Volcanoes, Weather, Food Shortages and Westward Migration
Updated: Feb 26
“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America. In June, instead of 3 ¾ inches, our average of rain for that month, we only had ⅓ of an inch; in August, instead of 9 1/6 inches, our average, we had only 8/10 of an inch; and still it continues. The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter. In every State north of this there has been frost in every month of the year; in this State we had none in June and July, but those of August killed much corn over the mountains. The crop of corn through the Atlantic States will probably be less than one-third of an ordinary one, that of tobacco still less, and of mean quality. The crop of wheat was middling in quantity, but excellent in quality. But every species of bread grain taken together will not be sufficient for the subsistence of the inhabitants, and the exportation of flour, already begun by the indebted and the improvident, to whatsoever degree it may be carried, will be exactly so much taken from the mouths of our own citizens. My anxieties on this subject are the greater, because I remember the deaths which the drought of 1755 in Virginia produced from the want of food”.
- Thomas Jefferson writing to Albert Gallatin, September 8, 1816
The disruptions in our grocery supply chains, combined with the seemingly cooler than “normal” weather we have been having here in Southeast Virginia this month got me to thinking about incidents in the past involving disruptions in the food supply as well as “unseasonable” weather. Today, we are going to look at an event that involved both unexpected weather and a disruption of food supplies here in Virginia and elsewhere.
The year 1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ or ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’ because of severe climate abnormalities that disrupted weather patterns throughout the northern hemisphere and caused temperatures to decrease. This resulted in social upheaval, economic disruption, and agricultural dislocations throughout the United States, Europe, and even Asia. These climatic abnormalities had the greatest effect on New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, Atlantic Canada, the United Kingdom, and large parts of Western Europe.
Evidence suggests the primary cause of this event was the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Mt. Tambora, one of many volcanoes in the archipelago of Indonesia, stood almost 14,000 feet high and was believed to have been silent for 5,000 years before the explosion occurred. On 5 April 1815, when the first great eruption occurred, it generated a volcanic column over 15 miles high. People over 600 miles away heard this blast. Five days later, on 10 April, several colossal explosions occurred (heard almost 1600 miles away), creating columns of volcanic material that stretched up to 25 miles into the sky. The lighter ashes and dusts remained in the skies, turning day into night for days across an area hundreds of kilometers from the blast. To put the size of this eruption in into perspective, using the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) where each whole number increase by a factor of 10, the Tambora eruption is thought to have been 100 times the size of the Mt St Helens eruption 10 years ago in the American Pacific Northwest which rated a 5!
Mt. Tambora’s explosion thrust plumes of gas and ash some 26 miles into the stratosphere, and a massive load of sulfate gases injected into the stratosphere that produced an aerial dust cloud calculated to have up to 1,300,000 cubic yards of fines and sulfates. This great sun-obscuring plume then circled the earth at the equator in a matter of weeks before drifting pole-ward, playing havoc with the world’s major weather systems for three years.
Some scientists argue that three other factors helped to increase the effect of the massive quantities of volcanic fines expelled into the atmosphere.
First, in the years preceding the Mt Tambora eruption there had been several volcanic eruptions with a VEI of at least 4 that had already built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust. These included:
1812 - La Soufrière on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean
1812 - Awu in the Sangihe Islands, Indonesia
1813 - Suwanosejima in the Ryukyu Islands, Japan
1814 - Mayon in the Philippines
Second, 1816 marked the midpoint of one of the Sun's extended periods of low magnetic activity, called the Dalton Minimum. This minimum lasted from about 1795 to the 1820s. It resembled the earlier Maunder Minimum (about 1645-1715) that caused at least 70 years of abnormally chilly weather in the Northern Hemisphere.
A third event, that may have played a role during both the Dalton and the Maunder minima, was the Sun shifting its place in the solar system — something it does every 178 to 180 years. During this cycle, the Sun moves its position relative to the solar system's center of mass. This is a trick of gravity is known as “inertial solar motion.” Scientists have not yet confirmed whether inertial solar motion affects Earth's climate directly, but it is a possibility.
