The 300th Anniversary of the Great Colonial Snowcover of 1717

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 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.

69 thoughts on “The 300th Anniversary of the Great Colonial Snowcover of 1717

    • If temperature throughout the winter was moderate (as stated) then extreme cold was not the reason for excessive snow (as it rarely is). Heavy snow arrives with warmer air that is saturated with moisture, which then makes contact with a cold air mass. That could occur today, if moisture saturated air currents were just right.

      • It does occur today. We just had one produce close to 30″ in northeast PA. A pattern where successive storms roll over the same area in a short period of time results in cabins being buried in those parts. We’ve seen a few over this time period in parts of the Northeast. We’re just better able to move it out of the way these days.

  1. Thought bears hibernated in the Winter. They would hardly be up chasing deer around for Christmas dinner

    • In the eastern U.S., bear hibernation apparently differs from the average in the U.S.:

      The activity schedule is very different in eastern North America where acorns, hickory nuts, beech nuts, and other foods become available in fall and some foods remain available all winter. Bears there are genetically programmed to delay hibernation until late November or December and hibernate less than 5 months. Hibernation there is typically not as deep, and some bears emerge to forage during winter thaws. Food sometimes remains available throughout winter there, and some bears continue foraging throughout winter. ….

      ( )

      According to Perley (above),

      The temperature throughout the winter was moderate, ….

      Thus, many bears may not have hibernated at all, or, there was a thaw preceding the blizzard which had the bears out on rambles…. while their porridge cooled….. and then an impertinent little blonde girl RAIDED their house, so…… (shrug) they did what they had to do. 🙂


      Thank you, Ric (Ranger Ric, heh 🙂 ) for the excellently intriguing history lesson.

      My favorite part, the bits on this theme:

      Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey.

      Lord Byron

      It’s true.


      • Do polar bears, like, hibernate in the snow or something? Cuz if they do, that could be why people thought that ClimateChange™ was causing them to… oh wait.

      • Polar bears don’t hibernate. Females build a den where the cubs are born, but they don’t hibernate in the normal sense. Males stay active (and hunt) throughout the winter.
        On the other hand Polar Bears go into a low activity physiological state in summer, when food is difficult or impossible to obtain and temperatures are uncomfortably high (for polar bears that is). This is sometimes characterized as “walking hibernation”.

    • I would not have expected bears to be out given the snow cover. That may have been an embellishment to the story over the decades or it could be that bears did make it out a while later when drifts and other snow patches were still abundant. March is about the right time for bears to come out. Here in NH, news stories about bears ripping down bird feeders are a sign that bird feeding season is over. When bears come out, they’re hungry and rather insistent on eating when they find food.

      I have a lot of trouble with so frightened at the assaults of these animals that most of the lambs born the next spring were of the color of foxes. However, never having raised sheep, I figured I’d leave it for the commenters.

      • Seems to corroborate Darwin’s theory! I understand fawns and other easy ‘prey’ are born without a scent. It would be interesting to research the color story.

  2. It is good to remember just how short the history of weather is in the US, so record snow or temperature covers only a fairly short period.

  3. I spent many hours after storms shoveling 2 or 3 feet of snow from the driveway and walks. In the 1960s, in NE Nova Scotia, my memory has that being quite common; teenager memories of course are unreliable as to frequency.

    • In March of 1993, we had a snow of close to 3 feet in southern coastal New England that drifted on hillsides and around buildings to 5 feet or more and had a crust thick enough to walk on. I could walk on it, but my horses fell through, plunging around up to their bellies and promptly refusing to move. Back in the barn they went, not to be allowed out for the next four days or so. Having lived through that, I can readily believe that a Big One in the belly of the Little Ice Age probably wasn’t exaggerated much! Better them than us . . .

    • John, you’re way too kind. I’d have posted some snarky comment like “Yeah? You should go to the Canadian maritimes for a winter.” And posted a photo from

      Like maybe this one:

      As storms blow by New England, they often “bomb out”. A lot of times Boston is spared but downeast Maine is dumped on. I get the feeling that Labrador is simply always clobbered.

      I wonder how much snow Labrador got in 1717.

  4. Background reading related to Mr. Werme’s article is mentioned in this 2011 WUWT comment:

    Dennis Wingo: “Everyone should read H. H. Lamb’s book: Climate, History, and the Modern World [Ed. Available here: At Amazon. [Ric: Edited to make a HTML ref that WordPress doesn’t break] ]. If you read the book and the multifaceted evidence presented, you can have little doubt about the existence of the MWP or LIA. Not only does he use tree rings, he uses archaeology of farming locations, crop types used, as well as a plethora of written records from around the world to establish his premise.

    ( )

    • Oh, no, BB, I do not. However, I do believe {{SARCASM}} in “extreme weather” such as what is happening THIS YEAR in New York State, USA!!!! (See what I mean??? –> parts of western New York are already coping with the effects of extreme weather. )

      Just to be safe, we need to shut down all the coal-fired electricity plants NOW and ditch our ICE vehicles for bicycles, just-in-case…. so we don’t FRY THE PLANET and freeze to death.

