The Big Chill

Two cen­turies ago, much of the world was left in the cold dur­ing what be­came known as the Year With­out a Sum­mer.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Alan MacEach­ern

Two cen­turies ago, much of the world was left in the cold dur­ing what be­came known as the Year With­out a Sum­mer.

GIV­ING A HIS­TOR­I­CAL EVENT A NAME — ES­PE­CIALLY a catchy name — has its draw­backs. A name can give an event too de­fined a shape, so­lid­ify it while mak­ing it smaller, like wa­ter bead­ing on a sur­face. So it is with the name given to 1816 — the Year With­out a Sum­mer. The Year With­out a Sum­mer refers to what fol­lowed the global im­pact of a vol­canic erup­tion on the In­done­sian is­land of Sum­bawa. When Mount Tamb­ora erupted in the spring of 1815, it spewed about fifty cu­bic kilo­me­tres of rock, ash, and dust high into the air. Some of the par­ti­cles re­mained sus­pended in the at­mos­phere for months, even years, ef­fec­tively block­ing some of the sun’s heat. What was by far the largest erup­tion in recorded his­tory had the ef­fect of cool­ing the planet’s sur­face. This led to wide­spread crop fail­ures around the world.

Hunger through­out Europe led to out­breaks of dis­ease and food ri­ots. Eastern North Amer­ica also ex­pe­ri­enced in­tense bouts of cold weather in 1816, cre­at­ing hard­ship for thou­sands of peo­ple. But the erup­tion’s im­pact was not re­stricted to one sea­son, or even one year. Nor was the im­pact felt equally ev­ery­where.

Be­cause eastern Canada did not re­ceive the worst of this cold — and maybe be­cause we ex­pect Canada to be cold — the year has never been thought to be par­tic­u­larly mo­men­tous here. A 1986 ar­ti­cle in the Bul­letin of the Amer­i­can Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal So­ci­ety calls the nick­name “Year With­out a Sum­mer” a “gross ex­ag­ger­a­tion” in ref­er­ence to Canada.

The news­pa­pers, di­aries, and gov­ern­ment records of 1816 show that there was a sum­mer that year, but they also show that Bri­tish North Amer­i­cans were af­fected greatly by wild weather pat­terns. What’s more, the fo­cus on the con­di­tions of 1816 has ob­scured the years that came be­fore and af­ter. Parts of Canada had al­ready suf­fered sev­eral poor har­vests in a row, so 1816’s bad weather threat­ened the colonies with ex­treme food short­ages, mak­ing 1817 a year of de­pri­va­tion for many.

The win­ter of 1816 was not par­tic­u­larly cold in eastern Canada, but the spring made up for it. Snow re­mained on the ground, and more fell, long into May. In some places, live­stock be­gan to starve from want of grass. Only at the end of the month did the back­ward sea­son be­gin to re­lent. The Que­bec Gazette of June 6 noted that the late frosts did not seem to have done farmers much harm: “A few fine days, and the present rains, have re­stored the young crops to all their for­mer vigor.” But im­me­di­ately be­low this ar­ti­cle, the news­pa­per re­ported “Most Ex­tra­or­di­nary Weather”: a foot of snow had fallen in the city that very day.

It is this early June weather sys­tem for which 1816 is best known. Snow and cold swept deep into the eastern United States, do­ing greater dam­age the far­ther south they went, since crops were far­ther along and so more sus­cep­ti­ble. But Canada cer­tainly felt its ef­fects, too. In Que­bec City, ice “as thick as a dol­lar” killed veg­e­ta­tion. Trees shed their leaves. New­born spring sheep and calves died from the cold. Flocks of mi­gra­tory birds “dropped down dead in the streets,” ac­cord­ing to the Gazette. In cen­tral New Brunswick, Tred­way Thomas Od­ber Miles wrote in his di­ary on June 8, “Wonderful to be­hold. The snow cov­ers the face of the earth one inch deep. Peas up in the gar­den but ap­pear very much alarmed at the sight of snow.” Al­though the snow soon melted, the cold weather lasted a cou­ple more weeks through­out most of Bri­tish North Amer­ica. A Hal­i­fax news­pa­per would later rate that June “a tol­er­a­ble month of March.”

