1804 - Mass Destruction and a "Snow Hurricane"
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane, now winding down, has arguably been one of the most active ever. With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to look at some Atlantic hurricanes from the early years of the American republic. Specifically, we are going to look at two storms in 1804, that followed one behind the other - one exceptionally damaging, and the other quite unique.
The word hurricane comes from the ancient Mayan creator God Hurakán or Hunrakán who according to the "Popal Vuh" codex, destroyed a race of wooden men by a terrible storm. The Mayans traded extensively throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean and some of their words and beliefs were adopted throughout the area. When Columbus met the Tainos on Hispaniola they told him of the god Hurakán that brought great storms. Spanish sailors called them huracanes de los cuatro vientos (hurricanes of the four winds), while French and English sailors called them ouragans or hurricanes.
As I began digging into the research for writing this piece, I realized that researching specific storms of this period is a bit more difficult than it appeared at first. Besides the lack of modern storm tracking technology in the period, another major reason is the way people named hurricanes prior to the mid-20th Century. The practice of using names to distinguish tropical cyclones from each other goes back several centuries, with tropical systems originally named after places they struck or people (like Roman Catholic saints). Hurricanes in the West Indies, due to strong Catholic influence, were named after the Saint's day or other religious observance on which the hurricane made landfall. Examples include the 1526 San Francisco hurricane (named after Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is observed by Catholics on October 4), and the 1834 Padre Ruiz hurricane (named after a then-recently-deceased Catholic priest whose funeral service was being held in the Dominican Republic upon landfall there)
In other areas, such as the Colonial and early United States, hurricanes tended to be named for places affected, when they made landfall, or unique characteristics of the storm. Examples include the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane (named after Lake Okeechobee, in the state of Florida, where many of its effects were felt) and the 1938 New England hurricane. Unfortunately, this system of naming causes confusion and makes identifying and tracking storms difficult due to them being known by different names in different locations. One example of this is the previously mentioned storm known as the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane in the United States but known as the San Felipe II hurricane in Puerto Rico. In 1953, the United States began using female names for storms. The practice of naming hurricanes solely after women ended in 1978 when men's and women's names were included in the Eastern North Pacific storm lists. Beginning in 1979, meteorologists began including male and female names in lists for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, today’s article is going to look at two hurricanes that hit the United States in 1804. These are best known as the Antigua-Charleston Hurricane and the 1804 Snow Hurricane. These two hurricanes, occurring in September and October 1804, devastated transportation (ships) and economies throughout the Atlantic basin, from the Windward Islands northward to New England.
Antigua - Charleston Hurricane
This storm, first reported south-southeast of Antigua in the Northern Leeward Islands, moved west-northwest into the Windward islands on September 3rd. In Dominica it ruined 26 of 28 ships there before coming ashore in Antigua. In Antigua, on the 4th of September 1804, 58 vessels sank: including the Duke of Cumberland packet. In St. Kitts it destroyed all of the ships in the harbor, approximately 100. In Nevis, where this storm was considered the worst since 1772, the 16-gun sloop HMS Drake was driven aground on a shoal just offshore, and the storm damaged or sank 56 of the 58 ships at Saint Barthélemy. The storm destroyed another 44 vessels at St. Thomas, including the 64-gun storeship HMS De Ruyter. As it passed further to the northwest, to Puerto Rico, it continued the destruction of ships.
The storm continued its northwestern track until just off the coast of Florida and then turned north, moving along the Georgia coast, and finally making landfall at Charleston, SC with disastrous effect before turning northeast and proceeding along the Atlantic seaboard.
This was the first hurricane of this strength to strike coastal Georgia since 1752. Damage to ships was considerable, especially those offshore of the Georgia coast. Betsy was stripped of its freight and damaged, Phoebe ran aground at Tybee Island, Liberty sank with its crew killed, Patsy nearly sank, and Experiment capsized.