For the next two years, the enormous cloud of sulfate gases Tambora ejected into the atmosphere slowed the development of the Indian monsoon, the world’s largest weather system, which depends on the asymmetric heating of land and sea. Drought brought on by this disruption devastated crop yields across the Indian subcontinent. In southwest China, the outlying mountainous province of Yunnan suffered terribly from the cold volcanic weather, losing crop after crop of rice to bitter winds and flooding rains. The situation was so extreme that desperate Yunnan residents resorted to eating white clay, while parents sold their children in the town markets or killed them out of mercy.
In 1816-17, the scale of human suffering in Switzerland was among the worst in Europe. 130 days of rain between April and September 1816 swelled the waters of Lake Geneva, flooding the city, while in the mountains the snow did not melt. When the crops failed, thousands died of starvation during continental Europe’s last famine, while the numbers of indigent homeless ran into the hundreds of thousands. Mortality in 1817 was over 50% higher than its already elevated rate in the war year 1815. Everywhere, desperate villagers resorted to a pitiful famine diet of “the most loathsome and unnatural foods—carcasses of dead animals, cattle fodder, leaves of nettles, swine food. . . .”
In France, the authorities concentrated on keeping the price of bread affordable in Paris, the seat of revolution just over two and a half decades before. As one might expect, unrest in the neglected provinces increased with chronic rioting in the market towns and entire regions on the edge of anarchy. The experience of sustained food shortages and social instability spurred governments toward the authoritarian, rightward shift we associate with the political landscape of post-Napoleonic Europe.
In the United Kingdom, widespread stress on food supplies sparked waves of violent social protest. In Ireland, the summer of 1816 was much rainier than normal, and the potato crop failed. Failures of wheat, rye, and other grain crops across the British Isles led to bread shortages. Riots broke out in the East Anglian counties in England as early as May 1816. Armed laborers bearing flags with the slogan “Bread or Blood” marched on the town of Ely, held its magistrates hostage, and fought a pitched battle against the militia.
In March 1817, more than 10,000 demonstrated in Manchester, while in June, the so-called “Pentrich Rising”, involving plans to invade and occupy the city of Nottingham, began in Derbyshire. The army quelled this and similar disturbances in Scotland and Wales. In the face of this wave of crime and insurrection, provincial jails filled to overflowing across the kingdom with scores of rioters who were hanged or transported.
There does not seem to have been a widespread feeling, at least in New England and the rest of the eastern United States, that the winter of 1815-16 was particularly harsh or cold. However, when the winter began to linger long into the spring, people began to take notice. Comments found in many diaries throughout the eastern United States begin to show concern and puzzlement about the weather in April and early May. There were warm days in the spring of 1816, but they were followed by cold snaps. In Salem, Mass., for example, it was 74 degrees on April 24. Within 30 hours the temperature dropped to 21 degrees.
In the spring and summer of 1816, observers reported a persistent "dry fog" in parts of the eastern U.S. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight, such that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Neither wind nor rainfall dispersed the "fog." At higher elevations, where farming was problematic in good years, the cooler climate would not support agriculture. In May 1816, frost killed off most crops in the higher elevations of New England and New York. On June 6, snow fell in Albany, New York, and Dennysville, Maine.
In their June 17th issue, The Boston Independent Chronicle reported on a dispatch from Trenton, NJ:
“On the night of 6th instant, after a cold day, Jack Frost paid another visit to this region of the country, and nipped the beans, cucumbers, and other tender plants. This surely is cold weather for summer. On the 5th we had quite warm weather, and in the afternoon copious showers attended with lightning and thunder — then followed high cold winds from the northwest, and back again the above-mentioned unwelcome visitor. On the 6th, 7th, and 8th June, fires were quite agreeable company in our habitations.”
The temperature occasionally got into the 90s, but then would drop to nearly freezing in just a few hours. In upstate New York, crops that had begun to grow were frozen out in early June, replanted, and frozen again in July. Food and grain prices went through the roof — in 1815, for example, oats sold for $0.12 a bushel, but by the next year had soared to $0.92 a bushel (a 766% increase in price).
A Massachusetts historian summed up the disaster:
"Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots. In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food."
In July and August, observers reported lake and river ice as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania. On August 20 and 21, there was frost as far south as Virginia. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings became common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F to near freezing within hours.
