It is difficult to imagine a year without a reprieve from the harsh winter months, especially in Western New York, the Northeastern Coast, or in any part of the world that experiences a brutal cold season. As difficult as it may be to imagine, two hundred years ago, a year without a summer was a stark reality in Chautauqua County and throughout many parts of the world.
As the Arctic ice pack mysteriously melted, the northeast experienced unexplained occurrences: brutal frosts, zero tree growth, and an almost in-existent growing season. Farmers evaded New England in large numbers to relocate in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Midwest quickly gained its newfound advantage as the steadfast agricultural strong point in the midst of the sudden weather induced economic hardship of the North-East.
The first Independence Day Celebration held in Ellicott, New York (now Busti, New York) must have been strikingly memorable as it could have been mistaken for a winter’s day. Young gives a detailed account of the Fourth of July celebration titled the First Dance in Young’s History of Chautauqua County, New York, From Its First Settlement to the Present Time; Biographical and Family Sketches. The dance took place at the home of Stephan Frank where Lemuel Smith led attendees in prayer, Levi Leonard orated, and Theron Thumb acted as the president of the celebration. Federalists did not attend the dance after their inability to win a single ticket in the town ballot in April that year.
Most guests arrived to the celebration on foot. Married men led their wives on horseback due to the poor weather conditions. Homemade spirits were offered sparingly as wine and brandy were unattainable. Festivities included an anvil shoot and a fiddle. Even though drink was not plentiful, those in attendance were all more than delighted to be there despite the strange winter-like conditions.
The effects of this unseasonable wide-spread phenomenon of a summer-less year in 1816 in Chautauqua County are also listed in the Centennial History of Chautauqua County. The 1904 publication noted that ice as “thick as window glass” was said to have formed on July 5th in New York City and throughout Pennsylvania. August brought no promise or relief to Chautauqua County or to the entire North-East.
Oden Edson includes Alexander McIntyre’s personal notes in regards to that year’s abnormal weather patterns in Edson’s History that were experienced in Chautauqua County in 1816 through April of 1817:
January 1816 very mild, almost no snow. February even milder until the end. Big snow and wind storms into March. Late March and April mild. Cold at the end May was very cold. Ice an inch thick. Corn killed. June colder. Snow fell, ice and frost common. September and October a nearest to summer but cold and frosty. November extreme cold and little intermission until April 17.
As described in the Centennial History of Chautauqua County, as the “Cold Season” ended in Chautauqua County, the first six months of the following year were characterized as the “Starving Season”. Exorbitant prices were demanded for common household staples needed to survive. According to the Centennial History of Chautauqua County, a barrel of flour fetched the steep price of eighteen dollars. Eighteen dollars in 1817 would be the equivalent of $327.27 per barrel today. Potatoes sought $1.50 a bushel, the equivalent of approximately $27 a bushel today.
Hunting was a luxury to those who were fortunate enough to own a rifle. Those who did not own a rifle depended heavily on fish, milk, salvageable vegetation, and leaks to survive.
Disease was a global issue by this time as the effects of the Mount Tambora eruption permeated all regions of the globe. Increased rain and rotting carcasses contaminated water supplies. A cholera epidemic in Bengal, India was attributed to contaminated debris and uncontrollable monsoons. The mortality rate in Europe shot up to 50% in 1817 after thousands died from starvation. After 130 days of rain beginning in April to September in 1816, surviving meant ingesting any source of nutrition available for many around the world. Many argue that, the suffering may have been the greatest in Switzerland.
The utter desolation, relentless rain, and total disappearance of the sun inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, while she and her group were on holiday in the Swiss Alps. Shelley’s dark tale along with other notable works are likely to be recognized as the only contributions of that catastrophic year. Shelly was unsure of the reaction such a dark tale would receive and hesitated to publish her work. After diligent the persuasion of Mary Shelley’s husband and world renowned poet Lord Byron her work was published in 1818. Lord Byron, who was on vacation with Shelly in the Swiss Alps, captured the true horror of the suffering of 1816 in his haunting relic Darkness. This poem is highly recognized and encompassed the true hysteria men and women experienced. Many believed that 1816 was truly the end of days. Lord Byron, compelled after enduring the “year without a summer” on holiday in the Swiss Alps in 1816 penned his poem Darkness. The poem was published that same year.
Scientists and meteorologists today agree that Mount Tambora sparked a cataclysmic chain of events. Tsunamis immediately claimed an estimated 92,000 lives as a result of the massive eruption, ultimately destroying everything in its wake. Additional casualties included in 92,000 lives that were lost. Of the 92,000 some were said to have died of starvation due to the absence of a suitable food supply, as volcanic debris wiped out livestock and crops entirely.
Two hundred years later, it is difficult to imagine in full capacity what an actual complete three-year, world-wide death toll would have been.
From the Fenton History Center Research Center Library:
Edson, Oden. (1894). Edson History.
The Chautauqua History Company. (1904). The Centennial History of Chautauqua County: A Detailed Entertaining Story of One Hundred Years of Development. Volume 1. Jamestown, NY.
Young, Andrew W. (1875). History of Chautauqua County, New York, From Its First Settlement to the Present Time; Biographical and Family Sketches. Printing House of Mathew Warren. Buffalo, NY.
Online sources are highlighted to promote further exploration of this topic!
Mount Tambora visual: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tambora