Windham Life & Times – February 19, 2015

The Great Snow of 1717

A woodcut depicting the Great Snow of 1717

A woodcut depicting the Great Snow of 1717

So you think we’ve got a lot of snow this winter? This is nothing compared to the “Great Snow of 1717.” According to Sidney Perley, writing in 1891, in his Historic Storms of New England, “In December, 1716, snow fell to a 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 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.”

"Ye Whiners! Ye don't know what a great snowfall is about." The Ghost of Cotton Mather

“Ye Whiners! Ye don’t know what a great snowfall is about.” The Ghost of Cotton Mather

On March 7, 1717, Rev. Cotton Mather made the following diary entry: “Never such a Snow, in the Memory of Man! And so much falling this Day, as well as fallen two Dayes ago, that very many, of our Assemblies had no Sacrifices.” He also called it “One horrid snow.”

The Boston News-letter reported, ‘Not fit for man nor beast,’ No horse could brave it. Nor any ships. No vessels arrived this week.” (The New Yorker)

Again from Sidney Perley we read, “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. Down came the flakes of feathery lightness, until:

‘…the whited air Hides the hills and woods, the river and the heaven, And veils the farmhouse…all friends shut out the housemates sit, Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed, In a tumultuous privacy of storm.’

“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 twenty feet deep.”

From New England Historical Society website; “The events were so unusual that he and other contemporary diarists made note of how exceptionally harsh it was throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Throughout the region snow totals from the back-to-back storms were recorded of four, five and six feet, with drifts as high as 25 feet. Entire houses were covered over, identifiable only by a thin curl of smoke coming out of a hole in the snow. In Hampton, N.H., search parties went out after the storms hunting for widows and elderly people at risk of freezing to death. It wasn’t uncommon for them to lose their bearings and not be able to find the houses. Sometimes they were found burning their furniture because they couldn’t get to the woodshed.”

Snow shoes were often the only means of traveling through the snow.

Snow shoes were often the only means of traveling through the snow.

According to Perley, “Many cattle were buried in the snow, where they smothered or starved to death. Some were found dead weeks after the snow had melted, yet standing and with the appearance of life. The eyes of many were so glazed with ice that being near the sea they wandered into the water and 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 one hundred were found hurdled 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 for four weeks of their entombment by feeding on the wool of their companions…Other animals 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 a snow bank in which they had been buried, having subsisted on a little tansy, which they 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 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…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 on them. In this way vast numbers of these valuable animals were killed, torn to pieces, and devoured by their fierce enemies. It was estimated that nineteen out of every twenty deer were thus destroyed.” (Perley)

“The carriers of the mails who were called ‘postboys,’ 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 as no traveling, the ways being still impassible, 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 returning, the two towns being about forty miles apart. In the woods he found the snow five feet deep, and in places it measured six to fourteen feet.” (Perley)

“Many a one-story house was entirely covered with 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 neighbors if not to far apart. Stepping out of a chamber (second story)  window some of the people ventured over the hills of snow….Coffin in his History of Newbury, Mass., ‘Love laughs at locksmiths and will disregard a snowdrift.’ A young man in 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 snow shoes 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 the chamber window. Besides its own members, he was the first person the family had see since the storm, and his visit was certainly much appreciated.” (Perley)  Accounts differ, some saying the couple were newlyweds, but whatever was the case, they had their first child on November 25, 1717.

“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 in snow it could not be found for several days. At length smoke was seen issuing from a snow-bank, and by that means its location ascertained. The neighbors came with shovels, and made a passage to a window, through which they could gain admission. They entered and found the widow’s small stock of fuel exhausted, and that she had burned some of her furniture to keep her little ones from suffering with cold. This was but one of many incidents that occurred of a similar character.” (Perley)

Of course, in 1717, the Scotch-Irish had not even begun their settlement of Nutfield. It is doubtful they heard about the “Great Snow of 1717,” for if they had, they might have abandoned their emigration to New England in 1718. When the Scotch-Irish did arrive, they experienced many privations during the harsh winter of 1718-19. Their ship was frozen in at Portland, Maine, and many nearly starved to death there.

So quit thy whining, ye that have central heat, heated automobiles, plowed roads, and plenty of food in the refrigerator. Look to your rugged New England ancestors for courage. And take note, there is still plenty of winter left, and most of the snow that fell in 1717 occurred at the end of February. There is still time yet!

According to Wikipedia, the dates of the storms were different and caused by volcanic activity. “The winter, even prior to the Great Snow, had been the worst in memory. The temperatures had not been unusually cold, but in December 1716, there had already been snow to the depth of 5 feet. By the end of January, there were drifts 25 feet high in a few places, overwhelming the people living in New England at the time. There had been a series of volcanic eruptions circa 1716. Ash circulating the globe in the upper atmosphere from the eruptions of Mount Kirishima in Japan, Kelud in Indonesia and Taal Volcano in the Philippines likely contributed to the exceptional New England snowfall. The great snow, depending on the source, began on February 27 or March 1. On February 27 a typical New England nor’easter passed through, with snow falling on some areas and other places receiving a mix of snow, sleet, and rain. The first major snowstorm occurred on March 1, with another on the 4th, and a third, the worst among the three, on the 7th. At some points, the snow would lighten and stop, but the sky would remain cloudy, showing no signs of clearing. Some of the oldest Native Americans had said that even their ancestors never spoke of a storm of this magnitude.”

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