Fur­ther west in what is now Man­i­toba, set­tle­ment was only just be­gin­ning. The Selkirk set­tlers ar­rived in the Red River Val­ley in 1812. They too ex­pe­ri­enced a colder than usual sum­mer in 1816. Pe­ter Fidler of the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany at Bran­don wrote of a se­vere cold spell that be­gan on June 5. “A very sharp frost at night … killed all the Bar­ley, Wheat, Oats and gar­den stuff above the ground ex­cept let­tuce and onions — the Oak leaves just com­ing out are as if they are singed by fire and dead.” The fol­low­ing sum­mer was also rel­a­tively cold, with killer frosts in July. The cold sum­mers on the prairies ended in 1818, but a drought that ac­com­pa­nied them per­sisted un­til 1819.

In Eastern Canada, the cold spell’s most pro­found, im­me­di­ate im­pact was that the price of flour soared through­out the colonies. This was of great con­cern to a Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion that re­ceived about half of its calo­ries from bread alone.

It was not merely that wheat is par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to cold, and that the 1816 wheat har­vest was thus now in doubt, but that the colonies had been bank­ing on a good har­vest af­ter a run of bad ones. On July 15, the Que­bec Gazette re­ported, “We are sorry to learn from un­ques­tion­able au­thor­ity, that great dis­tress pre­vails in many parishes through­out this province from a scarcity of food. Bread and milk is the com­mon food of the poorer classes at this sea­son of the year; but many of them have no bread; they sup­port a mis­er­able ex­is­tence, by boil­ing wild herbs of dif­fer­ent sorts, which they eat with their milk.”

Some lo­cales re­ported a bright side to the weather, not­ing that

the snow in June ac­tu­ally pro­tected crops from the ac­com­pa­ny­ing frost. The cold also killed de­struc­tive pests, in par­tic­u­lar the Hes­sian fly, which had been a scourge on Cana­dian grain crops for the pre­vi­ous decade. Late June brought some hot days to eastern North Amer­ica, which prompted Rev. Elias Scovil to de­liver a sunny ser­mon to his Kingston, New Brunswick, con­gre­ga­tion. “For the win­ter is past, the rain is over and gone,” he said, quot­ing from the Song of Solomon. “The flowers ap­pear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the tur­tle­dove is heard in our land.”

With the ex­cep­tion of a cold snap in July, the weather for the rest of the year was ac­tu­ally quite sea­sonal.

Re­ports from through­out the colonies agreed that, al­though it would be a bad year for hay and fruit in par­tic­u­lar, the good quan­tity and/or qual­ity of crops such as pota­toes, peas, bar­ley, oats, and, above all, wheat made up for it. The con­di­tions held long enough that farmers in most places gath­ered an abun­dant har­vest.

But the late spring had meant late plant­ing, and late plant­ing meant a late har­vest, so se­vere frost at the end of Septem­ber and snow in early Oc­to­ber dev­as­tated crops still in the field across Lower Canada (Que­bec) and New Brunswick. The St. Lawrence Val­ley be­low Que­bec City was par­tic­u­larly hard-hit.

Even those not yet ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hunger had ev­ery rea­son to an­tic­i­pate it: The har­vest was lost, food re­serves were spent, and bread and fuel prices were high. Fur­ther­more, poor labour­ers knew that there would be less work avail­able in win­ter and that it typ­i­cally paid a quar­ter to a half less than in sum­mer­time. Well be­fore win­ter set in, the res­i­dents of the parishes out­side Que­bec called on the gov­ern­ment for re­lief.

