The recent nor’easter (blizzard to some) here in New England reminded me that I better get moving on a post here about the 300th anniversary of what was likely the deepest snow cover in these parts in the past 400 years or so, and probably a lot longer. I suspect that, like fish stories, this tale has grown taller over the decades. Also, New England forests have made a comeback, and I think several references refer to drifted over houses built near the edge of pastures. Still, it’s clear that claims about the present weather becoming increasingly extreme don’t look back to events like 1717, more recent events in the 1930s, or “The Storm of the Century” in March 1993, which devastated Cuba and the eastern US.
There are many contemporary accounts of the 1716/1717 winter, but they all seem to derive from a complex ancestry of earlier accounts, and generally refer to Cotton Mather, a colonial era minister and weather observer. It turns out he didn’t have much to say about it in his diary. However, what’s a weather history essay that doesn’t mention Cotton Mather or David Ludlum? Many other accounts are in libraries and museums, though I haven’t gone off to search for them.
Instead, here are substantial excerpts of a chapter from a 1891 book, Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley. It’s a mere 174 years after the events. I’ve included a few notes linking to details and related anecdotes, and other references at the end.
In December, 1716, snow fell to the depth of five feet, rendering traveling very difficult, and almost impossible except on snow shoes. The temperature throughout the winter was moderate, but the amount of snow that fell that season has never been equaled in New England during the three centuries of her history.
Snow fell in considerable quantities several times during the month of January, and on February 6 it lay in drifts in some places twenty-five feet deep; and in the woods a yard or more on the level. Cotton Mather said that the people were overwhelmed with snow.
The great storm began on February 18, and continued piling its flakes upon the already covered earth until the twenty-second; being repeated on the twenty-fourth so violently that all communication between houses and farms ceased.
During the storm enough snow fell to bury the earth to the depth of from ten to fifteen feet on the level, and in some places for long distances it was twenty feet deep. The twenty-fourth was Sunday, and the storm was so fierce and the snow came in such quantities that no religious meetings were held throughout New England.
Indians, who were almost a hundred years old, said that they had never heard their fathers tell of any storm that equaled this.
Many cattle were buried in the snow, where they were smothered or starved to death. Some were found dead weeks after the snow had melted, yet standing and with all the appearance of life. The eyes of many were so glazed with ice that being near the sea they wandered into the water and were drowned. On the farms of one gentleman upwards of eleven hundred sheep were lost in the snow. Twenty-eight days after the storm, while the search for them was still in progress, more than a hundred were found huddled together, apparently having found a sheltered place on the lee side of a drift, where they were slowly buried as the storm raged on, being covered with snow until they lay sixteen feet beneath the surface. Two of the sheep were alive, having subsisted during the four weeks of their entombment by feeding on the wool of their companions. When rescued they shed their fleeces, but the wool grew again and they were brought back to a good degree of flesh.
Other animals also lived during several weeks’ imprisonment under the snow. A couple of hogs were lost, and all hope of finding them alive was gone, when on the twenty-seventh day after the storm they worked their way out of the snow bank in which they had been buried, having subsisted on a little tansy, which they had found under the snow. Poultry also survived several days’ burial, hens being found alive after seven days, and turkeys from five to twenty. These were buried in the snow some distance above the ground, so that they could obtain no food whatever.
The wild animals which were common in the forests of New England at this period were robbed of their means of subsistence, and they became desperate in their cravings of hunger. Browsing for deer was scarce, the succulent shrubs being buried beneath the snow, and when evening came on, those in the forests near the seacoast started for the shore, where instinct had taught them that they would be likely to find more food. Another, and a greater reason, perhaps, was, that there were other starving animals in the woods beside themselves of which they were afraid. Bears and wolves were numerous then, and as soon as night fell, in their ravenous state they followed the deer in droves into the clearings, at length pouncing upon them. In this way vast numbers of these valuable animals were killed, torn in pieces, and devoured by their fierce enemies. It was estimated that nineteen out of every twenty deer were thus destroyed. They were so scarce after this time that officers called deer-reeves were chosen in each town to attend to their preservation. These officers were annually elected until the country had become so densely populated that the deer had disappeared and there was nothing for them to do.