      • macawber: I have TRIED subtle — many times — but, inevitably, a careless reader misunderstands me and writes a snide reply based on what I did not say.

      • Dear Macawber,

        I neglected to thank you for the compliment part of your remark. Thank you.



      • It rained all night, the day I left
        The weather, it was dry
        The sun so hot, I froze to death
        Suzanna, don’t you cry!

  5. This post reminds me of the “February Blizzard” we had here in the north and east of England in 1979.
    This is what l wrote about it at the time in my dairy.

    February 15th 1979
    lts 7.34 in the morning and its white with snow. lts been snowing nearly all the time from yesterday. l cannot see the roads with the snow,and with the strong winds its drifting. The windows of the houses across the road are covered with snow. The snow is up to 2 feet deep in places and the roads are very bad with around a foot of snow on them. The high winds are blowing up the snow and making it look like a scene from the Arctic. l have not seen it as bad as it is now. The snow is so deep that the “paperboy” is having to walk on the wall. lt looks like its going to get worse.
    Later in the morning l had to come home from school because most of the teachers could not get into school because of the snow.

    • We had a similar amount of snow on Exmoor, with drifts filling the roads between the hedges. Where the snow was shallower the roads down the steep hills were like bobsleigh runs.
      I was attending a party at the Caernavon Arms near Dulverton and had to leave early when it had started snowing. The guests who stayed on were snowed in from the Friday to the following Tuesday, and didn’t they have a good time. Almost ran the hotel out of drink.

  6. Years ago, You could ride around on the (very) back roads of the (very) rural areas of central Massachusetts. You would occasionally come across a two story farmhouse with two front doors. The first door would be about where you would expect it, complete with a stair or two, or perhaps a stoop. Perfectly ordinary. The second front door would be up on the second floor, offset to the right of the lower door by about six feet. The second door had no balcony, or porch or anything else. It just opened out onto *nothing*. {Please, no jokes about “Watch that first step, it’s a doozy”.}
    To see one such house, you might think this is some carpenters prank, or possibly a remodeling job gone horribly wrong. When you see several such houses, the truth starts to seep in, and you understand the reason these houses were built as they were.
    The thought of that kind of snowfall today is horrifying. People went through the trouble to put in those doors, so those kinds of winters must have been routine, not occasional. If a big snow-in was an unusual event, jumping out a window would probably suffice. In that case, the second floor doors would not really be needed.
    Things to ponder.

  7. This winter gives you some idea of the amount of snow that must have been falling over this part of the world during the LGM.

  8. In northern Vermont we frequently receive large amounts of snow over the course of the season but not all at once as described in the article. Last week’s storm brought 74″ of snow to Jay Peak raising their snow total for the winter to 447″. That is far below the winter of 2000-2001 when Jay measured 576″ of snow for the season. There was so much snow that year we cross country skied over the 4 foot high gate posts for our horse fencing that were buried a foot or more beneath the snow in open, wind-swept high meadow. The drifts were up to eaves of our garage and above the top of our first floor windows. We contemplated having to jump out of the second story windows to get to the garage. Many winters we end up with trenches dug between the house and garage and around to the back of the house to get firewood in from the woodshed. Four foot drifts around the house and garage are normal and five-six foot drifts are not unusual.

  9. Went through one of those Noreasters in feb 1978. We were relocating to Munich in two weeks. Lived then on the third floor of our Stoneham apartment complex just inside I 498. We had drifts up to our thrid floor balcony floor. At least 20 feet. Made for great XCountry skiiing, except when you finally got to the stores there was nothing available. Stuff happens.

    • There were actually three storms in quick succession. Everyone remembers the last one (how could we not!)

      However, in January a storm with a lot less ferocity set a Boston record for the most snow in 24 hours. A week later a storm that was mostly rain knocked down a lot of that snow. In the midwest, it was a historic blizzard, Cleveland Ohio set a record low air pressure. Then came the Northeast’s blizzard (the biggest impact was in southern New England). It set a (yep!) Boston record for the most snow in 24 hours.

      In addition to the amazing ferocity of that storm, one reason it has such an impact on the area is because the snow started at mid-day. Had it started earlier, schools wouldn’t have been open, had it started later, people would have made it home while the roads were still passable.

      My recollections of that storm, by far the most awesome snow storm of my life, are at

      If that middle storm had been all snow, we’d be comparing that season to 1717!

      • Yes, the Blizzard of 1978. We lived in Newton Corner at the time; the doors were snowed in, so we had to climb out a window; the cars were almost totally covered. The streets were impassable with snow three feet deep; all but essential traffic was banned on those area roadways that had been cleared. The National Guard came in with trucks and front-end loaders to clear the snow. For several days, we reverted to the 18th century: no sounds of vehicles, and narrow pathways to get to market. A few days later our street was dug out by front-end loader when a kid a few blocks away broke his arm and had to be evacuated. Then I was able to get a permit to drive into Cambridge for my Saturday radio show. Traffic was still very sparse. I think it was the only time that Harvard College was closed because of snow.