The year 1816 is known for its freak­ish June snows, but the win­ter weather of 1817 was far more mean­ing­ful. Af­ter a Jan­uary and first half of Fe­bru­ary that were ter­rif­i­cally cold, win­ter held on right through to May. The St. Lawrence froze faster and far­ther down­river than it had in fifty years. The Nova Sco­tia Royal Gazette like­wise re­ported that men had sleighed far into the Northum­ber­land Strait “with­out see­ing open wa­ter, a cir­cum­stance not within the mem­ory of the old­est set­tler in the place.”

Amid this chill, and on the heels of mea­gre har­vests, the poor of all the colonies ex­pe­ri­enced vary­ing mea­sures of what was univer­sally called “dis­tress.” As many as three thou­sand peo­ple in the sub­urbs of Mon­treal, twenty per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, were re­ported to be with­out food or fuel. There was alarm­ing scarcity among the un­for­tu­nate of Hal­i­fax, with the threat of “rob­bery or star­va­tion” sure to fol­low. The en­tire pop­u­la­tion of New­found­land suf­fered from lack of food, pun­ish­ing weather, and be­ing com­pletely cut off from the rest of the world. Found in the ashes of a St. John’s fire were forty bar­rels of pota­toes that the owner had been sell­ing on the black mar­ket at out­ra­geous prices.

In Que­bec City, an in­quest was held into the death of a child, Maria Louisa Be­leau, who with her mother and sis­ters lived in a hovel with bare earthen floors, no win­dows, and a hole in the roof for a chim­ney, for those times when they could af­ford to build a fire. The jury found that she had died of “a vi­o­lent sore throat, and cold, pro­duced by ex­po­sure to the in­clemency of the weather.”

Colo­nial gov­ern­ments had fore­seen the loom­ing food cri­sis and did what they could to pre­vent and pre­pare for it. As early as Oc­to­ber 1816, Prince Ed­ward Is­land Lieu­tenant-Gover­nor C.D. Smith banned the ex­port of agri­cul­tural prod­ucts from the Is­land. The other colonies soon fol­lowed suit — all but Up­per Canada (On­tario), which had largely es­caped the bad har­vests and whose wheat would be needed to feed the other colonies. This was as much in­ter­fer­ence in the mar­ket as some leg­is­la­tors would tol­er­ate. When Lower Canada’s coun­cil was told that the peo­ple of Kamouraska had eaten the last of their cat­tle and were on the verge of star­va­tion, the Speaker ar­gued that at most an in­ter­est-free loan should be granted, that the re­gion was in fact suf­fi­ciently well-off to buy food of its own.

Many be­lieved that the poor should be made to work — one suggestion was to have them shovel snow into the streets to as­sist the sleigh­ing. Yet it was gen­er­ally un­der­stood that the most des­per­ate were of­ten in no po­si­tion, phys­i­cally or ge­o­graph­i­cally, to travel for work and that, more to the point, win­ter­time un­em­ploy­ment and the re­sul­tant de­pri­va­tion had be­come an en­demic part of Cana­dian so­ci­ety. In the cri­sis of the win­ter of 1817, gov­ern­ments fo­cused on pro­vid­ing re­lief. Lower Canada, for ex­am­ple, dis­trib­uted £15,000

The Bliz­zard, 1858, by Cor­nelius Krieghoff. The artist’s de­pic­tion of a harsh win­ter in Que­bec could also have ap­plied to the long win­ters of 1816 to 1818.

Mount Tamb­ora erupt­ing in 1815, an il­lus­tra­tion that ap­peared on the cover of the 2015 book Year With­out Sum­mer: 1816.

Above: Eastern Canada news­pa­pers from 1816 re­port poor crops. One states that “never was a sea­son so back­ward.” Op­po­site page: The cloudy skies of Wey­mouth Bay, 1816, by John Con­sta­ble, sug­gest vol­canic dust from the Tamb­ora vol­cano.

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