Bears, wolves and foxes were nightly visitors to the sheep pens of the farmers. Cotton Mather states that many ewes, which were about to give birth to young, were so frightened at the assaults of these animals that most of the lambs born the next spring were of the color of foxes, the dams being either white or black. Vast multitudes of sparrows also came into the settlements after the storm was over, but remained only a short time, returning to the woods as soon as they were able to find food there.
The sea was greatly disturbed, and the marine animal life was in a state of considerable excitement. After the storm ceased, vast quantities of small sea shells were washed on shore in places where they had never been found before; and in the harbors great numbers of porpoises were seen playing together in the water.
The carriers of the mails, who were in that period called “post boys,” were greatly hindered in the performance of their duties by the deep snow. Leading out from Boston there were three post roads, and as late as March 4 there was no traveling, the ways being still impassable, and the mail was not expected, though it was then a week late. March 25 the “post” was traveling on snow shoes, the carrier between Salem, Mass., and Portsmouth, N. H., being nine days in making his trip to Portsmouth and eight days in returning, the two towns being about forty miles apart. In the woods he found the snow five feet deep, and in places it measured from six to fourteen feet. [Five feet in the woods! Of all the measurements mentioned here, this may be the one least affected by drifting. In general our snow cover in the woods lags the “best” measurements for most of the winter, but is slower to melt than snow in the open. I’d be happy to go with a general snow cover of six or seven feet, but quite a bit more in the areas that experienced “snow bands,” a common feature of nor’easters.]
Much damage was done to orchards, the snow being above the tops of many of the trees, and when it froze forming a crust around the boughs, it broke most of them to pieces. The crust was so hard and strong that cattle walked hither and thither upon it, and browsed the tender twigs of the trees, injuring them severely.
Many a one-story house was entirely covered by the snow, and even the chimneys in some instances could not be seen. Paths were dug under the snow from house to barn, to enable the farmers to care for their animals, and tunnels also led from house to house among the neighbors if not too far apart. Snow shoes were of course brought into requisition, and many trips were made by their aid. Stepping out of a chamber window some of the people ventured over the hills of snow. “Love laughs at locksmiths,” and of course, says Coffin, in his History of Newbury, Mass., will disregard a snow-drift. A young man of that town by the name of Abraham Adams was paying his attention to Miss Abigail Pierce, a young lady of the same place, who lived three miles away. A week had elapsed since the storm, and the swain concluded that he must visit his lady. Mounting his snowshoes he made his way out of the house through a chamber window, and proceeded on his trip over the deep, snow-packed valley and huge drifts among the hills beyond. He reached her residence, and entered it, as he had left his own, by way of a chamber window. Besides its own members, he was the first person the family had seen since the storm, and his visit was certainly much appreciated. [The New England Historical Society account at http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/great-snow-of-1717/ reports:
… his new wife since December of 1716. The newlyweds were apparently separated by the storm and she was holed up with her family. He managed to enter their house via a second-story window.
They had their first child, if you’re curious, on Nov. 25, 1717, almost nine months to the day after the great snow.
They don’t seem to have gotten that from Coffin.]
In the thinly settled portions of the country great privation and distress were caused by the imprisonment of many families, and the discontinuance of their communication with their neighbors. Among the inhabitants of Medford, Mass., was a widow, with several children, who lived in a one-story house on the road to Charlestown. Her house was so deeply buried that it could not be found for several days. At length smoke was seen issuing from a snow-bank, and by that means its location was ascertained. The neighbors came with shovels, and made a passage to a window, through which they could gain admission. They entered and found that the widow’s small stock of fuel was exhausted, and that she had burned some of the furniture to keep her little ones from suffering with the cold. This was but one of many incidents that occurred of a similar character.
This has a number of links to other references, some not closely related.
This is a reissue of the 1891 book. In addition to historic storms, it has essays on earthquake, comets, and other phenomena between 1635 and 1890.
This is an OCR scan of the 1891 book done by Google’s book scanning project, and was my starting material.