When the hurricane struck on September 7, Aaron Burr, hiding from federal officials at Hampton Plantation on St. Simon’s Island, was visiting the family of John Couper at Cannon’s Point Plantation. Because of deteriorating conditions, he was unable to return to Hampton Plantation and thus rode out the Hurricane there. Upon the arrival of the storm's eye, Burr fled back to the residence of Pierce Butler at Hampton. In an account of the hurricane, recorded in a letter to his daughter Theodosia, Burr reported that the storm was at its peak between noon and 4:00 PM the next day. Burr reported:
“The house… shook and rocked so much that Mr. Couper began to express his apprehensions for our safety. Before three, part of the piazza was carried away… The house was inundated with water, and presently one of the chimneys fell.”
When the winds subsided, Burr insisted on the slaves who had gone with him to Cannon’s Point rowing him back over Jones Creek. They reached the Hampton Plantation just as the back eyewall struck and the storm continued throughout the night. Following the passage of the storm, in the town proper, Burr discovered many local roads flooded or washed out. Nineteen slaves owned by Butler drowned, while Couper suffered $100,000 (1804 USD – approximately $2,127,659.57 in today’s $) in losses alone, with cabins housing over a hundred slaves destroyed. Many other local planters experienced similar difficulties. Seawater inundated and ruined several acres of cotton around the Horton House plantation at Jekyll Island, devaluing the year's harvest by 20 percent; other rice, cotton, and corn farmers along the coast similar suffered similar losses. As it moved up the Georgia coast, the hurricane destroyed boats owned by plantation owners, devastated crops, storage houses, stables, and slave residences.
Meanwhile, at Cockspur Island, the storm obliterated Fort Greene with all its buildings destroyed and thirteen men killed. Muskets, canisters, upward of 300 lb. of lead bars, and cannons weighing 4,800 lb. littered the island following the storm and the fort was never rebuilt. Fort Pulaski was later built in its former location. Meanwhile, at Wilmington Island, one house collapsed, and swaths of farmland flooded. North-to-northeast winds surrounded Hutchinson Island, producing tides 7 to 10 ft (2.1 to 3.0 m) above normal, submerging rice crops, sweeping away plantation buildings, and drowning close to one hundred slaves.
The hurricane's effects were especially severe in the city of Savannah, where winds incessantly gusted northeast-to-north for 17 consecutive hours. The hurricane's storm surge swept into bays, rivers, wharves, and any areas below an elevation of 10 ft. By the storm's peak, all vessels in the city harbor were damaged by the storm, and it damaged nearly all residences in the city's southern sector. The storm took a gunboat from its original position and deposited it 7 mi. away in a field. The steeple of the Presbyterian Meeting House in the city toppled and portions of a wall of the Christ Episcopal Church caved in. The local courthouse was damaged, shingles torn off a jail roof, and a tobacco warehouse lost its roof. Maritime losses were observed throughout the city; Mary struck a wharf near Fort Wayne, Thomas Jefferson came aground at Hunter and Minis's Wharf, General Jackson slammed into McCradie's Wharf, Liberty capsized near Howard's Wharf, and Minevra was driven ashore at Coffee House Wharf. Numerous other wharves were damaged because of similar accidents, and at some wharves, vessels became stacked upon each other. Businesses along the wharves disintegrated into the Savannah River. After the storm passed, residents found timber, cotton, tobacco, liquor, sugar, and produce strewn along the bluff.
Overall, the hurricane capsized eighteen vessels in Savannah throughout the course of the storm. Many smaller vessels were "cracked like “eggshells," with the flotsam floating in waters paralleling the bluff. Damage in the city totaled at least $500,000 (1804 USD), approximately $10,638,297.87 in 2020 dollars.
Tides in South Carolina rose 9 ft (2.7 m) above normal, causing the May River to top its banks, flooding cotton and rice fields, and sweeping plantations' cotton storage houses and slave cabins away. Inundation also occurred at various offshore locations, including Daufuskie Island, just south of Hilton Head. The storm destroyed all residences at Bay Point Island washing them out to sea. At Beaufort, South Carolina, roadways bridges and farmland were flooded and carried away by high tides of up to 5 feet, ruining fields of cotton and produce. Strong gusts knocked down chimneys and damaged the town's Baptist church. Guilelmi, ran ashore at Saint Helena Island, while Collector came aground at Lady's Island. Copious rainfall caused the Pocotaligo, Stony, and Huspa creeks to overflow. Roads and causeways submerged under flood waters were unusable.