        /Mr Lynn

  10. This nor’easter wasn’t anything special, at least in central PA. I measured 19-20in. on our deck, which is sheltered from the wind- 20inches. Last year, in early January we had a much better storm. It dropped 30+ inches in the same spot before I went to bed. The official tally was 34 inches, I believe.

    The worst since we moved here years ago from Minnestoa was 1992-1993. January 1st it was 55-60 degrees. It started getting cold around 3pm. By late evening, when the snow started it was in the teens. Monday morning showed about 14 inches of snow, with drifting, Tuesday It started raining in the morning, then it changed to snow for another 12 inches, then some more rain. Wednesday someone made it up the hill in and old style real Hum-Vee to get a nurse. She had to walk a block and a half with the help of the driver to get to the local hospital to help,. The staff had been on duty for 72 hours. Thursday it snowed again, roughly another 12 inches. By Friday morning it was -20deg. below zero. 5 of us(out of about 65) made it in to work. That beat anything we ever saw in Minnesota.

    There were several storms after that. The last drift on the north side of the house finally disappeared on March 31st.

    • My wife was a nurse during this storm, the humvee the national guard used to pick her friends up got stuck in the snow. Somehow I got my wife to work in my 1980 1300 cc Honda civic (best car ever made). 30 inches in Bucks county.

  11. This was approx 170 years after depth of LIA. NH had warmed about 1C by then making conditions similar to today. Winter of 2014 NE had snow (from snow drifts & snow plows) into early July. Anyone have video?

  12. I live 35 miles north of Chicago, and 3 miles east of Lake Michigan.
    Feb. 1, 2011: it started snowing around 7:30PM. I took pictures, thinking nothing of it. Then the snow picked up, the wind off Lake Michigan turned into gale force blasts, a Flexbus broke down on northbound Lake Shore Drive and blocked all the traffic behind it. No one could get off the LSD going north. All those people were trapped in their cars and if the CFD hadn’t come along in the southbound lane to rescue them, some of them might have frozen to death.
    2/2/2011: On the Antioch Road 8 miles north of my house, two people were found frozen to death in their cars, caught in snow that had drifted up to and covered the windows.
    Me: I woke up the morning of 2/2/2011 and found my storm door stuck shut with 4’6″ of snow drifted up against it. I have pictures of that, too. I had to wait for my neighbors to dig out my front steps. I measure 15 inches of snow in a place where there was no wind-drifting.
    This winter, with the storm last wee, we were supposed to get 3 to 6 inches. I shoveled all night as needed to keep the front steps clear, and in the morning, got the tape measure and the camera and took another snowpile measurement: 11 inches fell.
    Well, the grackles, cowbirds and redwinged blackbirds are back at my feeding station, so things should be back to normal before too long.

  13. Strong snowfalls are not unusual in Patagonia where big herds of sheeps and cows are free to wander far from their farms, sometimes miles away. When the snow is to thick, there is no rescue possible and they die by thousands.

  14. Don’t forget the morning of June 5, 1859. There was a widespread freeze (that’s freeze not frost) in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. If something like that happened today the crop loses would be tremendous. (Corn crops are no longer “knee high by the fourth of July,” rather they are almost invariably planted and are well up by June first.) The EPA was irresponsible if they didn’t do some actuarial type economic projections on what present day repercussions of such an event would be. Their endangerment finding was a joke. They only pondered the scenario that they wanted to. Happily for our grandparents 1859 was before the midwest became the nation’s breadbasket – now know as the corn belt. If this kind of freeze happened today McDonalds would be selling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because a hamburger would cost like a steak dinner. The EPA needs to stop modeling on the basis of climate that might happen and start modelling based on actual weather that’s actually happened.

  15. I remember driving through the White Mountains from Maine to New Hampshire in the late 60’s/early 70’s.
    One February we went thru a town which had received over 10 feet of snow the night before (in addition to the several 5-6 footers already on the ground). There were tunnels to the front doors and second floor windows were used for entrance. It was very dangerous driving, especially at busy intersections.

  16. 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.

    The never ending problem of government. Once you establish a government job, it is nearly impossible to eliminate it even when the original need goes away

  17. The date 1717 is suggestive. The Maunder Minimum is generally considered to have ended in 1715 and the 1690’s and 1700’s were exceptionally cold decades. After 1715 the temperature rose abruptly and the 1720’s and 1730’s in contrast were notably warm. In the exceptionally long Uppsala temperature record that starts in 1722 the warmest year ever recorded is still 1724.

    So 1717 seems to be a very reasonable date for “warm air meets cold air in a big way”.

  18. Thanks for reminding people what is possible, Ric.

    When I was young I yearned for a repeat of 1717. Funny how our desires change as we get older.

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