The real problem lay in the weather's effect on crops and thus on the supply of food and firewood. On September 13, The Alexandria Gazette, Commercial and Political, a Virginia newspaper reported:
"In the Northern Neck, and on the Southern Banks of the Rapahannock, which have hitherto [been] the principle Granaries of the State, the corn will fall short from 1/2 to 2/3rds —The cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope Indian Corn, deliverable at Christmas, has been sold for $5, cash.
In the Upper Country, the frost as well as the drought, have blighted a great deal of tobacco and corn. On some farms, green corn has been even cut to be cured into fodder — and on others the stock has been turned upon it. Towards the Roanoke, the prospects of corn and tobacco are equally gloomy. Some planters are apprehensive that they will scarcely make corn enough to serve them till the end of the year – 5 and 6 dollars have already been bid for it, deliverable at Christmas.
The only part of Virginia, from which we have favorable accounts, is the Eastern Shore and the counties towards the mouths of the York, the James and Elizabeth rivers. In Gloucester and contiguous counties, particularly, the rains have been seasonable, and the craps will be abundant – But that district of country is too small to supply the deficiency in other parts of the State."
Even Thomas Jefferson, who, upon retirement from the presidency, took up farming at Monticello in Virginia, sustained crop failures and had to borrow $1000 that sent him further into debt.
In some regions, farmers did succeed in bringing some crops to market, but, as noted earlier, corn and other grain prices rose dramatically. An inadequate transportation network, with few roads or navigable inland waterways and no railroads, aggravated the situation caused by crop failures; making it even more expensive to import food.
Even as far south as North Carolina, the effects of this phenomena were being felt. Much of what we know about the summer of 1816 in North Carolina was recorded by Moravian farmers in the Piedmont who often kept daily journals that recorded weather conditions. There were freezing temperatures well into Spring and the first killing frost in the Foothills arrived in late August - about two months ahead of schedule. In between, highs bounced from the upper 40s to more than 100 degrees within days of each other. Parching drought was punctuated by flooding rain.
Late frosts ruined the prospect for fruits, but the wheat harvest was much better than expected. That crop, however, could not be ground into flour. A three-month drought, from May into July, dried up streams. Mills that relied on streams for power were idled by drought. With no flour to make bread, people stayed alive by cooking whole wheat kernels in whatever water they could find into a thick, chewy paste. Churches held weekly special meetings to pray for rain.
When the drought broke, it broke big. Choking rainfall made backwoods roads impassable, and the scraggly corn that had survived was washed out. The flatboats, that carried trade down the Cape Fear River, previously stranded by low water, were now smashed by freshets. Because there were no steam ships on the river, trade came on these flatboats. If the river was too low to navigate, they had no way to reach the port in Wilmington and if it was flooded, they risked being destroyed by the raging torrents. This meant naval stores, turpentine, and pitch, could not reach the coast.
By the end of the year, peddler Manna Alderman from Vermont noted that in Fayetteville,
“Crops are so scarce people are keeping their corn to eat. The people here are 1/4 ugly set and 1/4 drunk-ugly set,” he added, “What they eat ... dogs in Connecticut would die before they’d eat.”
One other effect of the crop failures of the "Year Without a Summer" may have been to help shape the settling of the "American Heartland". The crop failures in 1816 led to tens of thousands of Europeans abandoning their home countries to come to America. A wave of Scottish immigrants arrived in the Carolinas, while Irish and German immigrants settled farther north.
Thousands of people, particularly farm families wiped out by the event, left New England for western and central New York, and the Midwest (then the Northwest Territory) in search of a more hospitable climate, richer soil, and better growing conditions. The population of Vermont decreased between 10,000 and 15,000 people, erasing the previous seven years of population growth.
Eventually, western emigration would have occurred without the weather anomalies of 1816. However, somewhere in the complex mix of motivations that spurred families from Europe, New England and the Middle Atlantic to try their fortunes in the West, these events helped to create hopes and expectations that climate conditions elsewhere might be more favorable, less volatile, and ultimately more controllable.
We hope you found this post on the origins of Agrarianism and its history in Early America both informative and thought provoking. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post) and let us know your thoughts by posting a comment. We also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier posts.
The American Beacon. (1816, May 09). Norfolk, VA
Anon. (1816, September 16). Crops. Alexandria Gazette, Commercial and Political, p. 3. Retrieved May 19, 2020, from https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024014/1816-09-16/ed-1/seq-3/
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