The hurricane's effects were severe in the city of Charleston, where the storm produced northeasterly winds and heavy rainfall beginning around 10 PM on September 7th and continued with high winds until 1 AM on the 9th. The Storm destroyed the bulwark of the fort at James Island, and the palisades of the fort at Castle Pinckney, at the mouth of Charleston's harbor, were wrecked. The hurricane also swept vessels aground into marshes and wharves between Gadsden's Wharf and South Bay along the Cooper River. Several wharves—Pritchard's, Cochran's, Beale's, Craft's, and William's— struck by vessels, were severely damaged. Montserrat, Mary, Birmingham Packet, Amazon, and Orange all endured some degree of damage. Three vessels and Mary collided with Governor's Bridge, damaging the structure; two other vessels and Favorite slammed into Faber's Wharf, while Concord filled with water at Prioleau's Wharf. The storm surge and winds displaced a counting and scale house from its foundation after it was struck by Lydia in the vicinity of Blake's Wharf, while the African slave boat Christopher capsized at Geyer's Wharf, with all aboard escaping safely.
High waters enveloped wharves, and neighboring stores collapsed or washed away, with rice and cotton falling into the water. A breakwater near South Bay disintegrated. Homes were inundated, and residents along South Bay fled their dwellings. The hurricane's storm surge also flooded locations along the new section of East Bay Street (destroying the street), as well as buildings on Lamboll and Water streets and left Meeting Street under 2 ft-high flood waters. High winds, meanwhile, tore off roofs, dislodged trees, and toppled fences.
To the northeast of Charleston, at Sullivan's Island, the storm made 15 to 20 houses uninhabitable, either blown down or their foundations undermined by the water. Although the storm surge flooded most of the island, portions of the western end of the island remained dry thus saving some residences. To the east of Charleston, Fort Jackson, having been even more exposed to the storm, was damaged to the point that the mounting of even a single cannon was impossible, while on Schute’s Folly Island, the breast-work and palisades of Fort Pinckney were washed away.
Meanwhile, at Georgetown, high tides flooded wharves and submerged streets and businesses, destroying corn, salt, and other goods. High tides and torrential rain, in the vicinity of Georgetown, ruined a rice harvest equivalent to ten thousand barrels. Damage in the city reached $1,000,000 (1804 USD), approximately $21,276,595.74 today. Modern estimates show that the 1804 Antigua – Charleston hurricane caused over 500 deaths in South Carolina alone.
North Carolina and Virginia
In North Carolina, the hurricane blew down trees as far as 100 mi inland, and flooding from rainfall isolated Scotland Neck. Around the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the vessel Wilmington Packet ran aground at Bald Point. Little information is at hand about the storm between North Carolina and New England. At Norfolk VA newspapers reported the wind was east-northeast on the 7th and 8th, with a shift to the east on the afternoon of the 8th and a shift to the east-southeast early on the 9th. If these wind reports are correct, the storm center moved through to the west of Norfolk before veering to the northeast and out to sea. New England experienced a gale on September 11 and 12 but, considering the time between its passing of Norfolk and the arrival of the storm in New England, it is questionable if New England’s storm was the same weather system.
The 1804 Snow Hurricane
Now we move on from the catastrophically destructive to the strange and destructive. The 1804 Snow Hurricane was the first tropical cyclone in recorded history known to have produced snowfall. The only other such known occurrences are Hurricane Ginny in 1963 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Occurring in October 1804, this late-season storm produced massive amounts of snow, rain, and powerful winds across the northeastern United States.
The origins of the snow hurricane are mostly unknown, although a modern study conducted in 2006 traced its origins to north of Puerto Rico on 4 October 1804 and reports place it in the vicinity of Dominica and Guadeloupe the same day. Besides this, little else is known about the storm until its approach towards the East Coast of the United States and transit northward near the coast. The earliest evidence of a disturbance near the United States was on 8 October, with rainfall recorded in upstate New York, precipitated by the storm's western edge in advance of an approaching trough. The following morning, the trough's motion near the Virginia Capes area was accompanied by intensifying winds and a change in their direction. The Norfolk meteorological observations published weekly in the Public Ledger merely report that a trough passed through on the morning of the 9th with a shift of wind from SW force 3 to WNW force 6 by 2 PM. The newspaper also reported that:
"A ship just off Cape Henry reported a dreadful squall from the northwest that struck October 9 at 11AM”
In the Upper Chesapeake Bay, the gale on the 9th prevented the mail boat from crossing at Havre de Grace, Maryland, since the wind “was incessantly varying from west to northwest, and for its duration exceeded anything we have witnessed at this time of year” and at Baltimore, the strong wind from the West and North, pushing against the tide, left many ships high and dry at the wharves. At Philadelphia, a violent squall about 0900 on the 9th struck and submerged a newly arrived ship. Progressing further north into New Jersey, the storm capsized a ferry at Trenton, and drove a ship aground near Absecon Beach (Atlantic City).
