlement farther west. In October 1816 an Ohio newspaper noted that the number of emigrants from the eastward that year had far exceeded those of previous years.
Few then seem to have connected the unusual weather with Tambora despite Benjamin Franklin having speculated 30 years before that volcanic eruptions and the changes they wrought in the atmosphere could affect weather patterns. Sunspots were blamed for causing the cold periods during 1816 by some, an idea still being presented in some journals as little as 60 years ago. Current scholarship holds that the sun releases more energy, not less, when sunspots occur, and their effect on earth might be negligible anyway.
Occasional periods of cold lingered for several years, but 1816 was the worst year for summer lows and the effect on agriculture. New England and New York were hard hit by the cold, and our regional papers did pick up some of their news. For instance, in mid-June, snow fell for an hour and a half in Bangor, Maine, and the Boston Gazette worried that several days of frost would destroy vegetation. On June 7th the ground was frozen in Homer, New York. April, May and June had a spell of frost each month. Several days of frost in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in early June did make their local paper.
Two primary sources in the York County History Center collections give confirmation of the up and down weather of 1816. Dr. Robert Cathcart recorded brief weather comments in his dairy. County official Jacob Barnitz jotted even briefer notations in German in his almanac.
Looking at June 1816, Cathcart says the month began fine and warm for a few days, then rained and became very cold. From the seventh to 11th, there was frost in the mornings, then heavy rain and wind. Warm and cold alternated the rest of the month, as it did the rest of the summer, with frost noted August 27.
Barnitz confirms Cathcart’s entries with a notation of frost written by the seventh to 11th of June; he also noted the wind. The rest of his summer entries also show fluctuations of warm and cool, and he reports frost on two days near the end of August.
From these two records, it seems that although not as adversely affected as New England, New York and Canada, there was enough changeability locally to have been quite noticeable. I plan to continue research on “the year without a summer,” and if anyone has access to original accounts or later recollections of 1816 weather patterns in this area, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, a Yorker who grew up in northern Pennsylvania, near the New York border, told me that he was told, as a child, about “1800 and froze to death,” a term that also describes “the year without the summer. That area would have been more affected than ours in southern Pennsylvania, but it is striking that the tale is still being passed down two centuries later.