New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

1816, The Year Without a Summer

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1816 – The Year Without a Summer

It was 1815 and only some of the Loyalists were still around with their tiresome old stories about New England. More and more, New Brunswick was passing to the second generation; or the first, that is, to see the province as their natural home.

Everyone, more or less, was a farmer. But the real money was made in logging. So farming also became a matter of ‘more or less’ and the province, overall, did not feed itself. Many people complained that this did not bode well for the future and that farming should be more actively promoted, but the timber merchants opposed any policy that might mean fewer people in the woods.

As for farming, it had not been going especially well for this young second generation. Crop yields in 1813 and 1814 had been poor and in 1815 … well, in 1815 there was an explosion in the mouse population that threatened another not so great crop year. They say that the poor weather and poor crops of 1813 to 1815 were in response to several volcanic eruptions elsewhere in the world. They also say that the sun was not as warming as it normally should be due to the appearance of sunspots. But all that was known for certain was that crops had been plagued with one disappointing season after another.

To cap off the events of 1815, in early April there was an eruption of the volcano at MountTambora in Indonesia, to the southeast of Borneo. No one in New Brunswick likely knew about that. It wouldn’t have had any affect there anyway. Still, it was a big one! The mountain lost 6,000 feet of height; 10,000 people were killed by the immediate effects; and an estimated 1.7 million tons of ash and gas were sent into the atmosphere.

Often complaining but ever optimistic, the farmers awaited 1816.

The 1816 planting season started normally enough. There were late frosts and temperatures were below normal. ‘That can happen’, they thought, but it did not hold out a lot of promise for the summer to come. The frogs did not come out to advertise their presence to prospective mates until late May and there were still signs of snow on the highlands. Summer thunderstorms did not occur as usual and it was clear that spring was running late.

Temperatures were not just low, but were also unusually variable. There were normal temperatures in the first week of June, for example, but a week later snow fell throughout New England and all of the way to Montreal and Quebec City. There was a foot of snow in New England and two foot drifts in Quebec. New Brunswick was a little luckier with an accumulation of only several inches in most places. Nonetheless, fields were turned black with frost-kill; trees were stripped of blossoms, leaves and fruit; birds froze in their nests and young sheep died. Frederick Dibblee of Madawaska wrote on June 11th that there was a “very heavy frost, the ground all white. At 10 a.m. it grows warm and we lay aside our great coats which we have worn eleven days!”  Then, temperatures rebounded by the end of June and continued into August when another frost struck. These frosts were followed by strong storms and even more severe frosts. Coats and mittens were pulled out again and the agricultural production of 1816 was ruined. What a tragedy to unfold, when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold; bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang (quoted in prose form from W.S., Sonnet 73).

The immediate result of the crop failure was an explosion in the cost of grain and other food stuffs. Rye flour cost $17.00 per barrel at Fredericton. In other areas the cost of oats increased from 12¢ a bushel to 92¢ a bushel. The costs of meat and dairy products rose as a further consequence. Hardship set in and there were reports of people eating raccoons and pigeons. They tried to feed frozen potato tops to the pigs. Then as now, when farmers cannot afford to feed their livestock then choices have to be made. Great amounts of stock were slaughtered adding, before long, to the shortages.

The New Brunswick legislature passed laws forbidding the export of corn, flour and potatoes and set up a $24,000. fund to buy seed and provisions including $4,800. for York County alone. The administrators of the York County allotment spent 192 days distributing “relief, provisions, potatoes, etc., to provide for the necessities of the settlers, many of whom were in great straits.”

There was a persistent high level fog all summer which would not clear despite sun or rain. Sunsets were red all summer and the effects of the explosion of Mount Tambora are easy for us to surmise in retrospect.

People tried to explain why the disastrous weather was happening. The dim red sky made it possible to see large dark spots on the sun with the naked eye and the New Brunswick Royal Gazette reported that “It is often asked if the extraordinary coldness of the season be not caused by these spots?” Other explanations were less scientific. Sinners were under suspicion while others suggested that Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments had gone awry. There were also rumours that a great sheet of ice had detached from the arctic and had floated southward to cool the Maritimes.

These events were not restricted to the Maritimes, however, or just to eastern North America. It was a northern hemisphere event caused by the volcanic eruption and the low solar activity. The greatest effects were in the northern U.S., eastern Canada and Europe but also extended to Russia and China. Demonstrations, riots and looting occurred at several places in Europe. There were cholera outbreaks in India due to late monsoons and typhus broke out in Ireland due to the famine. The typhus persisted and 100,000 Irish people died over the next few years. 1816 was the year that was called the year without a summer, or the summer that never was, or poverty year, or eighteen hundred and froze to death, or the terrible summer we froze to death. It has also been called black summer and mackerel year, because that is what some New Hampshire farmers fed their pigs.

The unusual solar event had been taking place for several years, and continued beyond the year without a summer. The frogs were still not interested in romance until late May in 1817, for example, but conditions improved and returned to normal over the next several years.


Written by johnwood1946

October 24, 2012 at 9:56 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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