New York and New England
In New York City, the 9th of October began with a cloudy sky, rain, and winds from the SE. The barometer had dropped 0.44” overnight and by 2 PM, the wind had shifted to the NNW. There were no arrivals in New York harbor on the 10th and the barometer had dropped another 0.18” to an uncorrected reading of 28.87” with the temperature at 55 degreed F. By sunset, the temperature had dropped to 42 degrees and the rain gauge showed 2.27” of rain for October 9. There were no arrivals in New York Harbor on the 10th since the wind was blowing down the bay and out to sea.
In Connecticut, Thomas Beers, a bookseller in New Haven kept metrological records. He writes:
0600–Hard rain in the early part, noon heavy black clouds wild and dark, very heavy rain forenoon with considerable heavy distant thunder – wind highest at SE until about 1030, round to SW, W, and NW and blew very hard with heavy rain – slacked toward noon.
1300-appears to be clearing off.
1800-wild heavy black clouds driving rain, clouds fly quick.
2100- a high gale of wind this evening and for part of the night.
Another observer, on the Yale campus, reported that by sunset his thermometer had dropped to 38 degrees, a drop of 17 degrees since morning. Rainfall measurements in New Haven totaled 3.66” for this period. Residents reported this as the heaviest gale anyone there could remember.
In Massachusetts, Boston reported winds of such force that the steeple of the North Church fell, and the tower roof of the Stone Church sailed 200 feet through the air. Accounts from Rev. William Bentley, and educated journal keeper with experience reporting meteorological conditions he gave account of collapsed barns, and fences, all vessels driven from their anchors, chimneys collapsed, roofs and windows damaged and trees blown down. He says that reports have come in of ships at anchor at Cape Ann and Marblehead driven ashore, roads everywhere obstructed by fallen trees. He says reports from Boston indicate almost total destruction of all small boats at the wharves.
Away from the coast, snow became the problem. In Massachusetts, the snowfall averaged from 5 to 14 inches, with as much as 24 to 30 inches of snow fell in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, while in Concord New Hampshire the snow was two feet deep. In Vermont, the snowfall only amounted to about four to five inches but along the higher lands the wind blew it into such large drifts that it blocked the roads. At Rochester, NY, on the western edge of the storm’s influence, snow fell for as much as 12 hours, but it melted as it hit the ground. This snowfall at low levels in western New York is significant since at the same time, the hills and mountains of eastern New York and most of New England were experiencing the greatest early season snowstorm known at that time.
Inland, the effect of the storm on apples and potatoes was disastrous. The storm blew the fruit from the trees, and in the northern sections froze copious quantities of potatoes, which remained undug, into the ground until the following spring. The storm also caused the death of large numbers of cattle, sheep, and fowls of all kinds, especially around Walpole, Newbury, and Topsfield MA. The wet snow also heavily damaged fruit trees, clinging to the branches until they broke under the weight.
The winds along the coast did a great deal of damage to shipping from Rye, NH down to Newport RI. Many vessels in the harbors dragged their anchors or broke their cables and crashed against each other, the wharves, or were driven aground and destroyed. On board the ships caught at sea, many seamen lost their lives.
I hope you found this article on these two destructive hurricanes informative and gave you pause to think about just how difficult dealing with this level of widespread destruction would have been to our ancestors living along the Eastern Seaboard during the first years of the American Republic. If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you post comments to let me know your thoughts on our articles, suggest new subjects for future articles, and allow us to inform you when we post new articles. Please be assured that the Norfolk Towne Assembly never shares our community members information with outside entities except as required by law. I also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.
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